The Despicable FAA

Much has been recently articulated regarding the incompetence of the FAA, but not much regarding its nefariousness.

With regard to the level of abuse delivered by our innumerable federal agencies, the FAA has no reason to feel inferior.

I believe a personal experience I had with the FAA illustrates this well.

About ten years ago, I decided to combine two of my favorite passions, aviation and photography, into a money-making venture. I decided to take photos of homes, focussing on areas with a high concentration of half-million-dollar-plus homes in order to minimize flight time.

I chose a medium format camera to maximize clarity, and deciding on the Pentax 6 x 7 over a Hasselblad or Mamiya was easy – it was much easier to handle (its shape is similar to a typical 35 mm SLR), its 400 mm lens had the lowest f-stop (f4 vs. f5.6), it had the fastest speed (1/1000 vs. 1/400 sec.), it produced the largest image size (6 x 7 cm.), and it even costs less (far less than the Hasselblad).

I flew a Cessna 172 because I wanted a high wing, which would allow me to photograph ground-based objects without wing obstruction. It took a little while to work through a procedure, and get used to the ten-pound camera body and lens, but I soon found a methodology that seemed to work well.

Once at the site, and at 1000 feet AGL (Above Ground Level – this elevation is the minimum over a populous area), I would trim the plane for level flight at a thirty degree banking right turn. Once this was accomplished, my hands would be free to take photos.

I was easily able to reach the passenger window to open it, and the air stream was such that once opened, the window would remain forced against the starboard wing.

I would make occasional adjustments in flight attitude to get my subject lined up with the open window, or to avoid other planes (of which there were usually none) – my circling pattern was also perfect for minding other planes.

Since I was the pilot, the photographer, and the developer, my first survey produced a profit.

One afternoon I decided to take a long lunch and get some shots in at The Woodlands, a suburb north of Houston. I was able to get to the airport, fly from Clear Lake to The Woodlands (about fifty miles away), shoot four rolls of film, return, and get back to my desk in two hours.

I was very pleased with myself.

But only minutes after returning to my desk, I received a phone call. It was an FAA investigator.

The bemused voice said, "Hey, I heard you were flying at two-hundred feet over The Woodlands!" I'm sure the patent absurdity of the complaint was intended to put me at ease – it did. I laughed, and said, "Yeah, I must have been clipping the branches out there!" I told him what I was doing, and we continued a friendly conversation. I assured him I was at least 1000 feet AGL, and then assumed the issue was over.

Well, a few weeks later I received another phone call from the FAA – apparently, someone took a video of my plane as it was circling. I could just imagine the suburbanite, who obviously didn't have enough to do: "Martha, just what's that whippersnapper doin'?"

I told the investigator that, of course, a home video cannot prove anything because videocams zoom, that is, they have variable magnification. With no knowledge, record, or proof of the magnification, there's no way to ascertain elevation.

I also told him that since I was using a telephoto lens with fixed magnification, the scores of photos I had taken, in combination with a little high school trigonometry, would prove that I was flying at no less than 1000 feet.

He informed me that he would arrange a meeting at the Hobby Airport office – no big deal, just an informal get-together. He asked if I had an attorney. I told him I didn't, but that I would get one.

To my extreme good fortune, when I renewed my Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) dues only a few weeks before, I decided, for the first time, to opt for the legal representation option.

I called AOPA, and they assigned a local attorney that specializes in this type of representation. In addition to being an attorney from a top law school, he was also an Airline Transport Pilot (ATP – the highest commercial aviation rating).

What I didn't know at the time is that in addition to being an attorney and an ATP, he was an ordained minister of a church organization with which I had long been familiar. I didn't discover his other vocation until I ran into him at a church function months after the legal matter had been "resolved."

I had always admired this particular organization; but what is interesting in this context is that this group is particularly pacifist, passive, and respectful of Caesar's law.

In light of my attorney's unimpeachable integrity and qualifications, I found what he told me particularly interesting.

He had always told his clients to be up-front and fully cooperate with the FAA as an act of "good faith." But, he told me, it had become quite obvious that the FAA now maintained an adversarial relationship with general aviation.

He was still involved with a case which I believe changed the way he thought of the FAA for good.

He was representing a man who was both a pilot and flight mechanic. Initially, the FAA was cordial, and asked if they could see his records. My attorney advised him that if he had nothing to hide, to do so. His client complied. As time went on, the FAA agents' attitudes became increasingly adversarial, the FBI was brought in to question him, followed by threats to seize his property, after which they shut down his shop.

I could see the sorrow and helplessness in his eyes as he recounted the bizarre and nightmarish details.

And here's the corker: they never told the poor gent why they were investigating him.

I think most folks never really believe that a government agency would blatantly do illegal or tyrannical things to ruin an innocent person's life – until it happens to them. The vast balance of law-abiding citizens assume that where there's smoke, there's fire.

Nevertheless, this story put the fear of God in me.

My attorney informed me that every pilot has a once-in-a-lifetime "pass" for dealing with the FAA. Under certain circumstances, if the FAA accuses a pilot of wrongdoing, he can take the pass – a "Get out of Jail Free" card, if you will – and the FAA will absolve the pilot of his sins. I thought this rather odd, but I wasn't going to look a gift horse in the mouth.

My attorney advised me not to go this route, since I had done nothing wrong, but it was nice to know I had the option as a last resort.

So, the time of the meeting came, and it was indeed informal, and I presented my evidence.

They were not at all interested. It wasn't that they were unimpressed with the evidence, they simply didn't examine it.

I was beginning to "get it" – no matter what evidence I presented to them, they intended to press charges.

It didn't matter that I had done nothing wrong. It didn't even matter that they knew I had done nothing wrong.

The message was loud and clear – if we get any more calls we'll take away your license.

I had a certain amount of time to make a decision, and claim the pass. My disappointed attorney advised me to take it, and from what I witnessed at the meeting that was the smartest thing to do. If I went to court, and lost, it could very likely mean permanently losing my license. I wasn't willing to risk that – especially since I didn't know to what kind of kangaroo court I would be exposed.

So, that ended that little business venture.

Not long afterward I was able to witness the more dim-witted aspects of the FAA and its parent organization, the Department of Transportation (DOT). I don't remember the catalyst, but due to "concerns" about airspace control, a "blue ribbon" panel was authorized under then-DOT Secretary Liddy Dole.

One of the things that they "discovered" was that over-worked flight controllers were a factor in flight accidents.

So what did these geniuses do? They dramatically increased the volume of controlled airspace! What a perfect analogue to Imperial Overstretch.

Aside from the disreputable and daft aspects of the FAA, they are like any other government agency – they have to bend to inane political pressures that all but prohibit them from doing what's in the best interest of those whom they ostensibly serve.

A competent private security agency hired to protect its clients is a lot less likely to allow the multicultural zeitgeist (re: profiling) or the anti-gun lobby (re: pilots carrying guns) to cloud their judgment – they will simply do what it takes to get the job done (or be fired), and of course, they'll do it far more cheaply.

Federalizing all airport security is not the solution, and I can't think of a better candidate for privatization than the FAA.

October 18, 2001