Imagine a beautiful Saturday afternoon with calm winds and high ceilings – the type of day that just beckons a pilot to go fly. You hop in your plane and off you go, soaring above all your worries and concerns. As you fly along without a care in the world, you unknowingly fly into class “B” airspace without a clearance. As soon as you realize your mistake, you exit the airspace and head home, except ATC contacts you and requests that upon landing you contact the tower. What do you do? Should you call the tower? Or, do you just go about your business?
The answer is simple: do not call the tower. Tell ATC thank you and go about your business. When ATC tells a pilot to call the tower due to a potential violation, no legal authority requires the pilot to call the tower. Beyond the lack of legal authority, no good can come from calling the tower, as the FAA will likely use your statements against you in a potential enforcement action.
Likewise, pilots may also question whether they have to respond to a Letter of Investigation from the FAA. Again, imagine the same scenario as detailed above. Only, this time, instead of ATC telling you to contact the tower, you later receive a Letter of Investigation from the FAA in the mail. What do you do? Should you respond to the letter? Or, should you just throw it away and pretend you never got it?
Again, the answer is simple: do not respond to the Letter of Investigation. As a pilot, you are not legally obligated to respond to a Letter of Investigation from the FAA. Just like ATC requesting you contact the tower, anything you say in response to a Letter of Investigation could be used against you in an enforcement action. See Funk, 6 NTSB 1016 (1989); Salkind, 1 NTSB 714 (1970).
Fortunately, the Pilot’s Bill of Rights, Public Law 112-153, requires the FAA to inform the airman that there is no obligation to respond to the Letter of Investigation. Under the Pilot’s Bill of Rights, the FAA must inform the airman of the nature of the investigation, that an oral or written response to a Letter of Investigation form the FAA Administrator is not required, that no action or adverse inference can be taken against the individual for declining to respond to the Letter of Investigation, and that any response to an Letter of Investigation, or any other FAA inquiry may be used in evidence against the individual.
There are certain times, however, when you must respond to an inquiry from ATC or the FAA. After all, not responding to ATC’s request that you contact the tower or a Letter of Investigation from the FAA does not mean the FAA will just give up and leave you alone. If the FAA serves you with a Notice of Proposed Action, you will need to take action as failure to respond to a Notice of Proposed Action can have drastic consequences in your defense of an enforcement action.
By now you probably get the picture – anything you say can be used against you in an FAA enforcement action. Unfortunately, this also means that your conversations with ATC can be used as evidence against you. Consequently, an airman should be mindful of his tone and phrasing of words when responding to any and all ATC requests that require a response. The pilot should always be honest while being polite and brief. Given all the opportunities to hang yourself, the FAA bets that you will talk yourself right into proving their enforcement case. Don’t fall into this trap! When responding to a request that requires a response, never divulge more information than requested.
As pilots, we at The Ison Law Group understand the stress that comes with flying an airplane, or a helicopter for that matter. As if keeping an aircraft in the air is not difficult enough, having to mind your “P’s and Q’s” seems like the straw that will surely break the camel’s back. Yet, the law does not discern between words spoken on the ground or words spoken at 15,000 feet in the air.
Long story short, do not make the FAA’s job easier. If you do not have an obligation to respond, do not respond. If you do have an obligation to respond, be polite and brief. In any event, give The Ison Law Group a call toll-free at 855-LAW-1215 or locally at 863-712-9475 to discuss your case.