About three weeks ago, my wife Kathleen flew into Sacramento Executive Aiport (KSAC) as part of her solo cross-country flight. (That’s one of the final stages a student pilot goes through on the way to getting a Private Pilot Single Engine Land (PP-SEL) rating.) Her flight went from Reid Hillview Airport (KRHV) in San Jose to Sacramento and then on to Los Banos (KLSN) before heading back home to San Jose.
She called me after each leg of the flight to let me know how things were progressing. And when she called from Los Banos she mentioned that the ground controller in Sacramento wasn’t particularly helpful. Even though he knew she was a student pilot and not terribly familiar with the airport, he never really offered any taxi help. (Contrast that with our recent landing in Stockton where the controller asked us if we were familiar with the airport AND offered progressive taxi instructions even before we finished turning from the runway onto the taxiway.) Instead of being helpful, he sarcastically made a comment intended to keep her from taxiing onto the active runway–something she wasn’t in danger of doing in the first place.
I should back up and mention that when she was in the transient parking area and preparing to taxi to the runway for her departure, there was another airplane behind her. Being less than familiar with the runway and taxiway layout (see the airport diagram), she offered to let the aircraft behind her go ahead so the should follow them out (they were locals). But the ground controller wasn’t interested in facilitating that.
In the grand scheme of things, this would be no big deal. You encounter “less than helpful” people now and then in aviation. She flew on from Sacrament to Los Banos, stopped there for a bit, and continued on back to San Jose. About an hour after landing, she was back home and we were headed out to dinner to celebrate a successful solo cross-country flight. Well, after seeing the fancy “Congratulations” balloon, cupcakes, and card that were waiting on the kitchen table–then we headed out to Mama Mia’s.
Fast forward a few weeks… to last night. She received an email from her instructor saying that he’d been contacted by the Sacramento FSDO (Flight Standards District Office) who had received some negative feedback about her visit there a few weeks ago. Puzzled about what that could be, she talked to her instructor and the Sacramento FSDO supervisor today to discuss things. (I also spoke with the FSDO today.)
To make a long story short, here’s what happened. Sitting in the right seat of the airplane taxiing behind her at Sacramento was a Designated Pilot Examiner (DPE), one of the anointed pilots that the FAA has deemed worthy of judging whether or not a student pilot is ready to receive their new rating. After taxiing behind her, he became concerned that she might not have received all training she needed to operate at a tower controlled airport. So he took it upon himself to file a complaint, though we’re told he originally classified it as an “incident” (which has special meaning in the FAA lexicon) with the local officials: the Sacramento FSDO.
Now here’s where it gets really good. What apparently alarmed him is that when she had to taxi across a runway on her way to the active departure runway, she slowed down to look both ways (much like we’re taught to do when crossing the street as children). Why might she do such a thing? Well, let’s see. She was in an airplane accident not to long ago. So safety is nothing to take lightly. (Would you?!) And it’s not unheard of for ground controllers to occasionally, you know, make a mistake. They are human after all. So why not proceed with a bit of caution? Besides, most instructors rightfully teach their students to make one last look before entering a runway, active or otherwise.
So in return for her caution, she had the pleasure of staying up half the night last night worried about what she could have possibly done so wrong that the FAA wanted to talk to her. And then she got to listen to an FAA representative make her feel like a bad pilot and suggest that she had an attitude problem with the ground controller on the radio. The best part of all is that she’s not even the subject of the investigation!
All this hassle, concern, and drama because she was being cautious at an airport she’d only been to once before. You’d think with the FAA’s focus on preventing runway incursions, they’d appreciate seeing pilots taking a few extra seconds before charing across a runway.
So, student pilots out there: beware of Sacramento Executive Airport. There’s clearly at least one less than helpful controller with an attitude, and if you’re really unlucky, you might also encounter an examiner who enjoys telling his friends at the local FSDO when a visiting pilot is behaving in a way that’re more cautious than he’s used to seeing.
Oh, we do plan to make a Freedom of Information Act Request to get a copy of the audio tapes (all controller radio communication is recorded in case it’s needed in a later investigation). Given that all this “helpful” activity is funded by our tax money in the first place, it’d be good to have a copy. Maybe we’ll even put it online. Believe it or not, they can’t allow her to hear the tapes–even though she’s on them–while there’s an investigation in progress.
Yay for government “process” protecting us all.