“After you land…
CALL THIS NUMBER”
[Responding To An FAA Investigation]
By Kevin Ware
It is 112 degrees F. on the ramp at North Las Vegas (KVGT), our Citation 560 is facing southwest into the afternoon sun and we have a GPU hooked up with the air conditioning going full blast–but the inside of the airplane still feels like a pizza oven. In addition to being uncomfortable for us, we know avionics can do really odd things when they get hot, so we are anxious to get airborne and cooled down before something untoward happens.
But then, in the middle of squinting, panting, and sweating our way through the checklist, the ramp attendant suddenly walks off, making an engine start ill-advised with the GPU hooked up. While hoping he will soon return, we temporize by calling for our IFR clearance back to Bellingham.
The clearance comes back with a garbled …”cleared to Bellingham… Right Turn Two departure…flight plan route…climb via …departure… except for 6,000.” We write on wet paper with slippery pencils, pushing the hot headset cushions uncomfortably close to our ears to get it all down, and after a couple of tries, our readback is accepted. We then start entering the routing into the Universal FMS and Garmin back-up system.
About halfway through this, the ramp guy shows up and we hurriedly get the engines started, fearing he might again disappear. With engines running and the GPU disconnected, the AC seems to work a little better, but it is still well over 100 degrees in the cockpit as we ask for taxi clearance. While rolling out, we respond to three separate calls from the ground controller, asking us to confirm we have indeed been assigned the Right Turn Two departure. Each time we look at our scrawled notes, check that the correct SID is pulled up on our iPads and entered into the avionics, then confidently reply “affirmative.” We approach the hold line for runway 12R with all FMS data entered, plus all checklists complete, and tell the tower we are ready to go. Thankfully, we are immediately cleared for takeoff.
On this leg I am the pilot flying (PF), and after getting airborne I start a right turn to heading 250 in order to intercept the LAS 313 radial out to the RUZCO intersection as the SID requires. Passing through 1,500 feet, I turn on the autopilot and hit NAV, and ask the pilot not flying (PNF) for the after-takeoff checklist. About halfway through the checklist, he says “hey, Kevin, where are you going?” I reply that I am flying the published departure, and expect to start a right turn to intercept the 313 radial shortly. He says, according to the Flight Director on his side, we just passed through that radial. I look over, and sure enough we have an avionics discrepancy. Problem is, which one is correct?
The easiest thing to do at that point would be to call the radar controller, announce that we have an avionics problem and request she confirm our position. But, she is talking non-stop to airline traffic departing Las Vegas International and we cannot get in a word edgewise. Luckily, it is severe VFR, and there is no traffic nearby on the TCAS. And so, as the airplane levels off at our assigned 6,000 feet on heading 250, we have a brief CRM-type discussion about the problem. For several reasons, we decide the Universal system on the PNF’s side is probably putting out the correct information, and I switch the autopilot back to ‘heading’ and start a right turn to 360 to re-intercept the 313 radial.
While I am doing this, the PNF is waiting with his finger on the transmit button for a break on the frequency to announce our situation. But, at the very end of a sentence while talking to another aircraft, she suddenly says “Citation XXX, were you assigned the Right Turn Two departure?” The PNF replies with a professional “affirmative”, and adds that we are correcting to return to the 313 radial. The controller responds with an abrupt and tersely worded series of heading and altitude changes that leaves him no time for further explanation. As we leave her frequency a few minutes later she says…“when you land, call this number, 702…”
We complete the trip without any further incident, and after landing my fellow pilot volunteers to look into the airplane issues, if I call the 702 number. I dial it up and am surprised to be switched to the exact same lady controller we had back in Nevada. She seems in a hurry, and not at all interested in hearing our side of the story. She says she needs to complete a computer form and just wants my name, address, phone number and pilot’s license type and number…the rest she says I can to talk to the FAA about. This does not sound at all good, so upon getting home I promptly fill out a NASA Aviation Safety Reporting System via computer (http://asrs.arc.nasa.gov), and then start checking the daily mail with more interest than usual.
Three weeks go by and nothing happens, but then an official-looking letter bearing the FAA logo arrives from Las Vegas by certified mail. It is dated two weeks prior to its arrival, yet it requests a reply in 10 days. The phrasing has a definite legal ring, as if written by a prosecuting criminal attorney, although it is signed by an Aviation Safety Inspector. It has a clear editorial bias that says we did indeed do something seriously wrong and enforcement action is being considered. The third paragraph even has a Miranda-type warning that any response I choose to make could be used against me,
The “guilty until proven innocent” tone makes me quite uncomfortable, and so I call a pilot acquaintance who was formerly employed as an attorney with the FAA and describe what happened. His attitude is actually not that concerned. First, he says promptly filing the NASA ASRS form was definitely a good idea, as the outcome of these events is often hard to predict.
Second, when he worked for the FAA, the FSDOs often deliberately sent out letters later than they were dated, because they thought it made a prompt response more likely. Third, the Las Vegas area has one of the highest rates of ATC pilot deviation reports in the country, and he thought this might have something to do with why we were questioned three times by the ground controller about our SID clearance…”getting it on the tape.”
Finally, on a more positive note, he says the FAA is definitely in the business of weeding out “bad” pilots, but, at the same time, they know only a very small percentage of pilots fit that description, and, in addition, they generally do not hold pilots in violation for ATC deviations that are equipment-based. His concluding advice was that I should describe what happened in a letter, send it in as a reply, then see what happens.
I draft a reply which is almost identical to the ASRS report I had already submitted to NASA. To cover my bets on the timeline, I send it off to the FSDO inspector in Las Vegas by e-mail, fax and USPO. A week of silence follows, and then one morning my cell phone rings with none other than the Aviation Safety Inspector from Las Vegas on the line.
Unlike the tone of the letter bearing his signature, his attitude is quite different, being both friendly and courteous. We chat a bit about our flying backgrounds before getting down to the business at hand. He then says he has a long computer form to fill out, and he would appreciate my help with that. The form has some questions one would expect, such as time of day and weather conditions, but most are completely irrelevant to our operation, such as those about rest periods and multiple time zone flights. When the long data-entry process is finally over, he says, given that there appeared to be an avionics discrepancy, he would assume the airplane was sent to the shop and a repair entry made in the logbook. If so, and if I could send him a copy of that entry within the next five days, he should be able to just close the file.
I contact the maintenance shop and find that after our return both the avionics and the faulty air conditioning were indeed worked on. I call the mechanic and he says they never found out exactly what was went wrong with the avionics, but he understood the airplane had been heat soaked and that can often cause software and wiring connection problems that are difficult to reproduce. He says they removed the boxes, reprogrammed the software, tightened all connections, re-tested the systems and now they all operate normally. The AC system was also charged with Freon, and (I was very glad to hear), all of this had been properly entered into the aircraft’s logbook.
I promptly obtain copies of the log and send these via e-mail to the Las Vegas-based FAA Aviation Safety Inspector. A week later, I get a return e-mail saying, “I closed out the investigation with no action, since you provided documentation showing the avionics discrepancy involved in the pilot deviation was repaired”.
Who says the FAA is always unfreasonable, or that all heat-soaked avionics failure stories necessarily have bad endings?