After waiting out the weather at the divert airport, I was so eager to depart from this unfamiliar field that I inadvertently taxied over the runway hold-short markings. I had just caused a runway incursion—a possible safety hazard and a pilot deviation.
It was a sinking feeling, to say the least. I immediately stopped and advised the tower controller of my position and error. In response, the controller calmly issued taxi instructions for me to clear the runway area. Although the controller did not seem concerned by the event, I could not help but wonder if I would receive a call from the FAA.
Fortunately, there is a process for handling these types of events. Established in 1976, the Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS) provides a voluntary, confidential, and non-punitive process to report potential safety issues—especially unintentional human errors. Jointly run by the FAA and NASA, ASRS accepts Aviation Safety Reports (ASR), not only from pilots, but other FAA-certified personnel as well. These reports allow for data collection and analysis to identify safety hazards, deficiencies, and discrepancies to lessen the likelihood of future aviation accidents.
You may already be aware that the FAA offers an incentive for pilots and others to voluntarily participate in the program—that is certificate protection in the form of a waiver of sanction. Filing a report is not an absolute get-out-of-jail-free card; however, individuals who file timely reports in good faith, for inadvertent violations, are afforded a great amount of deference by the FAA.
In my experience, when a pilot has voluntarily disclosed a potential violation (via an ASR), the FAA inspector is more likely to close the file without enforcement action. If the FAA does pursue enforcement action, proof of filing an ASR can help the pilot mitigate potential penalties and keep him/her flying.
Keep in mind there is a time limit for filing. Reports must be submitted within ten days of the event, or when the pilot became aware of or should have been aware of the issue, whichever is later. It is, however, a good idea to file well before the deadline. Reports written sooner, before memories fade, are generally more accurate. Moreover, prompt filing most likely ensures that the report is dated prior to the certificate holder being contacted by the FAA. While a report can still be filed after the FAA has reached out, it may carry more weight if the voluntary report is submitted first.
Now, appreciating the value of the program, let us look at how to file. When I started my flying career, it was common for a pilot to carry paper copies of the NASA form in their flight kit, right next to their paper charts and two-way pager. Today almost every pilot files ASRs using the internet (https://asrs.arc.nasa.gov/).
Once a report is processed, it is de-identified, meaning the pilot’s name is removed. Paper forms have a tear-off section at the top of the page where the pilot’s name and contact information are located, along with a unique serial number. After de-identification, NASA mails that tear-off section back to the pilot as proof of filing.
Whether paper or electronic, every report is assigned a unique serial number known only to the pilot. Write down (or screenshot) this number before closing your web browser. If you forget to note the number – no problem. After filing electronically, the FAA will send you the equivalent of the tear-off identity strip in the mail.
Pilots need to be aware that there are a handful of excepted activities where a pilot forfeits their protection under the ASRS. For example, intentional disregard for regulations, criminal acts, and aircraft accidents. These acts are not covered by the program. However, most unintentional mistakes are within the ASRS mandate, and pilots are encouraged to report via the NASA form (or its electronic equivalent).
One of the questions pilots often ask me is “should I file an ASR?” If you must ask the question – my answer is generally yes. Any time a safety-related event occurs, or you accidentally fail to comply with a regulation or ATC instruction, you should consider filing a report. ASRs are not only free, but they are also unlimited. You can file as often as needed.
Pilots also ask if filing a report could put them at risk of a violation where the FAA might not yet be aware of the event. This brings us to the sole-source reporting rule. In short, if the only report of a possible violation is the ASR from the pilot or other certificate holder (and the report complies with the program rules), then the FAA will not investigate the incident based solely on that one report. An investigation will commence only if the event is reported by another entity, such as ATC, or a call to the FAA hotline. Do not worry—you are not turning yourself in by filing an ASR.
A common misconception about ASRs is that they may only be filed after a potential deviation. That is not true. ASRs may be filed anytime a pilot notices a potential safety hazard. This could include signage that creates confusion, radio frequency interference, or any other safety issue that a certificate holder may identify. Every report counts.
As for my runway incursion, the FAA never called. My ASR report, however, surely helped in some small way to improve air safety by providing the FAA with more data to improve the National Aviation System. And, importantly, writing the report provided me another opportunity to reflect on the event and learn from my mistake.
Chris Pezalla is a Florida licensed attorney, working with the Law Offices of Robert Strumor. He assists our members with various aviation-related matters including FAA Pilot and Medical Certificate actions. In addition to being an aviation attorney, Chris is currently an airline pilot and the owner of an aviation consulting firm in Daytona Beach, FL.