Sometime in February 2017, I was flying VFR into Beaufort Executive Airport (KARW) in Beaufort, SC, a trip I have made numerous times- probably my third most visited airport over my flying career. Maybe it was over-familiarity, or I was distracted by my conversation with Beaufort MCAS, but no matter what, I made a gigantic mistake! I intended, and announced, landing on Runway 25 but inexplicably, started a left downwind for Runway 7. I was halfway into my downwind leg when I realized my mistake, crossed the field at midfield, and made my landing on 25 as planned.
I didn’t think too much of it until I got on the ground and looked at the chart. Runway 7 has a righthand pattern, which means I was on the wrong side of the airport. That was my second mistake (after misidentifying my landing runway.) Sure, I had fixed that mistake but there’s a reason that 7 has a right-hand pattern- the Beaufort Marine Base is planted immediately on the northwest side of the county airport, with a Class-D airspace that abuts the Beaufort airport.
Uh oh, I thought. Did I nick that airspace accidentally when I was on the wrong side of the airport? There is a small cutout in the Beaufort Class D airspace next to the Beaufort County Airport, probably to give local traffic a little extra space and since no one at the airbase called the Beaufort FBO, asking to talk to me, I felt pretty sure that I was okay. Still, I had been talking to those controllers on the way in, which meant they knew my N#, so when I returned home that day, I pulled out one of the best tools that, as pilots, we all have in our flight bags- the NASA Aviation Safety Reporting System, or ASRS.
Here’s the deal- the FAA recognized that gathering information was an important step in preventing incidents, and preventing incidents was a lot better than investigating accidents, but the challenge was, how does the FAA encourage pilots to volunteer information that might be used against them?
The solution was the ASRS. Information is collected by NASA, an independent third party that strips the identifying information and hands the rest of the data to the FAA. Because the FAA really values this information, a sweetener for the pilots was attached: immunity (in most cases) for violations if they had been self-reported.
For me, I wrote up what had happened, including the fact that it was my mistake alone and there were no other issues with airspace, the airport, or anything else- it was all me. I filed the report electronically and in a week or so, I received in the mail a small strip of paper that had a stamp from NASA- they had received my incident report and it was on file. Now I was covered in case something came up. I can fill out these forms as many times as I wish but only actually use it as protection from FAA sanctions every five years.
Remember that I said you are protected in most cases- this protection does NOT extend to reports of accidents or criminal activity (e.g., hijacking, bomb threats, and drug running), or deliberate violations (must be inadvertent), and the report must be filed within ten days of the incident. In fact, if you do report criminal activity, that information will be sent to whatever law enforcement agency may have an interest. So, if you have an incident because your airplane was overloaded with illegal drugs that you were smuggling in, you might want to forgo the NASA form.
And this system is not just for pilots – controllers, flight attendants, A&Ps, and a whole list of other members of the aviation community are included in this program. Nor is this just for violations- any safety concerns you may have encountered should be reported as well, whether it’s faded runway markings or an encounter with a drone. NASA reporting functions like a PIREP for “pilot traps” too.
For CFIs, NASA’s monthly “Callback” Newsletter is a rich resource for education; revealing the fallibility of pilots at all levels. Cessnas drivers to Boeing captains alike fall prey to the same problems of fatigue, distraction, or just plain mind wandering. We all need to commit to increased vigilance and lifelong learning.
This program is not new – it became operational in 1975 and I am still surprised by how few pilots and CFIs are unaware of its existence and benefits. The FAA collects safety-related information that they can only get from the users of the system and as pilots in this “non-judgment forum.” We get an opportunity to contribute to aviation safety while reducing our exposure to fines and suspensions. This is a win-win situation for everybody, and every pilot should keep this gem in mind.
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