Crossing Over: How to become an FAA aviation safety inspector

As I write this article the FAA is under a "continuing resolution" or the dreaded CR as it's known around Washington, D.C. The CR limits FAA's Flight Standard's Service to spending only three-quarters of the money budgeted for the previous fiscal year. This has the same impact on the agency's operations as it would on you, if tomorrow your boss cut your pay check by 25 percent. The FAA's response to the budget crunch is to mandate hiring freezes, set limits on travel, spending, training, and how far an inspector can drive in a G car. So one would be right to question the reasoning behind this article whose focus is how to become an FAA aviation safety inspector.

What appears to be a closed door for new hires at the local FSDO today, will not be the case in less than two years. Before 2006 rolls around the FAA will start an aggressive hiring program. Why so? Simply put, the answer is attrition through retirements. What I have not yet told you is that approximately 38 percent of the FAA inspector series 1825 work force will be eligible for retirement starting in fiscal year 2006 and each year afterwards the percentage gets a little bigger. So the FAA will need to start hiring good qualified people shortly to fill positions as operations, avionics, and maintenance inspectors.

So if any of you mechanics are thinking about crossing over to the other side and applying to become an FAA aviation safety inspector for airworthiness, here are a few questions and answers that might clear the air and get you thinking about preparing for another career in aviation.

What kind of FAA aviation safety inspectors (airworthiness) are there? There are two kinds: general aviation and air carrier. This separation between the two is based on the industry standard of assigning aircraft of less than 12,500 pounds to GA and aircraft 12,500 pounds and heavier to air carrier.

What does an FAA aviation safety inspector do? In very broad terms, we certify operators, issue certificates, perform surveillance to ensure compliance with the rules, perform accident investigations, and promote aviation safety.

What is the pay like? The new hire aviation safety inspector's pay scale depends on what grade he or she is hired at. For example, an aviation safety inspector hired this year can start at grade 9 at base pay of $36,052, or grade 11 at $43,621 or grade 12 at $52,281. Please note that I am quoting "base pay" for fiscal year 2004 that has a 1.5 percent pay increase over the 2003 scale. I am not including locality pay or any pay increases in the new budget. Locality pay is compensation for the high cost of living in certain geographic areas. Locality pay can range from 5 to 25 percent additional dollars to your base pay depending on the area you are assigned. For the purpose of doing the math add another 10 percent on to the salaries assigned to each of the grades above and you will be in the salary ball park for 90 percent of the Flight Standards District Offices (FSDO). The grade that you are assigned when you are hired depends on the scope and detail of experience earned, aviation training received, and kinds of certificates or authorizations held. After you complete your new hire training in about a year's time, it is not unusual if you do a good job that each year thereafter you'll be promoted to the next pay grade until you reach grade 13 or journeyman inspector status at a base pay of $62,170 a year.

Will the FAA pay for my move to another location when I get hired? No. The first move is on your tab. Future moves are on the government's tab.

Is there an age limit? There is no age limit to be an FAA inspector. When I was the course manager at the FAA Academy in Oklahoma City, I routinely had new hires in my classroom in the 50s and 60s age group. In an Operations Inspector's class next to mine, one new hire was 72. Sadly, many super qualified individuals never apply because they figure when you pass 50 you are on the downhill run to oblivion. What I say to that myth is: You are dead wrong! Age is just a number. The FAA is buying wisdom and talent not youth and inexperience! You are only too old when they snap the lid shut!

What is the worst job an FAA inspector performs? In my opinion the worst job will always be investigating an accident, especially fatal ones. While finding the cause of the accident is a reward unto itself, one will be forever imprinted with the stench of blood mixed with melted aluminum, the waste of lives, and the overall sadness of it all. Such sights, smells, and sounds stay with you and haunt your daily activities at the FSDO. Such experiences also temper your judgment as an inspector because you learn that most of the accidents that you investigated could have been prevented. The second worst job is doing an en route inspection sitting on the jump seat in the cockpit of a regional jet. I have a working theory and a bad back that advances the proposition that all jump seats were designed by aeronautical engineers who should have studied harder in school.

What is the best part about being an FAA inspector? The best part about being an inspector is that it can make a difference in aviation in both big and small ways. For example, one month you might certificate a repair station which employs 10 mechanics but in 10 years it might be a Fortune 500 company. The next month you may issue an Inspection Authorization that will give an individual a better opportunity to provide for his or her family. Two days later, you might just stop an accident from happening just by showing up at an FBO or an air carrier unexpectedly and asking a few uncomfortable questions. You also get to play many roles besides being an inspector. Roles such as an arbitrator, judge, jury, father confessor, expert, student, investigator, author, manager, and data entry operator.

What do you need in order to be hired? The FAA is looking for someone to "manage" certification and safety programs and fill a leadership position. This requires that the individual has a solid base of experience in aviation maintenance and supervision. It is my opinion that the mechanic applicant should have at least the following minimum level of experience before applying:

  1. At least five years experience in either air carrier or general aviation maintenance.
  2. A&P mechanic's certificate with IA for GA applicant.
  3. At least one year experience as a supervisor in a Part 145, 121, or 135 operation for air carrier applicant.

While this level of experience might get you in the pool of applicants, it is no guarantee that you will be hired. The FAA is just like the real world. It gives extra credit for an applicant who is a:

  1. Designated Airworthiness Representative or;
  2. Designated Mechanic Examiner or;
  3. Holder of an STC, PMA, or a TSO or;
  4. Has performed an alternate means of compliance for an AD or;
  5. Two-year college degree or higher or;
  6. Additional certifications such as welding, or NDI, or composites repair specialist or;
  7. Accident investigator for a manufacturer or insurance company or;
  8. Management or supervision experience in 121, 135, or 145 companies or;
  9. Working as a volunteer FAA safety counselor; and
  10. Total years in the maintenance profession

What else should I do to have the added edge on the other applicants?
Again based on my own experience, the two skills that I lacked when I was hired was the ability to write well, and speak with confidence in public. To fix my problems with the written word, I went back to college. Since every college course you take is 80 percent writing, I learned to write clearly and concisely the hard way. To add a little luster to my less than exciting public speaking skills, I joined Toastmaster's International. This organization has only one mission: to train its members on the do's and don'ts of public speaking. It costs less than $50 a year to join and you get a chance to practice your articulating skills in front of a room full of supporters rather than going out there cold and falling on your face in front of your peers.

How does one apply for an inspector's position? Get on the Internet and type in Read all the information on the page and associated links. Then click on the link titled: FAA Job Openings. A screen menu will come up and the first thing you are asked is to identify yourself. If you are not a current FAA or government employee, select nonfederal employee. Then drop down the menu to "series" and type in 1825 and hit the search button. As of Jan. 19, 2004 there was one announcement: FAA-ASI-99-001-27152M for non federal employees for the FAA aviation safety inspector's position for grades 9, 11, and 12. If it is still there when this article is published, please click on the announcement number and it will be pulled up on your screen. Next, read the announcement and decide which of the inspector's positions you are best qualified for. When you have decided on the position you want, click on "apply now." Next, you will have to contend with 34 screens that will ask you a billion questions about yourself, where you want to work, qualifications, etc. The first screen will allow you to set up your own user ID and assign you a password. If you do nothing else, write both the user ID and your password down on a sticky note and paste it to your computer. You will need them again.

Oh, by the way, figure that you will be on the computer for at least two hours or more working with these screens, so before you start I recommend that you have all your employment history ready ahead of time with all pertinent names, addresses, dates of employment, telephone numbers, etc. I also recommend at the same time that you develop a one- or two-page resume. The resume will give you an overview of your career and speed up the application process. Once you have electronically submitted your application, you will be notified within 30 days by the FAA if you are eligible or ineligible for the inspector's position. If you are declared eligible, they will tell you at what grade, and that your name will be put in a national register or pool of qualified applicants for a period of one year. After the year is up you must re-apply. When vacancies become available in a particular region, the selecting official will request a list of eligible applicants from the pool that meet a specific criteria that the FSDO needs, such as experience in repair stations or helicopters. Then the applicant is interviewed, usually at the FSDO that is doing the hiring. Oh, I do not recommend that you turn down an FAA job just because the location is not on your top 10 choices. Take it! Because usually the government will only ask you to cross over once.

The FAA interview process is not written in stone. I have heard that some FSDO interviews are done by panels that follow a very formalized selection process with standardized questions for each applicant and I know of other FSDO whose interviews are done one-on-one with the selecting official over a cup of coffee. Perhaps the best advice on how to prepare and survive the interview process is to read the book, "Sweaty Palms" by H. Anthony Medley. If you have a good library in your town, it should be there. If not, there is also a lot of good information on the "art of interviewing" on the Internet.

In closing, we need good inspectors and if you think you are up to the task, apply today. But keep in mind the real secret of getting hired by the FAA is to husband the twin endurance skills of tenacity and patience! I know of many qualified individuals who just gave up early because the bureaucracy was less than responsive to their application. Also, don't forget to keep your status in the pool up to date, and never miss an opportunity to hand out your resume at each and every FSDO you come across. Who knows, maybe one day a couple years from now, my replacement will be one of you, who today, decided to cross over.