Exploring Regulatory Challenges

7 Jul 23 16 Comments

This week I want to recommend a very good article on Titan that I think you will enjoy. This article in New York Magazine is interesting, intelligent and well-written. If you read only one thing this week, I think it should be this. This is the type of essay that I aspire to writing, seamlessly combining current event reporting with personal recollections and technical details. It also highlights the importance of regulation. Honestly, in his position, I think that I, too, would have accepted the invitation to experience a dive.

What I Learned on a Titanic Sub Expedition: Unraveling the enigma of Stockton Rush – and understanding the Titan tragedy by David Pogue

The design redundancies also reassure me. The Titan has two CO2 scrubbing systems, plus emergency oxygen under the floor. It has seven ways to rise to the surface, including air bladders. Some still work if the electronics go out; some work if the hydraulics fail. One works even if everyone aboard is unconscious: It releases sandbags from hooks that dissolve in seawater after 16 hours.

I’m also witnessing what appears to be a serious culture of safety. There are endless checklists, sub inspections, twice-daily mandatory briefings, and a three-strikes rule: If they find three things amiss — even tiny things like low battery power in a flashlight or a missing nut on the platform — they cancel the dive.

I still feel like this would not have been possible for an experimental aircraft but I don’t know the regulations well enough to understand how they managed to sell tickets without having gone through any approval process. Is the trick that aircraft have to start and end within someone’s jurisdiction?

Yesterday OceanGate announced that they were suspending all commercial and exploration operations.

Photo credit: OceanGate Expeditions

Last month, the FAA announced that aircraft constructed after mid-2025 must have a second barrier between the passenger cabin and the cockpit. I feel like spending money on pilot training and job security measures would do more to ensure that our passengers are safe but North American pilot unions are heavily in favour and asking that the requirement extend to all aircraft, regardless of age. Boeing and Airbus are against retrofitting the barrier and have asked for additional time to comply.

Secondary Cockpit Barrier Now Required on New Commercial Aircraft

The NPRM notes “when the flight deck door must be opened for lavatory breaks, meal service, or crew changes, the flight deck could be vulnerable to attack. The benefit of this rule, requiring installation and use of IPSBs on airplanes in part 121 service, is to slow such an attack long enough so that an open flight deck door can be closed and locked before an attacker could reach the flight deck.”

If you want more background information, this piece by the Congressional Research Service is very readable: Secondary Cockpit Barriers for Airline Aircraft

Thanks to Mike for the news that Wisk Aero, planning an autonomous air taxi service, is now a wholly-owned Boeing subsidiary as Kittyhawk has filed for bankruptcy.

Wisk Aero is aiming for passengers being able to fly on their four-seater electric VTOL aircraft within the decade. However, the FAA say that currently there is no way to certify an aircraft for passengers without a pilot on board.

Wisk CEO: Shift to Boeing ownership brings advantages

The supervisors will monitor multiple aircraft, their flight paths and surroundings from ground stations. Yutko’s staff shares a Zoom screen to show me a photo of a station. It has multiple display screens, keyboards and monitoring equipment.

“There’s no joystick,” Yutko says. “It’s merely a touchscreen display in most cases, where the supervisor can issue commands to the aircraft if necessary. But the aircraft will be highly automated and capable of avoiding obstacles or landing automatically in case of an emergency.”

Photo credit: Wisk Aero LLC

A man who goes by Dirtbag pilot posted a check-ride scenario on Tiktok about the legality of a convoluted flight. It’s not a real situation: the scenario has been around for years. The version I heard was that there was an examiner who would pass you if you just got this one question right. I was able to trace it back as far as 1999 in a Skydiving magazine but I’m pretty sure the jumping pilot problem is even older. The point of it is that there are complex regulations that deal with paying passengers vs personal flights.

Anyway, the scenario goes something like this:

A skydiving instructor has a lesson planned but the jump pilot cancels at the last minute. The skydiving instructor is also a commercial pilot and flight instructor. He could fly the Cessna but he needs to be able to jump with his student. There is a PPL student at the airfield who has been endorsed for solo flight. So the instructor and the student pilot sit in the front seat with the skydiving student in the back. Then, the instructor and the skydiving student jump, leaving the student pilot to fly solo back to the airfield.

The instructor’s argument is that he flew the first leg, which the skydiving student had paid for, but once they jumped, it was no longer a commercial flight and the student pilot was legally flying as a solo flight as practice for his PPL. Will the FAA agree?

I’m interested to see what you all come up with in the comments. The scenario is usually brought up under US regs but if you think it might be different for the country in which you fly, I’d be interested in hearing that, too!

Category: Miscellaneous,


  • I’m completely unqualified to answer this. (Not a pilot, nor familiar with FAA regs, etc, just someone who enjoys Sylvia’s books). The FAA will disagree. You can’t take off as one type of flight (commercial) and change to another mid-flight. It’s a clever attempt as a work-around, but it’s an abuse of specifically intended safety and licensing rules. I’d bust them.

  • I’m sure the FAA would raise issues with the last scenario; it has been long enough since I studied FARs (federal aviation regulations) that I don’t know precisely what the grounds would be. An obvious argument is that the plane is still a skydiving plane after the skydivers have left — e.g., it probably has a(n additional and/or oversize) right-side hatch for exiting (if it’s small enough for a student pilot), and maybe bits and bobs attached so people can hang on while launching a formation — so it can’t be flown by someone without a commercial license. Even if this didn’t apply, there’d be a few seconds when the plane was still supporting skydiving but the instructor wasn’t in charge because they were on their way out the door. The material you’ve given also doesn’t say whether the remaining pilot has a parachute, which was required for everyone in a plane anyone was intending to jump from back when I was skydiving (30+ years ago); my drop zone always had a few pilot specials, but they might be considered an unreasonable obstacle against an inexperienced pilot’s control of the plane.

    The above is all about the precise legal arguments; I don’t know whether the FAA has some general clause saying it can pull a certification if the instructor acts like a bloody idiot.

    • And right after I posted, my partner found this on the net:

      Give a man a plane and he’ll fly for a day.
      Push him out of a plane and he’ll fly for the rest of his life.

      Yes, we get into some strange parts of the net.

      PS: another detail that it’s still a skydiving plane: the usually-extra opening usually covered by canvas — rather than aluminum, which hurts a lot more if it gets loose while you’re trying to get out. (At least in a conventional setup; I suppose some small plane somewhere has what were called “suicide doors” in the original “Little Deuce Coupe”.)

  • Pogue’s comment about “what appears to be a serious culture of safety” at OceanGate shows just how difficult it is to determine if such a thing really exists. They might have lots of checklists but are they checking the correct things, and how accurately are they measuring that all important parameters are within acceptable limits? If the vehicle operations side has a good safety culture, what’s happening behind the scenes in vehicle design and maintenance? And even if everybody is thoroughly diligent, do they actually have the skills and experience required to take on these responsibilities?

    • They had a safety culture over post-manufacture minutiae, without adequate review of the manufacture itself; everything they did was like stowing another life jacket on a de Havilland Comet — useless against fundamental errors.

  • OceanGate CEO Stockton Rush ignored warnings about carbon fiber materials before Titan submersible implosion: DOER Marine engineer – ABC7 Chicago

    “We all told him, someone is going to be killed in this thing and you’ve got to not do it,” Liz Taylor, president of DOER Marine Operations said.

    Taylor is a deep sea engineer and President of DOER (Deep Ocean Exploration and Research) Marine Operations, where they build their own submersibles.



    unfortunately Taylor’s an old white guy so he has no credibility (read on)

    Trapped OceanGate CEO Refused To Hire ‘50-Year-Old White Guys With Military Experience’

    The OceanGate CEO who is trapped on a 22-foot submersible on an ill-fated voyage to see the Titanic wreck once explained how he didn’t hire “50-year-old white guys” with military experience to captain his vessels because they weren’t “inspirational.”

    Yay diversity! I know I’m inspired.

    • Correction, Taylor is a woman, but the old white guys who contacted Oceangate were ignored.

      • It is worth pointing out that the issue does seem to be much less about “diversity” and much more about groupthink. The issue with the old white guys, by my reading of Rush’s actions, was not that they were white. (That was, at most, an excuse for a decision already made) It was that they weren’t willing to get onboard with his program where it conflicted with what they knew.

        Likewise, let’s remember that the issue is not that “diversity hires” ignored the wisdom of an old white guy. It’s that an old white guy (Rush) ignored the warnings of others (both old white guys and those who weren’t), and that he insisted on hiring people who were young and/or gullible enough to believe his old-white-guy claims that no further design checks were needed.

        Personally, I think diverse perspectives are very important to safety culture, especially when you’re dealing with new technologies or designs. In this case, if your team’s knowledge base comes both from crusty old Navy guys AND from recent engineering grads or aerospace people, that is probably going to give you more perspectives than just having six crusty old Navy guys. (I guess if I had to pick just one option, I’d take someone who has been there. But there’s no reason not to have both.)

  • wrt regulation not stopping the Titan’s operations: IANAL, but my understanding is that something sufficiently new can’t be crammed under existing regulations; until the government thinks it’s worth their time to write regulations, nothing restricts an operation. (Riding a balloon-lifted lawn chair might have been legal if the idiot had stayed out of controlled airspace, intrusion into which IS regulated regardless of how.) The US has regulations on the operation of watercraft (e.g., life jackets on small craft, life boats on large passenger craft), but I doubt it has bothered to write regulations about submersibles.
    wrt your suggestion about jurisdiction: somebody might have raised an issue about “doing business” (i.e., selling rides) within the U.S. — but at that level of sales, probably nobody thought it was worth the effort. (This assumes that the commerce did happen within the U.S.; ISTR that Boeing passes papers on sales to non-U.S. airlines in the plane in question, in the air, beyond the 3-mile (shoreline) limit, so the customers don’t have to pay state sales taxes.)

    The secondary cockpit barrier reads like an invitation to debatable workarounds. To fit the rule given in the article (that one of the 2 doors is always locked), the poor FA who has to serve the pilots will have to open a door, go through, and lock it, all while juggling whatever they’re bringing to the flight deck. Or does the estimated $35,000 cost include electric locks and door-openers (and a camera to see who’s there)?

  • OceanGate operated in international waters, and they billed their customers as crew. Try that with aircraft!
    In software, security needs reviews. For example, any cryptographic algorithm that hasn’t been reviewed needs to be considered unsafe. And that’s where it turns out Stockton-Rush misrepresented the truth: he made it sound as if NASA, Boeing and UWash had reviewed the final design when they hadn’t.

    I believe the cockpit barrier is there for the safety of the pilots, not the safety of the passengers. As my favorite blogger wrote, “there’s been a notable spike in air rage incidents in 2021”. https://fearoflanding.com/crazy/unruly-passengers-taken-to-task/

    The FAA didn’t look too kindly on the “Red Bull Plane Swap”, also reported in this blog, because it feels there needs to be a pilot responsible for the aircraft at all times, and they can’t simply leave. The argument that you don’t need a commercial license when you’re flying solo doesn’t hold for crop dusting or banner towing, either. That said, a skydiving flight needn’t be a commercial flight, and can be operated by a PPL holder (in Europe) if they don’t receive remuneration. The problem here is that the pilot is only a student. So who is the pilot at the time the instructor jumps? Nobody: that’s forbidden. The instructor: forbidden to jump out of a working aircraft. The student pilot: would be “operating a parachute-dropping flight” as the instructor jumps, which requires a license. Therefore, it can’t be done legally.

    • I get that the extra door is for pilot safety (as the quote says). However, on flights of any length the pilots will still need refreshments: liquids to avoid getting too dried out, and on longer flights food (which AFAIK is catered rather than a bag lunch). Whoever isn’t the pilot flying can hold open a single door for the FA to come through; I see getting through two doors turning into a Marx Brothers routine unless there’s enough space between the doors for two people to pass each other.

      For that matter, I’m not sure how smaller planes will make this work; ISTR entryways being very close to cockpit doors on smaller passenger aircraft (e.g. 737). Does someone have an actual floorplan (not just one of the emergency-exit sketches) showing how the pieces fit together?

  • Not as bad as jumping out of a plane, leaving the student pilot to fly but still good for one of the worst chewing outs in my flying career.

    Our Mooney had just come out of an annual in Memphis and we were in Atlanta. One of our staff was a student pilot, a very good student pilot, learning to fly from day one on a Beach Baron that he owned an interest in. He did not have a Cross Country Solo under his belt…. Yet.

    I said, hey, fly me up to Memphis, I’ll sign you off to Cross Country back home. Don’t worry too much about the chart work, just follow me home.

    The Mooney had other ideas. Fresh out of annual, 15 minutes into the flight, the Prop started over speeding so I returned to Memphis. The Student Pilot without a word on the radio, flew back home to Atlanta. His real instructor was not amused.

    The Prop Governor was not serious, only took an hour to sort it out but it was late so I got a hotel and flew home the next day. Met on the ramp by a red faced, real flight instructor and the owner of the flight school.

    Ok, I am and old Marine and do not take chewing outs well but I was in the wrong and deserved what I got.

  • OceanGate fired former director of marine operations for raising concerns about Titan flaws and safety issues

    Before perishing in his most recent expedition, Rush was apparently quite flippant in dealing with potential issues related to the Titan. He fired David Lochridge, the former director of marine operations at OceanGate between 2015 and 2018, for raising concerns about the safety of the Titan, including its shoddy building process.


  • I have three answers for the skydiver scenario:
    1) “Who was PIC for the seconds while the licensed pilot shimmied out the door”
    2) “The airplane was being returned to the ground for commercial purposes”
    3) “That was reckless. You know it, I know it, and 91.13 says go F yourself”

  • The student pilot is off-duty flight crew for the first phase of the skydiving flight, but is not qualified to be.

  • Going back to the Titan: there’s a detailed discussion of how many corners Rush cut at https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2023/07/14/us/titan-submersible-implode-design.html

    There are some things — possibly everything physical rather than virtual — where the tech-bro mantra of “Move fast and break things” is well past stupid.

    From what I know of the rules, the only reason Rush doesn’t qualify for a Darwin award is that he took other people with him.

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