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.

On Unreasonable Requests

I get a call for a flight I won’t do — no matter how much is offered.

Last night, at almost 9:30 PM, my phone rang. Caller ID displayed a Bellevue (Seattle area) phone number. I answered as I usually do:

Me: Flying M, Maria speaking.

Him: Oh, hi. Is your helicopter out?

That was a weird question. I started to wonder whether this was going to be some kind of noise complaint call. If so, they had the wrong operator.

Me: No.

Him: Good. I need you to fly me from Manson to Lake Stevens.

Manson is a small town on Lake Chelan, about 30 miles from where I live. I wasn’t sure exactly sure where Lake Stevens was, but I knew it was on the other side of the Cascade Mountains, at least an hour flight time away.

Route
For this blog post, I looked up the location information and roughly planned a route. Two legs of this flight cross the Cascade Mountains; the vast majority of the flight is over rugged mountain terrain.

Me: When?

Him: Now.

I actually wasn’t surprised. His tone had that kind of urgency about it.

Me: I can’t do that.

Him: Well, I got your number from Dale.

Dale is another helicopter pilot with a business almost identical to mine. He’s based up in Chelan and actually lives in Manson. This guy had obviously called him first and Dale, being no idiot, wasn’t going to do the flight either. I could imagine this guy pressing him for an alternative and Dale giving him my number just so he could hang up. But getting my number from Dale doesn’t mean I’d be willing to do the flight either.

Me: You want me to fly you from Manson to Seattle in a helicopter at 9:30 on a Sunday night?

Him: Lake Stevens.

Me: Sorry, no.

Him: I’ll pay you $2500.

Me: No. I wouldn’t do it for any price. Sorry.

It kind of pisses me off when people think they can buy me. I’m not desperate for money. The truth of the matter is, the flight would have cost him about $1500 anyway, which probably would have surprised him. But I didn’t care. There was no way I was going to fly across the Cascades at night. My helicopter is VFR only and I had no idea what the cloud cover was to the west. (It’s socked in more often than not.) It also wasn’t legal for me to take the flight because (1) I wasn’t current for night flying with passengers and (2) I’d had two glasses of wine that evening.

Cascades Ridge
My helicopter’s nose cam captured this image on one of my few flights across the Cascades on a nice day. It wouldn’t be so pleasant at night, especially if it was cloudy.

There was some more talk back and forth. He was clearly outraged — and I don’t use that word as an exaggeration — that I wouldn’t drop everything on a Sunday night to fly him to the Seattle area. It was difficult to get off the phone with him without being rude. I kept wondering why he seemed to think that calling for a helicopter was just like calling for a cab ride. Finally, I was able to get off the phone with him.

Some people, I thought to myself. And then I put it out of my head.

Until about 20 minutes later.

I’d just gotten into bed and turned off the light when my phone rang. It was the same number. I didn’t answer it. Could he really expect a business to answer the phone at 10 PM?

Two minutes later, I got a text:

$2100 to fly me to lake Stevens right now

Apparently, the price had dropped. Maybe he didn’t recall offering me $400 more during his call.

I ignored the text.

If you don’t understand what makes this kind of request “unreasonable,” it’s this:

A Part 135 charter operator is required by the FAA to perform several preflight actions. These include preflighting the aircraft to make sure it’s airworthy, adding fuel if necessary, obtaining accurate information about the current weather conditions, obtaining information about the intended destination and alternatives, creating a flight plan, calculating a weight and balance for the passenger/cargo load, and preparing a flight manifest. This takes time — often more than an hour. I typically like at least 24 hours notice for charter flights but have done them with as few as two or three. But immediate? Never.

Besides, it was 9:30 on a Sunday night, long after anyone’s normal business hours. How can anyone possibly expect immediate charter aircraft service at that time?

I seriously doubt this guy got anyone to fly him to Lake Stevens last night. There’s no airport there so he’d have to go by helicopter or seaplane. And although there is a seaplane operator at Lake Chelan, I’m sure that company was all tucked in for the night, too.

Now I’m wondering whether I’ll hear from him again this morning. I’m just hoping that he calls Dale first and Dale takes him.

Flying with a Student Pilot

Dealing with questions about the R44 Raven I vs. Raven II and weight and balance, and instruction from a non-pilot.

Note to Visitors from Helicopter Forums:

I’ve been blasted on Facebook by a number of “readers” who obviously didn’t read this entire post before sharing their inane comments on Facebook and elsewhere. If you can’t be bothered to read something, you have no right to comment about it.

And here’s a special tip for the folks who like to read between the lines and find fault in what they’ve “read”: if you read and comprehend the actual words instead of your angry and cynical interpretation, you might just learn something.

Just saying.

The other day, I flew with a client who has been taking helicopter flight lessons for about a year. We’ll call him Don. I’m not a CFI, so I can’t train him. He’s flown with at least one CFI in R22s and R44s and, more recently, with an experienced ENG pilot now flying an R44 Raven I for other work.

Observations and Instructions

Don was the first of my two passengers to arrive for the flight. He climbed into the seat beside me as I was shutting down. For the first time, he really seemed to study the R44’s simple panel. He began pointing out the differences in what he saw: no carb heat control or gauge, mixture in a different place, Hobbs meter in a different place, etc. I attempted to explain that it wasn’t just the absence of carb heat that made the R44 Raven II different. The performance charts were also different. But not having the Raven I charts handy, I couldn’t really explain.

When the second passenger arrived, Don passenger insisted on putting him in the seat behind me — despite the fact that I always put the two men on the left side of the aircraft. They each weigh in at under 200 pounds, so balance is not an issue. But Don had learned that the larger fuel tank is on the left side of the aircraft, thus making that side naturally heavier. Someone had apparently “taught” him that it was better to put a second passenger behind the pilot to better balance the aircraft. For the record, it didn’t really matter to me — I’ve flown my helicopter in all kinds of balance situations. I admit that I was amused when he tried to justify his decision on takeoff by observing that it seemed more balanced when I lifted into a hover. I honestly didn’t notice a difference.

During the flight, Don made quite a few observations about the wind and weather conditions. None of them really affected the flight, although the wind did kick up and storm clouds moved in a little later on. (I had been monitoring the weather on radar while we were on the ground and they were in meetings.) But what kind of bugged me is when Don began telling me how to land in the off-airport landing zones that I’d landed in before. He explained that that’s how he’d done it when he was with the Raven I pilot he’d been flying with recently.

While I listened to his input, I did it my way, which, in some cases, was the same as he advised. After all, I am the pilot in command and I don’t blindly follow the instruction of non-pilots.

What his nearly constant string of advice told me, however, was that he trusted the other pilot’s judgement and guidance more than mine, despite the fact that I’d been doing charter flights for his company for two years and had obviously gained the trust of his boss, who happened to be the other man on board.

I held my tongue — after all, this was a client — but I admit that it really got under my skin after a while. Not only had he overridden my usual loading setup, but he was telling me how to fly. I ended the mission hours later with a bad taste in my mouth from the experience.

Setting Him Straight

Since I had already promised to send him my R44 weight and balance spreadsheet that would clearly show him how it was next to impossible to load an R44 out of CG laterally, I figured I’d address all of his concerns with one instructional email. The following is drawn from that email with names changed, of course, to protect my clients’ privacy. I think it might be helpful for student pilots trying to understand how what they’re learning applies in the real world — and why not all pilots do things the same way.

Don,

I just wanted to follow up on our discussion regarding R44 Raven I and R44 Raven II performance, as well as weight and balance.

I’ve attached the performance charts for IGE and OGE hover ceiling for both models of R44 helicopter. As you can see, performance for the Raven II is far superior to that of a Raven II, especially out of ground effect. Frank Robinson designed the Raven II for better performance in high density altitudes, and that’s why I paid the extra $40K to buy one. In Arizona, I routinely operated at elevations above 5,000 feet and temperatures over 90°F. I recall one particular flight when I was able to take off from Grand Canyon Airport, elevation 6609, on a 86°F day at max gross weight. Another time, I was able to depart with 3 adults and some luggage on board — at an estimated weight of 2300 pounds — from Bryce Canyon Airport on a day when the AWOS reported density altitude over 10,000 feet. Both of those flights would have been impossible in a Raven I.

R44 I IGE Hover Chart R44 I OGE Hover
The hover ceiling charts for an R44 Raven I.

R44 II IGE Hover R44 II OGE Hover
The hover ceiling charts for an R44 Raven II.

Some of the kinds of flying I do for your company would be very difficult in a Raven I — particularly the confined space landings and departures with 2 or 3 passengers on board. As you know, a maximum performance takeoff makes a “ground run” impossible, putting the pilot on the left side of the power curve until clear of obstacles. On a day when carb ice is possible, additional power is robbed by carb heat in a Raven I. It would take a lot of pilot skill to avoid a low rotor horn (or worse) on a departure like that in a Raven I.

The Raven II also has an extra 100 pounds of payload. That’s what makes it possible for me to take you, Alex, and Walt together, since we often depart the airport at max gross weight for those flights.

So the difference between the two aircraft is considerable. While a Raven I is great for cherry drying, photo work (with one photographer on board), and other low-payload missions, I think the Raven II is more flexible and reliable for charter operations.

We also talked a little about weight and balance. I almost always put both of my passengers on the same side of the aircraft and I do so for a reason: so they both have the same view. I’ve witnessed the frustration of passengers on one side of the aircraft talking about something that they see that’s impossible for the person behind me to see. To avoid that frustration, I seat people together. This is especially helpful in hot loading situations where it’s impossible for me to keep an eye on both sides of the aircraft at once.

While it is true that the larger fuel tank is on the left side of the aircraft, making that side heavier, that additional 80 pounds of fuel weight does not make a significant difference when loading the aircraft. This can be confirmed with the W&B spreadsheet I created and use for my flights. You can play “what if” with it all day long and find that it’s extremely difficult to load an R44 out of CG laterally. I’ve attached the spreadsheet for your reference; I pre-entered the information for Wednesday’s flight with Walt sitting behind you. Putting him behind me simply shifted the weight to my side — in either case, the weight was about 1-inch off center. Now if you were both 230 pounds, things would have been different! Play with the spreadsheet and see for yourself.

Weight and Balance Example

I’m glad to see that you’re enthusiastically learning all you can about flying helicopters. It’s also great that you’ve had an opportunity to fly with so many pilots. You can learn from all of us, especially since we all have different backgrounds and experience. I hope you keep in mind the fact that I’ve put more than 1700 hours on my Raven II (and more than 1400 hours on other helicopters before it) and have a pretty good handle on how to load and operate it. I know how it will react in just about any circumstance. I hope you’ll continue to quiz me as you work toward your private pilot certificate. It’s my pleasure to help you learn!

Maria

What do you think? Did I get my point across without getting rude?

April 27, 2014 Update

Less than an hour after I sent the above email message to Don, I got an email back from him that was followed up by a phone call before I’d even read the email.

Don thanked me enthusiastically for sharing the information, including the spreadsheet. He told me that he’s flown with 6 different instructors in R22, R44 Raven I, and R44 Raven II helicopters over the past year. He’s so early into the training process that he hasn’t even practiced any autorotations yet. He confirmed from his own experience what he’s noticed about the power differences between R44 I and R44 II helicopters. He believes that working with so many instructors has been a good learning experience.

My point is, he took my message in the spirit in which it was intended: as a tool for learning. So I guess I did okay.