By Fletcher Anderson
Our company has at long last completed the Part 135 charter certification process. Congratulations are in order not because of the difficulty, but rather because of the time involved in doing this. Even after we hired a former FAA official as a consultant, it took well over a year, and we could not even begin the process without an aircraft, on which we were already paying charter insurance.
Very little of this delay was really the result of either a lack of qualifications or preparations on our part, and absolutely none was the result of any sort of bureaucratic sluggishness by the FAA. Once our application found its way to the top of the pile, the FAA officials involved moved very quickly and efficiently so much so that we struggled to keep up!
This might be a great opportunity to insert one of those traditional harangues against bureaucrats, but the fact of the matter is that everyone I have ever dealt with in the FAA has been intelligent, efficient at their jobs, and dedicated towards helping me. True enough, government does not function like business, but if you step back for just a minute, you really dont want it to any more than you want business to function like a government. No, the delay can be directly and entirely attributed to the very small number of inspectors in the Flight Standards District Office, and their very large workload.
The post-September 11 rules are going to add to this workload, the post-November 7 economy is not going to increase the number of FAA employees, and both will have a huge impact on General Aviation.
First, everyone associated with aviation has already been deluged with all sorts of new security directives. Implementing these takes time and money, and in most cases, the directives are written by politicians who have never spent time at an airport. A few rules make sense; some of the rules can be almost too nonsensical to implement. And no one doubts these are only precursors to new security legislation.
Personally, I would have no problem with a criminal background check and mandatory random drug testing for all pilots. I would have no problem at all personally, because I already have to do those things anyway to fly charters, join the Civil Air Patrol and to fly into the Salt Lake Olympic airspace. (I even secretly relish the idea because an increased FAA oversight would make life very, very difficult for one of my competitors!) But most pilots dont have to do these things any more than most automobile drivers do. Can you imagine the administrative logjam doing that to every pilot in the country would cause?
Second, the airlines are coming under increasing scrutiny. And we all know that at the FAA airlines take priority over charter operators, who in turn take priority over flight schools, who take priority over the lowly private pilot candidate. Therefore, the already too-small pool of FAA inspectors will be able to address even fewer small business and general aviation needs.
Examples of this shortage already abound. Last month a helicopter operator in the Albuquerque area was told a charter certificate application could take as long as two years to process. Students in a junior college flight program in Utah were told it would be months before their initial flight instructor check rides could be scheduled. Tasking the FAA with even more stringent Air Carrier requirements without additional staffing is untenable. The rest of aviation could be paralyzed.
Appalling as they were, the events of September 11 should have had very little direct effect on aviation, and on the western three-quarters of this country. While the horror of the violent murder of thousands of people cannot be overstated, America is a very large country. The remaining two hundred and sixty million of us should be able to not only fight back, but also to continue with our normal business lives. There is a map of the United States covering the wall of the hangar where our maintenance is done. New York is a very tiny pinprick way over in a back corner. The rest of the map should be able to respond to the attacks overwhelmingly and effectively without paralysis.
But we didnt do that. The FAA was directed to shut down all airspace in the country. Then reopen it, but only to airlines, ironically the very category of aviation that was the source of the tragedy. Then, slowly, airspace reopened to charter, but not to part 91. Then to instrument, but not VFR flight. Then you could fly an airplane, but not a glider or balloon or hang glider. The mind boggles at the thought of a terrorist hot air balloon attack.
Flight instruction was shut down while the FBI questioned every flight school in the country. Agricultural flying was shut down during the busy season on the misinformation that there was some way to spray anthrax from an Ag-plane, but not from any other kind of plane.
We had the numerous strange restrictions of class B enhanced airspace, followed by closed airspace around nuclear facilities and power plants. This had the curious effect of first closing all the aviation businesses at Centennial Airport in Denver, but not those at Jeffco Airport also in Denver... and then reversing the situation a week later. Flight instruction was shut down, reopened, shut down again, etc., until the number of new students dropped off enough so that it hardly matters anymore. Most of what the flying instructors at those schools did was ferry aircraft back and forth between airports trying to stay ahead of the closures.
The effects still linger months after the fact. Recently, during the World Series, I was seven minutes out from landing in Phoenix, Arizona when the controller informed me I could not land without an IFR clearance. (I believe the last time there was a cloud in the sky in Phoenix, Jimmy Carter was in the White House.) I asked for an IFR clearance for a visual approach into the airport, which was instantly granted. When it came time to leave, I was told that part 91 general aviation was shut down except for instructional flying. I therefore filed for an instructional flight. What is the purpose of the flight? the briefer asked. I am showing someone how to leave Phoenix, I replied. That was approved. Will someone please explain to me how that process really protected America from terrorists?
There was more lunacy in Phoenix: American citizens who were VFR pilots were all grounded, and werent even allowed ferry their planes out of the area. However, since instructional flights were fine, German flight students from the Lufthansa training program were soloing unfettered through the class B airspace, even as some of their countrymen staged anti-American demonstrations back home.
Recently a troubled teenager in Florida ably demonstrated that a 1500-pound Cessna 172 is an even less effective weapon of mass destruction than a 2000-pound automobile (not to mention a 2-pound hand gun, as was demonstrated at Columbine high school, or a 1-ton rental truck, as demonstrated in Oklahoma City). Did our legislature propose bans on cars and trucks? Or, did every flight instructor in the country receive new airport security directives the following day? You probably guessed which one actually happened.
Like almost every other pilot in the country, I dont personally intend to commit mass murder within the immediate, foreseeable future. If I did, Ill bet I could figure out a much more effective method of doing it than using a small plane. Mostly I just want to fly my little airplane, provide a service, and get paid for it to support my family.
I agree with everyone else that September 11 should be some sort of a wake up call. Clearly, the overwhelming success the terrorists achieved that day, plus the several subsequent security breaches elsewhere in the Nation, indicates that airport security is indeed in need of overhaul. I agree that when someone kills three thousand of our fellow citizens we have no option except overwhelming, immediate military response. There was an American flag waving from my house, and my wife, who is an immigrant to this country, helped nail it up. However, like most pilots, I wish the people creating these new regulations had just a little bit better understanding of aviation, and took just a little bit longer look at the effectiveness and the impacts of what they are proposing.
Economically, the response is causing as much harm as the attack.
Fletcher Anderson lives in Telluride, Colorado, and is a charter pilot and operator of Mountain Aviation Services (970-728-1728), the second highest flight school in America. He has over 3000 hours experience flying small powered aircraft, 2000 hours flying paragliders, and a lot less time than he wants flying sailplanes, all in the mountains. He has given over 1000 hours of mountain flying instruction, and has several hundred hours game spotting and photo flying.