Touching a Raw Nerve: EAA agrees to pay $447K to FAA for AirVenture

Skywriting at Oshkosh, AirVenture 2008

BACKGROUND: EAA & AirVenture

The Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) has been hosting an annual Fly-In/Convention since EAA was founded in 1953. In sixty years, this has grown into a huge GA event, and has been held at Oshkosh since 1970. It has indisputably become “The World’s Greatest Aviation Celebration.” For thousands of GA enthusiasts, it is a destination, an airshow, a family reunion, a party, an informational swap-meet, and a commercial bazaar. It is a very big deal. EAA claims the event attracts roughly 10,000 aircraft and a half million aviation enthusiasts (and family) each year.

The Sequester Threat (again!)

This year, related to Congress’ cost-reduction sequester, FAA announced EAA would have to pay $500K for ATC services. Needless to say, this caused a stir. And, that stir provided FAA with a three-week PR campaign which helped further FAA’s power to withstand the sequester. It finally came to a happy conclusion when a ‘settlement’ was announced on 6/13/13. EAA agreed to pay $447K; FAA agreed to provide their controllers, and to minimize their participation in the ‘Persona Non-Grata’ vendor booth. (…well, actually, FAA as much as promised that, because of the sequester, they will not be able to have much participation in the AirVenture dunktank vendor booth  this year…)

Depending on what you read, FAA sends 64-80 controllers to AirVenture each year, selected by FAA management at the Central Service Area. These are all full-time FAA  controllers/supervisors, so the selected employees would be paid anyway, if they were not temporarily reassigned to AirVenture. Thus, the $500K FAA demanded from EAA was not for controller salaries, but for the added expenses related to working at AirVenture, such as lodging, per diem, and overtime.

The sequester continues, so next year we can expect a repeat. On the other hand, this was the delicate year, because FAA threw the wrench at EAA so late, just two months before the big event. Next year, EAA will anticipate covering these costs, and budget accordingly. Or, they will throw their efforts at getting Congress to fix this problem.

A Chronology…

Some online research produced the following details, which illuminate how the AirVenture charge came to be, and the repercussions it is having on GA and FAA:

  • On 5/13/13, FAA officials informed EAA officials that they intended to collect $479K as fees to cover expenses for the provision of ATC services at AirVenture.
  • On 5/20/13, FAA Administrator Huerta spoke at a NATCA Legislative Conference. Much of his speech focused on stroking NATCA and expressing concerns about the need to prepare for the next round of sequester battles. His speech included this:
    “Although the furloughs have been cancelled, the sequester continues … and we still have to cut $637 million.  Yes, we were able to transfer $253 million from a source previously off limits, the airport grant program.  But we still have to cut $384 million from other areas by September 30.  This means we have to maintain cuts in areas like staffing, hiring, awards, contracts, training, and travel.”
  • On 5/22/13, AOPA posted an article about FAA’s proposal to charge EAA the $500K. AOPA President Craig Fuller noted that FAA traditionally covers the cost of deploying their controllers to Oshkosh, and this latest news was ‘extremely troubling’. Aero-News.net (ANN) also posted on 5/22/13, with excerpts from EAA published statements.
  • There was some precedent. The winter GA Fly-in/bash in Florida, Sun ‘n Fun, was slapped with a surprise bill from FAA, seeking to collect $285K in extra costs for ATC. But, that surprise bill was issued in April, when FAA (and NATCA and the rest of the Av-Gov Complex) were ramping up the campaign to push back against the sequester … even if it meant holding the airspace system hostage).
  • On 6/6/13, a group of 28 Senators signed a letter and sent it to FAA Administrator Huerta. The letter expressed concerns about the late imposition of these fees, which had never been demanded in the sixty years of this annual event. It included: “The FAA was the only federal agency to be given flexibility in addressing the impacts of sequestration. As such, for the FAA to demand additional payments for items that have been budgeted for in previous years is completely unacceptable.” The letter also asked FAA to provide a response no later than 6/13/13. [6/21/13: when this NOTE was posted, aiR was awaiting a call back from the office of Senator Baldwin (WI), to confirm if FAA did or did not respond.]
  • On 6/8/13, the editor at CalPilots.org posted an article, summarizing the whole situation and encouraging pilot-readers to join in on a variety of petitions. There was no sign of any ‘fix’.
  • Then, on 6/13/13, EAA announced they had reached a ‘one-time’ agreement, that had them paying $447K to FAA. Two excerpts:
    “…As far as we’re concerned, this isn’t over. We entered this agreement only because there was no other realistic choice to preserve aviation’s largest annual gathering. We also look forward to FAA’s leadership coming to Oshkosh this year to personally explain their policy to the nation’s aviators.” and, “…refusal of FAA services or not meeting the agency’s standards would have caused the FAA to void the necessary waivers that are essential for Oshkosh air operations during the event….”
  • On 6/18/13, J. Mac McClellan posted an article questioning whether the recent rash of FAA sequester threats shows a need to finally privatize FAA. Historically, the GA community has resisted privatization, but the success of Nav Canada coupled with the repeated failures of FAA to serve the Public, may be stirring real change. Mr. McClellan is the former editor-in-chief at FLYING magazine, and is highly respected. 
  • On 6/19/13, Bob Poole at Reason Foundation published Issue #104 of ATC REFORM NEWS, which closed with this line: “…it may just be that the long history of GA groups defending the FAA status quo and opposing ATC corporations is coming to an end….”

It seems fair to assess that FAA is trying to use AirVenture to leverage power against the sequester threat; it also seems fair to assess that, because FAA billed Sun ‘n Fun for $285K, they almost had to bill EAA comparably. What surprises me is that EAA was willing to pay so much. I would have expected FAA to meet them halfway, especially if they could get EAA to accept that a $250K payment for 2013 included recognition that EAA will plan to pay the full amount in the budget-constrained future. Then again, this may be exactly the agreement FAA was angling toward, and EAA refused to accept…

At any rate, we can certainly expect that if/when FAA officials speak at this year’s AirVenture, they will hear well over $447K worth of aviation wrath, which may drown out their spin-talk and nullify their posturing to defeat the sequester.

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The comments are revealing.

Some people are mad at FAA…

…Some people are mad at Congress…

…Some people are upset with EAA (who honorably did not censor out those comments!)…

…Some people (still) hate the Obama administration…

…but, to some of us who worked (or still work) at FAA, perhaps the most interesting comments came from the controllers and ATC managers with direct experience at Oshkosh, and/or personal familiarity with the process for selecting these ATC ‘paid volunteers’. One comment that really stood out was this:

“…I’m still proud of the job I performed and of my career; however, I long-ago lost pride in my employer.

A wise man once told me …

“When you play ball with the FAA they make you bring your own ball and bat. They will lose your ball and then shove the bat up your ***, as they tell you the game is over.”
…with this gained wisdom I fear
what the future could hold.”

This comment was posted by a retired FAA supervisor, responding to an article blogged by EAA. It sure made me chuckle. In my 22-years at FAA, up until the last few years, I never would allow myself to agree with the many coworkers who expressed deep disdain for FAA. From 1986 until 2009, I always had at least a few ATC coworkers who were bitterly distrustful of FAA.

I only began to understand this distrust after I was locked out in February 2007, and eventually fired 21-months later, in November 2008 … all to force me to ‘voluntarily’ retire when I became eligible in 2009. It was astonishing to see the power FAA had to raise hell. They paid me for most of those 21-months, to stay home and wait while they figured out how to fire me.

Those decades in denial, hearing my distrustful coworkers … well, I learned late: they sure were right.

And, the FAA records I have obtained since (through some persistent FOIA requests) show the extraordinary lengths to which many FAA officials hid key records, thus denying me the factual evidence needed to defend my job. These records prove all the more how corrupt and untrustworthy some FAA officials are. And the larger problem is that FAA’s culture allows this behavior, because nobody is held accountable. Anyway, here’s a link to a chronology that shows the extent of FAA’s corruption, when they strike out against their own whistleblowers.

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The quote above, cautioned what will happen… “…when you play ball with the FAA….” This quote, shared by a retired FAA supervisor, is minimally crude and maximally SPOT ON. Anyone wanting to learn more about the FAA — to understand its politics and what needs to be fixed — should spend some time reading the comments on this EAA.org blogpost.

…from My Lai to Baghdad

“Those who cannot remember the past
are condemned to repeat it.”
– George Santayana ( ~1905)

Two different times, but a very similar story

In the early 1970’s, just a few years after Congress passed the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was remarkably candid in a transcribed conversation:

20130413.. Kissinger photo, from Amy Goodman article at NofC

“…Before the Freedom of Information Act, I used to say at meetings, ‘The illegal we do immediately; the unconstitutional takes a little longer.’ [laughter] But since the Freedom of Information Act, I’m afraid to say things like that….”

This he said during the time period when the Pentagon Papers were leaked, when the Malek Manual guided federal managers on how to get rid of unwanted employees, and when President Nixon was authorizing dirty work like the Watergate break-in. This transcription (and many others) was not released to the Public until three decades later.

Fast-forward more than forty years, to today’s digitized world. On July 12, 2007, a U.S. military helicopter circling over the streets of Baghdad, opened fire on a group of nine men in an open courtyard. Two reporters from Reuters News Service were among those killed. Reuters sought information with a FOIA request, but they were denied. Then, in April 2010, a video responsive to that FOIA request showed up, via Wikileaks. It is viewable online (though it is a disturbing experience to watch, in what feels like a lethal and inhumane turkey shoot against people). Young Bradley Manning, born in 1987, later takes credit for giving that video to Wikileaks. Here is what Manning had to say about the video:

“…The most alarming aspect of the video to me, however, was the seemingly delightful bloodlust of the aerial weapons team. They dehumanized the individuals they were engaging and seemed to not value human life by referring to them as ‘dead bastards,’ and congratulating
each other on the ability to kill
in large numbers….”


Kissinger v. Manning…

One is a very gifted and accomplished adult, a Nobel Prize winner who served within the inner circle of perhaps the most corrupt presidential administration in U.S. history, though he never spoke up to inform the Public. The other is a young man trying to serve his country. He becomes aware of failures in which people are actually being killed. He likely feared that his own military organization would not accept his speaking up about the failures, so he ‘blew the whistle’ to the outside world, sharing stale records via Wikileaks. How stale? The video of the 2007 Baghdad aerial attack was nearly three years old when it was leaked. The Army had given Manning clearances and access to records, and these records were accessible to who knows how many thousands around the world. The Army was so indifferent about the possible leaking of these stale records, that nothing stopped Manning from easily making digital copies on music CD’s and camera memory cards. While his action put nobody into direct danger, it did inform the Public … nearly three years after the aerial attack.

One has to wonder: why did it take nearly three years for the Public to learn about the failures of July 12, 2007? Shouldn’t the military leaders have had an ethical obligation to share that video way back in 2007, when they reviewed the airstrike and assessed the kills and recognized that the strict military discipline of their soldiers had temporarily failed? It sure seems like the military should have been open; but, maybe instead, in 2007, they saw the need to sweep it all under the rug. Which has happened before…


My Lai .. 3-16-1968

When the My Lai massacre happened in March 1968, U.S. military officials were immediately aware of the massacre, as it had been fully reported by Warrant Officer Thompson. Predictably, the Army buried the story. One concerned soldier, Ron Ridenhour, quietly investigated, collecting details from fellow GI’s. When Ridenhour came home, he blew the whistle in early 1969 with letters to thirty members of Congress and other high officials. It took twenty months for the press to catch up with history, and share the details with the Public. This photograph, published on November 20, 1969, became the key image driving Public outrage.
The spin is another extraordinary and disturbing story. Initial reports included congratulations to the soldiers for prevailing in ‘a fierce firefight’. A mimeograph from an official press briefing read: “In an action today, Americal Division forces killed 128 enemy near Quang Ngai City. Helicopter gunships and artillery missions supported the ground elements throughout the day.”
Although hundreds were killed, the massacre was eventually ‘tidied up’ by attributing it to one junior officer. Most soldiers refused to testify. Eventually, that one lieutenant was found guilty and served time. No other officers were convicted. Such is the capacity for a closed unit to hide the truth.

In Kissinger’s time (and leading up to his winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973), we had the My Lai massacre. On March 16, 1968, as many as 500 Vietnamese civilians, mostly women, children and elderly men, were gunned down by American GI’s.

One American pilot, Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, was shocked at what he saw. While doing his job providing helicopter support, he interacted with the rogue ground units, and went so far as to question who gave the orders to shoot. He took action to get assistance for some civilians in need, then came back later to find them shot. He then took additional action to protect some schoolchildren, including flying them out of danger. At the end of the day, he reported what he saw. For these efforts, he was issued a ‘Distinguished Flying Cross’; he promptly threw it away, because the citation grossly misrepresented the events, declaring he had rescued an injured girl “from intense crossfire.” It was thirty years later before his heroics were finally recognized with a Soldier’s Medal, and a citation that more accurately read: “…for heroism above and beyond the call of duty while saving the lives of at least 10 Vietnamese civilians during the unlawful massacre of non-combatants by American forces at My Lai.” It took thirty years for this extraordinary military failure to be squarely acknowledged.


Baghdad .. 7-12-2007

On the day of the attack, US military officials in Baghdad said that the helicopters had been called in to help American troops who had been exposed to small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades during a raid. “There is no question that coalition forces were clearly engaged in combat operations against a hostile force,” Lt. Col. Scott Bleichwehl, a spokesman for the multinational forces in Baghdad, said at the time.
But the video does not show hostile action. Instead, it begins with a group of people milling around on a street, among them, according to WikiLeaks, Noor-Eldeen and Chmagh. The pilots believe them to be insurgents, and mistake Noor-Eldeen’s camera for a weapon. They aim and fire at the group, then revel in their kills.
“Look at those dead bastards,” one pilot says. “Nice,” the other responds.
A wounded man can be seen crawling and the pilots impatiently hope that he will try to fire at them so that under the rules of engagement they can shoot him again. “All you gotta do is pick up a weapon,” one pilot says.
A short time later a van arrives to pick up the wounded and the pilots open fire on it, wounding two children inside. “Well, it’s their fault for bring their kids into a battle,” one pilot says.
At another point, an American armored vehicle arrives and appears to roll over one of the dead. “I think they just drove over a body,” one of the pilots says, chuckling a little.
– excerpted from a 4/6/10 New York Times article

While Kissinger’s story may be new to some of us, we all know (and debate) how we got to Manning’s story. At the time of the aerial attack, we had been mired in Iraq for more than four years, and still had not found those alleged ‘weapons of mass destruction’. Instead, we found a lameduck president whose approval rating had steadily declined to less than half his ‘disapproval’ rating. And, we found an economy beginning to crumble, and clearly on the verge of collapse.

Our larger culture had disintegrated, too. We had become obsessed with security and control: airport lines and 3-ounce containers; ‘warrantless wiretaps’ and ‘state secrets’. The level of fear and distrust between regular citizens was peaking. It was the worst of times to be ethical and, by 2007, especially in federal workplaces, it had become an open season on Whistleblowers. The lethal failure of military discipline in Baghdad was videotaped in July 2007. In that same month, FBI agents conducted gestapo-style raids into the homes of citizens, connected to the Thomas Drake Whistleblower case. Why? Because Drake had exposed waste, fraud and abuse within the security hierarchy at NSA.

And we are still feeling the damages today. Some would reasonably argue that the fog of distrust in those years – practically a collective paranoia – eventually rotted the foundations of our political system to a point where real problems could no longer be addressed, let alone resolved. Where news outlets serve only power while knowingly manipulating the Public. Where we are, in short order, destroying the future, to the detriment of our own children.


Nobody Wins, and Everyone Loses

In  Vietnam or in Iraq or in the next hellhole, war is not clean. We understand it is filthy and horrific, and as Kissinger would agree, some damages are immediate, some take a little longer, and some set in years later, in illness or even in suicide or homicide.

In war, rules are broken, lives are taken. In a military context, a whistleblower can be very dangerous, such as if he or she tips off the enemy about an impending attack. But, once history has happened, the main hazard of a person in the military speaking up about a past failure is the risk of embarrassment to that military unit. It is an embarrassment and yet, at the same time, it is also an opportunity for the unit to improve its performance. Clearly, the value of a later disclosure, if it is used constructively to inform the Public and prevent a repeat failure, is far greater than the cost of embarrassment. That later disclosure forms the basis for Public trust of their military; the absence of that disclosure feeds Public distrust. So, why is Manning locked up?

Everyone loses when Whistleblowers are silenced or ignored. Indeed, the very existence of a Whistleblower indicates a corrupted work culture. Show me a workplace with open communications, where problems are immediately identified and resolved, and I will show you a strong and ethical leader whose employees are fully engaged, thriving, and productive; look closely, and you will find no Whistleblowers. On the other hand, show me a workplace where the leaders fail to support the Whistleblower, and I will show you inefficiency and fear and disillusionment and indifference and internal conflict … classic indicators of a failed and lost organization. You will also find a rare Whistleblower, if they can bear to stay around…

Whistleblowers should be supported, not attacked.

If President Ford could pardon President Nixon, then surely,
President Obama can
pardon Bradley Manning.
…why not?


Additional links:

3-20-2013 – “NSA Whistleblower Thomas Drake: All Doubts Dispelled, Bradley Manning’s a Whistleblower”
4-11-2013 – …link to the news story that inspired this article (thanks, Amy!)
4-16-2013 – Bradley Manning Update: How to Commit Espionage Without Trying!

An analysis of last week’s pre-trial hearings, in which government prosecutors are essentially declaring that anything posted on the internet might aid an enemy, thus becomes a basis for an espionage conviction. An excerpt: “…Making a government the final arbiter of what should and shouldn’t be seen on the Internet is corrosive of democracy. Claiming that merely publishing information is effectively terrorism is a nightmarish trashing of protected communications….”

Ike’s Concern about the Military-Industrial Complex…

…was it a preview of today’s Av-Gov Complex?

In his final speech as President, on January 17, 1961, Dwight Eisenhower warned about the dangers of a military-industrial complex growing too powerful and out-of-control. His speech is part of the public record, ready for any of us to read, and begging questions that loom even larger today, more than fifty years later:

  • Was he correct — should we fear that a ‘disastrous rise of misplaced power’, or an  unwarranted influence, might be gained by an immense military-industrial complex?
  • Was he talking only about defense and/or CIA, or was he also talking about other threats, such as from other ‘too-big-to-fail’ or ‘too-big-to-be-accountable’ entities?

In my opinion, he was absolutely correct. And, a brave and admirable leader to speak about it. Plus, he was not looking at only defense or CIA; he was also looking at Congress and agencies … as well as the rising private industries increasingly interconnected with government. He spoke of the reality: that organizations of all forms – private or public – tend to evolve toward a greater concentration of power and control, at the expense of individuals who see their liberties erode and even disappear. That these organizations will form a public affairs or public relations (PR) machinery that focuses very effectively on perpetuating their program, while taking public focus away from any negative consequences of that program. He also recognized (and he was years ahead of FOIA on this) that citizens MUST be “alert and knowledgeable”, hence the need for simple and full agency transparency.

It is an odd thing that, while we have this great internet tool with which to research and learn, we tend instead to blindly accept the abbreviated analyses of others. All too often, these analyses are crafted by PR elements within the ‘complex’, and designed to become widely accepted without rigorous thought or even basic knowledge. Some call it propaganda; some call it just ‘spin’. In any event, it is a problem to have a system requiring democratic engagement of all individuals, but where the participants lack real knowledge.

This problem is not so hard to correct, and to help that happen, I located a copy of Ike’s speech. I read it a few times, and did some light research about the history of his presidency, from 1953-1961. Tumultuous times. Here was a Republican president who served two terms, gave up a four-pack-a-day smoking habit, and had one heart attack and a minor stroke while in office. He presided over the emergence of civil rights equality for blacks, an issue delayed for nearly a century after the Civil War (and still not fully resolved, even today). He dealt with Krushchev and the U2 crisis and growing world fear of a nuclear demise, while also working with the rise of the CIA (which Congress had legislated in 1947). He witnessed the earliest alarms about the dangers of some of our latest and greatest technologies: DDT, thalidomide, even food colors. He signed the laws passed by Congress to form up many of the giant federal agencies we have today, including FAA. The system of Interstate highways is considered one of Ike’s greatest achievements; to build it, he raised federal gas taxes. “We cannot afford to reduce taxes, [and] reduce income,” he said, “until we have in sight a program of expenditure that shows that the factors of income and outgo will be balanced.” He thus felt it necessary to sustain the taxes until AFTER the expenses were reduced. What a novel (and responsible) idea, so different from today’s sequester approach. Most stunning (to me, anyway) was to realize that there really was a time in our past, when Republican Presidents signed bills to construct public housing and grant medicaid rights to seniors.

It sure seems like a long, long time ago…

Anyway, we all should form our own thoughtful opinions, and there is no better way to form your own opinion about Ike’s speech than to read it. Or, at least, to read the portion around military-industrial complex.

So here it is — Ike, 1/17/61 — with some emphasis added…

“…Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well. But now we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense; we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions. Added to this, three and a half million men and women are directly engaged in the defense establishment. We annually spend on military security more than the net income of all United States corporations.

“This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.

“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

“We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.

“Akin to, and largely responsible for the sweeping changes in our industrial-military posture, has been the technological revolution during recent decades.

“In this revolution, research has become central; it also becomes more formalized, complex, and costly. A steadily increasing share is conducted for, by, or at the direction of, the Federal government.

“Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been overshadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields. In the same fashion, the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity. For every old blackboard there are now hundreds of new electronic computers.

“The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present — and is gravely to be regarded.”

Text of SpeechVideo of Speech

Eisenhower and Kennedy, at the White House, December 1960.

The DoJ’s White Paper on Lethal Operations (use of Drones in Foreign Countries)

Pluses & Minuses
of New Technology

They are commonly called ‘drones’, and their accelerating development for civil aviation use is under the control of FAA, as Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), also known as UAV’s.

Welcome to a brave new world.

Drones are in the news lately because of their use in the past few years to eliminate terrorist threats in the Middle East. What used to be done with greased Navy Seals sneaking up out of the dark is now done remotely and digitally from thousands of miles away, in what appears to be a fusion of online gaming with the reality of assassination. Today, the online gamer flies the drone, identifies the target, and launches the destruction. The push of a button that would destroy a pretend enemy in a fun interactive game … that button push now kills a real enemy. The button is pushed in Nevada or North Dakota or (?), and the real impact is felt in Afghanistan or Pakistan or (?). Sometimes, innocent bystanders are added to the casualty lists.

Predator firing a missile

Much of the concern about drones centers on the absence of accountability in their use. There is a sense that drone technology, when combined with the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF, as approved by the U.S. Congress immediately after the 9/11 terrorist attacks) has made it too easy for a President to direct the pushing of too many buttons.

On the domestic front, concern about drones centers on surveillance and privacy. There is a perception that government (or, for that matter, private citizens) might use drones to spy, to invade the lives of selected people. Aerial imagery might show you sunbathing in the nude, or it might show that you are dumping tons of blood into a Texas creek (OK, this also assumes that YOU, as a corporation or slaughterhouse, are very much like a ‘person’). Some surveillance might be valuable, but some might be nothing but invasive.

What’s ‘Good’ about Drones?

Drones are smaller and quieter than regular aircraft, thus can allow for far more efficient use of resources, while also eliminating the noise impact. For example, most U.S. cities have traffic watch services and, everyday, one or more helicopters or small planes are in the air relaying traffic observations for radio broadcast, to aid drivers in their commutes. Thus, thousands of people living along these routes will hear the daily flights, almost like clockwork. Replacing them with a small network of drones would eliminate the noise, and save lots of fuel. Those drones could easily fly at around 1,000′ altitude, high enough to be unobtrusive, yet low enough to be safely under aircraft with real pilots.

Drones are an exceptionally effective platform for doing environmental reconnaissance. They are very non-intrusive (no need to endure all that rotor whine from helicopters) and they are more safely operated (if the helicopter engine fails while at low altitudes, the pilot normally dies; if the drone fails, the remote pilot takes a break and refills his coffee). Drone surveillance can be quite useful, too, identifying violations that constitute real hazards to public health and safety.

And, What’s Bad about Drones (the threat)?

Again, it is that privacy issue. We definitely do not want to see drones used as a weapon for political control. Used as Big Brother’s eyes and ears. Theoretically, we can eventually suppress liberties using drones. We can secretively spot activities, something as fundamental as the assembly of identified ‘dissidents’, and commence controlling activities (send in the troops, send in another drone with teargas – or a fumigant, strategize for the ‘removal’ of the dissident threat, etc.). An ugly picture…

And, while the current DoJ White Paper clearly focuses on the use of drones to deny Due Process to U.S. citizens (by directly assassinating them outside of our country), what happens if in another decade, the line is blurred and we justify drone attacks in Kansas or New Jersey? Another ugly picture…

The Solution: Accountable Drone Usage

Given the considerable benefits that can come from the use of drones, it seems the threat might be fully mitigated, by layering full transparency on drone usage. In other words, let local police, planners and other authorities use drones, but require that all data they produce be posted online, for everyone to see. That Texas creek filled with blood from the slaughterhouse? That event should have been disclosed to the world by the Government officials. The grieving families at the funeral of their 8-year-old daughter? Again, the evidence of this unfortunate tragedy, should have been shared with the world by the Government who knew the rest of the story, including the video record of the drone strike, as well as an explanation of what happened and their sincere regret for the collateral damage. If FAA and DHS are promoting the use of drones by law enforcement officials in my county (Clackamas County, Oregon), then my county sheriff’s office should be required to post a full accounting of when/where/how they used that technology; e.g., a log within seven days of drone usage, and including a link to stream the video collected by the County (and if they want to redact from that video stream, put the burden on the Sheriff to convince a judge that redaction is appropriate).

A copy of the DoJ White Paper (as compiled by aiR)

As a step forward, and within that same spirit of transparency, aiREFORM.com located a copy of the DoJ White Paper. This is the paper allegedly shared last week with Congress, to show the legal basis for drone strikes to kill U.S. citizens believed to have joined the enemy, with the requirement that the strike happen on foreign soil. It appears that a copy of this DoJ White Paper was provided to NBC News. They then posted it online, but made it less useful by adding excessive watermarks. So, a few hours were spent stripping those watermarks, and here is a full copy of the DoJ White Paper, in HTML, ready for your review. Hopefully, the processing errors in this public record are minimized and insignificant (readers who find errors, please advise, so they can be promptly corrected).

“The Alice-in-Wonderland nature of this pronouncement is not lost on me … I can find no way around the thicket of laws and precedents that effectively allow the executive branch of our government to proclaim as perfectly lawful certain actions that seem on their face incompatible with our Constitution and laws while keeping the reasons for their conclusion a secret.”

-Judge Colleen McMahon of U.S. District Court
of Southern New York, related to a
FOIA lawsuit (as quoted by NBC News)

 

The DoJ White Paper is an important public document, one that should be carefully considered and debated by concerned citizens. Such discussion is at the heart of our democratic process.

A few links…

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A letter to Tony Ferrante (AOV-1)

A PDF of the following letter was attached to a recent email, sent to Mr. Ferrante, who has been one of FAA’s top safety officials for well over a decade. The text here includes gold endnotes and green-box links to webpages…

January 21, 2013

Dear Mr. Ferrante:

I would appreciate your professional assistance to ensure appropriate FAA action to resolve a safety failure at the FAA tower in Camarillo, CA (KCMA).[1] This concerns a documented ATC operational error (OE) that occurred on 7/25/10.Œ This error had three ATC witnesses, including a supervisor (FLM) who failed to act with the required report. Perhaps the larger problem is that this safety failure has gone unresolved due to an ongoing series of deficient investigative activities by FAA management, at both the District and Service Area levels.[2] This matter was even shared with Mr. Foushee,Ž but I suspect he just reflexively passed it off (which clearly was not the best move, considering the purpose of Audit & Evaluation).

It is likely that you first became aware of this 7/25/10 KCMA OE via an 8/2/11 memo from Dianne Bebble, your subordinate at AOV-100. The subject of Ms. Bebble’s memo was ‘Report of Investigation: FAA Employee Complaint, Camarillo ATCT’. The memo’s five pages included a chronology of the OE and subsequent ‘investigations’; notes of the four interviews; a partial transcript from the ATC recordings;[3] and a list of facts gleaned from an ATC tape and interviews of the KCMA personnel. The production of this 5-page memo required a visit by ATSI Mark McClure, who flew down from AOV-210 in Renton, WA, to perform the investigation. Mr. McClure heard the tapes,[4] which were thoroughly consistent with the detailed account of a same-runway error, as provided by Ground Controller Mike Marcotte.[5] Oddly, the two other witnesses (both of whom had a vested interest to deny any safety incident) had no memory; i.e., both the Local Controller (Mr. One’ Nielsen, who has since been promoted to be a supervisor) and the FLM in the tower (Mr. Pruitt, who has since promoted to a busier tower) had no information to contribute to Mr. McClure’s investigation. Based on these interviews, Mr. McClure declared the investigation was ‘inconclusive’.

Please note, an ATSAP report WAS FILED by the Local Controller (Mr. Nielsen), but the facts within this critical record were not used (as they clearly should have been) to refresh the memories of Mr. Nielsen and Mr. Pruitt, and thus enable the conclusive analysis that ATSI McClure failed to produce (on his first try).

I trust that you agree, this is not acceptable performance by FAA. I also assume that you were not aware of many of these details when they were reported (or not?) to you in August 2011. Frankly, in an organization as large as FAA, it is quite conceivable that information often gets filtered and/or concealed and/or misdirected. Thankfully, consistent with our Safety Culture, we can easily and quickly remedy these failures.

Some online research shows that you are aware of the Peter Nesbitt whistleblower retaliation case. Mr. Nesbitt responsibly spoke up about serious safety failures at Memphis, TN (KMEM), including events where commercial pilots going around during intersecting runway operations had reported passing under other commercial flights with as little as 100’ vertical separation. You sent a 4/2/07 memo to Bruce Johnson‘ identifying this unsafe ATO noncompliance. Part of your memo stated: “…this ongoing lack of compliance with FAA regulations, despite the advice from ATO’s Safety Services, is unacceptable and requires your immediate attention to ensure compliance with the safety standards in FAA Order 7110.65.”

For the record, the issues at KMEM centered on unsafe operations’ on intersecting runways which management was failing to report, while the unreported 7/25/10 OE at KCMA centered on unsafe operations on the same runway. There is not a lot of difference between these two air traffic safety failures. Both represent clear noncompliances with safety standards. Both represent events that, had just one more link in the chain been broken, they would have produced real fatalities when FAA employees failed.

You are likely also aware that NTSB has included Improve General Aviation Safety“ on their top-ten most-wanted list. This is largely due to the much higher accident/fatality rate for GA vs. commercial aviation. Indeed, thus far in 2013, we have already seen fifteen fatal GA accidents” with at least 30 fatalities. At this rate, and consistent with past FAA safety oversight (which many believe is failing its potential to serve), we can expect roughly 500 aviation fatalities by the end of this calendar year. This is not acceptable.

When our organization fails to identify controller errors, and thus fails to adopt better and safer practices, we not only put pilots at risk; we also diminish public confidence AND we demoralize our best senior controllers, while destroying the potential of our new controllers.

Mr. Ferrante, I suggest our FAA needs to be more assertive in preventing GA accidents. A good place to start would be to ensure that all GA operational errors, such as the concealed KCMA OE of 7/25/10, are fully investigated. Give those two supervisors amnesty if you must, but get them to tell the whole truth. It seems reasonable to expect that, if we promptly conducted an assertive investigation and subsequent report of findings to hundreds of FAA and contract towers, it would reinforce the importance of maintaining same-runway separation. It would also reinforce the importance of timely and open communications related to systemic safety failures. And, it might just prevent a real accident.

So, would you please ensure this is done without any further delay? It would be so easy to resolve the ‘inconclusive’ status of the KCMA investigation by simply having one accountable official (such as you) actually read the ATSAP report and report its content.

Thank you for your service, and please let me know if there is anything I can do to assist.

Jeff Lewis
Former FAA ATCS/whistleblower

 


[1] It is my understanding that you are the Director of the Air Traffic Safety Oversight Service, AOV-1; further, that you report to Peggy Gilligan, who is the Associate Administrator for Aviation Safety (AVS). Please advise if any of this is incorrect and/or if there is another, more appropriate FAA official for this letter. I also understand you are a key FAA official behind the ATSAP MOU signed with NATCA.

[2] It is notable that there was no Local investigation. Two investigations were done belatedly at the District Level. First, in late September 2010, when Rolan Morel reviewed the tapes prior to their release under FOIA, and concluded there was no OE (though he never interviewed anyone, and his transcript erroneously added the word ‘turning’ to the taxiing arrival – you need to listen to the audio). And, second, in March 2011, when Jeff Cunnyngham did a phone interview of the Local Controller. A Western Service Area investigation was conducted in mid-June 2011; AOV-210’s Mark McClure flew down from Renton, WA, and conducted all three needed interviews for the ROI – a full eleven months after the safety failure had occurred.

[3] The key transmission was the ‘cancel takeoff clearance’‘ issued by Local Controller One’ Nielsen, when he recognized the arrival Cessna was still on the runway and being overtaken by the Cub departure on takeoff roll behind the Cessna. This clearly violates 7110.65 para. 3-9-6a and para. 3-9-6b.

[4] It is a measure of the lack of ATO cooperation that Mr. McClure had to obtain these tapes from the whistleblower, as they were not provided by local ATO management.

[5] Be sure to look at the details Mr. Marcotte provided at pgs.4-5. Thus far, the word of a credible and experienced controller has been completely ignored.

A Tale of Two FOIAs

The FOIA law was passed by our Congress in 1966, on the belief that each us has a right to look inside the government, to see how things are done. Given the nature of politics, it is to be expected that acceptance of this FOIA transparency principle has been variable, depending on who resides in the White House.

When the 9/11 Attacks happened, an emphasis on security caused officials to reduce individual civil liberties. The right of the individual to obtain various federal records via FOIA was cut back. The Attorney General at the time, John Ashcroft, issued a new FOIA policy on 10/12/2001. At it’s heart, Ashcroft’s memo basically told federal managers to err on the side of non-disclosure:

“…when you carefully consider FOIA requests and decide to withhold records, in whole or in part, you can be assured that the Department of Justice will defend your decisions unless they lack a sound legal basis or present an unwarranted risk of adverse impact on the ability of other agencies to protect other important records….”

The Ashcroft policy stood unchanged through the duration of the ‘W’ administration. Then, the Obama Administration did a complete reversal. On the very day he was inaugurated, President Obama issued a White House Memo. The first three paragraphs stated:

“A democracy requires accountability, and accountability requires transparency. As Justice Louis Brandeis wrote, “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” In our democracy, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which encourages accountability through transparency, is the most prominent expression of a profound national commitment to ensuring an open Government. At the heart of that commitment is the idea that accountability is in the interest of the Government and the citizenry alike.

The Freedom of Information Act should be administered with a clear presumption: In the face of doubt, openness prevails. The Government should not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, because errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fears. Nondisclosure should never be based on an effort to protect the personal interests of Government officials at the expense of those they are supposed to serve. In responding to requests under the FOIA, executive branch agencies (agencies) should act promptly and in a spirit of cooperation, recognizing that such agencies are servants of the public.

“All agencies should adopt a presumption in favor of disclosure, in order to renew their commitment to the principles embodied in FOIA, and to usher in a new era of open Government….”

Obama’s Inauguration Day memo started the shift. Two months later, Attorney General Eric Holder officially replaced the Ashcroft Memo with a new policy that declared his office would NOT defend Agencies who improperly used FOIA exemptions to conceal releasable documents:

“…pursuant to the President’s directive that I issue new FOIA guidelines, I hereby rescind the Attorney General’s FOIA Memorandum of October 12, 2001, which stated that the Department of Justice would defend decisions to withhold records ‘unless they lack a sound legal basis or present an unwarranted risk of adverse impact on the ability of other agencies to protect other important records….”

The official FOIA policy shift within FAA was decreed eight months later. Rosalind Knapp, Chief FOIA Officer for the Department of Transportation (DoT), issued a memo on 11/2/2009 which included:

“…Agencies are directed to respond to requests ‘promptly and in a spirit of cooperation’. The President also called on agencies to ‘adopt a presumption in favor of disclosure’ and to apply that presumption ‘to all decisions involving FOIA’. The President’s memorandum directs agencies to take ‘affirmative steps to make information public’, and utilize ‘modern technology to inform citizens about what is known and done by their Government’. The Attorney General, in his March 19, 2009 memorandum on FOIA, established a new standard for defending agency decisions to withhold information. When a FOIA request is denied agencies will now be defended by DOJ ‘only if (1) the agency reasonably foresees that disclosure would harm an interest protected by one of the statutory exemptions, or (2) disclosure is prohibited by law’.”

The final step in FAA’s FOIA policy shift has proven to be the most difficult. A President, an Attorney General, and a Deputy General Counsel in charge of FOIA for a very large Department can all clearly articulate a shift in policy, but it still takes years for habits to change on the front line. FAA is doing a much better job on FOIA in late 2012 than they were doing in late 2008, but there is still much room for improvement. [link to Seattle Times article]