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.

The Credit Card I Never Asked For

A scam from Netspend.

Today, I received a credit card in the mail. Trouble is, I never asked for the credit card. I have enough credit cards and I certainly don’t want another one.

NetspendIt was a Small Business prepaid MasterCard from Netspend, a company I had never heard of. The accompanying paperwork told me about the related fees for use but not much else.

I called the number on the card to ask what it was all about. I was prompted for a card number, my social security number — which I, of course, did not enter — and my date of birth — which I purposely entered incorrectly. I was then prompted to agree with terms of service by pressing 1. There was no person. Just a machine taking down whatever I entered.

I tried pressing 0 and various keys. The system eventually hung up on me.

I tried calling another number on the Netspend website. It threw me into the same automated queue.

I tried again, this time using the option that the card had been lost or stolen. A prompt warned me that that option was only for lost or stolen cards. I stuck with it. When prompted for my social security number again, I entered all zeros.

Eventually I got a real person on the phone. I asked her what the card was all about and she told me I’d accepted a mail offer. I told her I hadn’t and that I wouldn’t have. I told her I didn’t want the card and that I wanted it all record of it removed from my name, including from my credit report. She apologized for the “inconvenience.” I told her that it wasn’t an inconvenience. It was an invasion of my privacy. I told her that if I saw the card on my credit report when I checked it next month, Netspend would hear from my lawyer.

And then I hung up on her before she could do any more explaining or apologizing.

Is this a scam? Sure seems like it to me. Hand out a credit card, use a toll-free number to gather social security number and date of birth information. Even if it is legit, it’s an unwanted hit to a person’s credit report, possibly damaging to a credit score. And what if someone had intercepted it on its way to my mailbox? Would I be on the hook for someone else’s transactions?

Is this an indication that I’m an identity theft victim? Should I be calling the credit services now? Are there other cards with my name on them in the hands of other people?

Or am I just being paranoid?

These days, you never know — until it’s too late.

It Takes Money to Make Money

A simple fact too many folks don’t seem to understand.

The other day, I was at a social gathering with a bunch of friends and neighbors. Conversation turned to a good friend of mine with a very large, underutilized garage. I mentioned that during the winter, he rents out storage space for the season to people with boats, RVs, and other vehicles not likely to be used in the winter. This brings in some extra cash for his winter travels to the south.

“What a great idea!” one of my neighbors said. She turned to another member of the group. “See? There are all kinds of ways people can make money. I don’t see why we should be paying for them.”

I could tell that she’d used my story to continue a conversation she’d had earlier with other people in the group. But she was missing an important point.

“It’s all about assets,” I said. I told the group about how I’m currently being paid to have my helicopter parked in a snug hangar in California in case it’s needed. Yes, I’m bringing in cash without seeming to do anything. But the asset that’s making that possible has cost me more than a half million dollars in the past 13 years to buy, maintain, overhaul, and insure. It’s not as if I’m getting money for nothing.

MoneyThe same goes for my friend. If he didn’t have that big garage, could he rent out space to boat owners? No. What did it cost him to build that garage? Maintain it? Insure it? All that costs money.

The sharing economy has given us all kinds of ways to bring in a little cash on the side. It’s no secret that before I sold my big fifth wheel, I parked on my driveway and rented it out on AirBnB for $89/night with a two-night minimum. I had people in it nearly every weekend that summer. But could I have done that if I didn’t have the fifth wheel? Or acreage with an amazing view and a full RV hookup? What did it cost me to buy the fifth wheel and land? And set up the power, sewer, and water hookups? All that costs money.

And then there’s Uber and Lyft, two ride-sharing companies. Yes, you can drive people around and get paid for it. But to do that, you need a car that meets certain requirements for age and style and that car has to be insured. All that costs money.

The conversation didn’t go this far. It moved on to other things before I could make this point. It didn’t matter. I like my neighbors, even though I think some of them are politically misguided, and didn’t want to ruin the evening with a possibly heated debate. We’re among the fortunate Americans. Neither rich nor poor, we are homeowners on the downhill slope of life, able to take care of all of our needs with a little left over for extras. Life’s not easy, but it certainly isn’t hard.

Yet some of us understand what it’s like for the people who struggle to get by. We empathize, possibly because we’ve been in their shoes in the past. We don’t expect them to produce money out of thin air with creative use of assets they couldn’t possibly afford when they’re having enough trouble putting a roof over their head and food on the table. We don’t mind paying a little extra in our taxes to help them with social services programs or, even more importantly, to fully fund our school systems to help their kids get a path out of poverty through education.

But it’s the mindset of my friend — the complete lack of understanding of how difficult it can be for certain people to earn a decent living — that bothers me. It’s an almost “let them eat cake” moment. And sadly, it’s shared by far too many Americans these days.