My fellow mechanics this is a cautionary tale based on a true story that could have happened to almost any of us. The details are intentionally left fuzzy as the case winds itself through the FAA enforcement system. This tale begins more than three years ago when certain hapless mechanics were first questioned by an FAA inspector about maintenance they had performed. As these men were used to a cooperative relationship with their local FSDO, they willingly recounted details of the work that they had done in response to informal – and later formal – questions from FAA inspectors.
Little did they realize that far from using these informal conversations to advance the safety of the air transportation system, these conversations were being gathered as evidence to be used against the mechanics. And so – three years later, yes, three entire years after first learning of these alleged violations – the FAA used the statements made by these mechanics to revoke their certificates. The FAA made out its entire case on the voluntarily provided statements of the mechanics. There was not one other shred of evidence against them.
So – while you might right now be saying, well, I would never do that. My experience is that people used to cooperating with authority figures – be they local cops, the IRS or the FAA – tend to do so, thinking that they’re innocent and innocent people have nothing to hide. Well, the bottom-line is you can be innocent and still be found guilty. And the cost of proving your innocence or that your words were taken out of context is very, very difficult and, of course, incredibly expensive. At the point that you are facing an emergency order of revocation, you have no choice – no realistic choice – but to hire an attorney or just mail in your certificate. While the hearing before the NTSB is an administrative one where you do not have to have an attorney, the reality is that the rules of evidence and the rules of practice are so complex that they require not only an attorney, but one knowledgeable in the federal and NTSB rules.
So, one of the few good things to come out of the Pilot’s Bill of Rights – which faithful readers of this column know applies to mechanics as well as pilots – is that the FAA must now warn mechanics in their letters of investigation that they do not have to respond to the LOI and that failure to respond will not be held against them. But if they do respond, everything they say can and will be used against them.
This warning – coming with the Letter of Investigation – may be enough to give some airmen second thoughts about responding to the FAA. But its warning is not soon enough when inspectors ask questions in the hangar or on the ramp – before an LOI is even sent.
Moral of the Story: If you are not as lucky as these mechanics to have a union willing to pay for top-notch lawyers (who in the end prevailed against the FAA), join PAMA’s Legal Services Plan – you do not have to be a member of PAMA to purchase the legal services plan. For pennies a day, you will have access to attorneys specialized in FAA and NTSB cases, if an inspector ever questions your work. The plan is managed by Yodice Associates, long-time defenders of airmen’s rights.
And always remember, other than providing the minimum information required by regulation, never respond to an FAA inspector’s question without first getting advice from an experienced attorney. The certificate you save may be your own.