When FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt resigned after being arrested by police in Fairfax City, Va., on a drunk-driving charge, some of my pilot acquaintances were quick to express astonishment at the irony of Babbitt himself likely having to face the bureaucratic hurdles set up by the FAA for pilots caught drinking and driving who want to continue flying. In addition, there are special rules for FAA employees. The FAA's Driving Under The Influence (DUI) and Driving While Impaired (DWI) Compliance Program began in November 1990, in response to a Congressional mandate. Within 60 days of the effective date of an alcohol-related conviction or administrative action, you must send a notification letter in the prescribed format to the FAA's Security and Investigations Division in Oklahoma City. If you fail to do that, your certificates, authorizations or ratings can be suspended, revoked or denied. Sending the letter likely would lead to an investigation being opened, which itself could end in suspension, revocation or denial. You also need to make a report on your next application for an FAA medical certificate. If you're an FAA employee in a sensitive security or safety position, you have to report an arrest for an alcohol or drug-related infraction before the start of your next scheduled work shift. Safety-sensitive FAA employees also need to report any infractions within 48 hours to the FAA's Regional Flight Surgeon.
When you fill out FAA Form 8500-8 applying for a medical certificate, you're asked to sign the express-consent provision that authorizes the National Driver Register (NDR) to release information about your driving record to the FAA. Since all motor-vehicle actions in the country are supposed to be reported to the NDR, the FAA is confident that it will find out about anything in which you were involved. If you haven't reported an incident to them on your own in the way the FAA wants it reported, they'll try to nail you. Failure to authorize the NDR search at the time of your medical is at your own peril (or the peril of your flying future).
In the fall of 2009, Dr. Warren Silberman, who managed the FAA's Aerospace Medical Certification Division, notified medical examiners of a new policy. In the past, the FAA gave a "free pass" to an airman reporting a first DUI offense. Medical examiners were supposed to obtain the court documents and question the airman about alcohol or drug use, but were permitted to issue a medical certificate if the airman didn't have a substance-abuse problem. Under the new policy, medical examiners still have to obtain court documents and question the airman, but if the airman had a positive alcohol test or blood-alcohol level of 0.15 or greater, the local examiner can't issue a medical certificate. The application needs to be deferred to Oklahoma City for action. The medical examiner also is barred from issuing a medical certificate if the airman refused to allow police to run a blood test, even though such a refusal may be entirely within an individual's rights. Under the new policy, the FAA insists that the airman obtain a substance-abuse evaluation from a recognized counselor as a condition of further consideration for issuance of a medical certificate.
Are the FAA's hurdles high enough to trip up all pilots who are foolish enough to abuse alcohol or other drugs? Not quite, according to anecdotal evidence seen in NTSB investigations. Is the FAA's system totally effective at doing what it's designed to do? Again, not quite.
A Piper PA-28-180 crashed while maneuvering for landing at the Lebanon-Springfield Airport (6I2), Lebanon, Ky., on February 23, 2010, at about 12:20 a.m., after experiencing a loss of power due to fuel exhaustion. The accident site was about 1⁄2 mile from the airport. The commercial pilot, who was the only occupant, was fatally injured. The airplane was IFR. Investigators found no evidence that there was any usable fuel on board, and no evidence of problems with the airframe or engine.
According to a statement by the owner of the airplane, the purpose of the flight was for the pilot to fly a passenger from 6I2 to Anniston Metropolitan Airport (ANB), Anniston, Ala. The passenger stated that the flight to ANB was uneventful, and that they landed at Anniston about 8:30. While the passenger waited for the owner to pick her up, the pilot researched nearby airports open for fuel sales, as no fuel was available at ANB at that hour.
The pilot decided on an airport "about 20 minutes away," and departed ANB about 9:30. The passenger who the pilot dropped off observed the airplane depart, and stated that the engine "sounded good." Examination of a fuel receipt recovered at the accident site revealed that the pilot purchased 24.5 gallons of 100LL gasoline at Saint Claire County Airport (AND) at 9:59. The airplane departed at 10:21 p.m. on an IFR flight plan, and climbed to a cruise altitude of 9,000 feet MSL.
At 11:40, the pilot asked Indianapolis Center for the Automated Weather Observation Service frequency and the NDB RWY 11 approach at 6I2. The controller provided the frequency, and advised the pilot that an "out-of-service" NOTAM was in effect for the NDB approach. The pilot then requested a "GPS overlay" of the approach, and was advised by the controller that there was no GPS overlay for the NDB RWY 11 approach, but there was a GPS RWY 11 approach at 6I2.
At 12:07, the airplane was cleared to cross the initial approach fix, LEVFO waypoint, at 3,100 feet, and was cleared for the GPS RWY 11 approach. About three minutes later, the pilot was advised that radar contact was lost, and was instructed to report passing LEVFO waypoint. The pilot acknowledged the instruction.
At about 12:17 a.m., the pilot reported crossing LEFVO waypoint at 3,100 feet, and then reported light rime icing. The pilot reported passing ROCCO waypoint, 10.4 miles from the runway, reported the airport in sight, and cancelled his IFR clearance. There were no further transmissions received from the pilot.
The pilot held a commercial pilot certificate with ratings for airplane single-engine and multi-engine land. He also held a flight instructor certificate with ratings for airplane single-engine and instrument airplane. His most recent FAA first-class medical certificate was issued on June 6, 2008. The pilot's logbook was incomplete, but showed 1,522 total hours of flight experience as of May 4, 2009.
During the medical examiner's recovery of the pilot from the accident site, an FAA Inspector who was on scene removed a 375 ml bourbon bottle from a pocket of the pilot's jacket. The bottle still had an estimated 100 ml of bourbon in it. Toxicological testing revealed the pilot's blood alcohol level was 0.11%.
A review of law enforcement and FAA records revealed that the pilot had been arrested for driving while intoxicated or driving under the influence at least twice. He had reported one of the incidents to the FAA. The pilot's application for a first-class airman medical certificate on December 19, 2006, noted a DUI arrest with suspension in May 2006. His most recent application for a first-class airman medical certificate on June 6, 2008, noted only "previously reported, no change" regarding his history of alcohol-related convictions. Both applications noted "no" to "alcohol dependence or abuse." There was no indication that the FAA requested or received any additional information regarding the pilot's DUI history.
A search following the accident by the FAA Security and Investigations Division turned up records on the pilot of a conviction for "Driving While Intoxicated" in Indiana on August 30, 2006, and in Kentucky on February 28, 2007. A copy of the arrest report from the 2006 conviction was obtained by the NTSB and noted, in part, that a "truck driver attempted to pass the [pilot's] vehicle when the [pilot's] vehicle crossed into the left lane, sideswiping the truck's trailer, causing both vehicles to pull over onto the emergency lane...arrived just as the [pilot's] vehicle was stopping. ...[the pilot] exited the vehicle and staggered towards me. ...inside the...[pilot's] vehicle was two empty [liquor] bottles...wasn't wearing any shoes but had socks on...attitude towards the accident was that it wasn't no big deal. ...given a portable breath test which revealed a 0.20% BAC [blood alcohol]..."
The FAA Security and Investigations Division told investigators that an error resulted in the pilot's September 28, 2000, medical certificate application being given an incorrect code, which resulted in no cross-checking with the NDR for motor vehicle actions. The Security and Investigations Division also stated, "[The pilot] reported, per 14 CFR 61.15(e), his 2006 alcohol related MVA [motor vehicle action], in the State of Indiana, and properly disclosed such on his 2006 Application for Airman Medical Certificate. [The pilot] failed to notify this office, per 14 CFR 61.15(e), of his 2007 alcohol related conviction in the State of Kentucky. He also falsified his Application for Airman Medical Certificate, dated June 6, 2008, by failing to disclose this MVA."
The NTSB noted that FAA processes didn't independently identify at least two prior convictions of the pilot for DUI, though he had informed the FAA of one of the events, and the FAA had not requested details of the offense the pilot reported. The Safety Board concluded that given the level of tolerance exhibited by driving with a blood alcohol level of 0.20%, and having multiple convictions, it's almost certain that the pilot was substance dependent. The NTSB said had the FAA requested the appropriate information, it would have known that the pilot was likely substance dependent, a condition that's disqualifying for a medical certificate.
The NTSB determined that the probable cause of this accident was the pilot's inadequate preflight planning, which resulted in a total loss of engine power due to fuel exhaustion, and the pilot's impairment due to alcohol. Contributing to the accident was the FAA's failure to adequately oversee the pilot's medical certification.
Peter Katz is editor and publisher of NTSB Reporter, an independent monthly update on news concerning the National Transportation Safety Board. To subscribe, write to: NTSB Reporter, Subscription Dept., P.O. Box 831, White Plains, N.Y. 10602-0831.