FAA “Forgiveness?!”

The FAA “Compliance Program” is the “kinder, gentler” face of the FAA that is unfamiliar to most pilots. In our increasingly polarized society, we usually only see the ugly enforcement side of the FAA; certificate revocations and sanctions. But there has been a tectonic change in the FAA that promotes pilot re-education and  improvement, accommodating “honest mistakes.” The old “don’t hesitate, violate” attitude is finally fading.

The overview is that every honest, diligent pilot, that breaks a regulation inadvertently, should not face FAA “legal enforcement” but rather can (and should) be counseled and educated to be a better pilot creating a safer total system. Harsh punitive action has proven to create the opposite result. This recent change grew out of the “Just Culture” ideas of Sidney Dekker and others. Programs like this have been highly successful in the airlines. Compliance is a HUGE philosophical change following the lead of innovations like the ASRS, and ASAP reporting program. This all finally became approved FAA guidance about 6 years ago. There has since been an emerging culture shift in the FAA and the way they handle pilot violations.

FAA_Order_8000.373A: “The FAA recognizes that some deviations arise from factors such as flawed procedures, simple mistakes, lack of understanding, or diminished skills. The Agency believes that deviations of this nature can most effectively be corrected through root cause analysis and training, education or other appropriate improvements to procedures or training programs for regulated entities, which are documented and verified to ensure effectiveness.” 

This program should not be interpreted as the FAA “going easy” on intentional noncompliance. Willful regulatory violations and repeated offenses will still be handled with strict enforcement. The compliance program is for pilots who accidentally violate a regulation and also demonstrate a  “history of compliance” (participation in the FAA WINGS program helps too). These ‘honest mistakes’ will most often be handled with counseling and additional training rather than enforcement.

To implement this approach, pilot cooperation is required; both admitting responsibility and sharing information. Legal counsel may still be engaged, but the goal is a more open and positive “problem sharing” discussion (sometimes difficult with even well-intentioned lawyers). The open exchange of information leads to better overall system safety. Admittedly, trust is difficult when talking with “the authorities,” but there is a defined process established with legal assurances for the safe resolution of issues. This is why the FAA Pilot Bill of Rights is now so prominently embedded in the FAA regulatory system. An FAA Compliance Action also does not constitute a “finding of violation” on your pilot certificate.

The FAA Compliance Program (pdf) is part of FAA‘s larger Risk-Based Decision Making (RBDM) strategic initiative that is integrated into the ACS testing standards and Pilot Proficiency Program (WINGS). The increasing level of complexity of the aviation environment no longer permits safety improvements exclusively through following a purely rule-based approach. A safer system requires creative risk management and lifetime learning. Fly safely out there (and often)!

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IFR into “Non-Controlled” Airspace!

Once upon a time, long ago, only an ILS got you to the ground in seriously crappy weather and the FAA protected that arrival from local “VFR” traffic with a 700agl echo transition airspace (and even a surface area echo). This assured some legal separation for IFR from VFR traffic. But now we fly LPV approaches into almost every small county field right down into the weeds and the FAA provides no airspace protection. You are IFR in the clouds down through the uncontrolled airspace into all kinds of local flight possibilities; potentially operating “one mile clear of clouds” with no radios!

Let’s review this quickly so we understand the problem clearly. When Orville and Wilbur were flying, everything was G airspace or “go for it”; no IFR, no serious restrictions. But as the instrument flight system was created, the 3 mile visibility minimum was created in controlled (IFR) airspace and the “buffer” of 2000 horizontal, 1000 above and 500 below was created to provide separation VFR/IFR. Visual separation was at least possible for faster moving IFR plane transitioning into visual at a smaller, non-tower; and remember no communications are required. These fields look like Watertown if an ILS is in place with weather protection to the surface. On the other side of the equation is the IFR approach plate which seemingly insures a safe descent from the clouds.

But with the advent of the many wonderful RNAV IFR letdowns into smaller county fields – right down to the ground – our current airspace now provides no separation for IFR operations from the local traffic potentially operating “one mile clear of clouds.” The even scarier issue is no requirement for communications at these non-tower fields. (And remember, I own a 1946 7AC Champ and love “low and slow”). Take a look at Raleigh Executive Jetport (KTTA) with only a 700agl Echo transition airspace. This field has an ILS approach that goes right down to 200agl in the clouds and records 172 operations a day at this busy reliever airport. You are “flying naked” into the “go for it” (G) airspace!  This is just crazy.

This all was all precipitated by the latest VFR sectional, where the 700 agl transition around my local airport mysteriously disappeared on the last issue of the VFR chart. With RNAV approaches down into the weeds, anyone could be flying up to 1200agl “one mile clear of clouds” (and don’t think this does not happen). The FAA needs to get serious about this IFR/VFR separation problem. We have fast movers shooting these approaches everyday and the potential for collisions is definitely an “accident waiting to happen”. Fly often (and safely).

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IFR Currency Clarified

Be legal. safe and savvy flying IFR!

If you are instrument rated, staying current is critical to your flight safety. Without maintaining this important requirement, you are a VFR-only pilot! In addition to legal currency you should also consider competency and comfort in the clouds. Statistically, rusty instrument pilots do not make out much better than VFR pilots when the stumble unprepared into the clouds.

The FAA recently clarified their interpretations of the six-month proficiency rule for instrument pilots. You’ll find the basic rules under FAR 61.57(c), “Instrument Experience.”

To stay current for IFR, either take an instrument proficiency check with an instructor or perform holding, course intercepting and tracking and at least six instrument approaches every six months. For the approaches, you must:

  • Be in IMC or under the hood.
  • Be established on each of the initial, intermediate and final portions of the approach and descend to the MDA or DA. If available, you may use radar vectors to final.
  • The missed approach does not have to be flown.
  • If in IMC and you enter VMC after the final approach fix and before MDA or DA, the approach still counts. If under the hood, you must stay under the hood until reaching the MDA or DH.
  • If under the hood and required to deviate for safety after the final approach fix (such as to avoid conflicting traffic), the approach still counts.
  • A safety pilot qualified in the aircraft and with a current medical is required for hood work. The safety pilot name must be logged.

*And here is an IFR extra tidbit for you true IFR geeks. A question which has been debated in FBO lounges for years…”what constitutes an official ‘loggable’ approach for IFR currency purposes?” (This was asked by Donna Wilt in the comments and I thought it was worth adding here) The FAA finally came out with official guidance in September of this year. If you are in simulated or actual conditions it is necessary to fly the entire approach from the IAP (or as vectored) and pass the FAF inbound before becoming visual. So long as you fly initial, intermediate and final legs this approach is valid for currency. Of course flying it lower is valuable if you have a safety pilot (and make sure you record their name in your logbook).


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