Before 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.
Fortunately, I’ve apparently been a good boy, for the most part. I’ve only been asked to “Call this number when you get on the ground” three times in 38 years of flying. In all three cases, my sins were relatively minor and the controllers were good guys who merely wanted to point out the error of my ways without filling out any paperwork.
Still, my imagined transgressions exceed the real ones by a major factor. I know dozens of pilots—airline, charter, corporate, ferry—who fly to live, and most carry a sheaf of NASA reports in their flight bags and send them in at the slightest possibility of an infraction. Considering the potential consequences, let’s hope pilots are more conscientious than drivers, but police agencies suggest most drivers commit well over 300 infractions for every ticket they’re issued.
If you ask, “What’s a NASA report?”, you may be such an outstanding pilot that you’ll never need to know. Unfortunately, that’s not likely if you fly quite a bit, especially in IFR conditions or around busy terminal airspace. I have several friends in the FAA, all good guys, who suggest they could probably find some violation for virtually every pilot on every flight. My FAA buddies acknowledge the FARs are so complex, clumsy and often indecipherable that it’s hard not to violate one or more of them every now and then.
Prior to implementation of the NASA report, there was essentially no vehicle for fixing parts of the system that might be broken. Users were sometimes reluctant to bring errors and inconsistencies to the government’s attention for fear they might be accused of violating a reg.
As a result, back in 1976, the government decided to appoint an agency independent from the FAA to administer a program that would allow pilots, mechanics, air traffic controllers and anyone else to report airspace, airworthiness and other regulatory problems with impunity. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was assigned the task because of its expertise in all things aviation.
NASA, in turn, created the Aviation Safety Reporting System (inevitably, ASRS), a program designed to analyze and correct problems while guaranteeing anonymity. The resulting report form, ARC-277B, is intended to offer pilots limited immunity from penalties or certificate suspensions in a broad range of circumstances. Specifically, the pilot is protected if: 1. The violation was inadvertent and not intentional (in other words, dumb mistakes do qualify); 2. The violation did not involve a criminal offense, accident or action that disclosed a lack of qualification or competency; 3. The pilot had not been found responsible for a previous violation within the past five years; and 4. The pilot can prove that a NASA report was filed within 10 days of the incident in question.
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.
“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 http://asrs.arc.nasa.gov.