After a rash of complaints of heavy-handed treatment of pilots and flight training providers, the San Antonio FAA Flight Standards District Office (FSDO) is under investigation by the FAA for its actions, according to a letter from the FAA’s Director of Audit and Evaluation H. Clayton Foushee.
The San Antonio FSDO has long had a mixed reputation for its treatment of pilots. According to the airport manager at West Houston, Woody Lesikar, the current San Antonio FSDO safety manager, Christian Morales, recently went into a business at West Houston and proceeded to accuse them of violations of FAA regulations while threatening to shut them down. The problem was, he hadn’t gone into the busines he intended to and accidentally leveled these accusations against an airport business not involved in the matter, according to Lesikar.
Lesikar wrote in an airport newsletter: “This is how the FAA [San Antonio FAA FSDO] treats its customers…You have a new applicant for an FAA approval trying to do what’s right, and then you have this troll (Morales) trying to put them out of business before they even get started. This is not the way it should be done.”
In full disclosure, I have been a victim of the FSDO’s culture of questionable enforcement. Former San Antonio FSDO safety manager Frank Fortmann initiated an investigation of my flying after an incident several years ago. The engine in the plane I was flying on a long cross-country (a flight path that would eventually take me over sparsely populated, rugged and high terrain), began to run a little rough, prompting me to cancel my flight plan and return to my departure airport. I swapped planes and made an uneventful trip to ABQ.
But Fortmann, who had caught wind of the incident, called me on my personal cell phone in Albuquerque, while I was on an assignment, and acted in exactly the heavy-handed way others have claimed is the prevailing culture at the FSDO. On the call, he spoke to me loudly and in a bullying, threatening and disrespectful manner.
The alleged case—I’d argue there was nothing resembling an infraction—revolved around Fortmann’s argument that I should have landed as soon as possible after hearing the engine roughness instead of returning to my departure base. Which was nonsense. I wrote an editorial about the experience at my former workplace, Flying Magazine, and shortly thereafter Fortmann decided to drop the investigation, which from the start seemed to me an excuse to harass a pilot for executing her prerogative as pilot in command and take a conservative approach by returning to base—whereas many pilots would simply have continued to their destination. The interaction wasn’t based on any genuine concern but, rather, was an excuse for the FSDO to give a local pilot some grief over what at worst was nothing and at what at best was a case of good aeronautical decision making.
This culture of questionable enforcement, bullying tactics and troubling personnel decisions came to the fore a few months ago when the FSDO fired FAA Designated Examiner Ken Wittikiend after he attended a FAAST team video presentation in which some members of the panel briefly discussed the topic of water skiing with a plane. In firing Wittikiend, who was sipping a glass of what appeared to be red wine during the meeting at which he had no active role other than spectator, the FSDO claimed that his mere presence at the meeting without speaking up to condemn the practice constituted unsafe counseling and thereby justified his firing.
There was, however, a big problem with the FSDO’s determination. Ryan Newman, a safety manager from the FSDO was also present at the meeting and, like Wittikiend, failed to speak up when the topic of water skiing came up. The FSDO took disciplinary action against Newman. Wittikiend was a popular and well-respected DPE. And as you likely know, he now works as a freelance columnist at this brand.
As we reported, after the FSDO terminated Wittikiend, two FAA FAAST team members, Tres Clinton and Jeremy Walters, started a movement to get Ken his job back. The group they formed to do that, Pilots For Ken, publicized Wittikiend’s firing and criticized the FSDO for doing that. They also reached out to their representatives in Congress and to the FAA itself. Early on they made a video called Fired By The FAA, in which they discussed and protested the FSDO’s actions.
After the FSDO became aware of the movement, or possibly once they had had enough of it, FSDO manager Mike Carroll directed FSDO safety representative Ryan Newman to give Pilots For Ken co-founder Jeremy Walters what the FAA refers to as counseling. Newman, who attended the same video call as Wittikiend had been fired for attending, informed Walters at Carroll’s direction, that his actions speaking up against the FSDO’s firing of Wittikiend constituted behavior that was prohibited by FAAST team bylaws. Those bylaws state, “Representatives will conduct activities professionally and in a manner that reflects favorably on the FAAST Team, thereby enhancing the relationship between the FAA and the aviation industry.”
At the conclusion of the purported counseling call, which took place late last year, Walters asked Newman if he would be fired from the FAAST Team if he didn’t stop supporting Wittikiend, and Newman said, “Such action was not warranted at this time, but his continued activities in support of Mr. Wittekiend could affect this determination.” Walters, who is a flight instructor who lives in the San Antonio FSDO’s territory, is not a FSDO or an FAA employee.
Last month, the FAA returned an email correspondence from Walters to FAA Administrator Steve Dickson, in which he had protested the unfair treatment of Wittikiend and himself. In his response, Foushee wrote to Walters that while the FAA could not comment on Wittikiend’s case, as it was under review and/or litigation, he wanted to inform Walters that “an investigation regarding the [San Antonio] FSDO is ongoing” and that Walters “would be notified when the matter is complete.”
We’ll keep you apprised on the outcome of that investigation, one that could have repercussions not just for the San Antonio FSDO but for offices across the United States.