Standing Alone

Modern day whistleblowers

The rudder inspection requirement was a result of the Colorado Springs accident of a United 737 in which 25 people died and the Aliquippa, PA, US Air crash in which 132 died. After the congressional hearings American Airlines grounded 300 MD-80 jets to re-inspect and repair wire bundles in the wheel wells. Records show that American made repairs to at least 140 planes and conducted a complete rework of the wire bundles in 20 jets. In five days more than 3,000 flights were canceled, and 300,000 passengers were stranded across the country while mechanics inspected the aircraft.

Putting it all on the line
All this AD and inspection noncompliance came to light due to the courage of two FAA maintenance inspectors. Inspectors Boutris and Peters are A&P mechanics who know what the term “airworthy” really means! These men put everything on the line: family, job, retirement, and friends to ensure the safety of the flying public. How many of us in industry or government would do the same thing?

No one outside of the federal government can have a true understanding at what sacrifices it took to shine the spotlight of truth on these problems. No one can possibly comprehend the three years of living hell they experienced and the toll it took on each inspector and their families. Their impact on aviation safety by standing their ground and daring to be men of integrity and courage was huge and it will change forever the way airlines and the FAA will operate.

Other U.S. airlines across the board realized the free pass by the FAA was over and grounded their fleets to perform the required inspections.

Our FAA inspectors did not set out to be heroes. They followed the FAA chain of command and published procedures. When they first found the problems both ASI notified their supervisors, and when that did not produce the expected levels of concerns, they notified their supervisor’s superiors with the same results. Finally, frustrated, they went to the top. They sent emails, letters, had meetings pleading to get top management to listen to the problems they had found, and nothing happened. In between these efforts they were vilified, watched, threatened, investigated, and condemned by management and their peers because they were not “team players.” In the end, they had no choice but to call in the Inspector’s General (IG) Office which triggered the congressional investigation and then as they say the fertilizer hit the ventilating fan. In this case, despite the odds, the good guys won — at least for now.

The FAA won’t forget
Now that the media blitz is over and the dust is beginning to settle I am worried about our two heroes, these men of courage and integrity. For you see, I know how the game is played. I remember what happen after the Value Jet accident. In time the memory of our two inspectors’ bold acts of courage to ensure the safety of the flying public will fade and be forgotten by many in the media, congress, and Joe Citizen. But no one in the FAA will forget that it was Boutris and Peters who were the ones that blew the whistle.

Government whistleblowers always stand alone, before, during, and after they blow the whistle. Our heroes will go back to their jobs as inspectors, but they will have no real future in the FAA. Their careers will stagnate because no senior FAA manager would want to promote a proven “whistleblower” into his organization. Why? Because these men were passionate about safety and they believed in doing the right thing and being passionate about anything is not what the bureaucracy is noted for. So for a long time to come and maybe for the rest of their careers each of our inspectors will continue to pay the price for putting public safety before their careers. Such is the heavy price one pays to be a hero.

Reward not punish
We have to change this negative perception of whistleblowers. Our government and our industry should publicly reward and recognize these men and women of character and courage. We should end the current practice of passively punishing whistleblowers. We need to recognize those of us who uphold the finest virtues and attributes of our maintenance profession, whether they work for our maintenance industry or the federal government.

Therefore, on April 26, 2008 I nominated these two gentlemen for the Flight Safety Foundation Heroism Award.

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