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FAA Admits Inability to Closely Police Skies : Agency Resigned to Not Catching All Violators, Ambivalent on Immunity Offered to Errant Pilots

November 16, 1986|DAVID FREED | Times Staff Writer

Melvin Kornblatt was 4,200 feet over the Los Angeles Basin, piloting his small plane to Van Nuys, when his instruments and intuition suddenly told him that he was in trouble with those who govern the skies.

Glancing at his altimeter, Kornblatt realized that he had unintentionally flown 200 feet too high into that confusing expanse of airspace known as the Los Angeles Terminal Control Area (TCA). He had entered the highly restricted TCA without permission, crossing paths with a descending Western Airlines jet, according to air traffic controllers.

It was a similar incident Aug. 31 that led to the collision over Cerritos between a light plane and an Aeromexico DC-9. But on this day in May, 1985, as Kornblatt flew to Van Nuys, there would be no disaster, no rain of death on people living beneath the busy airways and Kornblatt would pay no penalty for having flown where he should not.

Filling Out a Form

By simply filling out a four-page form and sending it to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration after landing, Kornblatt, an Orange County physician, was granted immunity from Federal Aviation Administration sanction.

Last year, more than 5,000 fliers--most of them commercial airline pilots--took advantage of NASA's Aviation Safety Reporting System to avoid potential FAA fines and license suspensions, according to NASA.

The FAA, meanwhile, readily admits that untold numbers of pilots, wanton violators among them, regularly go undiscovered and unpunished in a complex enforcement system of more than 300 pilot regulations that is essentially self-policing.

FAA administrators say they are resigned to the fact that not all errant pilots are caught and are ambivalent about the procedure that allows other pilots to easily win immunity after they break the rules. They say it is because their job comes with an inherent contradiction: They must promote flying while making fliers toe the line.

"We're not big brother hammer in the sky," said FAA Branch Manager William E. Sullins, whose Flight Standards Division is responsible for investigating pilot infractions. "We're safety and education first, enforcement second."

Not only does enforcement take a back seat to other FAA priorities, it appears that the FAA's pursuit of errant pilots has slackened in recent years.

Actions Begun

A two-month study by The Times after the Cerritos tragedy found that from 1981-1985, FAA pilot enforcement actions in the Los Angeles area declined more than 33%, from 154 cases in 1981 to 103 last year. In 1984, 81 enforcement actions were begun.

The five-year reduction in enforcement actions, local FAA officials contend, reflects a national decline in the number of aircraft and pilots flying because of soaring insurance costs and other operating expenses. Fewer pilots in the air means fewer infractions, they say.

Yet the agency's own statistics suggest that, if anything, Los Angeles-area aviation is only slightly less active today than it was in 1981. According to FAA records, there were 3.89 million takeoffs and landings in 1981 at the 14 airports in and around Los Angeles with FAA control towers. Last year, there were 3.72 million, a 4% drop.

Dropping Objects

Records also show that between June, 1981, and June, 1986, the FAA pursued enforcement actions against 1,108 commercial, military and private pilots from Santa Barbara to San Diego for a myriad of violations--from ignoring crucial controllers' instructions to dropping objects to nearly colliding with other aircraft. But of the total, only 42 had their FAA pilots' certificates taken away.

In the Los Angeles area, 697 pilots were cited in the same period; 34 had their licenses revoked.

Of the others, most were issued non-punitive letters of warning, received fines, suspensions or, as in the case of Kornblatt, were granted immunity under NASA's 10-year-old safety reporting program.

"My experience was that if its something not too gross, and you recognize your error and you correct it, that's all the FAA is interested in," Kornblatt said in a recent interview.

sh Warning Letter

He should know. In another case, this one in 1982, the FAA sent Kornblatt a warning letter for violating restricted airspace north of Edwards Air Force Base. He said he had become lost in a dust storm on a flight to Mammoth Lakes.

Kornblatt is among an estimated 66,000 licensed pilots in the Los Angeles Basin who navigate through skies that are among the busiest and most confusing in the nation. By necessity and by training, the vast majority of local fliers are well aware of the inherent risks involved in violating regulations, pilots and aviation officials agree. Most, like Kornblatt, say they do all that they can to fly "by the book" and are quick to correct themselves when they do not.

But even in cases when a violation is blatant, the FAA is often hard pressed to investigate, agency officials say.

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