Plane & Pilot
Monday, March 1, 2004

The NASA Report: Looking For Absolution

Should you make a mistake, filling out some simple paperwork might just save your bacon

handBefore you ask, yes, I’ve filled out my share. Like most reasonably conscientious pilots who try to play by the rules, I don’t go around deliberately violating FARs, but on those rare occasions when I think I might have clipped a corner of a Class B, busted an IFR altitude or come closer than I like to another airplane (no matter who was at fault), I whip out a NASA report and send it in.
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The NASA report examines every aspect of the incident—time, date, pilot’s certificate and experience level, weather, altitude, location, number and type of aircraft, airspace and flight and any other parameter that might be of use in correcting a procedural, regulatory or airspace problem. When ASRS receives a report and determines that it falls within the protective guidelines, it’s entered into a computer database that files it by all the appropriate categories. ASRS tears off the time-stamped identity strip along the top of the report and returns it to the reporter as proof of filing.

Having a NASA report on file isn’t exactly a free pass, however. It doesn’t mean the FAA can’t still find a pilot in violation of one of the FARs and put the offense on his record, a significant sanction in itself, especially for professional pilots who may need a clean record to remain employable and insurable. Filing a NASA report simply means there will be no direct penalty levied against the pilot, mechanic, flight attendant or other respondent.

From the FAA’s point of view, the very process of filing the report is considered an act of contrition by the pilot. It’s believed that writing down the circumstances of a violation helps reinforce the infraction in the pilot’s mind, making it likely that he or she will adopt a better attitude about obeying FARs and not commit the same mistake a second time.

To say that pilots have used the system exhaustively is an exercise in understatement. Based at NASA’s Moffett Field, which is north of San Jose, Calif., ASRS receives almost 200 reports every workday, nearly 40,000 a year. Since inception of the program, it has attracted some 500,000 responses.

ASRS director Linda Connell leads a team of workers who try to make sense of it all. “We have a staff of about 10 people, full- and part-time,” says Connell. “At least two of them read and code each report and determine how it should be handled. If we can identify an aviation hazard that needs immediate attention, we’ll issue an alert message to the appropriate FAA agency.

“Our experience suggests just under half, 46%, describe an event that could be a violation and the report is intended to simply get them off the hook,” Connell continues. “The remaining 54% are commentaries on situations or procedures that may need correcting, and those are the ones that are most valuable to us. The writers often suggest solutions to problems, but even if they don’t, the report can still be worthwhile as it may advise of a situation we didn’t know existed. Even the reporters who are simply looking for absolution often help alert us to problems.”

Connell reports that altitude deviations in IFR conditions are probably the most common subject of ASRS responses. Non-adherence to issued clearances is another major concern as are near mid-airs. “We receive reports on subjects that run the gamut from humorous to deadly serious,” Connell explains. “We treat them all the same, evaluating them to see if we can recognize a problem and make recommendations to help solve it.”

A few years ago in researching a story on FAA violations, I asked a longtime controller in the Van Nuys, Calif., airport tower if attitudes had changed about filing violations since the implementation of the NASA report. His answer was revealing.


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