Monday, June 8, 2009

Dorgan should question FAA on glider exemption, whistleblower pilots

Dorgan should question FAA on glider exemption, whistleblower pilots

By: Barbara Hollingsworth
Examiner Columnist | 6/8/09 6:31 AM

Sen. Byron Dorgan’s Commerce Subcommittee on Aviation Operations, Safety, and Security will hold hearings this week and next, reportedly focusing on the Feb. 12 crash of Colgan Air Flight 3407 in Buffalo that killed 50 people.
Federal Aviation Administration flight inspector Christopher J. Monteleon told National Transportation Safety Board investigators in March that egregious safety problems he observed at Colgan a year earlier were never addressed.

These hearings to be chaired by the North Dakota Democrat are a start, but the subcommittee should not stop there. The FAA is still ignoring legitimate safety concerns, while many whistleblowing pilots have been forced into retirement for offering similar warnings.

The Examiner has run several articles regarding the FAA’s so-called “glider exemption,” which allows gliders to fly in shared airspace without transponders, making them invisible to other pilots. However, despite nine deaths, numerous near collisions and two NTSB recommendations, the exemption remains on the books.

The FAA still has not certified a $400 prototype device utilizing off-the-shelf electronic components that could conceivably eliminate the problem, even though its own study at Boston’s Logan International Airport found that even commercial and corporate aircraft with transponders routinely come within 20 seconds of crashing into each other.

Michael Schumann, a glider pilot from Minneapolis, has offered to testify before Dorgan’s subcommittee, but so far he has not been invited. “I don’t think they want to talk about collision avoidance,” he told The Examiner.

That would be bad enough if it were the only other aviation safety issue that’s being ignored by the FAA. But I personally talked to four former commercial airline pilots who all told me they were forced out of their jobs at major carriers for pointing out potentially fatal problems.

Under FAA Regulation 121.533, pilots are forbidden to operate aircraft they feel do not meet federal safety standards. But when they did their duty and reported their concerns, they were grounded and their medical certificates were suddenly revoked - even after decades of flying military and commercial aircraft without incident.

“They use the Employee Assistance Program [which provides mental health coverage] to silence aviation safety matters,” said one former Continental Airlines captain, who was forced into retirement shortly after refusing to fly a plane from Paris that had sustained structural damage from an electrical fire. Four days later, he learned, that same plane was still in service, with neither the crew nor the passengers aware of the danger.

Another former Continental pilot told me he was grounded after a 17-year career after complaining about a fellow pilot who ordered him to ignore an apparent malfunction of the aircraft’s automatic landing system causing the plane to overshoot. “I disobeyed him. Under FAA regulations, that’s part of the emergency authorization granted to the captain.” He claims his medical records were later falsified in retaliation.

A similar fate befell two other airline captains with military training, decades of flying experience and impeccable safety records who both said they were forced out of their jobs at United and Northwest by trumped up mental health diagnoses after pointing out hazardous conditions they believe directly endangered the lives of their passengers.

I don’t know about you, but that’s exactly the kind of pilot I want in the cockpit. You’d think members of Senator Dorgan’s subcommittee would be most anxious to hear from them as well.

Barbara F. Hollingsworth is the Examiner’s local opinion editor.

1 comment:

  1. Aviation Professionals must continue to fight and expose the illegal and unsafe practices that exist within our respective professions. Pilots, Mechanics, Flight Attendants, Air Traffic Controllers, and etc -- KEEP THE PRESSURE ON!