The FAA’s Irrational Application of a Rule

A little about my Vertical column and the responses to it.

If you’re a helicopter pilot, you’re likely familiar with Vertical Magazine. Simply put, it’s the premiere helicopter pilot/operator publication, with great articles and amazing photography. It not only informs those of us in the helicopter industry, but it keeps us enthusiastic about being part of what’s admittedly a rather elite club.

Vertical MagazineIf you read the June/July issue (download here as a pdf), you may have seen page 10’s Talking Point column. And if you know this blog, you probably realized that the Maria Langer who wrote that month’s column is the same Maria Langer who has been blogging here since 2003. Yeah: me.

I haven’t blogged about this yet because, frankly, I still can’t believe it happened.

While I wasn’t paying attention, the FAA issued FAR Part 135.160, which requires Part 135 on demand charter operators like me to install a radio altimeter. The rule has a loophole, which my Primary Operations Inspector (POI) at the Flight Standards District Office (FSDO) told me about: a waiver was available for helicopters less than 2,950 pounds max gross weight. My R44 has a max gross weight of 2,500 pounds and is VFR-only. Surely I’d get the waiver.

I didn’t.

What’s the Big Deal?

If you’re not familiar with what a radio altimeter is, you likely don’t understand how incredibly idiotic it is to require one in an R44. Here’s the deal. A radio altimeter — which is also sometimes called a radar altimeter — uses radio waves to measure the exact height of an aircraft over the ground. It then sends this data to a readout on the aircraft’s instrument panel so the pilot has this information handy.

Of course, a Robinson R44, which is what I fly, is a VFR-only aircraft. That means it’s only legal to fly in VFR (visual flight rules) conditions. That means you can see out the aircraft window. And that’s what Robinson pilots — all VFR pilots, for that matter — do when they want to know how high off the ground they are. They look. After all, they’re supposed to be looking outside anyway.

So for the FAA to require this kind of instrument on an aircraft that’s never going to need one makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.

Being the gadget person I am, I might not mind having a new toy in the cockpit. The trouble is, my cockpit’s panel must be modified to accommodate it, thus reducing my forward visibility, and the damn thing is going to cost me $14,500 to buy and have installed. And the helicopter will be offline for about a week while the mechanic tears it apart and drills holes in the fuselage to put it in.

There’s more to the story, but it’s mostly covered in the Vertical column. Go read it now; it’s on page 10. It’s short — they wouldn’t let me have more than 1,000 words. (I know; I gave them 1,200 and they cut 200 out.) See if you can read my frustration between the lines.

Responses

I got a number of responses to the column.

credits
This is kind of cool: they listed me as a contributing editor in that issue’s masthead.

The very first was from my friend Mike in Florida. He sent me an email message that included the Contributing Editor list you see here and a link to the article with his congratulations. Mike has also written for Vertical; he has a ton of experience and great writing skills.

A handful of other folks I knew texted or emailed me that they’d seen it. That was gratifying. I really do like writing for publication and should make a conscious effort to do it more often.

Then, the other day, about two weeks after it was first published, I got a call from someone at Helicopter Association International (HAI). HAI is a professional organization for helicopter pilots and operators. I used to be a member. It cost $600 a year and the only thing I got from them was a wooden membership plaque and a lot of paper. Safety posters, manuals, letters, newsletters, magazines. All kinds of crap to add to the clutter that had already taken over my life. When I dropped my membership after two or three years, they called to find out why. I told them they did nothing for small operators like me. They promised to change and conned me into joining for another year. Nothing changed. I was throwing my money away. I dropped my membership for good.

The HAI guy who called started by asking why I hadn’t come to HAI with the radio altimeter issue. After all, part of their member benefits was to be the voice of helicopter operators in Washington DC. Wrong question. I told him I wasn’t a member and then explained, in many, many words, why I’d quit. Then we talked a bit about the radio altimeter issue. He said he’d been working on it for a few days and he certainly did know a lot about it. He said that he wasn’t sure, but thought that HAI, which had been involved in the rulemaking comment process, had assumed it would only apply to medical helicopters. He said I shouldn’t get my hopes up but he and HAI were going to work on it. He wanted to stay in touch. Whatever. I gave him my email address.

When I hung up, I wondered why they were trying to close the barn door after the horse had already gotten out. After all, the FAA was not going to change the rule, especially after so many operators had already gone to such great expense to meet the requirement. HAI had dropped the ball for its small operators yet again. At least I hadn’t paid them to do it on my behalf.

The most recent response came just today and it prompted me to write this blog post. It was an email from a Facebook friend. I actually got two versions of it; I think this is the one he sent first which he apparently thought he lost:

Hey Maria
My name is Scott ##### and I took a $40 ride with you at the 2006 Goodyear Airshow out to PIR and back.
In 2007 I started flight training. We’re “friends” on Facebook and I always enjoy your posts and writings on your blog.
I just finished reading your article in Vertical magazine and couldn’t resist contacting you with my comments.
What a horrible situation for you. I’m severely confused as to why a Federal, as in a single national government agency, interprets the rules differently at each FSDO. It should be the same across the United States! How frustrating I’m sure this is for you.
This industry is tough enough as it is and for a single pilot, single aircraft operator, you’ve been extremely successful. Now this?
At least you got the temporary A160 but you shouldn’t have to have the radar altimeter installed at all! To me it’s very cut and dry: 135.160 does not apply to VFR aircraft weighing less than 2,950 pounds! Where’s the Misinterpretation?
I guess you can’t just cancel your installation appointment at Quantum in December, but hopefully you can get around paying for equipment you’ll never use.
Good luck to you Maria.

First, I have to say how gratifying it is to have been instrumental in a person deciding to learn how to fly helicopters. Wow. Just wow.

Second, it’s cut and dry to me, too! And most of the folks I spoke to that don’t happen to work at the FAA. And there’s nothing I’d like more than to cancel my December appointment with Quantum to get the radio altimeter installed.

But I wrote him a more informative response and I thought I’d share it here. It says a few things I couldn’t say in Vertical. (Or maybe they were in the 200 words that had to be left on the cutting room floor.)

Hi, Scott. Thanks for writing.

Unfortunately, every word of my Vertical piece is true. The FAA will NOT give me the waiver. They don’t care that my helicopter is small or VFR-only or or that the panel is full or that the rule was written in such a way to exclude R44s like mine. They do not operate logically. I worked with AOPA and an aviation attorney. I got my Congressman and one of my Senators involved. I had an email correspondence going with THREE men with the FAA in Washington who are responsible for making the rule. My lawyer spoke to people in Washington, too. They won’t budge. In fact, they told my lawyer that they’re going to rewrite the guidance so R44 helicopters can’t be excluded.

Problem is, medical helicopters crashed and people made noise at the FAA. The FAA needed a fix to turn down the heat. Radio altimeter makers promised a solution that would work and lobbied hard for it. They’re all over the comments for the regulation proposal. And since they have more time and money to throw at it, they won. The FAA bought into their Band Aid — or at least made us buy into it — whether it can help us or not. They didn’t seem to care that the real fix was better pilot training, less pressure on pilots to fly in IMC conditions, and a company culture that values safety over profits.

Understand this: the FAA doesn’t care about small operators or even pilots. They exist to regulate and ensure safety — or at least the illusion of safety. Your best chance of having a successful aviation career is to stay off their radar.

I pissed off a lot of people with my radio altimeter fight and I suspect they gave me the temporary waiver just to shut me up. I got a call from HAI the other day and they say they’re going to follow up. Too little, too late. But at least someone else will be making noise since I, like my fellow Part 135 Robinson owners, have given up.

I’m nearing the end of my career. I figure I have about 10 years left as a pilot. So I don’t mind throwing myself under the bus in an effort to seek fairness and logic. I don’t recommend you doing the same.

Unless HAI or someone else is successful in talking reason into the FAA on this matter, I’ll be plunking down $14,500 in December to have this useless instrument installed. And then I’ll pull the circuit breaker and let the panel stay dark so it doesn’t distract me from what’s outside the cockpit — which is where every VFR pilot should be looking.

And life will go on.

I’m fortunate in that even though it will take YEARS for me to earn that money back with Part 135 work, my cherry drying and frost work puts enough money in the bank to make the expenditure possible. Without that, I’d likely have to cease charter operations and possibly close up shop. I suspect others have found themselves in that situation. So much for government helping small businesses.

Thanks for your concern. Best wishes with your endeavors.

Maria

And that’s about all I have to say on the matter.

Another Waste of Taxpayer Money

I knew the FAA was slow, but this is ridiculous.

I’m terrible about opening my mail. I routinely fetch it from my mailbox (which is two miles from my home) and leave it on the dashboard of whatever vehicle I’m driving. Or toss it behind the seat. Or bring it inside, but leave it in my “inbox” pile. No matter where it enters my life, it sits there for a long time. Truth be told, there’s a six-month period in early 2014 when I just stuffed it all in a box and lost it in my garage. (I honestly think there’s a black hole in there.)

This time of year, when I’m actually expecting checks, I pay a little closer attention to what comes in the mail. That’s why I noticed the letter from the FAA and opened it within two weeks of receipt. (Heck, I knew the FAA wasn’t sending a check, so why rush?)

Inside was the letter dated 5/19/2017 that you can see below.

FAA Letter
So the FAA basically waited 17 years to give me an opportunity to opt out of releasing my address to the public.

It basically says that back on April 5, 2000 (not a typo), Congress and the President — Bush 43, I guess — enacted a law that required the FAA to make pilot addresses available to the public. Fortunately, I can opt-out of this invasion of my privacy by signing the letter and sending it back to the FAA.

But I have to hurry! Even though it took them 17 years to send me this letter, I only have 90 days to respond.

Can you believe this crap?

My first thought was what a waste of taxpayer money this is. Wikipedia reports that there were 590,039 certificated pilots in the United States as of 2015 year-end. That means the FAA had to print and mail 590,039 letters just like the one I got.

Maybe that’s why it took so long? Maybe they just got up to the Ls?

So the FAA has blown through 1181 reams of paper and a similar number of boxes of envelopes. Even if they got bulk rate on mailing all those envelopes, they’ve still spent well over $100,000 on postage. Somebody had to handle the mailing — even if a machine stuffed the envelopes, someone still had to tend to that machine and get them to the post office. How many trips to the Post Office is that? Do they have trucks standing by for mass mailings like this?

So how much money have they pissed away on this so far? A quarter million? More?

And then there’s the processing. I’m not going to the website. I’m going to sign the letter and mail it back. There’s got to be some poor slob in Oklahoma City who’s sitting at a desk just waiting for envelopes with signed letters to come in. He or she has to look up each one in the system and toggle a check box to say we want our addresses kept private. And then what? Do they actually file all that paper? Stick it in filing cabinets? How many filing cabinets do they have? How many rooms does that fill? Do they have buildings filled with filing cabinets of paper?

Paper!

And for what? What gives Congress and the President the right to decide that the public is entitled to the addresses of certificated pilots? What is the benefit of such a rule? Why would they even do this?

And who the hell wouldn’t opt out?

This is stupid from start to end. it’s wallpapered with stupid.

But that’s our tax dollars at work. Imagine how many educational programs the cost of this mailing would have funded. How many Meals on Wheels dinners. How many airport improvements, for Pete’s sake.

Why are the people in Washington so damn stupid with our money?

Another Pilot Who Thinks He Owns the Whole Airport

Yes, it’s another rant.

Way back in January 2009, I told the story of a flight with family from Wickenburg, AZ (where I lived at the time) to Sedona, AZ. I’d landed at one of the public pads and another helicopter pilot hadn’t been happy about where I parked. He decided to “teach me a lesson” by flying within 15 feet of my waiting passengers, showering them with dust, small pebbles, and flying debris. I reported his sorry ass to the FAA for unsafe flying.

Since then, I haven’t had any similar run ins with any pilots, in airplanes or helicopters. Generally we’re all pretty safety conscious and courteous.

Until today. Today I got a lecture and delivered one in return.

The Setup

It happened at Wenatchee Airport. I’d just dropped off three charter passengers at the jet center on the other side of the airport. I made all my radio calls and hopped across the runway to get some fuel.

Wenatchee has a self-serve fuel island. It’s southwest of the general aviation terminal, southeast of transient parking. I usually come in from the south; that day, I’d come in from the southwest.

I’ve been fueling at the airport for years now and I have an approach and landing routine. The hose is on the southeast side, so if you want to fuel, that’s where you want to park. So I usually come in from the south and hover taxi as close as I can get to the hose reel. They have a heavy JetA hose on the reel and it’s a bear to haul over to the helicopter, so the closer I can get, the better off I am. Because I have two tanks, one on each side, I normally park facing the pumps. If I think I’m going to be more than a few minutes — in other words, I’m going to take a bathroom break or chat with the mechanics or FBO guys — I’ll park a little to one side so another aircraft can get in for fuel.

I very seldom hover taxi around the northwest side of the fuel island. Normally, there are a few light planes parked right there and I’ve seen their wings rock. Besides, to get all the way around, that would mean flying with my tail facing the FBO building. And as anyone who has taken the Robinson Safety Course can tell you, putting your tail rotor facing where some people might be is never a good idea.

As I came in toward the fuel island, I could see a helicopter parked near it on the southeast side. It wasn’t near enough to get fuel — which made sense because it was a turbine (Bell 407) and JetA is not available at the fuel island. As I got closer, it saw that it was far enough from the fuel island for me to fly between it and the island so I did. I landed on the east side, facing the pump. Normally, since I didn’t expect to spend much time there, I would have parked right in front of the hose with my tail pointing away, but that would have put my tail rotor close to the Bell. So I parked to the side.

The Setup
Here’s a Google satellite image edited to show where I was parked (red) and he was parked (blue). (I have no artistic abilities, so I had to draw stick figure helicopters.) I “enhanced” the yellow tie-down lines so you can see them better. Usually, there are planes parked on the upper ones I enhanced; there was only one there today. There were no aircraft at all on the ramp behind the Bell for at least 500 feet.

The Attitude

As I started the shut down process, I saw a guy come out of the FBO building, walk to the Bell, which was now to my left, and then walk back toward the building. I assumed the Bell was the power line survey ship that I’d been talking to earlier in the area and thought the guy might be the pilot. I was right. When he shut down, he walked over. I assumed he was going to initiate a friendly chat — after all, we’d given each other position reports just an hour before — but I was wrong.

He came to tell me that it was dangerous to fly upwind from a parked helicopter. I replied that we did it all the time at the airport — we do! You should see when four of us crowd around the pumps! — and that I hadn’t given it a second thought. I honestly didn’t think it was a problem. But he did. He pointed out that his helicopter blades weren’t tied down and that his helicopter was worth $4 million.

And that’s when I realized he was talking down to the “Robbie Ranger” he saw on the ramp! To get rid of him — I really didn’t want to argue — I told him I wouldn’t do it again. Then I turned my back on him and continued with my fueling operations. He stormed off into the FBO.

As I fueled, I looked at his helicopter parked there and three things came into my mind:

  • I wasn’t that close. I’ve been a lot closer to a lot more aircraft than that — usually for fueling operations. No one has ever complained. Hell, I was closer to the fuel island than I’d ever gotten to his helicopter. Was he just cranky because of the heat or work and decided to take it out on the only other pilot around? (Extra points for talking down to a woman.)
  • If he was so damn worried about his blades, why hadn’t he tied them down? Probably because there really wasn’t much to worry about. Don’t you think they take more of a beating in flight through turbulence than they possibly could on an airplane ramp with the wind at about 6 mph? Even with a helicopter flying past?
  • Why the hell had he parked there? There were no pavement markings indicating that it was a parking space and he had the entire ramp behind him, stretching back at least 500 feet, without a single airplane or helicopter on it. He wasn’t even close to the building he’d walked into. (Hell, when I park at the airport without getting fuel, I park as close to the fence as possible so people can easily get past me without having to go around.)

I finished fueling and went inside. I asked the FBO manager to make sure that aircraft didn’t park so close to the fuel island if they weren’t refueling. I told him what had happened and he agreed that the guy shouldn’t have parked there. Then we talked about other things.

The Rebuttal

Until the pilot came out of the pilot lounge with his passenger. That’s when I told him that the next time he landed, he shouldn’t park so close to the fuel island.

And then he had the nerve to ask why I couldn’t just fly around him.

Huh? Is that the only place his helicopter can be parked? The rest of the ramp isn’t good enough for him? He has to park close enough to the fuel island to be an obstacle for anyone who comes in for fuel?

Did he think he owned the whole damn airport?

I told him that other aircraft come in for fuel and that he was in the way. That twins come in. That helicopters normally park facing the pump with their tails close to where he was.

He asked me why I was raising my voice. I don’t think I was, but at that point, who knows? I told him it was because I was trying to make him understand the situation.

He made some nasty comments about me being trained to fly but not having any courtesy. And then he left.

By that time, everyone in the FBO was watching. They pretty much agreed that he was a little asshole. (Yeah, he was a little guy. Could have been small man syndrome.) The FBO manager took down his N-number.

Setup PhotoWhen I went to get my phone, I took this picture. You can see his helicopter to the right side of the shack. There was no one parked behind him for at least 500 feet and absolutely no reason to park so closely to the business side of the fuel island.

I went out to close my passenger door, which could have blown off if he started up and moved closer to my helicopter — it did happen once before when some idiot landed right next to me while my door was open; I’m to blame though for leaving it open. I fetched my phone to make a phone call.

When I came back in, they were all watching him start up. I asked them to be witnesses if he hovered close to my helicopter. I wasn’t worried if he did because even though my blades were not tied down, they were positioned so they would not get damaged if blown. But if he did, it would be a further indication of his sucky attitude.

I made my phone call. While I was chatting, he lifted into a hover. I don’t know if he drifted any closer to my helicopter, but he did hover there for a lot longer than what should have been necessary. Then he took off into the wind past my helicopter.

Everyone seemed to breathe a sigh of relief.

I finished my call. I chatted with the FBO guys about the attitudes of helicopter pilots. I told them that people like me flying small pistons are at the bottom of the pile. Guys like that, flying small turbines, sometimes have serious attitude problems and often pick on those flying “lesser” ships. They have to take every opportunity they can to point out how much better their equipment is than ours. Then, when pilots get into mediums and heavies, they tend to be nicer to those of us on the bottom again. They’re secure in their positions and have nothing to prove so they treat us like equals.

“It’s just the guys flying small turbines who can be real dickheads sometimes,” I told them.

We all laughed.

I went outside, started up, and flew home.

And yeah: the helicopter he flies might have cost $4 million. But I own the one I fly.