WASHINGTON -- When 17 inspectors from the Federal Aviation Administration descended on one of the country's busiest aircraft operators following a fatal crash last year, they found violations of FAA standards so gross as to be unique.
Some pilots were deferring mandatory retraining and, in effect, flying with expired licenses. Repairs were not being properly inspected. Manuals spelling out maintenance and inspection procedures were incomplete, outdated or inconsistent. Some spare parts were unlabeled; no one knew if they were new, rebuilt, used or bogus.
In all, the inspectors found 409 violations.
Normally, the FAA would have slapped hefty fines on the airline and its cavalier personnel, maybe grounded them. But one fact made that impossible: The offender was the FAA itself.
While "70 to 75 percent" of the violations have been corrected, clearing them all will take another 18 months, according to John M. Howard, director of the Aviation Standards National Field Office in Oklahoma City, operator of the FAA's 61 aircraft and 10 operations centers.
The FAA's scathing self-inspection report, which Mr. Howard would not make make available, came at a time when the agency was sharply criticizing the maintenance and operations practices of commercial carriers, including Eastern, Continental, Pan Am and American Airlines.
The agency assessed millions of dollars in fines against the airlines.
Mr. Howard attributed many of the FAA's defects to "a misunderstanding among some people that you could do pretty much what you wanted to and it would be OK." That
laxity occurred, he said, "because of the lack of clarity" about whether the FAA's fleet fell under commercial airline standards or whether, like military aircraft, it was exempt.
A copy of an executive summary of the FAA fleet System Safety Survey obtained by Knight-Ridder states that while not required by law, it has been FAA policy since 1986 that its aircraft be "certified, operated and maintained" in accordance with commercial air-carrier standards.
The 61 aircraft in the FAA's fleet range from a Boeing 727 to a Piper Cub. The planes are flown to inspect navigational aids and airports; train and evaluate pilots and inspectors; transport FAA and other federal personnel; and for research purposes.
To put the infractions in perspective, Mr. Howard called the FAA's overall safety record "glorious . . . one that would be envied by a helluva lot of carriers." But a participant in the safety survey, who asked not to be identified, described the agency's accident rate as "a little high."
Four FAA aircraft have crashed since the agency's creation in 1958, according to Mr. Howard.
The last crash occurred in November 1988 when a twin-engine King Air jet suffered wing icing and crashed into trees near Pittsburgh, Pa., killing three FAA personnel.
Circumstances surrounding that crash led him to call in FAA inspectors to assess the agency's air operations, Mr. Howard said.