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Generally speaking, for those that either have experience calling the number, or, preferably, for those that were paid to answer the phone, what are the benefits or pitfalls of calling?

I had a friend that climbed above his assigned altitude once and was given the number, and he called and had an exceptionally friendly chat, and that was that.

Are there any scenarios, such as gross violations, where it might be better to seek legal counsel first before calling, or not calling at all--especially if there is a discrepancy between airman and controller?

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  • $\begingroup$ Related: What is a counseling session with the FSDO/FAA? - which is about as far as "the dreaded phone number" usually goes unless you were doing something willfully stupid/dangerous. $\endgroup$ – voretaq7 Feb 17 '15 at 18:31
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    $\begingroup$ Any time you have an accident or cause an incident it never hurts to call AOPA legal (assuming you are a member) to get their advice. $\endgroup$ – JerryKur Feb 17 '15 at 22:15
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AOPA has an article on exactly this question (written by an attorney). Their advice is basically that it's a judgement call on your part and one that you should think about carefully. Not calling may antagonize the FAA, but calling if it's a major safety issue may be unwise:

That doesn't necessarily mean, however, that you should call the telephone number or respond to the FAA's letter, and blather the most expansive defense you can conjure up. A little judgment is called for here--and, unfortunately, there are no hard and fast rules. If you think the FAA may be inclined to just admonish you orally or content itself with administrative action, then a humble, cooperative approach may be best. Saying you won't talk without a lawyer, when the likely outcome if you do talk is minor, may only prompt the FAA to propose sterner action. Before you talk, however, think carefully about what you want to say, how much to say, what questions the FAA is likely to ask and how you'll answer them.

If, on the other hand, there is a substantial chance the FAA will take certificate action against you or will propose a fine, the best course of action, as I said above, is to hire an attorney. Don't ignore the FAA; be polite, but don't provide more information than the bare outlines of what is already known and obvious to all. State quietly that you understand the FAA's desire to investigate possible violations, that you take your obligations to fly safely very seriously, and that you will be happy to cooperate. Also say that, unless the FAA is not contemplating action against you, you feel it best to consult a lawyer before proceeding. Since the FAA likely won't give you any guarantees, its representative will be the one overreaching if he presses you to respond anyway. Politely decline if he does.

I also had a look through the AOPA discussion forums (members only, so no links) and my summary of their comments would be:

  • File a NASA ASRS form within the 10-day limit, whatever happened
  • If you know what you did wrong and you know it was minor, then make the call
  • If you don't know what you did wrong then call but be prepared to end the conversation immediately if you have no good response or you realize it's more serious than you thought
  • If you know you caused a major safety issue (actual or potential) then don't call and get a lawyer instead
  • If you know the person you have to call - e.g. if it's the tower controller at your home airport - then you should give more weight to calling
  • In general, it's better to call and have to cut off the conversation than not to call in the first place
  • Whatever you say, keep it short and factual
  • When you find out what you did wrong, get some ground and/or flight training from an instructor to address that specific issue and have him endorse it in your logbook; this shows the FAA that you've taken the issue seriously and you've actively taken steps to make sure you won't do it again
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I echo @Pondlife's answer - base your response on the severity, and if in any doubt loop in AOPA legal. If you do nothing else, file a NASA ASRS form; it's not a guarantee but it can do no harm.


As a student pilot 15 years ago, I got The Number during an early solo at Paine Field (KPAE) near Seattle.

I received taxi instructions to 34L at A4, did my runup, and called Tower requesting closed pattern, 34L. I was cleared for takeoff, runway 34R. On the upwind, Tower asked me to switch to 132.95... the west-side Tower frequency. Oops. Then they asked me to write down The Number. I finished my landings, because you gotta get back on the horse, then landed, told my instructor, and we called.

By that time the manager had pulled the tapes and determined that, yes, I missed the runway identifier, but the controller also didn't catch that I said I was at a 34L intersection. Everybody was both at fault and not really at fault. Apparently another plane on long final went around, but it wasn't anything crazy dangerous.

All that resulted from the incident was, about two weeks later, the appearance of signs reading "TOWER 132.95" and "TOWER 120.2" at the appropriate intersections. They're still there today! :)

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    $\begingroup$ An excellent example of how working through honest mistakes leads to safety improvements for everyone. $\endgroup$ – Ryan Mortensen May 9 '16 at 15:12
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From an article in Flying magazine by an aviation lawyer: (quoting from memory, the issue was pre-internet):

In many cases the FAA cannot take any action against you without your co-operation. So don't give them any. For example, you are required to show (not surrender) your license to an inspector upon request. He doesn't get to touch it. And if you are asked "was that your 182 flying down the beach last Saturday?" your cause is best served by silence. Will that make them happy? No. But which would you rather have? An angry FAA official who cannot suspend your license, or a very happy one who can?

Regarding the "number to call":

Once you have left the aircraft movement area you are no longer air traffic and therefore no longer bound to follow their instructions.

He also had this to say about the NASA Air Safety Reporting System:

  1. It is not a coupon good for one free buzz job.
  2. Keep several in your flight bag. Fill them out. Keep the receipt - it has powers similar to a cross on a vampire.
  3. Be concise to a fault. "Landed short" will cover Asiana 214.
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    $\begingroup$ In many cases the FAA cannot take any action against you without your co-operation. So don't give them any. <-- I'm sorry but this statement is patently false, and terrible advice: You can't avoid an FAA action by simply pouting silently. If you "don't give them any [cooperation]" the FAA will proceed with whatever action they feel is warranted (up to and including suspension or revocation of your certificates) without the benefit of your input or mitigating circumstances. $\endgroup$ – voretaq7 Feb 17 '15 at 18:28
  • $\begingroup$ Obviously they will proceed with whatever action they have evidence for. The article says don't give them evidence they don't already have. If the FAA calls you because somebody got your tail number and complained that you were flying low, don't tearfully admit to doing a buzz-job on your friends BBQ. Shut your mouth and make them prove it. $\endgroup$ – Brian Feb 17 '15 at 21:59
  • $\begingroup$ Anything you say to the FAA can hurt your case, whether you confess guilt or not. Whether what you say provides evidence the FAA did not yet have, or is something the FAA already knows to be true, even information that shows mitigating circumstances or is exculpatory can be used against you. And if you're absolutely certain you have done nothing wrong, co-operation can still be risky, even though you could not possibly imagine why. Voretaq7's addendum is plausible, but wrong and dangerous advice. If you're ever in this situation, don't let me convince you; this is what you need a lawyer for. $\endgroup$ – Marcks Thomas Feb 18 '15 at 0:15
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    $\begingroup$ paul, Brian, @MarcksThomas - are you speaking from experience, or is this just hearsay or conventional wisdom? It's great to play hangar lawyer, and I can't necessarily disagree here, but you are stating what sounds like opinion as if it was fact, and that's not helpful unless clearly labeled. $\endgroup$ – egid Feb 18 '15 at 6:59
  • $\begingroup$ @voretaq7 : some finer points of English: "In many cases" is not fully inclusive. If they have video of you being bad, they will use it. If they think it was you, and need your confirmation/confession, you are not obliged to provide it. $\endgroup$ – paul Feb 18 '15 at 9:11
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I would tend to agree with paul's answer and be wary of Pondlife's answer.

In most cases it is mistake to call them, because you are just providing them rope to hang you. If they have actionable evidence to revoke your license, calling them and confirming the information they have will just make it worse. If they do not have actionable evidence and are on a fishing expedition, then obviously it would be a blunder to call them. Basically the likely scenarios are all ones in which calling them is a mistake.

The only exception is when there is some fact which exonerates you completely that they do not know about it. Technically, you are better off presenting such a fact at a hearing, but in the interest of saving everyone's time and trouble, you may opt to reveal such a fact in the phone call. For example: "I descended out of my asssigned altitude because I had an engine failure."

In all honesty, the scenarios in which the call is useful are really rare, and as a rule you should NEVER volunteer information regarding your actions in flight. Note that the worst the FAA can do is revoke your license, but another pilot could sue you for $5 million for "endangering his life". Guess where he will get the evidence to sue you. From your statements to the FAA. Starting to see why it is a bad idea to be making statements to the FAA?

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    $\begingroup$ Has this happened to you? Can you cite examples? It's pretty common for pilots to portray the FAA as the bogeyman, so it's nice to know when there's truth to the rumors. $\endgroup$ – egid Feb 18 '15 at 7:01
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    $\begingroup$ @egid Luckily, I have never in any way violated FAA regulations while flying an aircraft, however, in the few instances in which I have had dealings with FAA (such as with their medical doctors) I have found them to be complete hard asses who exploit their bureaucratic powers to the maximum. If you read the AOPA legal column you can find one horror story after another that will reinforce the importance of following my advice. $\endgroup$ – Tyler Durden Feb 18 '15 at 13:42
  • $\begingroup$ I've had the opposite, oddly enough. The Renton FSDO is great, but I've dealt mostly with CFI renewals and the like. Fwiw I don't consider medical examiners FAA - they're ICs. $\endgroup$ – egid Feb 18 '15 at 15:04
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    $\begingroup$ @egid Also, regardless of how "nice" the FAA is, you are creating a public record when you talk to them, and an injured party, the police or the FBI can also use that legal record against you in a court of law. So, even if the FAA loves you, just creating that legal record puts you at all kinds of risk. For example, if you are in an accident that involves a fatality, you can sued and prosecuted even though you are completely "innocent". You don't want to make it easier for them to do that. $\endgroup$ – Tyler Durden Feb 18 '15 at 15:22
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    $\begingroup$ That's true. Still, the severity of the situation has a lot to do with it, and FAA certificate actions have dropped significantly over the last couple decades. I'm not saying the FAA is your friend, but if they're out to get you, there is a fair chance you really screwed up. $\endgroup$ – egid Feb 18 '15 at 15:46

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