Fly Like a Pro – Part 11 FAA and Emergencies

So what happens after notification of an emergency reaches the Flight Standards District Office? What is more dangerous — the emergency or the FAA? I interviewed an FAA Flight Standards Inspector, about the subject.

I must tell you that the inspector I interviewed is a man I have worked with for many years — he is practical and brings common sense to the job. For the most part, he dispels the bad reputation that the FAA has earned but he is only one inspector and may or may not represent the views of the FAA as a whole. The following is the transcript of my interview. The FAA Inspector was familiar with the simulator research that I was conducting and knew about the simulator scenarios.

Craig: Would you outline what happens when a pilot declares an emergency in a situation such as the first simulator scenario.

FAA Inspector: First, the FAA gets a ‘Preliminary Pilot Deviation Report‘ [Form 8020-17] from the Air Traffic Controller. The FAA inspector working the case then fills out a ‘Investigation of Pilot Deviation Report‘ [Form 8020-18]. Then the inspector calls the pilot on the telephone and hears the pilot tell the story. The inspector will ask about the pilot’s total flight time, time in the type airplane, and time in the last 90 days — but these questions are for statistical use and are optional.

Craig: These questions are optional?

FAA Inspector: They are used for an accident database. The pilot can choose to answer these questions or not.

Craig: What happens next?

FAA Inspector: The FAA can then do one of three things:

  • We can take no action,
  • we can take administrative action, or
  • we can initiate enforcement action.

Craig: How do you decide between no action and administrative and enforcement actions?

FAA Inspector: No action will ever be taken unless the pilot is somehow otherwise negligent.

Craig: What do you mean by ‘otherwise negligent?

FAA Inspector: The pilot took off without radios into IFR, or did not follow a clearance, etc.

Craig: In the simulator scenarios of my research project, pilots are faced with malfunctioning equipment. These equipment failures could lead to an emergency. How does the FAA look on this situation?

FAA Inspector: Enforcement actions can only be against people — not airplanes. So if the airplane breaks, no action can be taken against the pilot.

Craig: You are aware of the distrust that pilots have toward the FAA and unfortunately this distrust makes pilots believe that declaring an emergency is more hazardous than the emergency. What do you think about this problem?

FAA Inspector: When in a life-threatening situation ‘screw the paperwork‘. Pilots should not let anything the FAA might or might not do later affect their safety decisions. We would much rather have a safe outcome to any flight. We (the FAA) have a whole lot more paperwork to do for dead people than for live people.

Craig: And in those cases where enforcement action is pursued, what can happen to the pilot?

FAA Inspector: The greatest fine that can be imposed on a pilot is $1,000 per violation. Is your life worth $1,000? The greatest certificate enforcement action that can be taken is a certificate revocation and that can drop off in one year.

The air traffic controller can record the emergency in the daily log — and nothing else. They can file a Flight Assist Report, or they can file a Preliminary Pilot Deviation Report. If the air traffic controller files a Preliminary Pilot Deviation Report the information goes to an FAA inspector who is assigned to the case. The FAA inspector calls the pilot and asks the pilot to voluntarily answer some questions for their data bank. The inspector fills out an “Investigation of Pilot Deviation Report” and later makes the decision to take enforcement action against the pilot or let it go.

During the workshops I showed the two forms that are used by the FAA to make preliminary investigations of emergencies declared by pilots to both the Traditional and Naturalistic groups. The message during the seminars was that the FAA’s prosecution of a pilot who declare an emergency is rare, and even if it were common it would be better to be “in trouble” after landing … than to be dead.

During the second simulator scenario, there came a point in time where the declaration of an emergency was an option, and it could be argued that it was the best option. In the second scenario the pilot was flying along with a rough running engine on the way to Nashville International airport. The cloud ceiling was reported well above the approach minimums. Then the pilots were told that another airplane landing at Nashville had just made a gear-up landing and emergency crews were enroute to the scene of that accident. Since the emergency crews were on the scene of an accident rather than at their ready positions the airport was closed. The entire airport was closed even though the accident did not block the runway that the pilots were being vectored to. The pilots in the scenario were given a holding pattern and asked to wait until the airport was reopened. The pilot’s engine continued to run rough and worsen. The Oil Pressure gauge was low and on the red line by now and the Oil Temperature gauge was high and on the red line. Each time a pilot would ask about the airport availability, the controller would tell them that the airport was still closed and to remain in the holding pattern.

Thirty-five of fifty-eight (60%) of the participants did use the declaration of an emergency to help solve the in-flight problem that they faced. But remember they made this declaration after the seminar that defused some of the myths about declaring an emergency. Of these thirty-five participants who declared an emergency when one was warranted, thirty-three eventually landed without a probable accident. The pilots in the scenario had not violated any rules. They had done nothing wrong. But they did face a set of circumstances that required immediate, common sense action. One pilot said, “I know you have one accident down there, but you are going to have another one out here if I don’t get down. This is an emergency and I’m coming in!” The pilots were told that the airport was closed, but they had the power to open it again with a single word: emergency.

Remember what the FAA inspector said: “Enforcement actions can only be taken against people — not against airplanes. So if the airplane breaks, no action (penalty) can be taken.” That is good to know, but self-confidence also played a role in the pilot’s reluctance to declare and emergency. The pilots in the second scenario had not violated any rules, but some were not sure if they had or not. Some did not know enough about the rules to know for sure if had they violated one or not. Since they were not sure, they did not want to call attention to themselves by declaring an emergency for fear of exposing their lack of knowledge.

Reality Check: No matter how you dress it up, often times the pilot’s choice was between life-threatening danger and saving face. Saving face is the same as protecting that famous pilot ego. Before making a decision based on either, consider first that the pilot ego is rather meaningless without a living pilot to convey it. The true confident pilot gets that confidence from knowledge — not arrogance … or ignorance.

BOTTOM LINE: Greater knowledge is greater confidence — and the confident pilot knows that declaring an emergency is an option that can be freely used.