Aircraft Accidents and FOD

I arrived at work one morning; my job is adjacent to a major international airport.  From my parking space, I looked out the windshield in time to see a clear, plastic, large-sized trash can liner tumbling in the wind twenty yards in front of me.  In my younger days, I might have chased it; even then I probably would not have succeeded in catching it because it was moving at a high rate of speed.  It leaped over the airport perimeter fence before I could even open my door, and it continued on, crossing Runway 13’s threshold.  Fortunately, there were no departing or arriving flights at that time of morning.

The colloquial term for the plastic bag is an acronym: FOD.  In aviation, we refer to such unrestrained pieces of garbage as Foreign Object Damage … FOD, for short.  The term appears innocuous, insipid; it’s almost as if I’m referring to FOD as a straight man to a more famous straight man: Elmer Fudd.  That would be a mistake, giving a sympathetic characteristic to such a destructive article.  FOD has cost the airlines millions of dollars annually in damage and delays.  Worse, FOD has cost the lives of many, a byproduct of carelessness.

In my younger days, my ramp crew and I embarked on FOD patrols, picking up junk that could be transformed into, e.g. a missile.  We would walk two arms’ lengths apart in grid patterns, eyes scanning the ground for just about anything, until the entire ramp was cleared.  FOD could be as large as a 2-X-4 piece of wood or as small as a #8 castellated nut; it could be a deer running across a runway in Alaska or a flock of geese taking out an A320’s engines at LaGuardia Airport.

One time, I worked on repairing a B727; a northbound gull had broke through the radome (nose) of the southbound B727, breached the thick metal pressure bulkhead and, after exhausting the energy breaking through the metal fuselage, still had enough kick to knock the Captain unconscious on final approach.  Think about that; hollow-boned birds with the density of a piece of chicken breast; birds that could be liquified in a Cuisinart, not only penetrated the bulkhead of a B727 at approach speed, but also shut down an A320’s engines in LaGuardia (US Air 1549).  It makes one wonder what damage a small unmanned aerial vehicle could do.

As mentioned, the plastic bag fluttering across my vision was FOD, but for a different reason; it can damage an airliner with engines running and can cause a catastrophic result if ingested during the critical stages of the take-off or landing phase of flight.

One morning when I worked for the FAA’s Flight Standards division, I was sitting with the flight crew conducting an enroute inspection.  We were in a Delta B737 and the ground crew had just finished pushing us out of the gate.  With engines started, the Captain waved off the tug and pushed the throttles forward to break ground resistance, our 200,000-pound airliner moved under its own power.  As he guided the airliner down the taxiway, I happened to look through the right window and saw a large plastic bag rolling tumbleweed-style just past the right wing.  I stated casually, “FOD off to starboard, two o’clock.”  The Captain slammed on the brakes, chopped the throttles and cued the first officer, who was already calling ramp control to report the bag.

No, the crew did not overreact; the Captain didn’t fear getting broadsided by a plastic bag.  Instead, this flight crew knew that for the two ‘vacuum cleaners’, aka engines, one on each wing, a plastic bag sucked into the engine inlet during taxi could cause, e.g. a compressor stall, damage the engine enough to be overhauled and cancel the flight.  What’s worse, if the bag made its way to the runway the consequences could be more severe: it could become the cause of an accident or serious incident, resulting in aircraft damage, personal injuries and, more importantly, loss of life … just from a large plastic bag.  The reason is that a plastic bag doesn’t get sliced to ribbons and vomited out the back of the engine; it could get spread across any number of the engine’s fan blades, blocking airflow.

During take-off, an engine’s fan section spins at a speed in the neighborhood of 3600 rotations per minute (RPM).  When FOD, like a plastic bag, gets sucked into the engine, it interrupts the flow of air that burns with fuel during combustion.  This airflow disruption – depending on the amount of bag-over-fan coverage – can disrupt combustion, causing a rapid overheat of the engine, thus damaging the engine’s internal parts.  The airstream’s force will prevent the bag from dislodging.  The engine would likely shut down on its own or be shut down by the pilot.  The internal engine damage incurred and/or decrease in airflow could be enough to prevent a restart.  The thrust from that engine would be lost just when it’s needed the most.

The FOD bag in the inlet could also starve the engine of air altogether; again, the engine shuts down, killing thrust on that side of the aircraft.  In the case of an inadvertent shutdown during these critical stages of take-off or landing, as the good engine continues at power, there is a longitudinal imbalance – the airliner turns toward the dead engine until the pilots can correct with rudder.  If they are landing in a crosswind, safety is compromised.  Since altitude is a pilot’s best friend, with less than 50 feet of altitude, the airliner would be in danger; all souls on board, in peril.

But FOD isn’t limited to the errant windblown plastic bag; damage isn’t restricted to just engines, yet the seriousness can be just as tragic.  So, what qualifies as FOD?  A bolt laying on the ground is FOD; pieces of scrap metal, glass, wood, rope, plastic strapping, hard rubber, even a chock used for blocking the support equipment’s tires.  A bolt ‘vacuumed’ into an engine is a missile of the worst kind when the rapidly-moving fan blades hit the object; powerful rotational energy is converted into comparable linear energy to move that bolt with the force of a bullet.  The high-energy fan blades themselves, after they initially impact the slow-moving bolt, become damaged; the bolt injures the fan blades with so much energy, the fan blades crack or sections break apart.  Out of balance, the rapidly-turning fan section vibrates in its shroud, damaging the internal engine components while still under high rotational speed.

How else does a discarded bolt or other piece of metal become a ‘dangerous object’?  Most drivers who have had their windshield chipped or broken by a pebble kicked up by an 18-wheeler can vouch for the power behind such a missile.  An 18-wheeler weighs around 80,000 pounds; as it presses the pebble down, it spits the pebble off in any direction.  The average narrow-body airliner can weigh 200,000 pounds or more, fully loaded; it can launch a piece of FOD at a wing, flight control or deeply imbed a bolt into its own tire tread.  The bolt can pierce the tire’s ply at critical moments, e.g. landing, when the landing weight is exaggerated.  A blown tire on landing can cause the aircraft to become unstable until it slows down.

Is the danger real?  On July 25, 2000, Air France flight 4590, an Aerospatiale Concorde crashed into a hotel during take-off; 113 people died – 109 on the aircraft and four on the ground.  An aircraft that departed shortly before lost a seventeen-inch long strip of stainless steel rub strip (FOD).  As the Concorde ran over the FOD, a main tire came apart; pieces of the tire struck the Concorde’s undercarriage at speeds upwards of 300 miles per hour.  The force of the tire pieces ruptured the number five fuel tank, which gushed fuel; the fuel ignited and the airliner could not increase power enough to gain any altitude.  It crashed, trailing a fuel-fed flame from the runway all the way to the accident site.

FOD is probably the least expected contributor to aviation damage because it’s innocent; by itself it can do no harm.  One can’t imagine a seventeen-inch piece of metal causing such a tragic end to over one hundred lives, but it did.  The discarded rub strip that led to the Air France accident was a hardy piece of metal; its purpose was to prevent damage by the vibrations of one engine cowl rubbing against another.  It was not as robust as a strengthening member of support structure, yet its effect was just as destructive, acting as the first domino in the series of events that doomed the airliner.

Consider also the Columbia Space Shuttle accident on February 1, 2003, during reentry.  Sixteen days earlier, on January 16, 2003, at 82 seconds into the shuttle’s launch (the vehicle has a velocity of about 4000 feet/second at this point), a piece of the external fuel tank’s foam struck the underside of the shuttle vehicle, breaching the shuttle’s left inboard wing thermal tiles.  On February 1st, with the crew unaware of the seriousness of the damage and based on poor management decisions, Columbia burned up on reentry, its fiery demise witnessed across several states.

The piece of insulation expelled off Columbia’s external fuel tank by itself could not cause much damage.  However, combined with the great velocity, the foam was just as dangerous to the thermal tiles as a brick through a plate glass window; its trajectory had the randomness of a bull in a china shop.  The resulting disaster proves it.

The chances of a used bolt becoming a missile, penetrating a fuel tank or tearing a composite structure, then becoming subject to the punishing effects of the airstream, increase through the improvements in technology.  The possibilities increase as later aircraft designs incorporate more lightweight composite materials and fuel tanks are built into the tail’s horizontal stabilizers.

Ramp inspections are boring; people get complacent, even treat such inspections as a joke.  Furthermore, many ramp crews are hired by contractors to meet that particular contractor’s – not the airline’s – manning needs.  They’re not taught the implications of FOD damage on an aircraft.  Gone are the days when everyone on the ramp, e.g. pilot, mechanic, ramp personnel, etc. was employed by the same airline; they all sported the same airline logo on their uniforms; they had the same pride in their airline and had a vested interest in each airliner’s safety. 

The bag flying across the parking lot?  It was not intentionally allowed to move freely through the active runway, just like the FOD that I saw on the Delta flight.  But that’s the problem with accidents: people didn’t intend for anything bad to happen; they just didn’t know.  If you’re reading this, now you know.  Hopefully I’ve awakened an awareness of dangerous circumstances that young aviators should be aware of; maybe I’ve made people aware of dangerous events they can prevent. 

Aircraft Accidents and Privatization

The most important part of writing aviation articles, particularly mine, is that the positions stated are MY opinion.  While airing my views may appear to lean toward one side of the Congressional aisle, I try to keep my politics neutral; believe me, in today’s world, that’s hard.  But, sometimes a topic of national interest comes up and I must comment, so please don’t put a political spin on it

Big news last week: The President supports privatization of the air traffic control system.  Apparently, this is something that we’ve been asking for, though I never got the Memo.  Now I was an aircraft mechanic for many years and years before that I loaded aircraft; my experience with airports – indeed, air traffic control – is limited to travelling from ramp to ramp or taxiing a DC-10 to the high-power pad; in other words: limited.  My feelings on the topic of Air Traffic Privatization are restricted to my memories of commercial aviation history; working both on the government side and the industry side of aviation; or being union and being non-union.  That being said, I can’t say I’m happy; it reminds me of the Fellowship of the Ring line, “… for none now live that remember it.” And by ‘it’, I mean the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) strike of 1981.

The problem with our society is that we too soon forget the lessons of the past, even lessons learned by the previous generation.  Think how soon it was before we thought of 9/11 as history.  It was only sixteen years ago: a lifetime to many, but a turn of the page to many my age.  To people like me, who helped during the recovery at Shanksville, PA, the memories are vivid, the horror: stark, as those witnessing, e.g. Pearl Harbor.  So why would non-aviation people remember the PATCO strike from 36 years ago or even what it was about?

In August, 1981, PATCO struck for better working conditions and pay raises.  President Ronald Reagan demanded that the strikers – who were breaking the law – should return to work within 48 hours or they would be terminated.  With the military running air traffic, the 48-hour deadline came about and, true to his word, Reagan dismissed those who did not return to work.

Whether one agrees with President Reagan’s actions or not, those arguments are now moot; the striking controllers posed a very real threat to the nation’s safety and commerce.  As one who spent his professional life in aviation, it is my opinion, the President’s actions were valid.

It is important to note that thirty-six years later, a similar loss of our air traffic controllers would devastate this nation.

The strike and resulting disorganization of PATCO was, according to labor historian Joseph McCartin, “one of the most important events in late twentieth century labor history.”  I don’t presume to suggest that, if privatized, the air traffic controllers will strike, though the possibility greatly exists for any private company to organize.  When one takes that private entity, stretches its control across the fifty states and various territories, the chances for unionization increase; elect a Democratic majority and that opportunity rises exponentially.

What I fear is a private organization that holds the country’s very financial existence in its hands: it’s too much power to be trusted … to anyone.  Corporations, or any business organization, exists for one reason: to make money.  Whether selling a Big Mac sandwich (Product) or seats on a flight (Service), a business uses these products and services to make financial gains for its investors … period.  Government doesn’t have that luxury; their money-making apparatus is taxes; they offer no products or services worth buying.  That’s why they are so incompetent when it comes to entitlements and the Department of Motor Vehicles – it’s not their job.

Make no mistake, EVERYTHING is affected by air transportation.  And such an organization, not beholding to government authority, by conducting ‘sick outs’ or strikes, can cripple travel around the world, not just in the United States.  The travel industry: passenger, air cargo or anything that flies, e.g. air ambulances or fire fighters, could be subject to tremendous delays that would take days or weeks to resolve; add in the damage or loss to persons and/or property, a strike would be catastrophic.  If the air traffic control system falls under one company, the US runs the risk of creating a monopoly, much like Ma Bell was pre-1984; I’m afraid the Ma Bell monopoly is ancient history to some of our decision makers, as well.

And here is where government control should shine.  It’s true, government can’t get out of its own way, but they are the best non-partisan entity to keep the battle lines from forming.  Government is, for the most part, supposed to be unbiased.  It is not above corruption, but it doesn’t benefit from investing in private industry.  For example, in government work for the aviation industry, an investigator or inspector like I was, must divest themselves of any air operator’s business holdings or the government employee’s integrity can come into question, even if they are the most incorruptible individual.  An airline, however – quietly investing through shadow companies, trusts or charitable organizations in the air traffic management company – can use their financial influence to sway, e.g. routes or landing windows, to their own favor.

Some may argue that private industry might inject energy into the long delayed NextGen system.  Many sharing the ‘NextGen is taking too long’ mantra, may not fully understand the ramifications of turning the air traffic system over to the machines without a proper shakedown.  Government’s not dragging its feet; rather technology is getting in its own way.  Private industry is heavily involved with NextGen’s introduction and evolution; government, despite public opinion, cannot move the technology ball forward on its own; there are no secret labs or FAA scientists (that’s an oxymoron) housed in underground research facilities.  Private industry and entrepreneurs are a strong influence on NextGen’s progress.

Technology is not the only reason to question the wisdom of turning the air traffic control system over to private management; I alluded to corruption.  If Airline X, a major international airline, makes substantial investments to the air traffic control company – even as a shadow organization – this would give Airline X an incredible advantage over Airlines Y and Z, smaller commuter airlines.  Airline X could leverage their unfair advantage, driving Airlines Y and Z out of business as they maneuver their way into the smaller airlines’ markets.  This is not Capitalism, but the aviation equivalent of Insider Trading.

How would a private company enforce the Federal Aviation Regulations (FAR)?  As an unbiased entity, the FAA has the ability to play Policeman.  How would a private company regulate the air traffic system?  They lack the ability to enforce any FAR, e.g. breaking altitude.  Would they be able to use equal measures to enforce FARs fairly?  Would these air traffic controllers be party to aircraft accident investigations?

The last point is transition; that turning control of the air traffic system over to privatization doesn’t come with the flick of a switch; it is a costly and time-intensive process full of changing regulations, reorganization, transfers of authority, negotiations, paperwork changes and other important translations that are not easily satisfied.  Perhaps the answer is not to privatize the air traffic system, though that seems moot at this point.  Instead, the money – and it will cost a LOT – needed to convert from government to privatization, could be used to fix the system.

We all want things to work right.  We want satisfaction to promises made or authorities to finally get their collective act together.  But I feel that we must ask ourselves a question: What are we willing to sacrifice for satisfaction?  In the end, we might find that we should be careful what we ask for … we just might get it.

Aircraft Accidents and Lessons Unlearned II: National Airlines 102

I’ve been involved in commercial aviation for 35 years.  Most of that time was spent dealing with air cargo and much of it has involved, both directly and indirectly, major accident investigation.  I have learned that there are two unreliable sources of information concerning accidents: a video recording and an expert eyewitness.  I’ll use the National Airlines 102 accident at the Bagram Airbase, Afghanistan, as an example.

A video recording is unreliable because when the video is reviewed, it’s assumed the obvious answer is undeniable; the airplane obviously did something and people – even professional investigators – are quick to conclude that the accident happened in accordance with what was obviously seen: an aircraft stalls in flight, pointing nose up, because, e.g. a sudden, unexpected aft shift of weight.  And to support the theory, the freight on National 102 (an 18-ton armored vehicle) fits the profile of a proper cause, e.g. a multi-ton vehicle lets loose to bring about an out-of-balance configuration; the vehicle broke through the aft pressure bulkhead, destroying everything beyond and catastrophically upsetting the aircraft’s balance.  All other possibilities, e.g. flight control problems, are ignored for what is considered the ‘obvious’.  It may not be incorrect – in this case, it is what caused the accident – but a presumption of evidence is often as hard to disprove as an accused criminal’s presumption of guilt.

The problem with expert eyewitnesses is that they ‘ad lib’ their visual account; it’s like the fishing story where the Flounder keeps getting bigger and fights harder each time one tells the story until it becomes a Marlin.  Events or anomalies suddenly ‘precede or follow’ the accident, e.g. a flash or noise; technically, in the back of the eyewitness’s mind, B747s just don’t fall out of the sky without an explosion or the BOOM-BOOM of an engine compressor stall.  The eyewitness reacts to the unexpected event by ‘remembering’ things that did not happen or overlooking things that did; he/she supports what he/she ‘sees’ by relying on their expert’s pride.  The more time between event and interview, the more the story evolves in their memory.  “Of course, there was a flash of light.  I’m an expert; I know what I saw.”  As an investigator, I would trust the memory of 7-year old Johnny Junior, professional second grader, as opposed to 30-year old John Senior, professional airline pilot; Johnny Junior doesn’t know enough to pad his story with technical stuff.

On April 29, 2013, National Airlines flight 102, aircraft N949CA, a Boeing B747-400, crashed on take-off out of Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan (NTSB number DCA13MA081; Accident Report AAR-15/01).  The aircraft rotated off Runway 3; it climbed several hundred feet before it seemed to hang on its engines in a stall; it then nosed over and impacted terrain to the immediate southeast of Runway 3-21.  A video was taken by an airport worker that captured the event, showing the B747 aircraft in an aerodynamic stall; the attitude of the aircraft was so severe that it appears that the aircraft was in an out-of-control, imbalance situation.  This initial presumption corrupted the investigation; the probable cause was determined before the fire was even put out, based on what was seen.  The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) wrote the report based on the fact that the rear-most armored vehicle broke loose – case closed.

However, it was not the cause of the accident.

The second thing: an air traffic controller observed the take-off, noting that the ‘airplane’s rotation appeared normal’, not aware that, at that moment, the situation would rapidly decay before his/her eyes.  Even as the B747’s unusual take-off played out, the controller’s brain probably couldn’t comprehend the emergency as it was happening: that on an uneventful day a B747 was in distress; that some ‘hot-dogging’ pilot’s flying skills must explain the unusual angle of climb.  This can’t be happening, can it?!  He/She doubted what their eyes were seeing until reality kicked in, but then it was too late; the aircraft was in flames on the ground and their technical expertise and logic started filling in the blanks of what they must have observed; they manufactured some explanations for the incident in their minds.  Suddenly there were flashes or noises that were never there … or were, e.g.  the debris exiting the aircraft’s tail.  Perhaps the controller, in his/her mind, couldn’t understand the impending disaster at the time it was happening, because there was just … too much … to process, and too little time to do it in.

While the shifting freight may have caused the accident, it wasn’t the cause.  To find the cause(s), one has to look beyond the accident and the location (Bagram).  This is something the NTSB did not do.  By not looking beyond the accident, what was missed may happen again.

One of my colleagues, who conducted a more thorough review of the accident report’s ‘minor’ details than I did, pointed out to me that the flight originated in Fort Bastion in Afghanistan.  This ‘minor’ detail, mentioned in the Report’s narrative of the flight’s history, is not minor at all, but a major fact: the time the B747 spent in Bagram, no freight was loaded or unloaded; it was only refueled.  This means that the B747’s weight and balance manifest was calculated in another airport and was unchanged in Bagram; that the B747 flew from Fort Bastion to Bagram without incident.  The NTSB failed to exploit this important fact.  It should have because it places a good portion of the accident’s responsibility on a ramp that took two hours to fly from.

Let me refer back to the January 8, 2003, Air Midwest accident in Charlotte airport, where the Beech 1900D crashed due to weight and balance errors and incorrectly rigged flight controls: the elevators were incorrectly rigged five days before.  That specific Beech 1900D flew eight successful flights before the disastrous combination of too much heavy baggage and the inability for the elevators to compensate, came together, resulting in a preventable accident that killed twenty-one people.

In Fort Bastion, a British-run military field, there was no United States’ (US) Department of Defense (DoD) oversight to verify their military load crews were following proper procedures in the securing of the vehicles to their individual pallets; I’m not talking about inside the B747, but on their shipping pallets built up hours before loading.  In the process of moving the pallets with the vehicles secured by chains on fork lifts, excessive work-hardening of the pallet material where the chains were attached took place.  The pallets that were being abused were probably not new; they most likely had been used and abused for an undetermined amount of time.  Strapping 36,000 pounds of armored vehicle to a pallet with weakened attach points didn’t guarantee the pallet could be relied on for its integrity in holding the vehicle securely.  The NTSB missed this fact; they did not go back to Fort Bastion to look at the ramp operating procedures.

In addition, the 18-ton vehicle’s tires were deflated; they were not fully inflated and rigid; the wheels were not blocked.  This may have been proper shipping procedures for the military, but by deflating the tires, this allowed shifting and bouncing of the vehicle’s frame on the pallet in flight, alternately placing and removing stress on different parts of the restraining strap netting; the movements would relieve one part of the restraining net while simultaneously putting excessive stress on the opposing side, weakening the integrity of the restraint.  The NTSB missed this fact because they did not look into the Fort Bastion ramp’s operating procedures.

The NTSB reported that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) was irresponsible in its lack of oversight of National Airlines and their procedures for shipping military equipment.  This is a deflection of responsibility on the NTSB’s part.  The US State Department doesn’t allow government employees to go to certain international locations, especially places considered in-conflict, or war zones; Afghanistan is such a war zone.  Additionally, Fort Bastion is a British military base; the FAA and DoD have no jurisdiction on a foreign country’s base.

However, the DoD conducts annual audits on each of the operators it contracts to.  The DoD then works with the FAA to clear any safety discrepancies – including loading procedures – before the contracts are continued and, in some cases, signed.  The DoD were the authority with eyes on site; they should have been in front of National’s loading procedures, especially those procedures that address unusual loads, e.g. 18-ton vehicles.  These loads require special handling or may require restriction in how many are allowed to be shipped on a civilian aircraft at one time.  The DoD audits, in cooperation with Great Britain, should provide oversight of Fort Bastion’s ground handling procedures, to assure the pallets were not improperly handled, possibly weakening the attach points.  The NTSB overlooked these facts.

Finally, the team the NTSB used to investigate the accident had little to no personal air carrier operations experience.  In order to understand what is to be investigated, e.g. an air carrier’s operations, the investigator(s) must be educated and/or experienced in the cultures of how air operators, e.g. air cargo operators, work.  As a result, the NTSB missed many important operational anomalies that should have made it into the Findings, the Probable Causes and the Recommendations of the National 102 Accident Report.  I have documented here at least three or four that I found; there may be more.  It is my experience that if findings in an investigation are missed, people die.

These report errors guarantee that safety groups and air carriers will most likely work off the NTSB’s faulty information.  As a result, the training called for, the surveillance expected and the goals set will be wrong.  Worse, the accident may be repeated, and at great cost.

This is why sometimes we have to step back, close our eyes to the obvious, e.g. videos or eyewitness testimony, and use our heads.  When we settle on what caused the accident and not pursue the cause of the accident, we all lose.

Aircraft Accidents and Picking Ones Battles

Last week the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) lost an argument requiring the registration of all hobbyist unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV).  I haven’t seen this much celebrating since the Empire lost big-time in The Return of the Jedi; “Let’s go to our reporters on Coruscant (Celebration).  How about   Naboo?  Celebrating.  Tatooine?  Celebrating.  Alderaan?  Oh, wait, they were destroyed in the first movie … or was it the fourth movie?  I’m so confused.”  If only somebody kept an eye on the Empire, Alderaan might have made it to The Force Awakens.

But seriously, it appears an insurance salesman out of Maryland led the charge to strike down the 2015 regulation necessitating the registration of all hobbyist UAVs.  In a time where hobbyists can fly UAVs further, higher, longer and without being tracked, the Pyrrhic battle waged was partly because a hobbyist didn’t want to pay the registration fee.  He was asked, “What is the cost of the UAV’s registration?”  “Five dollars,” he responded.  There’s also the recording of the UAV owner’s name, physical address and email.  When asked why not just pay the $5.00, the insurance agent/avid UAV owner replied, “… it was about more than [the] five bucks.  It was the idea of government overreach.”

Actually, no, it’s really not.

I am, by nature, a person who opposes overreach by the government; I believe in Capitalism and the benefits of free enterprise.  That’s not what was happening here; the registration requirement was not political.

This is what’s wrong with our conspiracy-obsessed society these days.  Are there satellites that can track our movements?  Yes.  Can the government track your credit cards and social security numbers?  Absolutely!  Can the department of Transportation (DOT) through the FAA do anything, such as override your UAV for illegally flying over a celebrity’s wedding or send it careening into the office of the leader of ISIS?  Are you insane?  Having worked for the Federal government I can say this, with absolute certainty: the Federal government doesn’t have the collective wit to even write a novel about the Kennedy Assassination or the 9/11 attacks, much as less pull off any grand conspiracy with anything resembling success, I don’t care what Oliver Stone says.

The DOT or the FAA; do they have the kind of resources necessary to use UAVs to nefarious ends, e.g. overreach?  Not NO, but HELL NO!  The FAA doesn’t presently have the manpower or the resources to oversee the thousands of legitimate operators and airmen, e.g. pilots, mechanics, engineers, instructors, flight attendants, etc. that they have to watch today; they can’t possibly get in front of the millions of UAV hobbyists.

When I lived in Virginia, I drove up and down State Road 28; it is a major thoroughfare that connects such points as Dulles Airport, Manassas and I-66.  In the farming communities of Fauquier County it wasn’t unusual to see a tractor chugging down State Road 28 with an orange triangle designating it as a slow moving vehicle; vehicles with FARM USE license plates used the State Road to get between their separate fields divided by connecting roadways.  Even though they employed these vehicles to expedite on Virginia roads, they were not expected to be used to go to the grocery store or jump down the interstate.  They are, however, required to be marked as a slow moving vehicle; it is the Law.

The ironic thing about the decision being struck down is that the hero/insurance salesman/UAV enthusiast probably did the UAV community more harm than good.  Sure he rode others’ shoulders as the conquering hero during the victory dance, but he has now put the ball in the FAA’s court; the FAA can hold up the regulatory process or drag its feet even more in writing the rules that UAV businessmen have been craving for years now to get their businesses off the ground (no pun intended).  The intense drive by the Commercial UAV community seeking lawful UAV operations for business is not particularly happy with this outcome; its years-long efforts to legitimize the industry; finalize regulations that have been dragging the slow-dance through the regulatory process, may have been dealt a serious blow.  The UAV community is now perceived as uncooperative; worse yet, stubborn on such a trivial issue.

Why?  Well, because the hero/insurance salesman/UAV enthusiast didn’t want to pay five dollars; he chose the UAV community’s battles; the ‘hero’ has met the enemy, and he is it.

And here’s where I’ll amend my previous statement about the government’s ineptitude, particularly the FAA.  Yes, they couldn’t get out of their own way with a conspiracy.  And they wouldn’t stand a chance in court forcing an airline to change what it’s been doing for decades.  But they’re very successful against the little guy.  And here’s why:

The FAA wasn’t in this fight for overreach.  No, no, no.  On the contrary, the UAV issue is – and has always been – strictly one of safety.  The FAA and the DOT must justify to the airlines why a UAV intruded in their approach or departure vector; the FAA must explain to the millions of passengers making up the flying public why they can’t control UAVs in the commercial airspace.  The FAA must also make account to the thousands of private pilots, helicopter operators, crop-dusters, news helicopters, police helicopters, aerial fire fighters, glider pilots, aerospace entrepreneurs, etc. … you know, the other millions of people who use the American airspace for commercial or recreational reasons.  These aviators see UAV intrusions as a critical safety issue; an all-out Hazard.  The FAA is accountable to these businesses and aviators.

There’s also something else: I’ve been to these major accident sites; as the reporters amass at the perimeter, the various participants in the accident investigation: the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the aircraft manufacturer, the engine manufacturer, the various employee unions, e.g. machinists, pilots and flight attendants, are already pointing their fingers at the FAA.

The NTSB Board Member approaches the podium; the smoking wreckage in the background; emergency workers still scrambling to recover victims.  The Board Member will announce the fear that the accident was caused by the ingestion of a UAV during the take-off cycle; that the UAV intercepted the airliner during a critical phase of flight and that the airliner had neither the speed nor the altitude to successfully ‘fly-out’ of the disaster. The Board Member will point out that the UAV most likely was not registered and that finding the owner – the one responsible for the deaths and carnage – will be impossible; that there is no chance, until the NTSB has exhausted a year and change investigating the obvious, that UAVs should be better controlled/regulated.

The NTSB Board Member will ask for questions, but first, the Board Member will point out that the accident was caused, in large part, by the FAA’s lack of proper oversight of UAV operators.

And that’s where it gets political.  At that point, as the body count climbs, despite all the FAA’s and Aviation Safety Group’s warnings that the UAVs are more a danger than getting credit for, the full brunt of the accident will fall on the one organization that has been trying to mete out common sense and safety.

With the total lack of control of UAVs that there is, it is inevitable; that day will come; it’s not a matter of ‘If’, but of ‘When’.  And on that day, no one will ask the question, “Hey Hero, why didn’t you just pay the five bucks?”