Washington — It was February 1974, and Capt. T.Allan McArtor had been training for months with five other pilots on the Thunderbirds, the Air Force's precision flying team. The next month the team was to go on the road with the show. Then Captain McArtor - a decorated pilot in Vietnam, a cadet wing commander in the Air Force Academy's class of '64, and, many thought, a future Air Force chief of staff - resigned his commission because of family health problems and moved to Memphis. ``That was a real disappointment to him,'' recalls Tim Roels, who flew with him on the Thunderbirds. But, he says, it was entirely in character for McArtor to put his family above his own hankering to fly.
Now, it seems, McArtor is getting a second chance at the airways. And this time, not five people, but a million people every day, will rely on his precision in handling aircraft.
McArtor is the new head of the Federal Aviation Administration, and as such is the official most responsible for the safety of the air traffic system. He comes at a tricky time for the agency. Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole is stepping down next month.
Meanwhile, many people, including those at the National Transportation Safety Board, worry that the airways are overcrowded and dangerous. In fact, McArtor was in the FAA cockpit less than a month before the Northwest Airlines jet crashed in Detroit in August.
Barring a reappointment, McArtor will have less than 18 months to restore the public's confidence in flying. But those who know him well and those who have just started working with him say that he is a ``can-do guy'' who just might be able to pull it off.
``I'd be very much surprised if Allan didn't do more in his short tenure at the FAA than a lot of other people have done in much longer periods,'' notes Frederick Smith, chairman of Federal Express, which lost McArtor when he joined the aviation agency.
His Southern-gentleman ways notwith standing, McArtor has already sent a few warning shots across the bow of the airline industry. On Monday he announced the FAA will conduct a special review of the aircraft manufacturing industry. Last week the agency came out with a critical review of Delta Air Lines, which had a series of near-collisions and dangerous pilot errors last summer.
McArtor denies that the system is verging on dangerous. But he admits it needs some quick work to avoid becoming dangerous. ``It's nice to say that we've only had one accident in the last three years, but to my mind that does not demonstrate that you have a safe system,'' he said in a recent interview. ``Maybe you've just been lucky. So you need to measure the risk in the system, and reduce your exposure to risk.''
To that end, McArtor is looking to make dramatic changes in the way airlines certify their pilots, report on how well they maintain their aircraft, and fly from one city to another. As for the FAA, McArtor wants to buy expensive new technology that would cut in half the time it takes to train air traffic controllers. At the same time, he is proposing rules that would have controllers take on more responsibility for guiding smaller aircraft.
The former Air Force Academy quarterback and peewee football coach quickly tackled what is clearly one of the toughest jobs in the country with a combination of Southern charm and military discipline. With a vacancy at the top of the Transportation Department and public outcry over the nation's airways, congressional aides say, he has a fine opportunity to push through his goals.
``Whoever they get [as head of the Transportation Department] won't have any experience and knowledge about what the FAA does,'' says an aide on the Senate Aviation Subcommittee. ``This is a big opportunity for McArtor.''
One of the first items on McArtor's agenda is pilot training. Many people worry that pilots are less experienced and vigilant than they used to be. It appears likely, for example, that the Northwest crash last month occurred because the pilots failed to lower the wing flaps as the plane took off.
``Our aviation system right now requires a different skill set than just flying the aircraft,'' McArtor says. ``We have to figure out, are those pilots trained to be professional and vigilant and on top of the job every day, and are we measuring their proficiency correctly?''
By the end of the year, McArtor says, his agency may present new ways to train and certify pilots, including having them train as a team rather than individuals.
Maintenance problems, including engines that shut off or even fall off, are also making passengers skittish. The FAA periodically inspects airplanes, but, McArtor says, ``I don't believe that system alone is enough to ensure that our maintenance and operations programs are precisely adhered to.''
Borrowing a page from a corporate textbook, McArtor is working on a rule that would make airlines report their maintenance and safety records to the public in the same way that companies report their financial performance. Every three months and at the end of the year, an airline would have to report how well it complied with maintenance and flying standards to the FAA, which would then make the records public. ``That information would be very valuable to the flying public,'' McArtor notes.
The agency would check for accuracy through its own inspections, like an accountant, and would penalize, as the Securities and Exchange Commission does, companies that misstate their performance.
To cut down on delays, which have soared in the last year, the FAA plans to reroute the way aircraft can fly from one place to another. Earlier this year, the agency started directing aircraft to take one of three paths when flying along the Eastern corridor. In essence, that turned a one-lane highway in the air into a three-lane highway. Since the reconfiguration, delays on the Eastern corridor have dropped 34 percent, in large part because of the new routes. The FAA will finish a similar plan for the West Coast by November, and will work on a mid-continent plan, including Chicago, next year.
McArtor also wants to cut down the sometimes dangerous bottlenecks at many airports. Part of the problem is that pilots of small planes are not always guided by air traffic controllers, but rely on their eyes to avoid collision. Last year's crash between an Aeromexico jet and a small plane over Cerritos, Calif., illustrated how risky that method can be. Since then, McArtor has taken the controversial move of having smaller aircraft fly into Los Angeles by a less direct route (which would make that route more crowded and could make it more likely for smaller aircraft to collide with each other, critics say).
It's a stopgap measure which the FAA hopes to replace with new rules. This month, McArtor told Congress that in four years, he expects all commercial planes to have $70,000 collision avoidance systems that would tell how the pilot should move the plane to avoid a crash. The FAA has been criticized for dragging its feet in requiring this technology, which has been available for more than a decade.
Another rule change would put more responsibility on air traffic controllers. McArtor is considering requiring controllers to guide every small plane that appears on the radar screen, no matter how much other (commercial) traffic they are handling.
Critics note that controllers, many of whom have been inexperienced and overworked since President Reagan fired 11,000 of them in 1981, are ill prepared to shoulder more work. In response, McArtor is also pushing for expensive technology - similar to flight simulators for pilots - to train air traffic controllers in a year, rather than three years, as is often the case.
Of course, it's too early to know whether McArtor will be thwarted by the bureaucratic foot-dragging that reportedly frustrated his predecessor.
Stephen Ritchie, who played football with McArtor at the Air Force Academy, thinks not. He recalls the time McArtor quarterbacked against the University of Nebraska, whose players outweighed the Air Force players by 50 pounds each. The Air Force won in the last two minutes. Notes Colonel Ritchie, ``McArtor does better under pressure than anyone I know.''