A Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) enforcement action, which might be compared to a traffic ticket on the ground, can have grave consequences for a pilot. These include fines and suspension or revocation of the pilot’s medical certificate or airmen certificate. All FAA enforcement actions begin with an incident—for example, deviating from your assigned altitude. When an incident occurs, the pilot is often told upon landing to call the local tower, the local FAA office, or, in the days following, receives a letter from the FAA with instructions to get in touch.
By taking the following steps, provided by shareholder Edward J. Page, pilots can help protect themselves.
1. Say as little as possible to the FAA.
If the control tower tells you to call the FAA when you land, make the call. But provide only basic information such as your name, contact information, and the fact that you are calling because you were told to do so. Once the FAA says it wants to interview you, say that you need to speak with a lawyer first. People tend to want to tell their stories, thinking they can get themselves out of any possible trouble. This rarely works. If you get a letter from the FAA, have a lawyer respond on your behalf after telling the lawyer what happened.
2. Be polite and truthful when interacting with the FAA.
Show no anger or resentment. After all, the FAA would argue, it is just doing its job by trying to keep you and others safe. Also, you don’t want to run afoul of laws against giving false statements. An FAA aviation safety inspector (ASI) has a lot of discretion at this early stage. Don’t encourage the ASI to continue the inquiry with an FAA enforcement action because you included some misleading statements or half-truths in your information provided to the FAA.
3. Call a lawyer.
An hour-long consultation may be all you need.
4. Always file a NASA report.
Many pilots don’t know that filing a NASA ARC 277 Form Report (NASA Report) can prevent the FAA from imposing a penalty in a certificate action. NASA reports are used by NASA to collect data regarding its Aviation Safety Reporting System. Always file one if you think an incident may have occurred in connection with your flight. If you file a NASA Report within 10 days of the flight or within 10 days of realizing that the FAA may be reviewing the details of the flight, the FAA cannot impose sanctions on you as long as these conditions are satisfied: your conduct was neither criminal nor deliberate; and you have had no FAA violations in the previous five years. While you can file an unlimited number of NASA Reports, you can only use one to avoid a certificate action every five years. Many professional pilots keep NASA Report forms in their flight bags, and file them liberally.
5. Remember, “less is more” when filling out your NASA Report form.
The NASA Report form asks you to “Describe Event/Situation.” Write no more than five sentences in response, and offer nothing beyond the simple facts. This is not the place to tell your complete story. Why? The FAA may request your story or the NASA Form later. Don’t give it to them. It’s meant only for NASA, an agency that is entirely separate from the FAA. If you start to think that you gave your full story on your NASA form, you might just tell that full story to the FAA later, creating problems for yourself. In effect, you are a witness when writing to NASA and speaking to the FAA. Remember, a good witness answers the question. Be a good witness! When asked what time it is, don’t build the FAA or NASA a clock. Tell them what time it is and stop, completely. Save your explanation and full story for when your lawyer instructs you to offer it.