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??? "FAA relies on pilots to oversee other pilots"



Thursday, January 25, 2001

FAA relies on pilots to oversee other pilots
By Tamara Lytle
Orlando (FL) Sentinel


WASHINGTON -- The Federal Aviation Administration, short on inspectors, must
rely on a network of private pilots to do some of its safety checks for new
licensees.

That means a commercial pilot who wants to upgrade a license is allowed to
pay another pilot to ride along on the final check ride instead of using an
FAA inspector. That was the system used by SunJet, the charter company under
investigation in the crash of the Learjet that carried golfer Payne Stewart.

Record keeping of pilot training is in the spotlight in Central Florida this
week as the FAA tries to revoke the license of James C. Watkins Sr.,
SunJet's chief pilot. The FAA claims Watkins filed false training records
for two of Stewart's pilots, as well as others. Watkins and SunJet have been
under investigation since the Stewart crash in 1999.

One of the areas of investigation focuses on pilot training, which the FAA
entrusts to aviation companies such as SunJet.

In fact, commercial pilots can even have a pilot from their own company do
the final safety check if that person is designated by the FAA.

That system is not ideal, but the FAA uses it because the agency cannot
afford to conduct all the inspections itself, said David Stempler, president
of the Air Travelers Association, a consumer group.

Stempler said the Stewart Learjet crash raises questions about charter
companies and whether they should be allowed to do their training in-house
instead of sending pilots to the major flight schools.

Captains must earn licenses to fly commercially and then must be certified
for each type of jet they fly. They go through a training process that
involves classroom work and then either training in the aircraft or in a
flight simulator.

At the end of the weeks-long process, they undergo a test called a check
ride.

Watkins told the Orlando Sentinel on Wednesday that the two pilots in the
Stewart Learjet crash -- Michael Kling and Stephanie Bellegarrigue -- both
were checked by Andy Jones, one of the FAA's private designated inspectors.

One question lingering from the crash is whether the pilots could have acted
quickly enough to deal with the sudden loss of cabin pressure that probably
led to the crash. Investigators think the loss of oxygen caused everyone on
board to lose consciousness hours before the jet crashed in a South Dakota
pasture.

That raises the question of what sort of training the two pilots had.

The FAA revoked Watkins' license and accused him of falsifying training
records. Watkins said his paperwork may have been sloppy, but it wasn't
faked. He said there probably is only a 1 percent chance that pilot error
caused the crash.

"There's never been a plane crash caused by sloppy paperwork," Watkins said.

Watkins defended the designated-inspector program. He said the designated
checkers never know when the FAA is checking up on them and tend to be as
strict as the government-paid workers.

Inspector Andy Jones once failed two other pilots because they were unable
to answer one last question after a successful check ride, Watkins said.

"The FAA does a hell of a job. I'm the only guy in the world who lost his
flying license who would say that," Watkins said.

Another Central Florida charter owner, who asked not to be named, said the
designated-checker system works. Most people in the aviation industry, he
said, are professional.

"I guess it would go back to the old thing, if you want to cheat, you'll
find a way to cheat," the owner said. "[But] it works, and it is efficient."

The designated inspectors are not paid by the FAA. They are paid by the
pilots they are testing.

Watkins said the going rate is $500. He said he used the FAA's own
inspectors when possible because they didn't charge a fee. But that often
meant waiting three weeks to three months.

"There are literally thousands of these [check rides] that go on during the
year," said Gabe Bruno, manager of the Orlando Flight Standards District
Office of FAA. "We can't do them all. It's part of the way we have to do
business because of the demand out there."

The aviation industry, especially the charter companies, have grown rapidly
in recent years. The FAA also uses a similar designated-examiner system for
the medical exams for pilots and for mechanic licensing, he said.

Watkins also defended his in-house training of pilots. He had a $650,000
simulator at SunJet's Sanford facility.

"The fact is the training they received far exceeded what was required by
the FAA," Watkins said.

But Stempler said charter companies don't have training systems as extensive
as the big commercial airlines. Some use the two major simulator training
schools -- Flight Safety, which is owned by Warren Buffett, and SimuFlite.

"Just because you give Warren Buffett a bunch of money doesn't mean you're a
better pilot," Watkins said.

Stempler called them the "gold standard." But other companies, such as
SunJet, provide their own training for pilots who want to upgrade their
licenses for different aircraft.

"We're always a little concerned when companies are doing in-house
training," Stempler said.

In Central and South Florida in particular, he said, charter rates are the
cheapest in the country -- raising questions of whether companies are
cutting back on training to save money.

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