Stories We Live By: Inhofe v. Halaby

In earlier installments we learned about the FAA documents and (astonishing) audio recordings concerning Sen. James Inhofe's illegal landing on a closed and under-repair runway in Texas, while work crews were standing right on it, six months ago. One of the recordings was of an airport official saying, "I've got over 50 years flying, three tours of Vietnam, and I can assure you I have never seen such a reckless disregard for human life in my life." [Update: seriously, you don't get the full flavor of this unless you hear the still-quaking-in-fear-and-outrage voices of airport workers on the audio, from The Smoking Gun or AVweb.]

Thumbnail image for senatorinhofe.jpgThen we had a line-by-line parsing of the standards by which the FAA decided to resolve this problem in the mildest way possible, with RT -- "remedial training" -- rather than by suspending or revoking Inhofe's (at left) pilot certificate. That installment closed with a retired FAA flight standards inspector saying, "Senator got a pass - no doubt about it." The Senator's view, for the record, is that event is "old news."
Today's installment, in two parts.

1) The Numbers. Did Sen. Inhofe -- a friend of aviation in the Senate, and a senator whose state includes the FAA training center and airman-medical headquarters -- enjoy a better-than-average outcome? An experienced pilot based on the east coast writes:
>>I am a flight instructor and flight school owner.  One of my specialties is preparation of pilots for the 44709 ride.

Here is what my buddies in the FAA tell me.  Only six pilots in the U.S. received remedial training last year (2010).  A pilot is much more likely to get a thirty day suspension or a 709 ride.<<
To spell this out: "the 44709 ride," also known as the "709 ride," essentially is a requirement that you re-earn your flying privileges and re-prove your ability to safely and responsibly control an airplane. Pilot certificates are otherwise normally open-ended, although you must keep passing tests at regular intervals -- medical exams, tests on instrument-flight procedures, biennial flight reviews, night landings, etc - to remain "current" and fly legally. The attitude on a "biennial flight review" (which I've had many of) is generally supportive: the instructor is there to tell you ways you can improve. The attitude on a 709 ride (which fortunately I haven't) can be adversarial. The AOPA article on the topic is called "Surviving the 709 Ride." You've screwed up, and the FAA is there to see if you've gotten better.

So: Inhofe didn't have to reprove his flying skills; and he didn't have his flying privileges suspended or revoked. Instead he was one of a tiny handful of pilots who instead got a counseling session. (I asked a currently serving FAA official, who said the number six sounded plausible.) How many people were punished more harshly last year? I don't know -- but as a general scale indicator, about 70,000 people start training as student pilots each year.

halaby.jpg2. The Parable. Another reader writes:
>>I heard a story years ago, but which I never tried to track down, that in the 60's, when Najeeb Halaby [right] was FAA Administrator under JFK, he was piloting a plane and committed a violation of the FARs [Federal Aviation Regulations] when landing, perhaps landing gear up or violating a clearance or something like that. 

An FAA FSDO inspector greeted him upon arrival, not realizing who the pilot was, and informed him of the violation.  Then the inspector realized who the pilot was, perhaps looking at his pilot certificate, and hesitated, until Halaby simply told him: forget about who I am, do your job.

How far we've come.<<
The point about this story is not whether it's actually true. I've asked and haven't found out. (And to spare those about to write in and tell me: Yes, I know that Najeeb Halaby was the father of Lisa Halaby, aka Queen Noor. Also, he was an accomplished aviator and a Navy fighter pilot in World War II.)

The point of the story is that it was told. People used it to illustrate an attitude and a concept of how one "should" behave. I have no idea whether the young Abe Lincoln really walked miles to return a few pennies to a woman who had paid too much at a store. The story mattered as a way of expressing a standard for behavior -- and how people who could take shortcuts, didn't. Such myths are useful even when purely mythical.

So with these two tales:
    Inhofe: "What the hell is this? I was supposed to have unlimited airspace."
    Halaby: "Forget about who I am. Do your job."

We like to think we're a society of the Halaby quote. But more and more the stories we tell about "how things work" resemble Inhofe's.
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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