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Together The FAA And Pilots Make Aviation

By Dennis Logue

Pilots often describe their feelings about the Federal Aviation Administration with ironic humor—"I’m from the FAA, and I’m here to help you." Usually, this line ignites laughter, even in the most ludicrous situations.

But have you ever wondered what kind of humor FAAers use in the FSDO lunchroom or tower cab while you’re slipping your aerobatic mount onto the runway threshold? What if it went something like this: "At the FAA hearing this Pitts pilot said, ‘I’m with the IAC, and I’m the safest pilot at the airport because I can do things with a plane no one else can!’" And the people in the lunchroom erupt into uproarious laughter.

Whether FAAers partake of ironic humor is conjecture on my part, but neither the FAA’s employees nor aviators can ignore or deny that they are inexorably linked. I emphasize employees because the FAA is not a machine—it’s composed of people. As mandated by Congress, their job is aviation safety, and safety is the bridge that connects FAAers and aviators. Sadly, few of us ever walk onto that bridge to meet in the middle.

As the new president of IAC Chapter 36, I walked onto the bridge because the Chapter’s aerobatic box at Borrego Springs, near San Diego, was being threatened, and we had no other place to turn. In doing so I learned a lot about my own misconceptions about the FAA and that there’s a symbiotic relationship that exists between the two groups.

At the middle of the bridge, willing to listen to any solution that would save the Chapter’s aerobatic box, I met the San Diego FSDO team and, after some cautious exploration and engagements, formed an unspoken partnership with this team and its leader, Jerome "Jerry" Pendzick.

There are two sides to every story, and this is mine. Jerry’s side of the story follows this article. I never imagined that the battle for Borrego would evolve as it did, so I didn’t take any notes about what happened on what days. Perhaps Jerry did. My dates would be guesses, so I’ll exclude them.

When we first met, I have no idea what Jerry’s first impression of me was. It makes no difference because the story ends in friendship and a continuing partnership. And some of the best friendships are those that get off on the wrong foot.

First Contact
In October 1999 I was the typical "do whatever I can to help" vice president of IAC Chapter 36. After its last contest of the year, the Chapter elects its new officers, and President Bill Bancroft nominated me as his successor and made a motion that I assume the office immediately so I’d have a running start on 2000.

Two days after the Chapter members elected me president, Bill received a letter from the San Diego FSDO and sent it to me unopened. That letter changed our club dramatically and accelerated my on-the-job training to light speed. It said the FAA would review community and local government concerns before considering the renewal of the waiver for the Chapter’s aerobatic box.

Giving the date, time, and location of the review meeting in the letter, FSDO Manager Robert Palmer directed me to contact Jerome Pendzick. (Palmer was retiring from the FAA, and Jerry was his successor.) Not sure what to do, I consulted the Chapter’s senior statesmen. Their replies ranged from "We’re screwed!" to "Don’t tell the FAA anything!"

Still, the FAA letter requested my reply. I had to call.

When I called the FSDO, the voice on the line was cold, crisp, and direct, "Jerry Pendzick."

More bad news, I thought. I’m talking to a machine, but it’s alive.

After introducing myself (I don’t think I told him I had 48 hours of presidential experience), I said the club’s officers would attend the meeting. When I asked what the meeting would be like, Jerry said it would be an open discussion. Then, remembering the senior statesmen’s advice, I stopped giving and seeking more information. This misconception would reveal itself at the meeting and bite me in the butt.

Jerry said the community was upset, and that the airport manager and members of the community were concerned about our abusive and unsafe behavior. Huh? In 48 hours I learned about a problem I didn’t know existed, and I didn’t have an answer for it. Repeating that the officers would attend the meeting, I hung up and thought, "I’m not really supposed to be president until next year—can I legally resign?"

And then I thought about something I’d learned in a team-building class. When building a team or relationship, approaching the person you fear the most is sometimes the best thing to do. Calling him back, I made an appointment to meet Jerry at his office. He had a noon meeting, but he said 11 a.m. would work. "Great," I thought. "At worst, I can only be beaten for an hour before he has to leave for his lunch meeting."

First Meeting
Walking into the FSDO I felt like a fifth grader heading into the principal’s office. I’m giving away my age, but the vision of a leather belt came to mind, even though I knew the FAA doesn’t ever allow such abuse. And I heard the voices from my flying past—"They’ll ramp check you and pull your ticket if you have an out-of-date chart hidden in your basement!"

When Jerry came around the corner I knew Chapter 36 was screwed. The voice. The jaw. It was Yul Brynner from the movie Westworld. I don’t think he was wearing all black, but I was too nervous to remember. I just knew this guy shot to kill! And I was angry about Bill Bancroft’s early departure. January would have been a fine inaugural date!

Introducing himself, Jerry was clearly all business, and everything was as my peers had described it. This wasn’t going to be easy. I knew all negotiations are based on give and take, and good negotiations contain a win-win solution. But we pilots didn’t have anything to give or offer. We were in trouble, and I could only see us as a group coming in and asking for a big favor.

I’d learned enough about relationships to know that there are some simple guidelines. Clear communication is one, but the first impression is the most critical. Mine wasn’t very good. Stumbling for words, I introduced myself and told the truth because I didn’t have anything creative to say. "I’m the new president of Chapter 36, and I have to be honest and tell you that I’m in over my head right now. What’s this community meeting going to be like? What are we supposed to do?"

"The community is upset, and we’re going to bring everyone together to see if we can sort this thing out," Jerry said. "They have some serious concerns about your club and its impact on the community."

Jerry then explained that things would not be the way they used to be and that the club would
have to make some concessions. I said the Chapter would participate in good faith and arrive with a sincere attitude. Jerry seemed pleased with that response, and then he left for his lunch meeting on schedule.

Before the town meeting I told Jerry about the Chapter’s background and its safety record. I didn’t think he was listening or that this information made a difference, but I realize now that he was being neutral.

He informed me about some of the alleged infractions our members had committed, including several incidents of verbal conflicts with Borrego residents who’d come to the airport to complain about the noise. None involved the safety of the aerobatic box or our safety while working in it. Other complaints involved undocumented discourtesy in the pattern.

In discussing these incidents with the Chapter officers and persons accused, it seemed like the irate resident had provoked our pilots into heated discussions. The traffic pattern conflicts, while aggravating, never generated a real safety problem and were pretty common for nontowered airports in remote areas. In both cases, lack of clear communication was the problem. A pilot would announce his position in the regular pattern and unknowingly cut off someone on a three-mile straight-in approach. At least those were our pilots’ recollections. Thus prepared, we thought ourselves ready to address the community’s concerns with clarification and preventative measures.

Town Meeting
Jerry surprised me at the town meeting. He introduced me and asked that I explain what our club does, what the box is for, and why it’s so important to us. Not expecting to give such an overview, I wasn’t prepared to wrestle my thoughts into coherent speech. My nervousness and presidential immaturity shined brightly, and I broke the third rule of Business Meetings 101—Never let them see you sweat!

Stumbling and stammering through the Chapter’s origin, its impeccable safety record, and the purpose of the aerobatic box, I tried to present some compelling reason why our club was an asset to the community. As I got into my weak areas, I asked other members to give their thoughts. It was perhaps my least successful delivery in many years.

When we finished Jerry asked for someone to present the community’s position. Purposely not naming a spokesperson, the members of the community presented their demands individually and as a group said the Chapter would have to listen to and satisfy each one of them before we could fly in their town.

This caused a distinct change in Jerry’s attitude. Aviation was coming under assault, and the FAA was coming to its defense. He politely explained to the residents that their dislike of airport noise didn’t give them the right to shut down the airport. After detailing the FAA’s responsibility, he explained the community’s responsibility to live with the airport for which it had accepted considerable federal funds.

To start negotiating a solution, Jerry asked each side to offer an initial concession. The community offered none, and the Chapter voted that its officers remain silent during the first meeting. In hindsight, this cost the Chapter considerable points. Offering even the smallest concession would have helped Jerry break the ice, and we’ll never know how much our stonewalling cost us.

Frustrated by this lack of cooperation, Jerry issued the next meeting date and said both sides had "better come prepared to negotiate!"

Then the county representative produced a letter from the county supervisor that requested the FAA deny the waiver because of the Chapter’s blatant safety violations, the Chapter’s rude behavior, and the discomfort the Chapter caused the community. And the airport manager chimed in on the side of the county supervisor. The members of the community were smiling because they had known about the letter before it was introduced.

My version of the FAA myth melted as Jerry stepped into the line of fire and said he would extend the waiver through March, pending the results of the next meeting. He then presented the facts on the Chapter’s and IAC’s exceptional safety record, adding that we were not stunt pilots, but pilots who worked to improve our flying skills and precision. The man had obviously done his homework.

I wasn’t sure what had happened, but I realized that I had some serious misconceptions about how the FAA works. Over the coming weeks, Jerry and I communicated frequently as I explained some of the things we were willing to negotiate. At that time I was negotiating directly with the county representative who said we could "broker a deal" before the next meeting, and I kept Jerry informed of all the details so he’d see that we were working in earnest to achieve an equitable solution.

The "brokered deal" ended up being a smoke screen. The day before the second meeting Jerry received a fax from the county representative explaining that it refused to accept any compromise and that, in the interest of public safety, it must insist that the FAA deny the waiver. The county and community were canceling the meeting, and the supervisor insisted that the airport manager remove her permission to use the box.

Jerry called me after receiving the fax and said the second meeting wasn’t going to happen. He sounded perturbed by the county’s position. I asked if the Chapter could present its written proposal as a show of good faith (and proof that the club had sincerely negotiated for a fair solution should a legal battle ensue). Jerry agreed to meet with the Chapter at the scheduled second meeting.

Oddly, two park rangers from the community came to the second meeting because they didn’t get word of its cancellation. Jerry explained how the county had negotiated in poor faith and defended our cause. He closed the meeting by saying his hands were tied because the politicians had ordered the airport manager to disallow our flight. The extension to our waiver would remain in effect until April 1, 2000, to give us time to make other arrangements.

The Partnership Forms
Over the next five weeks Jerry counseled me on how to get a new aerobatic box and pointed me in directions where I might find legal precedence that could overturn the Borrego decision. "You guys are being screwed, and my hands are tied," Jerry said. "I’ll do everything I can to help you guys find another home." His help included the name of a good aviation lawyer who’d beaten him in a court case and visiting with the FAA region’s general counsel to see if the FAA attorneys could find a loophole. They didn’t.

As the extension drew to a close, my respect and friendship with Jerry solidified. We’d fought together in the trenches to preserve some pilots’ rights to fly. In defeat, I decided the least I could do was write a letter of appreciation about his assistance and send it directly to FAA Administrator Jane Garvey. I included justified praise for his other team members, Jim McNamara and Mike Harris, as well.

For closure, I visited Jerry at the FSDO one last time to thank him for his guidance, support, and waiver extensions. To lighten the mood, I joked about the letter the county supervisor had sent to EAA members who’d written him in support of our Chapter, adding that the supervisor apparently had created a new category of airspace that we called "Class H" after the first letter of his last name.

Jerry asked if he could see the letter, and as he read it, I saw the character from Westworld again. Only this time he wasn’t gunning for our Chapter. In the letter, the county supervisor said that he’d recommended that the FAA not allow aerobatic activity within an 18-mile radius of Borrego Springs, and he implied that he, not the FAA, had control of the Class G airspace around Borrego.

The club officers and I saw terrible irony in this letter. We were being kicked while we were down. Jerry saw something else. He asked if he could have the letter, and I gave it to him. As he left the room he said, "I’m sending this to legal. There’s still time. We aren’t giving up on you guys yet!" Within a week, the FAA reversed its rule concerning airport management approval for waivers.

Jerry called a new meeting and requested that the county supervisor appear in person. Then he called me to explain what he expected to be in the Chapter’s proposal before he would approve the waiver. I took his expectations to the Chapter membership, and we drafted three proposals, all of which contained Jerry’s minimum requirements. They were our first, second, and final offers, should negotiations become difficult.

Supervisor Horn didn’t attend the meeting, and that cost the community points. Jerry asked the club to present its first proposal. Then he asked the community to present its proposal. Still without a spokesperson, the residents said the only thing they would accept was "NO flying in Borrego." Jerry said that was a nonstarter and instructed them to come up with a better compromise. They refused, and in frustration, Jerry ordered a 15-minute break. At that point the community members left the meeting and went home.

When the meeting resumed, it was the Chapter members, a congressional aid, two county representatives, and two reporters. Jerry expressed frustration with the community’s position and said he would grant the waiver but would still accept written suggestions from the community.

Sticking to the Deal
After the meeting the Chapter members realized we might have put too much on the table, and they asked me to meet with Jerry to retract some of our offer. Because Jerry clearly explained the requirements for the approval of any waiver, I said we had to stick with what we’d put on the bargaining table because that was the only way he would sign it.

Apparently, one club member thought my assessment was incorrect and approached Jerry to thin out our proposal. I understand that the discussion was short and direct, but it put our waiver at risk because Jerry thought it was an eleventh-hour bait and switch. He called me, and we talked it through. I said the Chapter would stick to the proposal as written because we wanted our aerobatic box back.

Jerry asked me to be personally responsible for the waiver. He would not sign it unless it was in my name and sent me home to rewrite it. I immediately modified the request and faxed it to him. About two hours later my fax machine rang, and our new waiver materialized out of it.

Establishing a good first impression is critical when meeting people for the first time, and the reason it’s so important is surprising. First impressions are important because they are always wrong! As we meet people we form a starting point. A bad impression immediately puts both sides on the defensive, barriers go up and progress is slow or stalls.

Obviously Jerry had heard a lot of dirt about our Chapter before I walked into the FSDO. I haven’t seen his side of the story, so perhaps his initial misconceptions about us were as distorted as ours were about the FAA. Honesty and sincerity were the only things that got us past those critical early days. Jerry was clearly straightforward, and had I tried to BS my way through our first meetings, we would have gotten nowhere. We had some community relations issues, and I accepted ownership on the club’s behalf. But in the air we were professional and maintained a flawless safety record.

The concessions Jerry required were meant to soothe the raw nerves in the community and give us a chance to show we could fly and be good neighbors. Mind you, our indiscretions were not the major irritant, but they gave the political machine an opening. Without the FAA as our ally, we never would have reopened the box. Without Jerry to push the paperwork through region and then personally sign, there would be no waiver.

You should be able to tell that I have great respect for Jerry, and he showed me the FAA doesn’t have to be the mythical machine we all hear about. People run it, and if we address them respectfully as people, we are very likely to get the same in return. More importantly, we believe in the same things. Freedom to fly safely! That was, of course, the common goal I couldn’t see when I entered the FSDO the first time.

Meet Your FSDO Manager
If you are in an IAC Chapter with a waiver in its jurisdiction and haven’t yet met your FSDO manager, doing so before you are summoned, as I was, is a good idea. Organize a group to meet the manager and the FSDO team. Show them the history of your club, your dedication to continuous improvement, your neighborly approach to your community, and your willingness to assist the FSDO in any way to help it promote aviation safety and healthy airport relations.

In the beginning, I didn’t know what our Chapter had to offer the FAA or why it would want to help us. The items I listed in the previous paragraph are an invaluable resource to the FSDO. Our airports are under attack by communities across the country. The FSDO and FAA need all of the ambassadors they can get. I will leave you with two last truths: If you’re not part of the solution, you are part of the problem. The FAA is incredibly efficient in dealing with problems!

This article first appeared in Sport Aerobatics magazine.
Reprinted with permission of the authors.

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