In a March 27, 2019 appearance before the Senate Subcommittee on Aviation and Space, Daniel K. Elwell, Acting Administrator for the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) sought to clarify the FAA’s role in the certification of the safety of aircraft systems. In doing so, he emphasized that the principal responsibility for safety lies with the aircraft manufacturers, with FAA performing merely a review function to determine “if the applicant [for certification] has shown that the overall design meets the safety standards. We do that by reviewing data and by conducting risk based evaluations of the applicant’s work,” Statement of Administrator, before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, Subcommittee on Aviation and Space on the State of Airline Safety: Federal Oversight of Commercial Aviation, March 27, 2019 (“Statement”). The problem with this explanation may not be the adopted approach, but the lapses in FAA’s realization of its part of the bargain.

In the opening discussion of the safety certification system’s underlying philosophy, the Acting Administrator explained that “the FAA focuses its efforts on areas that present the highest risk within the system . . .,” Statement, p. 3, with FAA purportedly “involved in testing and certification of new and novel features and technologies,” Statement, p. 5, a category within which the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (“MCAS”), thought to be a cause of the recent accidents in Ethiopia and Malaysia is included. In fact, as discussed in a comprehensive article of March 17, 2019, “Flawed analysis, failed oversight: How Boeing, FAA certified the suspect 737 MAX flight control system,” posted in the Seattle Times by Dominic Gates, the Seattle Times Aerospace reporter (“Seattle Times Article”), Boeing’s “system safety analysis” of the MCAS:

  • Understated the power of the new flight control system, which was designed to swivel the horizontal tail to push the nose of the plane down to avert a stall. When the planes later entered service, MCAS was capable of moving the tail more than four times farther than was stated in the initial safety analysis document.

  • Failed to account for how the system could reset itself each time a pilot responded, thereby missing the potential impact of the system repeatedly pushing the airplane’s nose downward.

  • Assessed a failure of the system as one level below “catastrophic.” But even that “hazardous” danger level should have precluded activation of the system based on input from a single sensor — and yet that’s how it was designed.

Nevertheless, the Acting Administrator goes on to divest FAA of responsibility.


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In a somewhat ambiguous announcement, Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”), Michael Huerta, announced a “new” safety philosophy for the FAA.  Articulated in a speech last week to the Flight Safety Foundation in Washington, D.C., that “new” philosophy purportedly “challenges the status quo” by focusing on prevention, i.e., “finding problems in the national airspace system before they result in an incident or accident.”  Where problems do occur, the FAA foresees “using tools like training or documented improvements to procedures to ensure compliance.”  

Those would be noble goals if the public were not under the current impression that the FAA’s primary mandate of promoting safety of air transportation were not already being carried out with a primary emphasis on prevention.  What is, perhaps, more surprising is that the “new” philosophy is meant not merely to prevent accidents, but also to “prevent” operators (read “airlines”) from “hiding inadvertent mistakes because they are afraid of punishment.”  
 


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In a strange twist on the normal relationship between federal regulatory agencies, the National Transportation Safety Board (“NTSB”) has found the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) a primary culprit in the October 31, 2014 disastrous test flight of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, in which one of the two pilots was killed, and debris was spread over a 33 mile area in San Bernardino County, northeast of Los Angeles.  

 
The issue appears to be the grant of a waiver by FAA from the existing rules governing safety of interplanetary vehicles, despite FAA’s own safety consultant’s warning that Virgin Galactic was violating those rules.  The claim is that, while Congress did not delegate to FAA the authority to implement regulations as stringent as those applicable to commercial aircraft, FAA managers specifically ignored the repeated advice of safety engineers that Virgin Galactic had not fully complied with the regulations that do exist.  Specifically, FAA safety personnel claim that FAA managers based their decision to grant the waiver on the remoteness of the Town of Mojave where the aircraft’s launch company, Scaled, is based, and on the surrounding area where the company planned its test flights.  
 
In the end, the NTSB found that, although the co-pilot had erred by prematurely unlocking the rocketship’s movable tail, the FAA and the launch company bear a disproportionate share of the responsibility.  On the one hand, the launch company had failed to ascertain that a single error by an operator could lead to the ship’s destruction.  On the other hand, the FAA, acceding to pressure to approve the permit quickly, had failed to ensure that the company took this lack of redundancy into account.  Exacerbating the issue is the fact that SpaceShipTwo is one of three commercial rockets to crash in the span of eight months.  
 


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The Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) reports that close calls between conventional aircraft and unmanned aircraft systems (“UAS” or “drones”) have increased during 2014 to more than 40 per month over earlier reports of 10 such incidents in the months of March and April.  Some of these incidents have occurred in the busy airspace surrounding Los Angeles, California, Washington, D.C., and John F. Kennedy Airport in New York.  Some of these conflicts have arisen because untrained operators of recreational drones are unaware of FAA’s guidelines governing such use.  Those guidelines ask, among other things, that “hobby” drones stay away from civil aviation, below 400 feet AGL, and at least 5 miles from airports.  However, as FAA prepares to release its highly anticipated Notice of Proposed Rulemaking for small unmanned aircraft systems, the focus is not on hobbyists, but on commercial operators.


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Earlier today, in a landmark decision for the unmanned aircraft systems industry, the National Transportation Safety Board reversed the Administrative Law Judge Patrick Geraghty’s order in the Pirker case and held that unmanned aircraft systems fall squarely within the definition of “aircraft” under the Federal Aviation Regulations.  This is the most significant legal opinion issued to date on the issue of drones in the United States. 

In a twelve page opinion reversing the ALJ’s March 7, 2014 decisional order, the NTSB stated:
“This case calls upon us to ascertain a clear, reasonable definition of ‘aircraft’ for purposes of the prohibition on careless and reckless operation in 14 C.F.R. § 91.13(a). We must look no further than the clear, unambiguous plain language of 49 U.S.C. § 40102(a)(6) and 14 C.F.R. § 1.1: an ‘aircraft’ is any ‘device’ ‘used for flight in the air.’ This definition includes any aircraft, manned or unmanned, large or small. The prohibition on careless and reckless operation in § 91.13(a) applies with respect to the operation of any ‘aircraft’ other than those subject to parts 101 and 103. We therefore remand to the law judge for a full factual hearing to determine whether respondent operated the aircraft ‘in a careless or reckless manner so as to endanger the life or property of another,’ contrary to § 91.13(a).”
The Federal Aviation Administration’s success on appeal comes as no surprise to most members of the UAS industry, many of whom have already tacitly recognized the FAA’s jurisdiction over unmanned aircraft by specifically requesting regulatory exemptions to conduct commercial UAS operations under Section 333 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012.
 


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While many members of the growing community of developers, manufacturers and operators of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (“UAS”) have expressed enthusiasm at the National Transportation Safety Board Administrative Decision in the Pirker case, Administrator v. Pirker, NTSB Docket CP-217, July 18, 2013, their reaction should be tempered by the law of unintended consequences.  The outcome of the administrative action, which the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) has since appealed, acknowledges not only the FAA regulation that is certain to arise as a result of the Congressional mandate contained in the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, Pub. L. 112-95, § 334 (“FMRA”), but also opens the door to unrestricted local regulation. 

Specifically, Pirker’s argument is based on the assumption that the UAS at issue is a “five-pound radio-controlled model airplane constructed of styrofoam [sic],” Motion to Dismiss, p. 1.  He does not cite, or even refer to, any operant statutory or regulatory definition of “model aircraft.”  On that basis, Pirker alleges that his operation of the “model airplane” cannot be regulated because FAA has “fallen far behind its own schedule, as well the scheduled mandated by Congress,” Motion to Dismiss, p. 1, for enacting regulations.  Pirker again fails to refer the Court to the full extent of the Congressional mandate in FMRA which effectively disposes of his fundamental argument. 
 


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The Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) has appealed a recent National Transportation Safety Board administrative decision, Administrator v. Pirker, NTSB Docket CP-217, July 18, 2013, in which Administrative Law Judge Patrick Geraghty ruled that FAA had no regulatory authority when it fined the operator of an Unmanned Aircraft System (“UAS”) (otherwise known as “drone”) used for commercial photography, for operating a UAS at an altitude below that approved for commercial manned aircraft.  It would do well for developers, manufacturers and operators of UAS to listen carefully to FAA’s views because the decision, while preliminary, and subject to appeal through many levels of the Federal Court system, has opened the proverbial Pandora’s Box in the relationship of manned and unmanned aircraft and their joint, or separate regulatory frameworks. 

First, it is important for the UAS community to recognize that, while Administrative Law Judge Geraghty found an absence of regulatory authority in the FAA, the Opinion did not acknowledge the seminal issue of “the federal government’s pervasive regulation of aircraft, airspace and aviation safety,” see, Montalvo v. Spirit Airlines, 508 F.3d 464, 472-74 (9th Cir. 2007).  That pervasive control arises under the Federal Aviation Act, 49 U.S.C. § 40101 in which Congress expressly granted to the Secretary of Transportation, through his/her designee, the FAA, the tasks of, among other things, “controlling the use of the navigable airspace and regulating civil and military operations in that airspace in the interest of the safety and efficiency of both . . .,” 49 U.S.C. § 40101(d)(4), as well as “encouraging and developing civil aeronautics, including new aviation technology.”  49 U.S.C. § 40101(d)(3).  That express assignment of responsibility alone gives FAA “skin in the game.” 

FAA’s response more specifically addresses what it believes to be misapprehensions about the extent of its power and authority. 
 


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Responding to the concerns of pilots and the California Energy Commission (“CEC”) regarding the impact of exhaust plumes from power plants on overflying aircraft, the Federal Aviation Administration’s (“FAA”) Airport Obstruction Standard Committee (“AOSC”) completed a Supplement to FAA’s 2006 guidance [“Safety Risk Analysis of Aircraft Overflight of Industrial Exhaust Plumes”].  The purpose of the Supplement is to enhance current FAA regulations which only address standards for the physical height of the smoke stacks, and omit regulation of the impacts of the smoke plume emitted from the stacks, or the emissions contained in them. 

The Supplement is also aimed at obtaining definitive answers to the questions: (1) how much turbulence is created by exhaust plumes; (2) is this turbulence great enough to cause loss of pilot control; (3) if so, what size aircraft are impacted; (4) is there a lack of oxygen causing loss of engine power or danger to pilots/passengers; and, if so, (5) what is the harm to those pilots and passengers?

For two years, from 2008 to 2010, the AOSC conducted a Plume Report Study, which was ultimately determined to need further verification and validation.  In 2011, FAA retained the Federally funded Research and Development Center, operated by Mitre Corporation to answer the questions specified in the earlier Plume Report.  The Mitre Study was completed in September 2012 and verified both FAA’s model and what the earlier FAA reports and studies had concluded.
 


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It’s a good thing that Los Angeles World Airports (LAWA) has finally begun to pull the mask of safety from its plan to move Runway 24R in the Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) North Airfield Complex closer to Westchester Homes. According to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), only three of the total twelve runway incursions

With the advent of wind energy development, much attention has been given in the aviation community to the impacts wind turbines located near airports might have on aviation safety. However, a not so readily apparent impact that has not been widely addressed is the impact of wind farms on an important segment of aviation, agricultural aviation. Because many of the country’s richest wind resources are located in agricultural areas, an increasing number of wind farms are being built on leased farmland property. Wind farm land leases provide farmland owners a continuing income source. However, in negotiating, preparing and entering into lease agreements, wind energy developers and landowners should consider other potential economic impacts wind farms might have on farming operations which extend beyond the boundaries of the leased property.
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