For the Record: Abnormal Findings – Events ATC Has to Report
by AOPA Legal Services Plan Senior Staff Attorney Jared Allen
An aborted takeoff, an unplanned turn back to the airport, or a departure from the taxiway because of a blown tire are just a few examples of an “occurrence” that the FAA mandates air traffic control to report for further investigation, regardless of whether there is any suspected wrongdoing by the pilot.
In many cases, the pilot involved is not advised that ATC has filed a “mandatory occurrence report” (MOR), so aircraft owners and pilots should know when these reports are triggered and be prepared for the investigation that may follow.
MORs are filed by ATC personnel, not by pilots. A pilot’s reporting obligations remain rather limited; familiar examples are an operator’s obligation to immediately report to the NTSB a “serious incident” or “accident” as defined by NTSB Part 830, or FAR 91.3’s requirement that a pilot who deviates from a FAR in an emergency submit a report a written report upon FAA request. Although pilots don’t file MORs, these reports can affect them.
Just about any out-of-the-ordinary event can trigger the requirement for ATC to file a MOR. An “occurrence” is broadly defined by FAA Order 8020.11D as “an abnormal event, other than an incident or accident.” In the order, the FAA recognizes that not all reported events will have an obvious impact on safety, but that “[t]he advantage of labeling an event as an occurrence is that it allows for an assessment of the risk and the facts for an accurate identification of the event[.]”
Criteria for MORs are included in FAA Order JO-7210.632A, including an ATC “anomaly” such as an aircraft with other than expected altitude, routing, or airspeed; loss of separation; unsafe proximity to terrain; an aircraft that lands, departs, or is on low approach to a closed runway; a takeoff canceled by the controller or aborted by the flight crew after crossing the hold short line; any instance in which communication with an aircraft was not established or maintained as expected and results in alternative actions by ATC or a flight crew; and “emergency or in-flight hazards” including medical issues, equipment malfunctions, fuel quantity, pilot disorientation, laser light illumination, or bird strikes.
Unless ATC suspects an occurrence involves a possible pilot deviation, it’s unlikely the pilot will receive any indication that a MOR will be filed. If it appears to ATC that a pilot deviation occurred, a separate procedure is followed to notify the pilot of a “possible pilot deviation” and request a phone call to ATC. If no violation is suspected-examples being a precautionary aborted takeoff or unexpected turn back to the airport after an engine momentarily runs rough-there is no requirement for ATC to provide any notification of a MOR.
A MOR being filed doesn’t automatically result in the airman being contacted by the FAA. However, if the FAA’s internal review of preliminary information indicates there may have been a deviation or other safety concern, further investigation will be warranted. The FAA specifically notes that inspectors “should refrain from contacting the pilot/owner/operator referenced in the MOR until the [inspector] determines, solely upon the information in the report and the ATC data, that the event appears to be a [deviation] or other safety concern.”
An inspector may contact an owner or pilot by letter, phone, or email. The registered owner of the aircraft can expect to be the initial point of contact if the pilot’s identity is unknown to the FAA. Inspectors often request copies of documents that are specifically subject to inspection under the FARs, such as the aircraft’s maintenance records and the pilot’s most recent flight review or medical. Other information also may be requested, such as a narrative statement of the event.
The investigation may quickly be closed, or it may be just the beginning. If the MOR concerns an event like an equipment malfunction, the inspector may only request a statement and a copy of relevant maintenance records. Once these are provided-only after the airman carefully reviews the request and documents with counsel, of course – it’s likely the matter will be closed. However, if a required maintenance record entry cannot be provided, the investigation may quickly turn to whether the aircraft has since been operating in an unairworthy condition.
Understanding that ATC must file MORs means pilots should consider ways to protect themselves. Verify that your qualifications-medical, BasicMed, flight review, instrument proficiency check, and so on-are current before each flight. Be sure to review your aircraft’s maintenance records for currency as well. If your aircraft experiences an equipment malfunction, ensure that the appropriate maintenance is performed, and logbook entries made, before operating the aircraft again. Last but not least, if an abnormal event occurs, consider filing a NASA ASRS report.