FAA Threat – Warbirds, Volunteers, Experimentals

I’ve always joked that “FAA” stands for Federalés Against Aviation, with my tongue firmly planted in my cheek. And then last week happened.

The FAA solidified their stance on a couple official interpretations that threaten several types of aviation you should care about very deeply. These policies will reduce aviation safety in the US, they’ll significantly limit Warbird flying, and they’ll eliminate a lot of important volunteer flying.

I need your help to fight them!

Immediate Action Items

If you want to read no further, then please just write your Senators and Representative today. Tell them you:

  • Oppose the FAA’s change in longstanding policy that used to allow CFIs to give flight instruction  in Experimental, Limited, and Primary category aircraft for compensation or hire.
  • Oppose the mandate for builders and owners to get a Letter of Deviation Authorization (LODA) to receive training in their own aircraft.
  • Oppose the mandate for flight instructors to get a LODA to teach in experimental aircraft, in part because it’s nothing more than a paperwork drill that wastes government resources.
  • Oppose the FAA’s new stance that volunteer flying now be considered flying for compensation or hire.
  • Assert that these policies will be disastrous for aviation safety in the United States, threaten our ability to celebrate our heritage by flying warbirds, and have the potential to severely limit valuable community services provided by volunteer pilots across the country.

The Notice(s)

That’s a lot to cover. Here’s how it all got started.

Aircraft in the Experimental, Limited, and Primary categories aren’t usually allowed to fly for compensation or hire. As the Dothraki say: “It is known,” and it’s not a big deal. Anyone who needs to fly one of these aircraft for hire (a kit plane manufacturer or a warbird operator) requests a Letter of Deviation Authorization (LODA) from the FAA. Either the LODA is denied and the operator is stuck, or it’s approved and the operator can get to work.

The EAA has a list of numerous people or organizations who have one of these LODAs to provide transition training in specific types of Experimental aircraft. They assert that the FAA and NTSB both agree that this training is very important.

FAA Order 8900.1 Vol 3, Ch 11, Sec 1 allows Certificated Flight Instructors (CFIs) to receive compensation for giving flight instruction in these aircraft. Note that this compensation is for the CFI’s time, not any kind of rental or compensation for using the aircraft itself. The order also states: “Other than the person receiving flight training, the operation must not involve the carriage of persons or property for compensation or hire or be prohibited by the aircraft’s operating limitations.”

This makes sense, right? Anyone attempting to fly one of these aircraft needs to be able to obtain flight instruction to learn how to safely operate these aircraft. It also makes sense that you wouldn’t carry passengers for hire on a training flight.

The FAA and the pilots of the United States of America had operated in accordance with 8900.1 for decades, until the FAA recently changed their minds. You can read here in the Federal Register how the FAA has decided that CFIs giving flight instruction are now carrying “persons for compensation or hire”…those persons being the student pilot who is actively receiving instruction.

Suddenly, this means that any person wanting to receive any flight instruction in an Experimental, Limited, and Primary category aircraft must obtain a LODA from the FAA before doing so. Worse, the FAA has doubled the paperwork burden by requiring all CFIs to (separately and individually) obtain their own LODAs before giving that instruction.

Who is Affected

Anyone who builds or buys any Experimental aircraft, from an RV-8 to a Lancair to a Raptor (maybe? someday?) has to obtain a LODA. Without it, he or she would not legally be able to obtain training in an aircraft that he or she built by hand. This very idea flies in the face of safety. How can we pilots and the FAA itself have been doing this incorrectly for so long that it’s even codified in FAAO 8900?

You may not know enough about Experimental aircraft to realize how awesome they are. However, I bet you’d love to fly a warbird. I hired TPN Correspondent Chris Hicks because, among other things, he has a lot of experience in the warbird community. He sponsors a T-6 and a C-47. He recently wrote about his first ride in a P-51.

Wouldn’t you like a ride in a P-51? I know I would! Unfortunately, the FAA’s new policy will make it extremely difficult to get into this type of flying.

Unless you have millions of dollars to burn, you’re not going to just buy a P-51 and pay to fly it out of pocket. For most of us mere mortals, the best path to an aircraft like this includes volunteering at a museum or with a CAF squadron. You should plan to help sweep floors, wipe oil, interact with visitors, etc. for a while before you’ll get the opportunity to fly. Traditionally, some of the best opportunities have arisen last-minute. “Hey Emet, I’m taking the F4U up for a test flight. Want to hop in the back seat?” Duh!

This won’t get you qualified to give rides or perform at airshows right away. However, over time doing well on experiences like this, and logging the flight hours as dual received, does lead to permanent flying positions in these organizations.

Under the FAA’s new policy, this simply cannot happen. Instead, the qualified pilot and I would both have to submit LODAs to get approval. If you’ve ever worked for the Federal Government, or tried to get anything done with the FAA, you know that the average speed for this type of paperwork can kindly be categorized as “glacial.” Translation: Sorry Emet, you’re not flying the F4U today.

To be fair, I’ve already obtained the type of LODA that the FAA is insisting every instructor get. It happened far more quickly than I expected. However, this rule is still new and the word is not widespread enough. (Hence this article.) I expect this process to slow down. It did take several days though…long enough that a sudden invite to go fly an A-1 would been a no-go.

Another caveat is that once I start volunteering with a particular museum or squadron I could just submit LODA requests for each aircraft on site. These LODAs are good for 48 months, so it wouldn’t be an overwhelming burden for me.

However, this burden could be crushing for the FAA. The feds are so under-staffed and over-burdened that I’ve recently had to delay student solos because their temporary Student Pilot certificates had expired. The FAA couldn’t manage to complete an automated process to print and mail a simple plastic card with a deadline of four months. How can an organization so drowning in paperwork ever expect to cope with thousands of additional LODA requests each year?

In case you haven’t noticed, a lot of the pilots with the experience and means needed to fly warbirds are getting older. Someone needs to be able to step up and help continue the mission to “Keep ‘em Flying!” However, if the FAA’s new policy makes it even more difficult to accomplish those goals, America’s warbird flying heritage could be under threat. At best, access will be increasingly limited to the super-rich.

As much as this rule could threaten warbird flying, it’s really an affront to aviation safety. By making it more difficult to find an instructor who is willing (and LODA-authorized) to instruct in Experimental aircraft, owners now face a lot of pressure to reduce or simply forgo training. I cannot see a positive outcome in placing this deterrent to getting important training.

Make no mistake: enacting this policy will put blood on the hands of the FAA officials who set these policies and published these letters, and the FAA Administrator who appears to support them.

Double-Down – Killing Volunteerism

Apparently it wasn’t bad enough that the FAA suddenly decided to do an about-face on decades of safety-supporting policy. As a follow-up to the discussion that’s ensued over this decision, the FAA got worried CFIs might consider giving instruction for free to avoid the need for a LODA that authorizes flying “for compensation or hire.”

Even if their original flip-flop wasn’t ridiculous, you’d think they might have supported the idea that some CFIs are more interested in aviation safety than money. I’ve done plenty of free training for friends who purchased Experimental aircraft.

In response to this idea, an FAA prosecutor announced that volunteer flight instruction counts as flying for compensation or hire…because the CFI might get personal gratification from the experience or benefit from logging the flight hours as dual given.

This should make you very worried.

On the surface this new wrinkle may just look like a crack-down on CFIs teaching for free. (It’s America. If they’re qualified, why not?) However, this policy risks forcing the FAA’s lawyers to apply a similar standard in a variety of other types of flying. Things could get worse for a lot of other volunteer pilots.

14 CFR 61.23 has an exception that allows CFIs to give flight instruction for hire while only holding a 3rd class medical certificate. This rule also applies to military pilots using a Form 2992 (or equivalent) in lieu of an FAA medical.

Under the FAA’s new policies, will this rule stand? If not, all CFIs would be required to hold at least a 2nd class medical. This would mean the immediate, mandatory retirement of many older CFIs who have traditionally spent their sunset tours teaching under a 3rd class medical after losing the ability to obtain a 1st or 2nd class.

The FAA has also spent decades allowing Private Pilots to fly for free when volunteering with certain causes, and to fly for purposes incidental to their businesses.

The FAA’s new stance on volunteering could threaten many types of flying:

  • Thousands of critically ill patients could lose the benefit of free transport through the Angel Flight network.
  • The Civil Air Patrol would lose many of the pilots that support its Search & Rescue, firefighting, scientific research, and other important missions.
  • Thousands of animals will be needlessly killed every year because volunteer pilots won’t be able to transport them to new homes or no-kill shelters.
  • The EAA’s Young Eagles program that has introduced millions of young people to aviation could be crippled.
  • Becoming an Aviation Merit Badge counselor and taking your kids’ Scout troop flying.

The second- and third-order consequences of these policies could go on and on.

The Problem Children

I feel like any human being with an emotional connection to aviation or a passing interest in aviation safety can see how the FAA’s new policies are disastrous. It baffles me that FAA Administrator Steve Dickson, a former F-15C pilot and Delta Air Lines Captain, could let these policies through. So how did we get here?

A while ago, the FAA decided that an outfit called Warbird Adventures, Inc. was breaking the rules we’ve been discussing. The basic allegation is that they were selling warbird rides to tourists under the guise of flight instruction. The FAA’s sudden change of policy is meant to help justify punishing Warbird Adventures and prevent similar operators from trying the same thing. I want to believe the FAA didn’t even realize how far the effects of this policy would spread.

Whatever the facts of that case are, make no mistake: you, I, and the rest of the pilots in the United States are now wearing diapers because of what the FAA thinks Warbird Adventures was doing.

I’ll start out and say that if Warbird Adventures were breaking the rules they should be punished…not just for breaking the rules, but for all the trouble they’re causing the rest of us. That’s plain and simple.

And yet, there is a little hypocrisy in the FAA punishing them for this.

If you show up at any flight school in the country they’ll offer you an introductory ride. This usually includes an explanation of their training program, a preflight briefing, and a 30-60 minute flight “during which you’ll actually get to spend some time at the controls!” After the flight, you get your very own logbook in which the CFI you flew with will log your first dual flight training received. Then, he or she will try to sell you on signing up for a full-fledged flight training program.

Warbird Adventures probably had a LODA authorizing them to charge for type-specific transition training in their aircraft. Part of the problem is this type of LODA isn’t intended to be for primary or other training that could be accomplished in any old (Normal Category) aircraft. So, even if Jeff Bezos showed up and offered them $100,000 to do his PPL in a P-40 Warhawk, the LODA probably wouldn’t allow it.

My question is: why not?

Arguably, many of these warbirds are the most loved, vaunted, and well cared-for aircraft on the planet. Sure they’re expensive, but what if old Jeff bought a P-38 to fly from home to the launchpad for his spaceship flights? If he can afford it, why not get his training in it?

In contrast, the small grass airport I fly at right now has a very old flight school on site. The owner is in his 90s and lost his medical years ago. He has a pair of C-172 that even from 10 paces look so scary I don’t even want to sit in one with the motor shut down. Closer examination leaves me wondering how an A&P IA could possibly sign off an annual inspection for these machines.

And yet, the FAA is perfectly happy for this guy to train students in these aircraft. (Well, not this guy. Without even a 3rd class medical it’d be blatantly illegal for him to fly with a student. He has a friend who helps out doing the instruction for him.) Even if the FAA heard about how scary they are, would they even bother stopping by to do anything about it? The FAA says operations like this don’t need any oversight because they’re done using “certified” (Normal category) aircraft. And yet, they deem flight training in an immaculate warbird or factory-built experimental kit aircraft to be an unreasonable risk. This is utter hypocrisy.

I see a lot of other outrageous situations in Normal category flight training:

  • I know of student pilots who are sold on doing their primary flight training in a Cirrus SR22T that costs more than $1,000,000 new with all the factory options. These technologically advanced aircraft  are complex enough that they are more than any primary student needs. By relying on the glass, GPS, and autopilot, those pilots are known for lacking the simple stick and rudder skills to stay safe and avoid things like one of the FAA’s current biggest safety concerns: Loss of Control in Flight.
  • I have a flight student right now who just barely got his PPL and plans to transition to complex, high-performance aircraft and do his commercial and instrument ratings in a Piper Saratoga that recently had an engine overhaul. (Note to aircraft owners: A Saratoga is not a training aircraft, and you’d be a fool to rent it out to a student immediately after spending $50-75K on an engine overhaul.)
  • There’s theoretically nothing to stop some rich person from earning her PPL flying a Pilatus PC-12. The fact that these extremely expensive aircraft are certified in the Normal aircraft category doesn’t make the proposition of training in them over an Experimental RV-12 any more reasonable.

If Warbird Adventures was doing the wrong thing, the FAA can and should punish them. Realistically, they may need to clarify the FARs to close that loophole. However, there is no reason for cracking down on every pilot in the country and reversing decades of good, safely-supporting policy to punish one bad actor.

If the FAA really cares about safety, airmanship, and quality training, it might care to spend some time rethinking its policies on what constitutes a safe, effective flight training operation.

Short-Term Actions

In the short-term, you need to take some actions to help protect yourself, and to help communicate with the FAA the only way they know to listen: by burying them in a mountain of their own paperwork.

If you hold any type of flight instructor certificate (CFI) you need to submit a LODA allowing you to give flight instruction in Experimental aircraft. Please do this, even if you aren’t actively teaching or don’t plan on teaching in Experimentals. All you do is put your name, address, email, and CFI certificate number into the form and email it to an address they provide. It truly requires less than 60 seconds of your life.

Here’s the link to the form.

Note: the instructions for CFIs state that you should not specify a make/model or type of aircraft, or a specific registration number. It also says you don’t need to specify a home airport. This means your LODA approves you to teach, for compensation or hire, in any US-registered Experimental aircraft…for the next 48 months. (We’ll take a sideways glance at that again in a moment.)

Next, if you know of anyone who owns an Experimental category aircraft, please encourage him or her to also request a LODA. I assert that it’s important to get both initial and recurring training in these aircraft. Need a BFR, IPC, night currency before going cross country, help improving your crosswind landing technique? Do it in your airplane! This means the owner and the CFI must both, individually, have LODAs on their persons in the aircraft to do this training.

The LODA form also allows for an owner’s “delegate” to submit a LODA and get trained to safely operate that aircraft. So, if you know anyone who flies or might potentially have access to a particular Experimental category aircraft, encourage him or her to submit a LODA as well.

This could mean you should be submitting several additional LODAs for experimental aircraft at your airport that you may someday want to get checked-out in, whether planning to fly it on your own or eventually teach in it. It sounds like a lot of work, but it’s truly a 60-second process for each one.

If you’re feeling particularly sarcastic, you could dig through the FAA’s aircraft registry and submit LODAs for every warbird you might possibly pursue flying in the next two years. Don’t worry about whether you have the means or connections to make that happen yet. Two years is a long time. Better to submit the paperwork now so that it’s available if you need it. It’s like runway ahead of you, altitude below you, and fuel in your wings. As a pilot, you should want as much of all those things as possible.

The fact that the deluge of extra paperwork will make the FAA rue the day it let its lawyers set bad policy is just an added bonus.

Long-Term Actions

Those short-term actions are basically just you putting on your diaper to protect yourself from someone else’s mess. It should offend you that you have to do it at all, but it’s necessary. Thankfully, we also have some avenues for taking longer-term action.

As mentioned earlier, you need to write the people who represent you in Washington. Unlike us, they have the power to light a fire under the LODA-diapered backside of the FAA Administrator. They can corner him on issues like aviation safety (hurt by the FAA’s new policies) protecting warbird heritage (threatened by the FAA’s new policies), and the value of volunteer flying organizations across the country (also under FAA threat) and strongly encourage him to find a better solution.

Use these links to find your Senators and Representative.

It turns out that both the Senate and the House have a large and (hopefully) powerful General Aviation Caucus. If you’re feeling particularly civic today, you could write to other members of these caucuses as well. These sites list the members of the House GA Caucus and the Senate GA Caucus.

The next one is a long-shot, but I think it may also be worth writing directly to FAA Administrator Steve Dickson. Sure, his current job puts him at the helm of the bloated, out-of-touch bureaucracy that enacted these policies in the first place. However, I’d like to think that this is a case of lawyers getting out of control, leaving him as of yet unable to find a way to counter them. I met then-Captain Dickson in the Delta pilot lounge at the Atlanta airport a few years ago. He seemed like a decent guy. We discussed some big-picture issues for our industry and I felt like he “got it” in the same way that I did. I believe that he has the capacity to be reasonable, and he may just need some support.

I think there’s also a unique opportunity here for a very select subset of The Pilot Network’s members. It turns out Administrator Dickson was also an F-15 pilot in a past life. The men and women of that community have a unique culture that both mandates and celebrates direct, sometimes brutal feedback in the interest of making everyone better at the mission of fighting the commies and killing MiGs.

F-15 pilots: he’s one of you. Take care of this.

If you are or have ever been an F-15 pilot, I’d hope you might be able to communicate to former Eagle driver Dickson in a way that the rest of us just aren’t credible enough to do. If you can spare a minute or two, please use your unique ability to ask him what is going on in his organization. Ask how he thinks his actions will make aviation safer in our country. Ask how he feels about potentially becoming the fighter pilot who set the policy to abandon America’s Air Power Heritage.

His solution to this whole situation is simple. He’s in charge of the FAA. All he needs to do is change the FARs to state that CFIs can, in fact, instruct in an Experimental aircraft for compensation and hire without a LODA. He can also change the FARs to specifically allow volunteer flight instruction (and other charity flying) for compensation…as long as it only takes the form of warm, fuzzy feelings and flight hours without any monetary recompense.

Those should be extremely simple changes to make. They’re certainly no more difficult to enact than allowing some random flunky within his organization to set nationwide policy with a letter that flies in the face of decades of established practice and regulation. If the FAA Administrator can’t take these simple steps, then why is he there at all?

I don’t know if there’s an official address for writing Administrator Dickson, but I used this one:

Administrator Steve Dickson
Federal Aviation Administration
800 Independence Avenue, SW
Washington, DC 20591

Closing: Hypocrisy and Waste

As we noted, when a flight instructor submits a LODA, he or she doesn’t have to specify any particular aircraft, or even a specific make and model. These two pages of (electronic) paper with a mere four pieces of identifying information are enough to justify a CFI receiving compensation to teach in any Experimental aircraft for the next 48 months.

Every CFI in the country can and should simply take 60 seconds to submit a new LODA request every time he or she submits the other paperwork to renew his or her CFI certificate every two years.

So, what’s the point of this new policy?

Presumably, the FAA wants better oversight and control over what kind of flight instruction is happening in Experimental category aircraft. I assert that the CFI side of the FAA’s new LODA mandate fails to achieve that goal.

On the owner’s side, this process does nothing to communicate to the FAA who actually provides the training. It could be any CFI in the country who had the foresight to submit an extremely generic LODA. The form also allows an owner’s “delegate” to get permission for training. The owner isn’t allowed to “hold out,” meaning advertise his or her airplane as being available for training. However, the policy effectively allows anyone to get a LODA.

This does nothing to help the FAA know more about who is teaching whom, and in what aircraft. Even if this new policy didn’t encourage owners to skimp on or completely avoid very necessary transition training, how does it make things any better or safer?

The fact is: this new LODA process is just a rubber-stamping process that provides no more oversight or protection than policies that have already been in place in FAA Order 8900 for decades. It is a self-licking ice cream cone. This process will increase the paperwork processing burden of an organization that is already so understaffed it can’t handle the paperwork it already has to deal with.

Under this new process, you and I now have to pay precious tax dollars for employees to receive an email, pencil whip a form, and email it directly back to us…thousands of times per year. The FAA will probably have to hire extra workers just to cover this burden. We’ll pay for their salary, health care, retirement, and more. Yet, we’ll get nothing meaningful from it.

The FAA’s new attack on flight instructing in Experimental aircraft and volunteering in general is bad. It wastes government resources, it will decrease aviation safety, it threatens warbird heritage, and it fails to achieve the FAA’s own objectives.

The FAA needs to reverse these new policies. Or, the FAA Administrator needs to exercise the leadership authority unique to his position and direct some changes to the regulations that close the Warbird Adventures loophole while preserving safety, heritage, and our freedom to fly.

Please help me fight against these new policies. Please help me drown the FAA in LODA requests. Please write your reps today. Let’s do what we can to protect aviation in America!