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.
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.
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.
"It's not like turning in a drunk driver on the highway," explained Dudley Mason, a Flight Standards operations specialist. "When you're down here on the ground and there's a plane way up there doing something it's not supposed to, it can be pretty hard to find out who's doing the flying."
Mason estimated that Flight Standards' district offices in Los Angeles, Long Beach and Van Nuys each receive 10 to 15 complaints daily, typically involving aircraft that appear to be too low or in restricted areas. Many of the complaints are phoned in by non-flying citizens "who will tell you things like, 'A plane just came right over the top of my trees' or, 'A helicopter's been hovering right over my house for an hour,' " Mason said.
Unless it can be tracked immediately by FAA authorities or unless the reporting party can provide a detailed description of the aircraft--ideally including the registration number painted on its fuselage--chances are slim that the pilot will be caught, let alone cited.
"I have no doubt that there are pilots every day out there who are committing violations that we will never know anything about," Mason said.
In any case, pursuing complaints against pilots often comes after the more than 60 other job functions handled by Flight Standards, said Mason's boss, Sullins. He estimated that pilot enforcement actions take up but one-quarter of the work time spent by the 39 operations inspectors assigned to the Los Angeles area.
And even when an errant pilot is identified, it usually takes months, sometimes years, before the FAA's legal staff can litigate the "enforcement package" or alleged violation that is forwarded to it by Flight Standards, records show.
With a current backlog of more than 100 such packages, the seven-lawyer staff has the heaviest caseload among the FAA's nine jurisdictional regions, said the agency's Western Pacific regional counsel, DeWitte Lawson Jr.
In addition to complaints against pilots, Lawson's staff also issues citations against negligent airport mechanics, airport security companies and the air carriers themselves.
Larry H. Layton, a San Fernando attorney and pilot who has defended about a dozen fliers accused of violating various federal aviation regulations, said that battling the FAA in court is not unlike fighting the California Department of Motor Vehicles, "only the FAA is a lot nicer and more formal."
Layton, whose clients have included two private pilots accused of dogfighting over the San Fernando Valley, commended Lawson's staff, saying "They know the regulations. . . . If they think they've got a good case, they don't back down."
A pilot accused by the FAA of violating regulations is first sent a "notice of proposed certificate action," alerting him of the fine, suspension or revocation tentatively set forth by Lawson's staff. The pilot then has 20 days to either surrender his license, request an informal conference with FAA attorneys or ask that the agency issue a formal verdict, which allows the accused pilot to file an automatic appeal with the National Transportation Safety Board.
Fliers accused of the most serious or flagrant violations--particularly transporting narcotics--face almost automatic revocation of their licenses, Lawson said. The FAA cannot impose criminal charges and is prevented from levying fines of more than $1,000 per violation.
Since the Cerritos disaster, in which 82 people died, the FAA has begun paying particular attention to pilots accused of violating the Los Angeles Terminal Control Area, which extends about 30 miles east and west of Los Angeles International Airport and about 12 miles north and south.
A pilot cannot legally enter the TCA unless he receives prior permission and has on board his aircraft an encoding transponder, which helps radar operators pinpoint the pilot's location and altitude. The control area is designed to help keep aircraft of all types safety separated as they converge on the airport.
Pilots are taught to imagine the typical TCA (there are 23 around the country) in the shape of a giant, inverted wedding cake, with each layer of the cake having its own upper and lower altitude limits. In reality, the 12 sections that make up the Los Angeles TCA are not nearly so easily defined, and those not familiar with local landmarks or hampered by haze can inadvertently find themselves within the control area, even veteran pilots say.
In the five years preceding the Cerritos accident, the FAA often took those factors into consideration, citing only 19 fliers for TCA violations and suspending their licenses for an average 79 days each, records show.
But in the weeks since the disaster, the agency has cracked down on TCA violators. At least 25 pilots have been notified that they face potential penalties for having allegedly entered the control area without permission, according to agency administrators.
One of the pilots, Paul M. Lacava of Hayward, was notified on Nov. 4 that the FAA plans to take away his license for an incident that occurred March 19, when the aircraft that Lacava was piloting allegedly flew within 100 feet of a Skywest passenger plane approaching Los Angeles International.
The incident took place within the TCA about 23 miles east of the airport, not far from where the Cerritos collision occurred.
Lacava, who could not be reached for comment, has appealed the revocation order to the NTSB. In the past six years, no pilot has ever had his license revoked for violating the Los Angeles TCA, according to records.
As part of its stepped-up enforcement of the control area, the FAA scheduled dozens of safety awareness seminars for pilots, while, at the same time, revealing that it was considering using Los Angeles police helicopters to chase errant pilots. The helicopter project was shelved, however, after it was "prematurely" disclosed by the news media and after it was determined that police copters were not fast enough to catch most airplanes.
Yet, while heralded as a novel and needed enforcement tool by most FAA officials, the notion of using police helicopters caused others in the agency to wonder whether the FAA should intervene sooner: try new ways to keep pilots from breaking serious rules rather than try new ways to chase them down after the fact.
It is for that reason that the FAA more or less condones the NASA program that trades pilots immunity for information.
Under the NASA program, a pilot who has been involved in regulation-breaking incident can apply for immunity once every five years. To qualify, the incident must be deemed unintentional and not have involved an accident or a criminal act, such as smuggling drugs. The pilot must submit a four-page form to NASA explaining the incident within 10 days of its occurence.
"It's a carrot to get people to report," admitted Bill Reynard, the program's director.
The reporting system exchanges immunity for crucial flight data from pilots, Reynard said. The data, FAA and NASA officials believe, can improve aviation safety by revealing flaws in such areas as pilot training and air traffic control procedures.
NASA's Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif., took over the reporting program from the FAA in 1976, four months after pilots began complaining that it did not make sense to report their errors to an agency that could take away their licenses, even if there was assurance that they would not be penalized.
Reynard said his office receives an average of 8,000 reports annually from pilots, but only about 65% of them involve requests for immunity. The others come from fliers who have not done anything wrong but simply want to report what they consider to be a problem in the system.
With the information it has received from pilots, both the violators and the innocent, NASA has produced 834 "alert bulletins" notifying the FAA or Department of Defense of problem areas, including errors printed on maps, inaccurate homing beacons and dangerous piloting procedures.
For example, it was information obtained from pilots who had been granted immunity that ultimately led to what has come to be described in commercial aviation circles as the "sterile cockpit rule," Reynard said. The rule says, in effect, that while an airliner is climbing or descending, there can be no flight attendants in the cockpit or any or other activity that would distract a pilot from his flying.
Reynard, himself a pilot, said he personally has submitted five safety reports to NASA, three of which involved his own unintentional violations of aviation regulations. He said he could have applied for immunity on any of the three cases, but the FAA never pursued them.
"I don't think you can fly on a regular basis without violating an FAR (federal aviation regulation) inadvertently," Reynard said. "It's not hard to do. The principal reason is that human beings, pilots included, are downright creative when it comes to screwing up."
Among FAA enforcement actions filed over the past five years in Southern California were more than a few that involved pilots who had caused personal injury or property damage.
Pilots of all types--from weekend fliers to flying celebrities--have been cited.
Stephen Wozniak, for example, was slapped with a $500 fine after he crashed his high-performance Beechcraft A36TC while taking off in February, 1981, on a flight to San Diego. Wozniak, the co-founder of Apple Computer Inc., was injured in the accident along with his three passengers. He had not received proper flight instruction before hand, aviation officials determined, and was cited for careless or reckless flying.
One of his passengers, Janet C. Valleau, told investigators that Wozniak appeared so unfamiliar with the workings of his newly purchased $260,000 plane, that as he prepared to take off, " . . . he thought the radio he had to listen to was being jammed maliciously." The "jamming," she said, turned out to be an audible alarm inside the cockpit.
Wozniak, 36, refused to discuss his accident or his subsequent encounter with FAA, saying, "I don't want to get into that again."
Another prominent flier who declined to comment about his experience with the FAA was Robert A. Hoover of Pacific Palisades, a former Rockwell International test pilot considered a veritable legend in aviation circles. A distinguished combat flier, Hoover helped his chum, Chuck Yeager, break the sound barrier in 1947.
He was once described by another aviation pioneer, Lt. Gen. James H. Doolittle, as "the greatest (acrobatic pilot) that ever lived. He is so much a part of his airplane that he wears it rather than flies it."
But Hoover's contributions to aviation did not stop the FAA from citing him for an incident that occured in October, 1982, at the Deer Valley Airport, agency records indicate. FAA attorney Richard G. Wittry said that during an air show at Deer Valley, Hoover flew a P-51D Mustang on a "low, high-speed pass" during which the tips of the airplane's propeller were damaged.
Hoover was accused of "careless or reckless" operation of the Mustang and also of continuing to fly the World War II-era fighter even though it may not have been in an airworthy condition after the incident.
After extensive negotiations, Hoover eventually paid the FAA a $750 "administrative settlement," tantamount to a fine, Wittry said. (A Rockwell spokesman, however, insisted that Hoover never paid a fine and "has never been in violation of FAA regulations").
Earn a Living
Fliers like Hoover who depend on their pilots' licenses to earn a living often as not receive a fine instead of a suspension when found guilty of breaking an aviation regulation, agency attorneys say. That way, the errant pilot pays for his infraction but can still continue to work.
Sometimes, however, the infraction is considered serious enough that a suspension or revocation is ordered, even if the accused is a commercial pilot.
Such was the case in San Diego in June, 1985, when pilot Eric E. Svelmoe of suburban El Cajon was accused of not receiving a proper waiver before towing a banner over the city's Hillcrest area. Svelmoe was also charged with failing to notify the FAA of his new home address.
Under ordinary circumstances, the two alleged infractions might not have amounted to much. But the banner behind Svelmoe's plane declared, "Repent Fag," and his flight over Hillcrest--a neighborhood popular among homosexuals--occurred during Gay Pride Day. Within days, the FAA received a complaint from a San Diego city councilman, as well as a petition signed by 353 people, all alleging that Svelmoe had been flying at less than 500 feet above the ground.
The FAA's subsequent investigation determined that Svelmoe had not violated a 1,000-foot minimum altitude requirement. However, Svelmoe's explanation that he was towing the banner for his church did not fly with the FAA, and his pilot's certificate was suspended for 60 days.
Agency records also show that in 1984, Svelmoe received a 180-day suspension for piloting an aged airplane that lacked proper lights and certification. Close-up photographs of the plane on file with the FAA showed that pieces were literally held together with tape.
Svelmoe could not be reached to comment on either of his suspensions.
Still, handing down suspensions like those issued to Svelmoe and others will ultimately have little effect on air safety in Southern California and elsewhere, many FAA officials believe.
"We can pass all the laws we want," said Jim Holtsclaw, manager of the control tower at Los Angeles International. "But in the end, it depends on the integrity of the individual. It's still up to the pilot to police himself and follow the rules."
POLICING THE AIR To enforce regulations aimed at deterring conduct deemed hazardous, the FAA uses sanctions ranging from warnings, suspensions and fines to revocation of pilot licenses. A Times computer analysis of 3,507 FAA enforcement actions filed between 1981-1986 in California, Arizona, Nevada and Hawaii shows the most common infractions.
Total number of cases brought against pilots 697
Licenses revoked 34
Average suspension of licenses 64 days
Average fine $348
Infractions Number of Avg fines or citations suspension (Fine/Days) Careless or reckless flying 341 360/66 Failing to comply with air traffic control 76 454/56 Not contacting or ignoring control tower 72 411/54 Violating minimum safe altitudes 67 288/85 Violating restricted or prohibited airspace 54 270/59 Violating visual flight rules (VFR) 45 450/86 Violating the Terminal Control Area 19 750/79 Operating near other aircraft 20 562/122 Transporting narcotics 5 --/-- Alcohol or drug use by pilot 4 --/45 Dropping objects 3 --/60 Failing to yield right of way 3 500/120
Infractions How often violations con- tributed to revocation Careless or reckless flying 28 Failing to comply with air traffic control 3 Not contacting or ignoring control tower 6 Violating minimum safe altitudes 3 Violating restricted or prohibited airspace 3 Violating visual flight rules (VFR) 3 Violating the Terminal Control Area -- Operating near other aircraft -- Transporting narcotics 5 Alcohol or drug use by pilot 2 Dropping objects 1 Failing to yield right of way --
The Times computer analysis was directed by Richard O'Reilly. Assisting were Times staff writers Kenneth Chavez, Sandra Crockett, Lily Eng and Claudia Puig.