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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“Most definitely,” the controller said. “We were never enthused about filing violations even before the NASA form, but now, we try much harder to work out any problems with a phone call rather than a formal report since we know a pilot can most often avoid penalties by simply filing a NASA report. It’s easier for everyone. The only circumstance that will cause us to file against a pilot these days is if he simply refuses to listen, blames everyone but himself for the problem or does something we’re convinced was deliberate, even if he says it wasn’t.”

I was involved in an ASRS incident over the Golden Gate Bridge shortly after 9/11 that clearly illustrates a situation in which an ASRS report can come in handy. I was flying formation for an air-to-air session above the bridge in late afternoon, and someone on the ground looked up, saw two airplanes circling in formation 2,000 feet up and assumed Al Qaeda was attacking.

As it happened, we were not in San Francisco Class B airspace (the tier starts at 3,000 feet over the bridge) or any other restricted sky and we were coordinating our flight with Bay Approach (which we technically didn’t need to do). An official with the Golden Gate Bridge Authority called the FAA and, apparently concerned that two Piper Saratogas were preparing to attack the bridge, the Feds scrambled a pair of F-16s without checking exactly where we were or if we were talking to anyone.

The fighters arrived well after we’d left, so we never saw them. We didn’t even hear about the problem until a mutual friend saw amateur video of our flight on CNN the following morning. Predictably, the announcer’s voiceover suggested no one at CNN had done their homework. “Authorities are attempting to locate the pilots involved in the unauthorized overflight of the Golden Gate Bridge.”

Sure enough, later in the day, I received one call from the FAA and another from the FBI. Both callers were quick to confirm we’d committed no violations wrong, and that the media had gotten it all wrong, as usual, but because of the paranoia of 9/11, the Feds needed to ask some questions in order to close their files on the incident. The other pilot and I cooperated fully, and despite their admonitions that the investigation was over, filled out and sent in ASRS reports detailing the event. I heard later that, as an indirect result of our experience, a procedure was put into place at the SFO FAA office to check with Bay Approach before calling out the fighters for any “unauthorized flight” over the Golden Gate.

NASA reports are available from a number of sources, from any FAA Flight Services District Office, tower, FSS and some FBOs. Many flight schools also have supplies on hand. If you have access to an AOPA Airport Directory, the ASRS report is included as the last page. Finally, they’re also available online at


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