What Is FAA Hiding from the Public? And Why??

FAA, like many federal agencies, has a nasty habit of expending lots of time and money working to keep the people in the dark. They are supposed to comply with FOIA laws, but instead they redact the hell out of what should be disclosed. Making matters worse, in recent decades it seems as though most in Congress are ‘too busy’ and/or ‘too inert’ to force FAA to follow the FOIA laws.

Every once in a while, we get a great chance to look past these barriers. Sometimes, FAA’s redactions become unmasked. When that happens, it is like sitting down with the devil, and sharing tea and a candid conversation. So much can be learned….

In this Post, a 27-page FAA memo is offered in two forms, redacted and unredacted. This memo documents how a safety investigation produced copious details and a strong recommendation for corrective action … which was then nixed by a higher FAA official. The heavily redacted copy was provided to an investigative report team. Seeing that so much data was hidden, they filed an appeal. An appeal response letter was eventually sent, rejecting the appeal, but somehow a copy of the unredacted 27-page was included in the appeal response letter.

Here are the two versions, presented as scrollable/downloadable/searchable PDFs. View them side-by-side. See for yourself what FAA chose to redact, when a reporter team tried to help the public understand how FAA was handling a dangerous safety failure involving commercial aircraft maintenance.

Click on the image below for a scrollable view. This is the heavily unredacted version, as initially sent by FAA (and after extensive review by numerous FAA managers). Click here to download the PDF file.

Click on the image below for a scrollable view. This is the full, unredacted version. Click here to download the PDF file.

The Background:

A few days ago, an aiREFORM Post encouraged readers to read the excellent investigative series done by the Tampa Bay Times. In the third article of the series, Nathaniel Lash showed how higher level FAA managers were over-riding the conclusions and recommendations of their field inspectors. The inspectors were investigating how a nut had detached causing an elevator jam, forcing an Allegiant MD80 to do a high-speed aborted takeoff at Las Vegas. This was an extremely serious situation that would have assuredly killed everyone on board, if the nut had failed while actually airborne. A similar failure caused the 1/31/2000 crash of Alaska 261, an MD83 that lost flight control near Santa Barbara and plunged into the Pacific, killing all 88 on board.

The similarities are in two troubling areas:

  1. the casual failure by maintenance crews to properly execute their tasks and to follow needed steps that would identify and fix failures (so as to ensure nuts do not fall off leading to catastrophic crashes); and,
  2. FAA’s gross failure at safety oversight, where key FAA officials knowingly allow maintenance crews to sidestep required procedures.

The latest Times article showed that FAA was found to be covering up dangerous maintenance failures performed by AAR on the Allegiant passenger jet. Note that AAR is a Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul (MRO) operation; over the past decade, airlines have been reducing labor costs related to employing their own mechanics by increasingly outsourcing aircraft maintenance to MRO contractors. Costs may go down, but so do safety margins.

JetSuiteX Blowing Off Airport Authorities, Still Planning Scheduled Flights Out of Santa Monica

We’re down to the last two weeks. On February 6th, a charter operator wants to add to the impacts at Santa Monica with the start of scheduled passenger service on 30-passenger jets, offering flights to San Jose, Carlsbad, and Las Vegas. It appears the airport has not been certified to handle this type of operation, that for example the emergency response personnel and equipment is not sufficient for a possible accident by the operator ‘Delux Public Charter’ under JetSuiteX. But, corporate hubris ignores safety, legality, and environmental compatibility.

The scrollable PDF below shows a recent article by Beige Luciano-Adams, in a local paper, the Argonaut. This reporter did a very good job asking questions and getting candid answers from both sides. On the other hand, attempts to get candor from FAA were rebuffed. Indeed, in this whole matter, the worst character is FAA. They are truly acting as a captured regulator serving only aviation, enabling JetSuiteX to compel the City to waste resources protecting the City and people from excessive and unacceptable risks.

A real aviation regulator would have put a stop on JetSuiteX in December, shortly after they started selling tickets online. A real aviation regulator also would have ordered JetSuiteX to cease selling of these tickets with discounts for Santa Monica residents, a practice that is discriminatory and thus appears to be illegal. A real aviation regulator would have worked hard to bring the operator and the airport authority together to quickly resolve all issues, trying earnestly to create air service, but rejecting the proposal if it failed safety standards and other requirements.

FAA has done nothing … which is part of the collaborated plan.

Readers are encouraged to study this article. Reader comments/analysis shared with aiREFORM may be added to this aiREFORM page, with or without attribution, at the request of the reader.

Click on the image below for a scrollable view; the PDF file may be downloaded.

To read another local article, and to also see an analysis showing how poorly JetuiteX has done selling passenger seats to Santa Monicans (despite the discriminatory pricing), click here.

Helicopters: the Wrong Way to see Grand Canyon

Five days ago, a pilot employed by Papillon was killed when his/her helicopter rolled over while being repositioned on the floor of Grand Canyon. [article] The air tour passengers had already been off-loaded, so none of them were injured when the fatal accident happened. In the five days since, there has been no new information; neither FAA nor NTSB has released the gender, age or name of the pilot, nor have any weather conditions or other pertinent facts been presented to the Public. We are left to wonder why this tragedy happened, and could it happen again.

There have been many fatal air tour crashes around Grand Canyon. In fact, a careful analysis of news stories and the NTSB accident database reveals thirty significant accidents since 1980, some fatal and some non-fatal. A few were horrific, killing six, ten, and as many as twenty-five. Even the minor accidents hint at air tour practices that add unnecessary risk:

  • crowding too many helicopters together at remote landing spots,
  • parking helicopters too close to picnic tables,
  • worker fatigue, due to long workdays for the pilots and mechanics,
  • lack of maintenance oversight,
  • lack of FAA safety oversight, etc.

Here is a link to a list with short summaries for each of the thirty accidents. Each dated event has further links to online news articles and NTSB reports.

Passenger photo taken minutes prior to the 9/20/2003 crash. (NTSB)

Passenger photo taken minutes prior to the 9/20/2003 crash that killed seven. Analysis of this and other photos showed reckless flying and endangerment by the pilot. (source: NTSB Report)

One accident that really stands out happened in August 2001. A tour group from New York filled twelve seats in two Papillon helicopters. The flights had flown outbound from Las Vegas, spent around an hour in the canyon area, and they had taken off from Grand Canyon West Airport for the flight back to Las Vegas. Just a few miles west of their last departure point, the helicopters crossed Grand Wash Cliffs at roughly 5,500 feet, then quickly descended a thousand feet into the space below the tall cliffs. One of the helicopters crashed, and six were killed. The one survivor lost her husband and both legs, and eventually won a $38 Million settlement. A subsequent NTSB report noted there were no local recorded weather observations. In fact, the nearest official weather reporting station is nearly fifty miles south of Grand Canyon West Airport, and is not adjacent to the canyon; the only known weather fact is that it was a very hot day, around 106 degrees Fahrenheit.

The NTSB compiled a detailed investigative report, which included the following insight into the helicopter air tour industry:

  • Investigators interviewed many, including the Papillon manager at the South Rim (Tusayan), who told NTSB: “The mechanics said that Kevin was the only pilot that they felt comfortable with on test flights.” (underline emphasis added)
  • The report suggested that pilots may be motivated to add more ‘thrill’ to the flight to earn larger tips.
  • One passenger from an earlier air tour flight with the same pilot shared her concerns, and backed them up with a copy of her air tour video. She described what air tour pilots call the ‘Thelma & Louise Descent’, in which the pilot crests low over the top of a ridge, then dives into the empty space on the other side. In her testimony, the passenger said her pilot did the ‘Thelma & Louise Descent’ at Grand Wash Cliffs, a classic location for this maneuver. She testified the pilot asked them if they wanted to do the descent, and they all said ‘no’, yet he did it anyway.

There are many professional aviators who have no love for those who make money using aircraft as a form of ‘thrill ride’. For example, the Sundance helicopter pilot who crashed into a canyon wall in September 2003 (killing all seven on board) was known by the name ‘Kamikaze’, and pilots interviewed in that NTSB investigation expressed many concerns about his long history of risk-taking. There is even an online pilot discussion, where a British tourist seeks feedback, with the title: Helicopter over Grand Canyon – which company won’t kill me?

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Grand Canyon is an extraordinary place, but it is certainly not an appropriate venue for aerial thrill rides. We can only hope that the latest tragic fatality will precipitate reform and bring an end to this dangerous form of flying.
GCNP Grandview Trail hike pic

What should YOU do if you are coming to Grand Canyon?

One of the facts gleaned while reviewing more than thirty years of air tour accidents is that very many of the fatalities are from Asia, Europe, and other parts of the world. It appears that Grand Canyon vacations are planned to be very special trips. It also appears these tourists may have been sold the idea that an air tour is necessary to experience Grand Canyon.

In fact, this is completely wrong. Just your first view of Grand Canyon will amaze you.

And, frankly, the helicopter ride is thrilling and scary when you first take off, but after that it is mostly just a lot of monotonous flying. And the noise you have to hear while crammed in the helicopter cabin…? Yeah, all air tour passengers are issued headsets, to help block out the loud noise. Too bad for those in the park below, as the ‘thump-thump-thump’ noise carries everywhere, for many miles.

So, please DO NOT book an air tour before you embark on your vacation. Please wait until AFTER you arrive and see the place, to confirm if you really want to give so much of your money to an air tour operator. And even then, please ask yourself one more time, ‘do I really want to make this noise that diminishes the experience for so many other visitors?’

GettingAroundGCNPMake it your first priority to stand at the edge of the Canyon and see how incredible it is, right there. Then, check with the Grand Canyon National Park maps and just walk some of the miles of flat rim trails (or hike below the rim, if you are more adventurous). The views will amaze you. Ride the free shuttle buses, and get out and find your own quiet vista point while enjoying the sunshine and fresh air. Spend a few bucks and enjoy tea or a beer or a pleasant meal at a lodge on the South Rim, while gazing at the view. The experience is so much more rewarding without the noisy helicopter, the stuffy cabin air, and the bouts of flight-induced nausea.

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…if you would like a quick video tour, please see page two of this
Post, which has embedded links to four different videos….