Sometimes a pilot becomes overwhelmed or careless and makes a mistake—disregarding a flight plan or an ATC instruction; flying with outdated data; infringing on a TFR. That pilot is at risk, even if they’ve safely finished their flight.

According to the FAA, a pilot deviation occurs when a pilot takes some action that violates one of the Federal Aviation Regulations (FAR) or a North American Aerospace Defense (Command Air Defense Identification Zone) tolerance. Some pilot deviations will only cost a few gray hairs—an apologetic call to ATC; extra paperwork or training. But others can cost much more, perhaps even an airman’s certificate and career. A little advance planning, together with a plan of action in the case of errors, will go a long way towards protecting your future.

Types of Pilot Deviation

There are two major types of pilot deviation—airborne and ground. Airborne deviations include:

  • Failing to maintain assigned headings, altitude, or instrument procedure without ATC clearance
  • Failure to comply with published airspeeds
  • Penetration of controlled airspace

Ground deviations occur before and after the flight. They include:

  • Taking off or landing without clearance
  • Failure to comply with instructions during taxi or takeoff
  • Straying outside of assigned clearance area (e.g., not holding short of a runway)

As those who study aviation know, pilot deviations—especially ground deviations on runways—have led to disastrous accidents with great loss of life. That is why the FAA takes these deviations very seriously, even when there was no apparent risk or harm done. The agency has published a guide to avoiding pilot deviations with extensive tips for preparation and in-flight practices to help pilots fly with care.

Their pointers include:

  • Confirm before flying that you have the latest data on board, including current TFRs
  • Request VFR flight following when possible or file an IFR flight plan
  • Read back ATC instructions and clearances; transcribe them as they are received
  • Examine airport diagrams before takeoffs and landings, especially if they are unfamiliar, and consult them during operations

Calm and attentive operations can prevent most deviations—but life is not always calm, and circumstances can overwhelm us. What happens after a pilot’s error?

Procedure for Pilot Deviations

For a pilot in command, the first sign of trouble is being ordered to copy down a phone number. Specifically, ATC will say: “[Aircraft ID], possible pilot deviation. Advise you contact [the ATC facility] at [their phone number].”

This is called a Brasher warning. Like a Miranda warning, it is a legal formula meant to put the pilot on notice about a possible violation and its consequences. ATC will create a mandatory occurrence report (MOR) about the deviation, unless an electronic occurrence report (EOR) suffices instead. Although a pilot is expected to call when the flight is over, there is no need to call right away. It is wise to prepare by reviewing your actions, recordings, and data.

Contacting an aviation attorney about your situation before you call will give you the best possible grounding and approach. They can inform you whether and how to take action before calling, perhaps by taking a course or completing a NASA ASRS report. In some situations, an attorney may advise you to wait and see if you receive the call yourself rather than making it.

A conversation with ATC may resolve the issue, but if it does not, the local Flight Standards District Office (FSDO) will investigate. An investigation may lead to either compliance action, administrative action, or legal enforcement action.

Compliance actions are considered appropriate for pilots who committed inadvertent violations, accept responsibility, and cooperate with the investigation. They involve non-enforcement solutions, including counseling, training courses, or a “709 ride”—a checkride to reexamine the pilot.

Administrative actions include:

  • A warning notice, advising that no violation will be entered but that the pilot should be cautious in the future.
  • A letter of correction. When the pilot and the FSDO agree on a course of corrective action, a letter of correction serves as a warning notice showing that no action will be taken on that condition.

Legal enforcement action follows serious violations or intentional, reckless pilot behavior. The FAA may also decide to pursue it when a pilot has failed to comply with earlier administrative actions. They may suspend or revoke an airman’s certificate; they may also institute stiff civil penalties, fines of thousands of dollars. However, pilots also have rights in this process. If the FAA is investigating a pilot, that pilot has the right to timely written notification—a letter of investigation (LOI) that describes the alleged violation. The pilot also has the right to receive the relevant ATC data. If a certificate action or a penalty is handed down, the pilot has the right to appeal.

How We Can Help

Working with an experienced aviation attorney is the best way for a pilot to navigate the FAA enforcement process. Attorneys can work to negotiate a corrective action or settlement with the FSDO, potentially avoiding a certificate action or a crushing penalty. In a legal enforcement action or appeal, where the stakes are high, the assistance of aviation counsel is crucial.

If you have gotten a Brasher warning or a LOI from the FAA, you don’t have to face it alone. At Aero Law Center, we understand what pilots have to deal with. Our Florida aviation attorneys can help you with any phase of the pilot deviation investigation and hearing process. Call us at 954-869-8950 to schedule your free consultation today.