Thou Shalt Not

Copyright 2002. Aviation Safety. Belvoir Publications Inc. Access to this Aviation Safety article is free. However, reprinting, republishing or reposting in whole or in part without express written permission is prohibited.

The most-violated FARs are sometimes true safety problems, sometimes merely legal ones

Sometimes you look at an FAR and have to scratch your head. What, you ask yourself, can that possibly have to do with flight safety? The various rules, placards and limitations seem to be written more for the FAA's lawyers than for pilots and their passengers.

Sadly, many of the notes, warnings and cautions in aircraft manuals and some of the FARs are written in blood. But violation of an FAR doesn't automatically mean that the flight was unsafe. It all seems so confusing.

When I was a private pilot, a lot of the rules seemed difficult to understand. It took an instrument rating before I understood control zones. It took a flight engineer certificate and a graduate school education in engineering to understand the Minimum Equipment List.

The reasoning behind some of the rules is based on safety, but that's not immediately apparent at face value. It's too bad that some of the logic behind the rules isn't more obvious.

Complicating the need to understand the regs is the legalese involved. You and I – and probably most FAA inspectors – would prefer to have the FARs written in plain and simple English. However, we are dealing with legal administrative rules that have potentially severe legal penalties when violated. As such, there is a legal process wherein a rule is proposed and adopted.

Before I was an FAA Examiner, I thought the FAA was able to independently establish its own rules. While some may believe that a sinister streak runs through the FAA rulemakers, there actually is a legal process that the bureaucrats must painstakingly step through before a proposed rule becomes a regulation. Through that process, a simple concept such as, "The pilot should take off with enough fuel to reach the intended destination" goes through numerous administrative and legal reviews within the agency.

It also goes through the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking Process for a public comment period. Various interest groups express their views on the issue. Others will review criteria for enforceability. Unfortunately, the end result is something written for lawyers that sometimes defies explanation to mere mortals.

The FARs can't cover everything, nor would most pilots want them to. The question remains, when is violation of the rules unsafe, and when is it merely a violation?

We reviewed data from NASA's Aviation Safety Reporting System and noted some trends in the reports submitted by general aviation pilots. Clearly each pilot had submitted the report to immunize themselves from a violation of an FAR, which gives some insight into the most frequently violated rules. Incidentally, I carry several NASA ASRS forms in my flight bag and also belong to an aviation legal services plan as insurance to help protect my certificate just for the peace of mind.

Busting VFR Weather Minimums
There were a surprising number of pilot submittals to the ASRS regarding violations of basic VFR weather minimums. Sometimes the submitters simply found themselves getting trapped by lower weather. Almost all of the pilots in this group did not have an instrument rating. Lowering ceilings and visibility definitely left these pilots without a way out.

There were quite a few cases of pilots inadvertently operating in Class E airspace when the weather dropped below VFR minimums. In most of these cases, the weather was marginal VFR and hovering close to the VFR minimums. These pilots failed to get a weather briefing to see if the weather was reported above minimums, they just assumed the weather was OK for VFR flying.

Most of these reports seemed motivated because another aircraft had reported the incident to the FAA, so clearly the perpetrators did interfere with another aircraft's operations.

There were several submissions from pilots who were on an instrument approach and broke out of the low overcast only to find a small aircraft operating at the base of the clouds. There were more than a few times in Alaska when I had climbed in IMC and Anchorage Center was calling out VFR traffic at our altitude and less than a quarter-mile away – even though we were solidly in the soup.

I can remember hearing the controller's voice rise an octave as we tried to outclimb the intruder. Unfortunately in a heavily loaded Shorts 3-30 that isn't possible. As we punched out on top of the solid overcast, a Piper Navajo simultaneously punched out of the cloud deck and then contacted center for "VFR flight following."

Sure Alaska is big, but we were on an airway – and we were among several aircraft that had waited on the ground for a clearance. This pilot chose to flagrantly fly into IMC without a clearance and it nearly caused a mid-air in the clouds. That pissed me off. Where is a fed when you need one?

There really is logic to those rules about clearances from clouds when you're VFR, but it isn't being communicated very well. When I was a private pilot without an instrument rating, they didn't make much sense. Twenty years later they make more sense. Instead of memorizing those cloud clearances, our aviation educators need to find a better way to piece this information together so that it makes more sense.

Inadequate Fuel Reserves
Most pilots, at some points in their careers, have landed with very little fuel in the tanks. For me, one was a four-hour flight in which the aircraft didn't perform according to the book. On the other I had fallen into that trap of, "I've got enough to go a bit farther."

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There certainly have been a huge number of accidents in which the airplane experienced fuel exhaustion, which of course violates the FARs. When I read through the accident reports of fuel exhaustion, I am left wondering how many of the cases were due to the aircraft not performing to the aircraft's manual, or to pilots forgetting to properly lean the engine. It's easy to get distracted with radio calls to ATC and watching for traffic in busy terminal areas and forgetting to lean the fuel flow.

How many pilots have landed without a 30-minute fuel reserve in the tanks? If you happen to dip into the reserves due to an unanticipated delay, then the fuel reserve fulfilled its original intent. Thirty minutes of fuel is nothing if you've returned to your home airport and found that someone has landed gear up, or maybe lost control during the landing roll out, struck a landing light and ground looped on the runway. In these cases, the runway can be closed for the better part of a day.

If you had planned your flight to terminate at that airport and arrived there with 30 minutes of fuel, you can see how your options can be narrowed very quickly. If you're lucky, there is a nearby airport with good weather where you can land. However, there are vast spaces in the West where the nearest airport is more than 30 minutes away and you wouldn't have the fuel to reach another airport.

Quite frankly, the flight-planning requirements of IFR flying make more sense when it comes to calculating fuel burn. The operations specifications for my present employer require us to look at taxi delays, ATC delays enroute, holding fuel, fuel for an approach into the destination, a missed approach, diversion to the alternate with a full approach there, then a 45-minute cushion on top of that.

This may seem extraordinarily conservative, and flying extra fuel around in an airliner is expensive, but so far it has worked very well. I have yet to have my decision making rushed under the pressure of dwindling fuel.

At the very minimum, you should plan every VFR flight with the assumption that your fuel consumption will be 15 percent higher than the book, your true airspeed will be 10 knots slower than the book, you will be assigned at least 15 minutes of holding at your original destination, and you will have to divert to an acceptable alternate. You will need 30 to 45 minutes of reserve on top of this.

That may seem a bit excessive, but it is erring on the side that will give you the most options for the day when Murphy's Laws seems to conspire against you. Remember, you can never have too much air below you, too much runway in front of you, nor too much fuel in the tanks.

No Current Medical
The rules require you to carry your medical and pilot certificates on your person while flying. So maybe you forgot your wallet or took your license out at your last physical and forgot to place it back. On the other hand, maybe you're one of the people flying without a medical or with known medical deficiencies.

One of the more blatant cases of flying with a known medical deficiency occurred at a commuter airline several years ago. The vice president of flight operations, a retired Marine Corps colonel, had withheld vital information from his FAA physical concerning some rather serious health problems.

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As you can imagine, a retired colonel from the Marine Corps was definitely opinionated and intimidated his subordinates. During one flight he suffered some subtle incapacitation due to the medical problem. The copilot was so intimidated by the retired colonel he refused to take control of the aircraft as it descended at an extraordinary rate on a non-precision approach.

While doing a very large study of commercial EMS helicopter accidents, I examined every accident in which the pilot was flying with a known medical deficiency or without a valid medical certificate. I was very surprised at the number. Many of these involved a pilot whose medical certificate was revoked but they continued to fly.

Will inadvertently forgetting your medical certificate cause the aircraft to crash? Not likely. Having a valid medical with you is a legal requirement, but not much of a safety issue. Being fit to fly is another matter, which brings us to another topic.

Self-Medication
Since the early portion of my flying career was under the military system, I was well-indoctrinated by the flight surgeons that an occasional aspirin was the only medication that was "semi-OK" with them. Otherwise, they have grave concerns about pilots taking anything else while flying.

The side effects from medicines, including over-the-counter medicines, can drastically affect your sensory, perceptual, cognitive or psycho-motor functions. The second reason to avoid drugs while flying is that, given individual variations in body chemistry, a drug can have different effects on different individuals. Third, interactions with other drugs can be very serious.

It's no secret that many aviators use one physician for "real" medical problems and another for their medical certificates. I was told to do that by senior military officers before completing initial paperwork for indoctrination into the service.

In general aviation, the day-to-day decision regarding our fitness to fly remains with the individual pilot. However, with that freedom comes the responsibility to act sensibly, and flying while under the influence of a medical substance is playing with fire.

That means the use of herbal and homeopathic remedies also must be considered. Some herbal remedies can have very strong effects on the body. If in doubt, seek an informed expert opinion regarding the proper use, effects and side-effects of these substances.

Airspace Violations
When I flew in the LA Basin for several years, I would take off from a very busy controlled airport and I was forced to fly a rather constrained flight path because a TCA (Class B) was above and adjacent to the practice area. On the other side of the rather small practice area was an ARSA (Class C).

When flying home from central California, it would take multitudes of frequency changes with air traffic controllers to get back to the home airport. To this day, when I fly into the LA Basin, I do it on an IFR flight plan. I'm already "in the system" rather than sitting outside Class C airspace waiting to trigger the microphone the nanosecond someone else finishes talking.

In addition, you don't have to make certain the controller cleared you into Class B airspace when flying on an IFR flight plan. I can remember taking many minutes to finally break into the congested radio traffic only to be instructed to remain clear of the Class C airspace, or being instructed to fly a downwind and tower "would call my base." More than once that downwind not only extended outside of that tower's airspace, it nearly flew into the airport traffic area of another airport.

We reviewed 74 reports of erroneous penetration of airspace, all by operating as the only pilot aboard. The workload for the pilot, especially when flying in the single pilot configuration, increases substantially when navigating around complex airspace and attempting to obtain clearances for operating within adjacent sectors of Class B, C and D airspace.

Fifty of the reports indicated that their destination was immediately adjacent to or underneath complex airspace. Thirty-two reports indicated the pilot was flying to an airport that was underneath or immediately adjacent to Class B airspace. Twenty-nine reports indicated the pilot was attempting to skirt around the Class B airspace at the time of the airspace incursion.

Twenty of the reports indicated problems getting a clearance to penetrate the airspace. Fourteen pilots reported entering control zones without an ATC clearance when the weather was below that allowed for VFR operations. In each of these cases, the pilots didn't realize the weather had gone below VFR weather minimums in the control zone. Eleven of the reports indicated that the pilot attempted to contact ATC on the wrong radio frequency, further adding to the workload due to the confusion and distraction.

Seven EMS pilots inadvertently entered Temporary Flight Restriction areas, usually in place for the visit of the President of the United States, which the pilots were not aware of.

The navigational requirements to avoid the boundaries of complex airspace added to the erroneous penetration of airspace. Eighteen of the pilots reported being unfamiliar with the airspace boundaries, while sixteen reported a loss of positional awareness due to the high workload.

Fourteen pilots reported confusion caused by the navigational equipment and the location of data points that conflicted with other information. Several reports mentioned that sectionals did not contain key landmarks to help them maintain positional awareness, especially around complex airspace. Others cited nighttime conditions and a profusion of lights leading to confusion while attempting to navigate around complex airspace.

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Operating near complex airspace means having the proper charts organized with the proper communication frequencies immediately available. It means being as familiar as possible with the charts and landmarks. Sometimes you may be given a clearance to hold outside of the controlled airspace at an intersection. If you're not instrument-rated or don't have the instrument charts in the aircraft, you'll be hard-pressed to know where that intersection is.

Clearly this is another situation where an instrument rating helps, because it aids your ability to work within the ATC system. Realize that navigating at night can be more difficult, increasing your reliance on the navigational aids (and hence another good reason to get that instrument rating). Often controllers use local landmarks in their instructions. This can confuse transient pilots who are unfamiliar with such local features. When in doubt, ask.

Disobeying an ATC Clearance
Failure to follow an ATC clearance is another area in which breaking the rules can eat into the safety margin. Many of the reported instances deal with communications problems. Congested radio frequencies were all too common.

Failure to understand the ATC clearance was mentioned in many reports. The common thread in these reports seemed to be that the pilots weren't comfortable communicating with ATC and didn't seem to communicate on a frequent basis with ATC facilities.

Most of the reported incidents occurred in busy terminal airspace, so the circumstances probably conspired to inhibit the pilot from asking for a clarification. I know in some conditions it's simply impossible to break into the string of radio traffic to get a clarification.

By the way, the consequences of disobeying an ATC clearance varied in the self-reports, though usually it led to a stiff rebuke from ATC and in many cases, a near mid-air collision. At the least, I hate it when ATC's attention is diverted from the smooth flow of traffic to spend more time communicating solely with another aircraft. It means the controller's attention is diverted and that critical monitoring of other aircraft is lessened.

As congested as certain pieces of the sky are getting, it behooves every pilot to be proficient in their communications with ATC and to operate smoothly and safely within the system.

Approach Minimums
Years ago I overheard a young CFII teaching "zero zero" landings. The young CFI had no practical IMC experience, but was trying to get some extra flying students at a local aviation college program by "preparing them for the airline world."

Low visibility approaches are taken so seriously by the airlines that special procedures and training are required, in addition to certain minimum experiences in the aircraft and crew, before they can execute a Cat II or Cat III approach. Furthermore, the aircraft must be specially equipped and certified before conducting such approaches.

Part 91 pilots are allowed to shoot an approach regardless of the ground visibility. That is, they can go to minimums and take a peek. Operators under Part 135 and Part 121 aren't allowed to shoot an approach unless the visibility is reported above minimums, and this is a black and white rule.

Before executing an approach, air carrier pilots will check the latest weather observation to make certain the approach is above minimums. If they proceed to execute an approach from the initial approach fix when it was below minimums, they'll quite certainly be violated.

There are a lot of reasons why executing approaches below minimums is a dumb idea. Not all ILS signals have the same signal strength. Some glide slope signals suffer from distortion as they near the ground. Some glide slope signals are barely within specifications at decision height and are unreliable from decision height to the ground. Glide slope signals also can be distorted by heavy snow.

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Below minimums, there is no guarantee that the navigational signal is reliable. If your heading isn't within a degree or two of the runway, and if you're lucky enough to actually touch down on the centerline, it won't take long before you are off the runway. Your altimeter can legally have enough error so that you're 75 feet closer to the ground than you think.

The circumstances behind busting minimums varied. In the scariest circumstances, pilots had run low on fuel and didn't have the fuel to divert anywhere else. Gee, talk about being trapped with no way out.

In an emergency, you may be forced with making such an unpalatable approach, but an approach minimum is there for a reason.

Minimum Safe Altitudes
The intent of the rule on minimum safe altitudes is easy enough to comprehend. You ought to be high enough so that you can safely glide to a suitable place for an emergency landing in the case of an engine failure or, if in IMC, that you won't hit anything if you're reasonably close to your intended course. That makes good sense. I suppose the FARs became mired in minutia over the years when pilots tried to push the limits while protecting their licenses after an incident in which the FAA said they were too low. Now there's not much doubt how low is too low. The FARs prescribe the allowable minimum distance from the ground, man-made structures and persons in just about any situation you can imagine.

There's a picture posted in one of the FSDOs with a Seneca buzzing a runway, and the propellers are inches from the concrete. It's very eye-opening.

In most of the self-reported cases of being too low, the pilots were covering their butts after someone confronted them and threatened to report them to the FAA. When you read some of the narratives, you can't help but read between the lines and cynically think, "Oh sure, you just happened to be flying at mach speed at 10 feet off the deck by accident!"

Flight Reviews
My doctoral research concentrated on various aspects of airline pilot performance in advanced "glass" cockpits. Among the many variables I measured were the pilot's stick and rudder inputs, procedural accomplishment, and the aircraft's pitch, bank, altitude, heading, glide path and localizer deviations. Captains of Part 121 aircraft are required to undergo a proficiency check every six months, though the new Advanced Qualifications Program allows captains to undergo a proficiency check once a year.

During normal flight operations, the differences were comparatively small. Abnormal operations began to show some differences between the samples, but the differences grew noticeably larger during simulated emergencies. Pilots who had attended a proficiency check and recurrent training in the last six months performed noticeably better in the simulated emergencies than those who attended training once per year. Again, these differences were most noticeable during simulated emergencies.

Recurrent training is meant to be a refresher of the normal, abnormal and emergency procedures, and to make certain that the aircrew member is performing to standards. With airline pilots who fly 500 hours in a six-month period, stick and rudder proficiency isn't usually an issue on normal procedures and maneuvers.

However, the reliability of modern aircraft is such that malfunctions and emergencies are rare events these days, and hence airline pilots may go an entire career without encountering a real engine failure. Despite flying so many hours in the same aircraft, airline pilots are still required to undergo this scrutiny.

At most companies, the pilot is given a day or two of "warm up" in which the emergency procedures are reviewed and practiced before the formal check ride. Clearly some maneuvers are more difficult than others, and during the conduct of my study, the engine inoperative procedures clearly showed the biggest differences between the samples.

Recurrent training is a fact of life for every airline pilot, as are periodic checkrides on the line. In general aviation, where the average pilot flies far fewer hours than the average airline pilot, the FARs require flight reviews every 24 months. I don't know how many pilots are flying without a current flight review, but the research would indicate that such pilots would be at a serious disadvantage in case of emergency, even if they fly nearly every day.

Flight reviews should be seen as an opportunity to brush up on maneuvers, to "knock the rust" off some flight skills, perhaps find some weaknesses or bad habits that have gone unnoticed, and to bring piloting skills up to speed. This is one FAR with excellent accident prevention potential.

Do-It-Yourself Repairs
Just about any aircraft owner will agree that the cost of replacement parts is aggravating. As an engineer, I know the cost of the materials is usually quite small. Come on, just how expensive can a piece of sheet metal be?

Apparently many owners feel the same way. We're not here to justify the cost of replacement parts, but the creative fix-it jobs some owners employ can leave you questioning the real airworthiness of the aircraft. The type certificate requires that the airplane's design not only takes into account the mechanical stresses on the part, but also how the material will fatigue, corrode and wear.

For example, substituting a bolt may seem harmless, but you could be setting the stage for component failure. Whenever parts of dissimilar materials are placed in contact with each other, each material has a certain affinity for electrons. This can create a galvanic reaction, which is one of the major causes of corrosion.

The shape of a load-bearing component can be critical. As an example, I sometimes ask people if they believe that a few ounces of low grade aluminum can support my 230 plus pounds. No one can imagine this, but if I step very slowly on a soda can, it holds my weight. However, the very slightest deformity in the side causes the can to instantly collapse.

This is why I get concerned about slight dents in load-bearing structures, and reasons why home repairs should be viewed with some skepticism. Major repairs ought to be performed by a certified airframe mechanic, who will perform the repair according to approved methods. Lasers are now being used to double check dimensions on some components.

If your aircraft does not conform to the type certificate, it isn't legally airworthy according to the FAA. But more than that, you really don't know if the part that doesn't conform will properly work without future complication.

It may be aggravating, but every part of an aircraft should undergo a thorough analysis, not only for the ability to handle mechanical stresses, but also for the possible failure modes, effects and criticality. Before a part is repaired or replaced, it really needs to follow the established repair procedures.

If the clock on your aircraft is inoperative, you probably have little fear of crashing because of it. The FAA does give you the leeway under Part 91 rules to conduct flight operations with inoperative instruments and equipment under certain conditions. The inoperative instruments and equipment cannot be those required for day VFR, nor indicated as required on the aircraft's equipment list, required for the kind of flight operation planned, nor required by an AD.

For instruments and equipment that don't fall within these categories, you as a pilot can make a determination that the inoperative instrument or equipment does not constitute a hazard. You can deactivate and placard the instrument as "inoperative," though if deactivation involves a maintenance operation, it will require a certified mechanic.

On balance, many of the FARs do have safety as the underlying reasoning, even though it may not seem like it at first glance. Mandating, legislating and enforcing safety is not easy, and some rules get excessively complicated. Only examining the underlying goals of the rules can help sort out whether a violation is a safety hazard or a legal one.

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Also With This Article
"The Current Chart Conundrum"
"Get Out of Jail Free"

-by Pat Veillette

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