When Clarifications Just Muddy the Waters

So, a week or so ago, a US federal agency issued a “clarification” about something that served to confuse matters farther. This is, alas, not rare in any bureaucracy, in part because of legalese and jargon, and in part because bureaucracies incline toward prolixity and complexity unless acted upon by an outside force, and even then clarity isn’t always as clear as one might hope.

This got me thinking about my own encounter with a federal regulation that, when clarified, confused matters so much that finally the FAA’s Head Shed had to step in and issue a new rule to settle things period end.

A little background. When you start learning to fly, you are not the Pilot in Command (PiC) of the aircraft. That’s the flight instructor, because he or she has the license and knows what to do. As you, the student, grow more experienced and start being able to handle the aircraft, you do more and more of the work. Eventually, the instructor gets out and you have your first solo. You are alone in the plane.* Once you prove that you can do that safely, you spend more and more time on your own, culminating in cross-country flights.

So. Logic dictates that if there is only one person in the cockpit of an airplane, that person is the pilot running the show. Thus the student on a solo flight is the PIC. That’s logical, and would seem to be the simple way to log the time in the logbook. This was not always the case . . .

So, back in the days before GPS and Alphabet Airspace, I learned how to fly. At the time, a student alone in the plane was NOT the PIC, even though they were in command. [waits for confused re-reading to finish] It was solo time, but NOT PIC time. No one was PIC, except . . . The instructor wasn’t in the plane. The student couldn’t count the alone time as PIC. Or could they? The question had arisen almost as soon as the ink dried on the rules for flight training and student pilots.

[More than one “warm” debate conducted over adult beverages focused on “can the CFI log PIC time while the student is doing a solo?” In theory the regulations said “yes,” but to my knowledge, no one ever tried to test the theory. OK, back to the story.]

Here’s where it got messy for me. I got my flight training in two very different parts of the US, which proved to be a good thing. However, the Flight Standards District Offices (FSDO, pronounced “fizz-doh”) in those two areas had different understandings of the “solo vs. PIC” time rule. It wasn’t a big deal to me, because I was just trying to sort out where I could and couldn’t fly, how to keep the green on the bottom and blue (or hazy white) on the top, and so on. After I passed my check ride, I started logging more hours. You had to have X number of PIC hours to start the next license, the get-paid-to-fly commercial license.

The FSDO out in Texas followed one understanding of the rules. The FSDO back east, another. All was well until I got ramp checked back east, and the Fed saw my logbook. He was Not Pleased. Why? Because, per one FAA office, I had logged solo and PIC time, and counted those solo hours towards the PIC total. This was NOT DONE back east. I could remove the hours and re-total the logbook, or get dinged. So I went through with a red pen and correction fluid and removed the hours. Which led to other problems later, with a third FSDO, but that’s a ‘nother story.

Two offices, two interpretations. The back and forth and confusion finally got so great that flight instructors and others appealed to FAA Headquarters for a final ruling on “what do you call it when a student is alone in the plane?” Logic at last prevailed, although not without opposition.

To the credit of the FSDOs, most of them do try to work on the basis of “what is the simple, logical, and safe interpretation of this rule?” Most of the Feds I’ve encountered are pro-aviation and want to keep people flying safely. A few . . . Well, large bureaucracy, you know how that goes.

*If you invoke your deity or protective angel/ancestral guardian/daemon/spirit animal, that’s your business. Unless your spiritual protector has a CFI or other FAA-issued pilot’s certificate, you are alone in the plane for legal purposes.


10 thoughts on “When Clarifications Just Muddy the Waters

  1. “The Law is the true embodiment/Of everything that’s excellent./It has no kind of fault or flaw/And I, my lords, embody the law!”

  2. Ah yes, government bureaucrats issuing confusing, complex and contradictory regulations is sadly all too common place.

    After reviewing the Three Mile Island accident an issue arose that due to the physical layout of the specific plant design that the operators had no direct indication of the water level in the reactor vessel. They inferred the water level based on indirect instrumentation and initially got it wrong. The NRC decided that this lack of direct measurement of reactor vessel water level was definitely not good. Therefore, a rule was promulgated to retrofit instruments to directly measure water level to ALL existing commercial power plants (not just those that shared the TMI design) by a given date. The problem was that this was not a trivial exercise. First the technology to measure water level inside a pressure vessel operating at approximately 2000 psi and 550 degrees Fahrenheit with incredibly high radiation levels simply did not exist. Second, drilling holes in said pressure vessel simply could not be done without compromising the integrity of the pressure vessel. After much “Clarification” and “Elephant Mating” dates fo compliance were renegotiated, technology was developed and tested, and installation methods worked out that maintained the integrity of the pressure vessel.

  3. It probably says something terrible about my brain that I recognize the use for the person-flying-the-plane pilot not being the person-responsible-for-plane’s-flight pilot, even when the former isn’t on the plane with the latter.

    • No, it says that you’ve been around this sort of matter before. Once you learn “this is crazy illogical and we do it because X,” you recognize it in the wild.

  4. To paraphrase Thomas Sowell, of all the ways of making decisions, to put them in the hands of people who pay no price for being wrong must surely be among the worst-and most confusing.

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