A quote from inspirational speaker, Jay Kristoff, starts off with the words, “An avalanche starts with one pebble …” It is not wise to take quotes out of turn, but Mister Kristoff makes a good point with just these six words. Articles have been written about how the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is an evolving part of the government; they have changed with the times, acclimating themselves to the transformations the aviation industry goes through. This is a true statement, for the most part. However, there are changes, e.g. NOTICE 8900.463, that are adopted whose long-term effects may not reflect the original intent.
At first glance, National Policy letter, NOTICE 8900.463, is tame by policy standards; it’s innocuous, yet an example of the FAA’s empathy for the upcoming pilot shortage. The purpose of NOTICE 8900.463 is to provide financial relief from using a complex airplane for qualifying a pilot for a commercial pilot certificate. The monetary burden on both the pilot and/or a flight instructor to provide a complex airplane is felt due to complex airplane availability and the cost to maintain such an airplane. It is in the Notice’s vagueness that the problem lies; that, and in both the future abuse of such a policy, and the lack of pursuit of alternative means to prevent such abuses.
NOTICE 8900.463 was made effective on April 24, 2018. The purpose of the NOTICE: “Specifically, it outlines the policy which no longer requires applicants for a commercial pilot certificate with an airplane single-engine rating to provide a complex or turbine-powered airplane for the associated practical test and no longer requires applicants for a flight instructor certificate with an airplane single-engine rating to provide a complex airplane for the practical test.” The FAA assures the reader of NOTICE 8900.463 that, “… the FAA finds that no longer requiring an applicant to provide a complex airplane … will not result in a decreased level of safety.” It is hard to avoid cynicism with this statement, especially when one can derive little comfort from these words as the ground is racing up to meet you.
What is a complex airplane? Per Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Part 61.1 – in short – an airplane that has, e.g. retractable landing gear, flaps, a controllable pitch propeller and is equipped with a digital computer and associated accessories for controlling the engine and the propeller. One of the requirements for a commercial pilot certificate, per 14 CFR 61.125 (b) (5), is the “Safe and efficient operation of aircraft,” specifically complex aircraft, in addition to flight proficiency.
To the non-aviator, this caveat has little to no meaning; aside from the obvious differences of two aircraft, e g. a helicopter and a fixed wing aircraft, the dissimilarities between a complex aircraft and a non-complex aircraft may not seem important. After all, don’t all fixed wing aircraft have landing gear? Don’t most, if not all fixed wing aircraft employ flaps as secondary flight controls? It is in the operation of these systems that the true distinction lies. A Cessna 150 with non-retractable landing gear has a close resemblance to a Cessna 210 with retractable landing gear: both have a high wing, single propeller, etc. Yet there are distinct differences that set them apart, e.g. the 210 has six seats to the 150’s two. More importantly, because of the 210’s retractable landing gear, it qualifies as a complex aircraft.
The reasons for using a complex aircraft for commercial pilot certification is, not just in the pilot’s familiarity with the aircraft model, but in his or her familiarity with the aircraft’s equipment and systems, of which retractable landing gear is one. Retractable gear becomes an issue during take-off and landing cycles; the gear represents an attention to tasks that must be part of the approach and departure, monitored and, if necessary, compensated for in an emergency. What if the gear doesn’t extend? What if two-gear extend, but one stays in the well? Why is this important? Because it is a required knowledge for a commercial pilot certificate, for a complex airplane.
What is a commercial pilot certificate? The requirements are spelled out in 14 CFR 61.121, 61.123, 61.125, 61.127, 61.129, 61.131, and 61.133. In short, it certifies the holder of the commercial certificate, that they can be – as per 14 CFR 61.133 (a) – a pilot in command for carrying persons and/or property for compensation or hire. A commercial pilot can be paid for their flying skills … as a pilot.
It is more than just retractable landing gear that identifies a complex airplane; flaps must be also monitored and, if necessary, compensated for during approach and departure. What if the flap system fails? How does a pilot determine a flaps-up landing speed or control an asymmetry problem? With turbine engines, can a six-cylinder combustion engine be used to simulate a turbine engine-out scenario? How about analog technology; can it accurately mimic digital technology?
NOTICE 8900.463, like other policy changes, presents great concern; its danger is not in its details, but in its ambiguity. Last week we spoke about Colgan 3407, the concerns with the pilots’ training. NOTICE 8900.463 speaks to substituting inferior equipment for commercial certification. If the intent is to save money by substituting one airplane for another, where does it end? Who decides whether the qualifying training that might have saved Colgan 3407 can be substituted for?
Who decides what non-complex aircraft can be substituted for a complex aircraft? Is it the operator’s call? Does the FAA aviation safety inspector (ASI) get an opinion, or does NOTICE 8900.463 prevent them from acting on the side of safety? What data is used to support using one model of non-complex aircraft in place of a complex aircraft? The ambiguity of NOTICE 8900.463 puts everyone at risk: the operator, the pilot, the FAA, but, most importantly, the passengers being carried and those who happen to be having lunch on the yet-to-be-determined accident site.
The abuses to this NOTICE are unlimited. Since the FAA ties its ASI’s hands with NOTICE 8900.643, the operator is free to exploit the advantages. The inability of the FAA to control this aspect of a commercial pilot certification means the operator can pursue, with little to no restriction, what’s best in terms of saving money, time or the building of a pilot’s flight hours.
Let’s look at how an airline can abuse a NOTICE similar to this. When an airline conducts qualifying flights for Extended Twin-engine Operations (ETOPS) over water, the airline must prove that the aircraft can perform in real life scenarios in real time and that the airline’s procedures must compensate for such unexpected issues; the FAA gives them scenarios that give the airline opportunities to prove their ETOPS program works, e.g. an engine-out scenario. In order to save time and money, the FAA might approve – through a Notice – the airline to perform the engine-out scenario … using a flight simulator, as opposed to an actual aircraft. Don’t be fooled, this scenario doesn’t exist now, but it is coming where simulators will substitute for actual qualifying flights. Flight simulator time is already counted as actual flight time, as it should be for pilot training in unique scenarios that cannot be duplicated safely, e.g. wind shear (Delta 191) or complete hydraulic system failure (United 232). How long before the change is made where the focus is to save money instead of lives?
For NOTICE 8900.463, the frustrating fact is that there are alternate ways for approving the use of non-complex aircraft in place of complex aircraft: apply for exemptions. This would guarantee that the FAA ASI remains an important part of the decision-making process of non-complex versus complex. The FAA ASI is not so rigid as to ignore the logic of a good argument, especially when supported by tangible data showing the substitute aircraft will work. In the same respect, the FAA ASI can prevent any abuse of NOTICE 8900.463 by its inclusion in the decisions to use non-complex versus complex.
When the FAA makes decisions based on financial or empathetic reasons – as opposed to fact-based – it is time to worry. A Notice is meant to, in cases like this, give certain parts of the aviation industry relief from the rigidity of the Regulations. The CFRs are hard to change for very good reasons; they often take a minimum of three years and three million dollars per rule change (not accounting for inflation). If the regulations were easily rewritable then inexperienced and/or self-serving individuals would be making safety-sensitive decisions based on compassion, not fact; financial reason, not fact.
The few changes made in the wake of Colgan 3407 were made in compassion, not fact. These empathetic changes resulted in ineffectual adjustments and short-term benefits. Furthermore, making decisions based on compassion puts the aviation industry – all the aviation industry – into chaos. Compassion has no place in safety; financial relief has no place in safety.
FAA Notices and other FAA policy letters, e.g. NOTICE 8900.463, certainly are the pebbles that begin an avalanche. The consequences are undetectable at first, but the repercussions are long-term, growing and widening their effect, like the ripples in a pond. Metaphors aside, this type of spontaneous regulating will prove questionable, leading to disastrous, in the future. The aviation industry demands definitive regulation, not ambiguous placation.