Keep it simple

January 1, 1996

The laws of physics and gravity transcend anything that the FAA can concoct. The most stringent regulation will not prevent all accidents; proficiency and common sense can prevent most mishaps. The main objective is to not crash or cause a crash.

Most pilots and even some FAA inspectors will admit that our current body of Federal Aviation Regulations is daunting. Some say it is difficult, if not impossible, to avoid breaking at least some small rule on every flight. But if you truly fly safely, chances are that no one will notice or care — because flight safety is the purpose of the regs. They are not the tools of torture that some believe that they have become.

The country's preoccupation with legalities and loopholes really has little place in our world of the third dimension. Most pilots know when they are pushing the envelope of common sense. If someone is guilty of poor judgment, does it really help to add more regulatory paragraphs? The pilots who consistently err in judgment don't pay much attention to the FARs to begin with. The law-abiding ones are usually not guilty of doing the things that the regulations are designed to prevent. Show them the boundaries and most pilots will stay within them.

FAR Part 61 is in the process of being overhauled; and while there are some clarifications, it is anything but simple. I understand why the regulations have become so cumbersome. The government has lost mightily at the hands of the lawyers and administrators. This problem is not unique to aviation. There are some really fuzzy-headed interpretations by both prosecution and defense that have created this difficulty. It's time, in the interest of safety, that we focus on what's important.

Operational rules are for pilots and are not intended to be picked apart by sharp attorneys. They could be administered fairly by a group of aeronautically qualified individuals who have not been infected with the disease of putting law above common sense. This applies to juries, pilots who try to slip through on technicalities, judges, and the occasional inspector. Sometimes you just have to put principle aside and do what is right.

Maybe we should have two sets of rules — one for pilots and flight instructors to use as a guide in the real world, and a more detailed, mind-boggling set for the lawyers on both sides to haggle over. Stay on the safe side of the simple rules and enjoy life; or enter the miserable nether world of legalities, never to be seen again. It's a choice worth considering.

What follows is an outline including suggestions for a few simplified regs for both Part 61 and Part 91. They are not listed in order of importance and may bear only slight resemblance to the existing FARs. In the interest of safety, they may be more restrictive than current regulations. If you fly within the boundary of the simple rules, you won't need to bother with the official ones. They recommend what pilots should do and studiously avoid listing every single possible transgression. If there is an accident and the pilot is around afterward, a convincing explanation will be heard with sympathy, and a poor one — well, we certainly can make the punishment fit the crime.

  1. Fly only when the aircraft is airworthy. The 1917 rules warned not to take the machine into the air if it were leaking oil — a good thought. If a flight-threatening malfunction develops while en route, land. (Here would appear a list of instruments and equipment appropriate to the type of flight. VFR day flights will need less than IFR day, which will need less than IFR night, etc. If a piece of equipment is needed for a particular flight, it is required; if not, then it isn't. This should be published by the aircraft manufacturer and standardized. This clarifies what constitutes "airworthy." Long, convoluted minimum equipment lists interpreted by the FSDO need not apply.)
  2. Pilots must fly high enough to avoid all terrain and obstacles. If there are people or structures below, fly high enough so that if the engine quits, you can land without harm to them. This is interpreted to be 1,000 feet above obstacles/terrain in populated areas except for takeoff and landing. (There are exceptions where one needs to fly lower, but for most of us this would work very well and could substantially reduce maneuvering flight accidents. Be a good neighbor and fly high — noise levels increase dramatically as aircraft get closer to the ground.)
  3. Fly VFR only when you can see terrain, obstacles, and other aircraft soon enough to avoid a collision hazard. This is interpreted as a minmum of three miles visibility, except at night, when five miles is required. VFR aircraft must stay 500 below, 1,000 feet above, and at least one mile horizontally away from all clouds below 10,000 feet msl. (Question — have you ever tried judging distance from a cloud? It's tough. Try it the next time you're flying IFR with DME or GPS/ loran.) When flying in the traffic pattern, practicing takeoffs and landings, one mile visibility and clear of clouds is adequate as long as the pilot monitors the appropriate radio frequency, if possible, to be aware of inbound IFR traffic to the airport.
  4. Fly only when you are proficient for the operation proposed. To carry passengers, the pilot must make, within the preceding 90 days, a minimum of three takeoffs and landings (TOLs) to a full stop in the same category, class, and type, if a type rating is required. If passengers will be carried at night, the above practice must be accomplished at night. Night TOLs will suffice for daytime operations.
  5. To fly under IFR the pilot must have conducted 12 instrument approaches in the preceding six calendar months and logged at least three hours of actual or simulated IMC in the same category of aircraft. (This suggestion is different from current rules — and recent changes proposed by the FAA — so don't use this now.) Otherwise, the pilot must take an instrument competency check from an instrument flight instructor. An approved simulator or training device may be used for logging experience or for the proficiency check.
  6. Carry enough fuel to arrive at the point of landing with at least a one-hour reserve. An alternate is required if, at one hour before to one hour after the estimated time of arrival, the ceiling is forecast to be less than 2,000 feet or the visibility less than three miles. In IMC, this means getting to the destination, executing the approach, and then flying to an alternate with a one-hour reserve upon landing.
  7. Pilots are authorized to deviate from any rule to avoid a dangerous situation. However, a report to the FAA may be required. Pilots will be judged on whether the problem was of their own making.
  8. When executing an instrument approach in IMC, pilots may land only when they can see the runway or associated approach lights at or above the published minimums and can maneuver to land safely. (If you'd like a good example of how complicated this has become in an attempt to close every loophole, read 91.175[c]. Crash on the approach and that's evidence that you didn't follow the rules.)
  9. Enter communications airspace (Classes A, B, C, and D in IMC weather conditions) only when you have established communications with the appropriate ATC facility. (I know; Class B requires a "clearance." It would be better to make it consistent and if ATC wants you to remain clear, the controller should say so.)
  10. Operate the aircraft in accordance with the pilot's operating handbook. Fly only within weight and balance limitations and at runways that are long enough to allow a safe takeoff or landing under existing conditions.
  11. Pilots are required to obtain weather and notams and to be aware of any known factors that could affect the safety of flight. A phone call, radio, or DUATS contact with FSS or an equivalent information provider will satisfy this requirement. (This will put some additional responsibilities on the FAA to get all the information in one place where a pilot could reasonably be expected to find it; computers do allow this sort of thing.)
  12. Any pilot guilty of careless or reckless operation may face suspension or revocation of certificates. The determination of guilt or innocence should be made by a panel of pilots. (The catchall reg is needed to deal with all the unusual situations that are not specifically prohibited but fail the "common-sense" test.)

Concern for justice and common sense should take precedence over the law. Naive? Perhaps, but the current legal arteriosclerosis clogs the thought process and complicates what should be relatively uncomplicated. Pilots must focus on what is safe and practical. Legality will follow; and if it does not, then the rulemakers and legal administrators have missed the boat.

See also the index of "Safety Pilot" articles, organized by subject. Bruce Landsberg is executive director of the AOPA Air Safety Foundation.