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Our Finest Hour

A Goose, a Cactus and a Happy Conclusion

by Susan Parson
Reprinted with permission by FAA Aviation News

Along with Top Gun and The Hunt for Red October, Apollo 13 rounds out the trio of my favorite Friday night flicks. How can anyone not revel in the steely “failure is not an option” persona of Apollo 13 flight director Gene Kranz? My favorite Gene Kranz quote arises when he informs his grim-faced boss that, contrary to the disastrous outcome everyone expects, “I believe this is gonna be our finest hour.”

In my opinion, the FAA’s finest hour came on January 15, 2009, when an Airbus A-321 flying as Cactus (US Airways) 1549 crossed paths with a flock of Canada geese just after takeoff from New York’s LaGuardia Airport. What followed — the “miracle on the Hudson” water landing — is now the stuff of legend. You probably don’t have to think very hard to agree it was a “finest hour” experience for Captain Sully Sullenberger, First Officer Jeff Skiles, and the cabin crew. Same goes for the cool-headed New York departure controller. But allow me to explain how Cactus 1549 was also the FAA’s finest hour and, in so doing, provide a brief guided tour of how this agency is organized to perform its safety mission.

Failure Is Not an Option

As the FAA Administrator states in almost every speech he makes, safety is the FAA’s top priority. Left unsaid is that when it comes to this kind of mission, failure is not an option for the FAA or any of its major “line of business” (LOB) components. Logically enough, the FAA line of business that conducts most of the agency’s safety work is called the Aviation Safety Organization (AVS). AVS sets standards, issues certifications on the basis of those standards, and manages the continued operational safety of certificated individuals and entities. The head of AVS is an Associate Administrator who reports directly to the Administrator (a presidential appointee confirmed by the Senate to a five-year term). AVS is composed of three services and four offices. All of them played a role in making Cactus 1549 the FAA’s finest hour.

Flight Standards Service (AFS)

The work done by the 5,000 employees in AFS had a lot to do with setting the stage for the successful outcome of Cactus 1549. The largest service in AVS, Flight Standards (AFS) does exactly what its name implies. AFS sets standards for airmen (e.g., Captain Sully and his crew, mechanics, dispatchers, etc.), operators (e.g., US Airways), and air agencies (e.g., training centers), as well as for the continued airworthiness of aircraft and their many component parts. It issues certificates to airmen and air carriers who meet those standards and maintains certificated airman and aircraft records in the nation’s Civil Aviation Registry.

By far, though, the biggest responsibility of AFS is continued operational safety. That’s the FAA’s term for its responsibility to ensure that, once certificated, individuals and entities continue to meet standards and operate safely in the National Airspace System (NAS). In the case of a major airline, AFS aviation safety inspectors (ASIs) assigned to the certificate management office for that airline conduct inspections and surveillance to ensure compliance with regulations. They investigate to determine causal factors of potential or actual problem areas and determine corrective action. If they find that the air carrier or any of its employees have violated FAA regulations, they take enforcement action.

By the way, other AFS functions include promoting system safety and providing safety education (e.g., through the FAASafety Team and publications like FAA Safety Briefing magazine).

Aircraft Certification Service (AIR)

No matter how stringent the certification requirements — and they are very demanding indeed for transport category aircraft like the A-321 operating as Cactus 1549 — no airplane engine can ingest that many large birds without a serious case of indigestion. Still, an airplane that can take that kind of punishment and still be controllable for the Hudson River “landing” is a sturdy metal bird. That sort of mechanical hardiness did not happen by accident. On the contrary, the 1,300 employees of the FAA’s Aircraft Certification Service had a lot to do with that outcome.

Like their counterparts in AFS, AIR employees have responsibilities for standards, certification, and continued operational safety. AIR sets standards for design, production, and airworthiness of civil aeronautical products such as the A-321. It determines eligibility for certification, and issues design approvals for aircraft, engines, propellers, and parts. AIR issues production approvals for manufacturers, and airworthiness certificates for aircraft and parts.

In the area of continued operational safety, AIR oversees Production Approval Holders (PAH), conducts inspections and surveillance to ensure compliance with regulations, and monitors the continued operational safety of the civil aircraft fleet. When problems arise, AIR investigates to determine causal factors of potential or actual problem areas and determines corrective action. AIR takes enforcement action when FAA regulations have been violated.

Air Traffic Safety Oversight Service (AOV)

That cool-headed controller who worked Cactus 1549 is an employee of the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization (ATO) line of business, but AVS played a role in that part, too. AOV, the newest service in AVS, has 130 employees. Its mission is to provide independent safety oversight of the ATO. AOV monitors ATO operations to determine compliance with established standards, rules, and directives. It conducts surveillance activities, including audits, independent reviews, and targeted inspections of ATO services and facilities. It develops, maintains, and approves the policy requirements for the ATO safety management system (SMS).

policy divisions and field divisions

Office of Accident Investigation and Prevention (AVP)

You probably know that the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has the lead in investigating all aviation accidents in the United States, but FAA employees (both headquarters and field) are involved as well. That’s because the FAA has nine specific responsibilities associated with accident and incident investigation work.

Many accidents (e.g., virtually all GA accidents) are investigated by FAA aviation safety inspectors in FSDOs and other field offices, but there are also highly experienced professional accident investigators at FAA headquarters. These individuals, some of whom participated in the Cactus 1549 investigation, are among the 72 employees of the AVS Office of Accident Investigation and Prevention. As the first part of the office name suggests, AVP coordinates FAA-wide participation in the investigation of aviation accidents and incidents.

As the second half of the office name indicates, the point of investigating is to find ways to prevent future occurrences. To that end, AVP conducts safety data analysis to identify trends and, on the basis of this analysis, helps develop standards for corrective measures. AVP also manages the agency-wide response to safety recommendations made by the NTSB and by FAA aviation safety inspectors.

Office of Aerospace Medicine (AAM)

Every pilot is familiar with the most visible functions of the Office of Aerospace Medicine, whose 450 employees oversee medical qualification and certification of airmen and other persons associated with safety in flight. Virtually all the major players in the Cactus 1549 accident (including the controller) held medical certificates issued on the basis of the standards set by AAM. AAM manages airman medical regulations, standards, policies, and procedures. It oversees the designated Aviation Medical Examiner (AME) system. In addition, AAM conducts aerospace medicine and human factors research, oversees aerospace medical education and agency health awareness, and manages the regulation and oversight of industry drug and alcohol testing programs.

Office of Rulemaking (ARM)

The rules and regulations that created the framework for certification of the aircraft and crew of Cactus 1549 were the work of many individuals and organizations throughout the FAA, but that work was spearheaded by the 30 employees of the FAA’s Office of Rulemaking.

ARM has agency-wide responsibility to facilitate work on all phases of the very complex rulemaking process. Working with other services and offices, ARM establishes and maintains a system of priorities for rulemaking activities and schedules. Its employees work closely with program offices and the Office of the FAA Chief Counsel to process petitions for rulemaking as well as for exemptions from FAA regulations. ARM coordinates and chairs public meetings and formal or informal meetings on rulemaking activities, a function that includes the Aviation Rulemaking Advisory Committee.

Office of Quality, Integration, and Executive Services (AQS)

Though its role in events such as Cactus 1549 is less direct than that of other offices, the 60 employees of AQS still contributed to the “finest hour” outcome. That is because AQS manages administrative functions and business processes for AVS services and offices. One of its most important roles is to manage the AVS-wide Quality Management System (QMS), which helps ensure that the FAA follows its established internal standards and processes for the work it does.

Everyone Has a Role

While this article focuses on the role of the FAA’s Aviation Safety Organization, you can see from the simplified organizational chart graphic that AVS is only one of the FAA’s major lines of business. Employees of the Air Traffic Organization — the largest of the FAA lines of business — clearly played a part in the successful outcome of Cactus 1549. While this particular A-321 obviously did not land at any of the New York area airports, the professionals in the FAA’s Airports line of business (ARP) ensure that airports used by major air carriers meet standards for safety — including availability of first responders (e.g., airport fire and rescue).

Though we in the FAA hope there will not be future “finest hour” opportunities of this kind, the agency can take pride in its contribution not just to Cactus 1549, but to the thousands of safe and uneventful journeys that occur in U.S. airspace every day.

Susan Parson (, or @avi8rix for Twitter fans) is editor of FAA Safety Briefing. She is an active general aviation pilot and flight instructor.

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