Babbitt's "Call to a Sound Bite"

Recently the FAA and some of the "Major" airlines (in quotes because many of the majors are hardly major anymore) decided, in the wake of last winter's ConEx crash outside of Buffalo, they were going to take steps to improve "safety." On the cutting edge of this contrail to nowhere is the new FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt.

The administrator and the Sec. of Transportation held a "Call to Action" which would be more properly titled a "Call to a cheap news sound-bite" because in the long run that is all it will end up being. Of course the prime whipping boy for these federal blow-hards and their boot-licking ineffectual suck-ups is going to be those dangerous, under trained and inexperienced Regional Airline Pilots. You know, the same Regional Airline Pilots who do more takeoffs and landings in a week than their "senior pilot" counter-parts at the major airlines do in a month.

I have nothing personal against Administrator Babbitt, but since part of his "Call to Action" involves records- let us look at part of his for a moment. Keep in mind here that we're talking about the same Randy Babbitt who, when he headed the Airline Pilots Association (ALPA), stood firmly at the controls as ALPA treated the Regional Pilots like bastard step children. I know, I there working for a regional airline at the time, wearing gold double ALPA wings on my uniform tie as ALPA National allowed our MEC to sell us out and we lost all 16 strike issues with the stroke of a pen. You see, at the time ALPA was far too busy organizing FedEx pilots to pay much attention to our little pilot group. So, of course, now he's well qualified to look into regional pilots and their work environment- isn't he?

As for the FAA itself, well they are mostly a good group of hard working honest individuals, however they, like any other big organization, have their share of clinkers- who sometimes get assigned authority beyond the power of the mush between their ears. For example, at my last regional airline our FAA POI (Primary Operations Inspector) was such a dolt that he could not even pass a type ride for the primary aircraft that we flew! That's right folks, he was watching over our entire operation, but could not pass the FAA's own flight check on the aircraft that we flew. Now- some of you may want to quip "...well there's really no reason for any POI to typed in the aircraft he oversees- there are so many other operational aspects he needs to be proficient in..." This idiot's lack of understanding of our aircraft was highlighted the day that he passed down a "revised" checklist to be effective immediately. The entire checklist was ass backward, the flows were broken and random and in one case, during the pre-start, you had to activate systems, then shut them down, then start and re-activate the same system. The best part was that the clown issued the change on a Friday morning and the left his office for the weekend! This nightmare would have continued if not for the happenstance of his boss asking for the jump seat on my flight in order to get to Oshkosh. Of course no sooner did he stick his head through the door than the captain and I showed him his employee's new handy work. He was cool and asked us to demonstrate the flows. We ran through that single flow and he'd seen enough. "Okay you guys, get out your old checklists and I'll take care of this" he said. He told us that on his authority we were to immediately abandon the new checklist and go back to our old one.When we got to Appleton he went inside, called our operations and universally negated the recent amendment to our checklists. That folks is the same FAA that Administrator Babbitt "called to action" in targeting regional airlines

Yet let us go farther in our examination of this new "call to action" mentality. One of the things it will focus on will be "Testing." Oh boy- there's an FAA snakepit for the administrator to leap in to. I'd like to see him start with the very foundation of FAA testing, the FAA writtens. You know those nice little tests where the only thing really sampled is one's ability to memorize and then select an answer from the four choices offered. Multiple choice testing- in educational science it is considered one of the worst forms that can be used to sample actual learning. Yet is one of the easiest and least time consuming to score and grade and aviation is addicted to it. If you want to see a normally cool and calm professional pilot go into a panic attack- tell 'em that tomorrow they're going to have a written test on procedures, systems and aerodynamic fundamentals- and the answers must be in essay form!

Now, what about the material in those multiple guess tests- does it largely reflect actual science and the latest in aeronautical knowledge? No- in fact often the content dates back to methods and commonly held myths that date back to World War II. The best example being- "lift." Wanna learn a few dozen myths about lift and how it is produced? Simple- study for any FAA written test. Hell, I was an airline captain with a BS Degree in Aeronautical Science when I strayed into a NASA Glenn web site on Flat Plate lift and discovered, to my personal shock, that almost everything I had learned about liftand how it is generated , and I personally had taught people when I was a CFI, was a myth! Yet, if you go into an FAA written test and provide the answers that current NASA science shows to be correct, you will FAIL in the area of aerodynamics. Administrator Babbitt would do well to take a hard look at the foundation of his own glass house before calling folks to action. The FAA is largely populated by people doing their very best yet often chained to some who are not. Likewise, some of its tools are very rusty.

There are areas where regional airlines can be improved. In the area of pilot ground training for example, there are deficiencies, yet since the FAA does not conduct that training and it is left to the airlines or their training contractors the stupidity is normally kept to a minimum. Still there are issues and to help illustrate I'll give one big example that involves the greatest myth in weather flying and my pet peeve- "Ice Bridging." In every single aeronautics ground school that I have taken, where the subject of airframe icing was come up, the huge and potentially deadly hazard of Ice Bridging, where the ice is said to be forming so quickly that when the deicing boots inflate, the ice forms over the inflated boot and thus can no longer be shed, was stressed. There's just one problem... Ice Bridging DOESN'T EXIST! The subject came to a head in the mid 1990s when an ATR-42 iced up and made a crater in a bean field taking everyone aboard with it. Not that "bridging" was a root cause- more that the subject just got more focus due to that accident. Thus, the FAA, NTSB and NASA as well as aircraft manufacturers started looking into it and applying actual scientific test flying. And guess what... no matter how hard they tried to make the dreaded Ice Bridging happen, they could not produce it. Then it was detective time and the folks who actually know how to dig into a subject went looking for the truth. Oddly, there were no accident or incident reports where ice bridging took place, and so they dug farther. That was when they found that the first mention of Ice Bridging was in novelist Ernest K. Gann's fictional aviation book "The High and The Mighty." Gann was still alive and well and when he was asked by the researchers where "Ice Bridging" came from and his answer was very simple- he made it up. You see, that's what you can do in a novel, it's perfectly fine. Of course when that fiction finds its way into aeronautical science, those who placed it there are to blame and those who keep it there as if it were fact are even more to blame. When I first learned of this myth in 1996, it appeared as a story in a very trusted aviation publication. I took the piece, cut it out and tacked it to the board in my airline's operations room. The next day it was gone. One of the other pilots told me that one of the "old heads" in the pilot group read it, called it bullshit, tore it down, crumpled it up and stuck in his flightbag so no one else would read it. Wanna address safety Administrator Babbitt? You could start right there. I'll bet that at this moment, in a ground school or airline training course somewhere, an instructor is persuasively teaching the fiction made up by Ernest Gann right after World War II... Ice Bridging. It is that culture of "it's always been that way and so it must be right" that needs to be broken.

Likewise, the culture of "I went through it so you gotta go through it too" is one that needs to be broken and banished from the regional airlines. It is one of the areas where the regional airlines hold the greatest degree of guilt because they are the places where most new airline pilots break into the profession. A few captains seem to still believe that a near hazing is required for a new hire to become a "real" part of the pilot group- because that is what they, themselves went through. The fact that contradicts the lunacy, which sometimes approaches being sadistic, is that the aircraft these people are flying are certified for two pilots operating as required crew members, not one upper classmen preforming a hazing on some plebe. Now some captains may say, the new hire is supposed to "come out of training fully able to act in the total capacity as a first officer" and if the person cannot do that in full then the company isn't training them properly- but from a simple human factor's perspective, that is total bullshit. No new hire FO who came from flight instructing or single pilot cargo hauling can fully develop the aeronautical decision making (ADM) instincts required to operate in a crew environment, in the time allotted in any airline new hire training. It just cannot be done. The fact is that when you first come to a regional airline it's like drinking from a firehose for a few months... yes... months. Admitting that dirty little human factor would go a long way toward aiding in the development of advanced ADM skills in new hires. I'm not saying that captains need to nurse-maid new hire FOs, but they must consider new-hire matriculation into the ways of the operation to be a part of their duties and teaching regional captains that consideration should be a part of captain's up-grade training.

In short, the real issues that need to be addressed in training will likely never be fully weeded out. The problems in training have about the same linage as the banjo kid is "Deliverance" and the question is largely one of in-breeding. Each new director of training adding stuff in based on his or her own personal background while rarely taking anything out. Training is sometimes focused on memorizing numbers that you cannot read anywhere, nor have any control over, yet someone decided you have to know that usless piece of information. I was once in a class being bombarded with temperatures of air in assorted areas of an A/C plenum when I asked "Where can I read that number in the cockpit?" Answer- No place. "Well, can I control it anywhere?" Answer- No. "What about all of these others?" Answer- Same thing... "Then why do I have to know them?" Answer... because they're on the test. "Why are they on the test?" Answer-Because they've always been on the test. So it goes in many training departments. Such nonsense becomes critical while tasks that could be used to develop better skills in aeronautical decision making are left out of the program.

If Administrator Babbitt really wanted to do more than release a sound bite he would take immediate steps to see to it that the myths and nonsense are weeded out of training and testing and that focus is directed far more toward ADM skill development at all levels of flight training and, perhaps most importantly, an emphasis on CRM (Crew Resource Management) at all levels. And just to add some shock value on my part, in my opinion, the FAA written tests serve little or no value when the Glime books can easily be obtained, or a one-day computer cram can be bought, the correct answers to the test can be memorized, applied to the test and forgotten shortly there after. A number of years ago I, personally, took a one day cram for the 727FE Written during a two day lay-over at DFW. I went back the next morning and took the FEW, scored a 98% and on the third day I was in the Falcon 10 on the next leg of my trip and could not remember a dammed thing about that test. The captain I was flying with did the same thing the next week, scored a 99% and on the trip back told me he couldn't remember a damned thing about the test either. That is what those tests are worth. Why not save the work and tax payer dollars?

Of course another "focus" in this Babbitt Call to Action is on- you guessed it "Records." Yes Randy wants to "...make sure we're not just checking boxes." Give me a frigging break... in a time when every pilot's entire life is under a microscope the likes of which no political appointee could likely survive, these "Call to action'eers" are looking to add another convex lens! Sure let's generate more paperwork where it isn't actually needed. Le'me ask this, were any of the last few accidents caused by falsified or missing records? Is there a pandemic of falsified or missing records in United States aviation? No... then why are we looking there?! Perhaps this is a good jobs program for FAA bureaucrats- more pointless papers to shuffle = job security. This "records" strawman is a perfect non-problem that will enable the new FAA Administrator to create another sound bite saying he is taking steps to solve it.

Still, what will come of this "Call to action" is exactly what we've come to expect from these sorts of sound bites. Some directives will be directed, and then turn into memos and then fizzle into nothing at all but a few minor hassles for some poor slobs trying to get a start with their first airline.
Bottom line is this Call To Action is nothing more than fluff. I'll be holding my breath waiting for results... here I go... huuumpppp.......

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