Flying in Formation
How FAA Flight Program Operations Partners with Other Agencies
By Terria Garner and Kate Knorr, FAA Flight Program Operations
The FAA owns and operates a fleet of jet and turboprop aircraft as a 14 CFR part 135 air operator. Our crews use these aircraft to perform unique missions like flight inspection, research and development support, and critical event response. But did you know that these unique missions grew out of partnerships across the federal government? Read on for more!
Flight Program Operations is a part of the FAA Air Traffic Organization, and a significant portion of its flight activity involves flight inspection. The flight inspection mission grew and flourished from the FAA’s partnership with the Department of Defense (DOD). In fact, the FAA and DOD have been partners in the flight inspection mission for more than 60 years thanks to an executive order signed by President John F. Kennedy in 1962. That order shifted the responsibility for DOD flight inspection missions to include routine inspection of navigation facilities at all military bases worldwide and direct support during wartime or contingency operations to the FAA. While the FAA has responsibility, the agency has partnered with DOD to conduct the actual flight inspection of military navigation facilities for the past 28 years.
This successful, long-running interagency partnership brings significant benefits to the National Airspace System (NAS). Here’s how it works. Flight Program Operations issues flight inspection credentials to military pilots and mission specialists after they complete rigorous specialized training. DOD, in turn, supplies the unique military equipment needed to conduct DOD flight inspection, and that equipment is installed on FAA aircraft. The FAA/DOD arrangement allows the Air Force to maintain a relatively small operational footprint of less than 50 active and reserve personnel combined, all of whom are focused on the operational conduct of flight inspection. DOD would otherwise need additional personnel to duplicate functions like training, program administration, and maintenance and operational oversight requirements.
For its part, the FAA gains access to an additional number of operational aircrews for day-to-day missions because military crews train for their wartime function by performing flight inspections in the NAS. Once qualified and ready to perform their wartime functions, DOD crews still fly specific flight inspection missions to maintain their proficiency, often alongside their FAA counterparts. The partnership represents a mutually beneficial arrangement for both DOD and FAA.
While there is potential danger associated within any combat zone, there is an element of pride and excitement on flight inspection missions in cooperation with the DOD. Missions have ranged from commissioning an instrument landing system in Iraq to checking a tactical air navigation transmitter in Bahrain, running an alignment check on a VOR for tactical air navigation in Jordan, and conducting a high-altitude radar inspection in Kathmandu, Nepal.
Military members serve a typical tour of four years (albeit with the opportunity to stay up to six years), so there can be significant continuity of personnel on these joint teams. By integrating Air Force crewmembers with seasoned FAA flight inspectors, Flight Program Operations can better prepare military crews for the challenging task of flight inspection in combat environments.
Team building, inherent in the integration of FAA and military crews, is another benefit. FAA team members feel a connection to the combat mission and share in the success of the operations, while Air Force team members become well-versed in the complexities of flight inspection. Both FAA and military crews develop an appreciation for the function their counterparts perform in ensuring a safe airspace system. Best practices sometimes emerge across traditional organizational boundaries. Upon their air crews’ completion of a flight inspection assignment, the DOD regains highly seasoned aviators with a strong foundation in instrument approach procedures and valuable interagency experience.
Another unique partnership involves the National Science Foundation (NSF). Every year since 2008, Flight Program Operations personnel in Alaska are getting ready for the North Pole’s busy holiday season while another Flight Program Operations team is just getting back from the literal polar opposite — their annual mission to Antarctica. Through an interagency agreement with the NSF, Flight Program Operations provides flight inspection for navigational aids and instrument procedures that support McMurdo and South Pole stations. For this task, the team uses the FAA’s long range Challenger aircraft to inspect the navigation equipment and ice runways that support U.S. scientific interests at these facilities. This mission is always lengthy and complex; planning starts in April in order to have all of the pre-mission work completed for a fall mission. But recent years have been especially complex due to the patchwork of pandemic-related public health restrictions in countries the crew must traverse to get to Antarctica.
Another Flight Program Operations mission is critical event response and transportation. This task involves using FAA aircraft to transport people and equipment on official government business and during times of natural disaster and critical response to restore our aviation infrastructure. This mission has grown due to partnerships.
First formed in 1938 as the Civil Aeronautics Board, the National Transportation Safety Board’s (NTSB) investigative function was part of different agencies through the decades. In 1974, Congress re-established the NTSB as a truly independent organization. Today, the NTSB conducts investigations and makes recommendations from an objective viewpoint. The NTSB investigates U.S. civil aviation accidents, as well as significant accidents in other modes of transportation. They work with a variety of technical experts to determine the probable cause of the accidents and issue safety recommendations to prevent future accidents.
Shortly after the NTSB was re-established as an independent agency, it entered into an agreement with the Department of Transportation (DOT) allowing the FAA to “provide air transportation for NTSB personnel to and from the scene of accidents/incidents.” The NTSB monitors transportation incidents 24 hours a day, every day of the year, from its response operations center, which recently passed a benchmark of 25 years of uninterrupted service.
The NTSB Go Team’s purpose is simple and effective: Begin the investigation of a major accident at the scene as quickly as possible, assembling the broad spectrum of technical expertise necessary to solve complex transportation safety problems.
“When the NTSB must launch to an accident, time is of the essence. Often airline schedules don’t fit our needs,” former NTSB Chairman Robert L. Sumwalt noted. “Having use of the FAA’s planes and crews is critically important to us because it enables us to get on scene as quickly as possible. There’s another benefit: having key members of the investigative team on the same plane allows the opportunity for the team to brief pertinent issues and the plan for once we land.”
Accordingly, when an incident occurs and the decision is made to send the Go Team, Flight Program Operations personnel at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport’s Hangar 6 begin preflight planning. The FAA also has their own Accident Investigation Go Team that augments the NTSB’s team with at least one or two of its investigators on each Hangar 6 launch.
Flight Program Operations also supports the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) rapid transportation needs during hurricanes, floods, and wildfires, as well as the needs of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).
Through the formation and maintenance of these strategic partnerships, Flight Program Operations aircraft and crews meet the mission of not only the FAA, but also contribute to the mission of other federal agencies and the military.
Terria Garner is a senior strategic communications specialist with the FAA’s Office of Policy, International Affairs and Environment. She is passionate about contributing to efforts that assist minorities with access and opportunities in the marketing, media, and tech industries.Kate Knorr is a senior advisor to the vice president of FAA’s Flight Program Operations and a member of its policy and communications Team. She is nearly always writing or editing something, whether it’s an email, an article, a program plan, or a policy memo.