I've written to a number of friends who work in or with the FAA. They've all said "it depends." The most exhaustive and, finally, most illuminating reply comes from a very experienced and well-known pilot, flight instructor, and aviation expert who, because of his position and the delicacy of the topic, asks that he not be named. After the jump, I quote his reply in exhaustive and very nit-picking detail. Here's the Cliff's Notes version of what he's talking about:
The FAA's choice, after a "pilot deviation" of this sort, is to impose a penalty (an "enforcement action") -- or instead to recommend the pilot only for counseling and "Remedial Training," or RT. Penalties affect flying status, make it harder and costlier to get insurance, can stay on your "permanent record," etc. RT and counseling don't have those effects.
Inhofe got RT; he didn't get "enforcement." If you want to judge whether that's fishy or not -- well, that's what my friend the flight instructor/safety expert is laying out the evidence for. I've inserted a few explanations in brackets, [like this]. The boldface emphases are from him, with one exception noted. He begins:
more information about the guidance that FAA Aviation Safety Inspectors
should follow when investigating incidents, see their official
handbook, the Flight Standards Information Management System (FSIMS, a.k.a., Order 8900.1), available on the Web here.
The section of that manual that discusses violations of regulations notes in part:
Remedial Training (RT) is a form of FAA administrative corrective
action that uses education as a tool to allow airmen who have committed
an inadvertent violation to increase their knowledge and skills in areas
related to the violation.
3) "Significantly unsafe" will be defined in detail in an upcoming change to Order 2150.3.
The definition will center on the difference between the potential and
actual hazard created by an act of noncompliance. For example, an
incident where an actual hazard was posed may require legal action, but
an incident where the hazard was only potential may be better handled
with administrative action.
are given many guidelines to help them understand when they should use
remedial training (RT) and counseling instead of enforcement actions.
According to FSIMS, those guidelines include:
Eligibility. Deliberate, willful violations, which involve gross
negligence, recklessness, recidivism, or flagrant disregard of 14 CFR
[i.e., the FAA regulations], shall continue to be handled by the
imposition of strong, legal enforcement actions. This is clearly an area
where remedial training is inappropriate and would be ineffective. [Emphasis added here by JF] The
RT program applies to inadvertent violations of 14 CFR, and the
inspector determines the inadvertency on a case-by-case basis grounded
in the inspector's investigation of the facts and circumstances of the
incident. The airman's past performance and attitude toward the incident
are also important factors used in determining whether remedial
training is appropriate.
When assessing the airman's eligibility for the RT program, the
inspector must determine if future compliance can, indeed, be assured
solely through remedial training. For the inspector to consider the
airman eligible for remedial training, the act of noncompliance must
meet the following conditions:
cannot have been deliberate, e.g., repeated buzzing of a house as
opposed to an inadvertent deviation from minimum safe altitudes because
of un-forecasted weather.
· The noncompliance cannot have been the cause of an accident.
· The noncompliance cannot have actually compromised safety, i.e., created a condition that was significantly unsafe.
· The noncompliance cannot have indicated a lack of qualification, which would require reexamination, on the airman's part.
· The noncompliance cannot have been caused by gross negligence.
· The noncompliance cannot have been of a criminal nature.
The airman must have exhibited a constructive attitude toward safety
and his or her rehabilitation and must be deemed not likely to commit
acts of noncompliance in the future.
Furthermore, the inspector will review the airman's enforcement history
and evaluate whether that history supports or precludes participation
in the RT program. Ideally, candidates should be first-time "offenders;"
however, previous enforcement history does not automatically exclude an
airman from the program.
Finally, airmen who were exercising the privileges of their
certificates for compensation or hire in air transportation when the
violation occurred are not eligible for remedial training.
on what I've read about the Inhofe incident, the follow-through also
seems at odds with the FAA's recent emphasis on Aeronautical Decision
Making (ADM), risk management, and other topics related to human factors
For example, the FAA hosted more than 90 special Safety Stand Down events nationwide on April 2 (described, at the link to the PDF, in the latest edition of FAASafety Briefing).
This year's programs emphasized developing and adopting a "positive
flight attitude," which, of course, involves preflight preparation,
continuous reassessment of conditions and information as a flight
progresses, and taking the appropriate actions when the situation
changes or the unexpected happens.
FAA also emphasizes the concept of "Risk Management." The agency has published a separate title on the subject, the Risk Management Handbook (FAA-H-8083-2), which focuses on decision-making, and the topic is also covered extensively in the Pilot's Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge,
the basic text for people pursuing a private pilot certificate; it's
emphasized in all subsequent training, and during flight reviews and
regard to specific rules, the Inhofe incident at a minimum seemed to
involve violations (or at least stretching) several FARs that the FAA
seems to take seriously, most obviously:
91.13 Careless or reckless operation.
Aircraft operations for the purpose of air navigation. No person may
operate an aircraft in a careless or reckless manner so as to endanger
the life or property of another.
Aircraft operations other than for the purpose of air navigation. No
person may operate an aircraft, other than for the purpose of air
navigation, on any part of the surface of an airport used by aircraft
for air commerce (including areas used by those aircraft for receiving
or discharging persons or cargo), in a careless or reckless manner so as
to endanger the life or property of another.
91.103 Preflight action.
Each pilot in command shall, before beginning a flight, become familiar with all available information concerning that flight [emphasis added - by the flight instructor]. This information must include--
(a) For a flight under IFR or a flight not in the vicinity of an
airport, weather reports and forecasts, fuel requirements, alternatives
available if the planned flight cannot be completed, and any known
traffic delays of which the pilot in command has been advised by ATC;
(b) For any flight, runway lengths at airports of intended use, and the following takeoff and landing distance information:
(1) For civil aircraft for which an approved Airplane or Rotorcraft
Flight Manual containing takeoff and landing distance data is required,
the takeoff and landing distance data contained therein; and
(2) For civil aircraft other than those specified in paragraph (b)(1)
of this section, other reliable information appropriate to the aircraft,
relating to aircraft performance under expected values of airport
elevation and runway slope, aircraft gross weight, and wind and
course, there's lots of room for inspectors and others (viz., NTSB
administrative law judges who hear appeals of FAA sanctions) to
interpret the rules and guidelines cited above. But when I read the
rulings of those NTSB administrative judges after pilots appeal
sanctions imposed by the FAA, I'm struck by how often and completely
those officials come down on the side of the FAA. Inhofe didn't appeal
the FAA's actions (and since FAA didn't take certificate action per se,
I'm not sure he could have), so we'll never how an NTSB panel would have
viewed his actions during the flight in question.And
each person reviewing the Inhofe's incident has to draw his own
conclusions about whether the senator's attitude during and after the
event meets the criteria for RT v. sanctions as described above.<<
OK, that's the authoritative text. The part that catches my eye is the comparison between the "C: Eligibility" section, on the attitude expected from those who get RT rather than enforcement, and accounts of the incident. But it's a settled issue now -- "old news," as Inhofe himself puts it. As my friend says, judge for yourself what it signifies. (Thanks to all who provided advice, especially the author of the long exegesis above.)