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Career Opportunities in the FAA

The stress is big time. For the past few months, you have been cramming your head with Fundamentals of Instruction, the federal aviation regulations, the Aeronautical Information Manual, and the minutia of every private and commercial maneuver in the practical test standards. Your brain is about ready to explode. You are on your way to becoming a certificated flight instructor.

But wait! Hold on! What’s the deal about the CFI practical test? You thought that your local designated pilot examiner—that friendly, fatherly type who issued your private, commercial, and instrument temporary airman certificates—was going to ride with you. You discover that you will have to present yourself to the local Flight Standards District Office (FSDO), and fly with an FAA inspector.

You’ve heard the tales. These FAA guys lurk in the shadows ready to spring a ramp check on some unsuspecting bloke in the hopes of finding something that will ground that airman for life. Or, during the CFI oral, they lock you up in a windowless room with a single light bulb swinging from the ceiling, seat you on a steel chair at a card table featuring a single burning cigarette in an ashtray, and grill you for nine hours. Time in a Turkish prison would seem a better fate.

Not true! Oh, sure. There are a few oddballs who go over the top and develop a bad reputation for the agency but, for the most part, such stories make for no more than hangar chatter. In reality, an aviation safety inspector is a dedicated, customer-focused member of the 44,000-strong FAA workforce whose primary mission is simple: aviation safety.

Relatively few folks give a second thought to government service as a career path, especially in the FAA. The average person wants to fly for a living. However, for those who have aviation flowing through their bloodstream, a career with the FAA is, to many in the agency, the best job in the industry. The cause is noble. The benefits are outstanding. A flexible work week is 40 hours: no more, no less. There are no 16-hour duty days and zero back-of-the-clock pages from the boss who wants to fly to Las Vegas in his Learjet at 0400.

With very few exceptions, the ASI is at home with the family nights and weekends. The pay can range anywhere from about $38,000 to $100,000-plus depending on pay grade and seniority. The work is diverse and, invariably, the ASI is out of the office in the field working with airmen, flight schools, and air carriers. On Monday, the inspector might conduct a checkride in a Piper Seminole and on Tuesday observe a check airman performing his duties in a Gulfstream V.

Although ASIs necessarily report to management, there is a certain amount of autonomy. Each inspector has a work program that must be completed by the end of the current fiscal year consisting of dozens of required tasks. These can range from evaluating check airmen and examiners to cockpit en route inspections to reviewing air carrier record-keeping to observing airman training. The message from the hierarchy generally is, “Get it done by September 30. You’re on your own!” (The FAA’s fiscal year runs from October 1 through September 30.)

For general aviation types, there are three tracks.

General aviation avionics inspectors are responsible for administering and enforcing safety regulations and standards for the maintenance of aircraft electronics systems.

General aviation maintenance inspectors are responsible for administering and enforcing safety regulations and standards for the maintenance of single- and multiengine aircraft used for pleasure, air taxi service, industry, and agriculture.

General aviation operations inspectors (the ones who do conduct CFI practical tests, by the way) are responsible for administering and enforcing safety regulations and standards for the operation of single- and multiengine aircraft (including multiengine aircraft more than 12,500 pounds takeoff weight) used for pleasure, air taxi service, industry, and agriculture.

There are similar positions on the air carrier side, including air carrier avionics inspectors, maintenance inspectors, and operations inspectors; manufacturing inspectors; and cabin safety inspectors.

Obviously, for anyone who needs to be close to GA airplanes and pilots, the general aviation operations job is the one to go for.

To fully understand the duties and responsibilities of the GA ops inspector (and maybe gain a little appreciation for that person sitting next to you in the Cutlass during your CFI checkride), review just a portion of the job description. It’s a lot more than just running aspiring CFIs through the practical test and popping ramp checks on flyers.

“Assures on a continuing basis that assigned organizations are properly and adequately organized, staffed and equipped; have and conduct an adequate training program, including an acceptable record keeping system; and have facilities and procedures that meet all regulatory requirements. Is responsible for the conduct of enforcement, investigations and preparation of final reports and recommendations on disposition. Conducts investigations of public complaints, congressional inquiries and aircraft incidents and accidents.

“Provides verbal and/or written technical assistance to legal counsel, testifies at court trials and formal hearings, and gives depositions. Coordinates minimum equipment list (MEL) approvals with the principal airworthiness inspectors.”

A GA operations inspector also approves/accepts or disapproves/rejects manuals, school curriculum, and revisions to such; evaluates training programs to insure that they meet the requirements of the federal aviation regulations; approves/disapproves designation of check airmen and makes recommendations on the appointment of designees; evaluates operations and facilities by on-site inspections and review of reports by geographic inspectors and others; and approves the original issuance of operations specifications and issues original operating certificates.

These individuals also are responsible for monitoring all phases of operations including: training programs and records, base and station facilities, and route systems—and for monitoring the activities of designated examiners, check airmen, and instructors.

There is a saying that goes something like this: “You join the FAA to give up flying.”

Based on the job description, there certainly are a lot of out-of-airplane duties. But, this is also a job that requires operations inspectors to remain current, and the FAA will make investments to keep its personnel up to speed. This includes paying for quarterly flights in equipment ranging from hot air balloons to a Gulfstream V if the inspector is qualified and the job requires it. If the ASI’s duties mandate and there is a definite need, the FAA may pay for that employee’s aircraft type rating in anything from a DC-3 to a Boeing 747.

One of the true blessings of connecting with the FAA is the fact that age doesn’t matter. The agency will hire talent in their thirties as well as in their sixties. It is an employer that recognizes the attributes that professionals of all ages possess. The 38-year-old may have been a chief instructor at a Part 141 school for the past 10 years, whereas that 62-year-old may have been a captain and chief pilot for a large corporate operator or airline. Both have skills that the FAA needs to accomplish its mission.

To qualify for general aviation operations inspector positions, applicants must possess an airline transport pilot certificate or commercial pilot certificate with instrument airplane rating; single- and multiengine land airplane ratings; a valid flight instructor certificate with single- and multiengine airplane and instrument airplane ratings; pilot experience that provides a comprehensive knowledge of operations requirements, facilities, practices, procedures, and flight activities of aircraft; a minimum of 1,500 total flight hours as a pilot or copilot; some aviation work experience within the past 10 years; a minimum of 300 flight hours within the last three years; a minimum of 1,000 flight hours within the last five years; professional flying skill as demonstrated in a flight check to commercial pilot certificate with an instrument rating standard; and not more than two flying accidents within the last five years.

Although not specifically stated, it is especially helpful if an applicant has some specialty on his résumé, such as designated pilot examiner, check airman, or chief pilot.

Now, really. Working for the FAA? Going to the dark side full time? The old saw is legendary: “Hi. I’m from the FAA, and I am here to help you!”

Well, there truly is a change in the wind at the FAA, and this change is making the place a better working environment. Although the antiauthority types will forever remain skeptical, the FAA has made it a definite goal to improve its service to the customer. The simple idea of recognizing the flying public as a customer is a quantum leap in enlightened FAA thinking. Additionally, there is a genuine effort to recognize the contributions of all FAA employees and reward them accordingly. This new approach is best illustrated in the agency’s Quality Policy Statement issued by James J. Ballough, director of the Flight Standards Service. It is the FAA’s new mantra.

“To be recognized as a world leader in aviation system safety, we strive to continually improve the way we operate and respond to our internal/external customers and stakeholders of today, while being prepared to meet the challenges of tomorrow. Our ability to be effective is dependent upon the dedicated contribution of each and every person within our organization.”

The launch pad for a career with the FAA is at its Web site. Click on the Jobs link. Survey the many job opportunities. Then, apply online. The instructions are all there. It is also a good strategy to establish relationships with FSDO management—preferably not in the context of an enforcement action.

One note: Hiring within the FAA is cyclical just as it is in the remainder of the industry. In 2005, there was essentially a hiring freeze. Some of that freeze thawed during early 2006. The best advice: Apply online, then get on with your life. It may take several years before you get that letter from the FAA inviting you to join the organization. If the FAA letter is not certified, it’s probably good news! Don’t throw it away.

Wayne Phillips is an airline transport pilot with a Boeing 737 type rating. He is a B-737 instructor and operates the Airline Training Orientation Program in association with Continental Airlines. He is an aviation safety consultant in Michigan and speaker for the AOPA Air Safety Foundation.

As originally published in August 2008 edition of Flight Training magazine.

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