Three tales show a common feature in dealing with the CAA: you’re presumed to be a liar and cheat at every stage in the process

When we returned from decades in Africa and heard British pilots whine about the UK CAA, Madame and I would nudge one another and guffaw. “They’ve no concept of what a really bad CAA is like,” Madame would say. Now, a couple of years later, we have had our own brushes with the CAA and realise that our guffaws were premature.

What we didn’t know then was that Gotcha! is also played in the UK.

Gotcha! is a favourite game for bureaucrats all around the world. The object of the game is for them to stop you doing whatever it was that you wanted to do in the first place. There are only two outcomes: a) they win when you give up and do what they want, or b) there may be a draw. We, on the other hand, can never win?this is Rule One of the game, and it is the only rule.

The first time it happened I put it down to it being just one of those things. I knew something was up because Madame was in fine, stormy form, her eyes flashing dangerously, “We can’t get a Certificate of Airworthiness for the Fuji! The CAA says it needs to see the Japanese Type Certificate! And it doesn’t have any record of having a copy! In fact no one does! This is AN ABSOLUTE NIGHTMARE!”

Now, you have to start at the beginning to understand why Emma was as incandescent as a thousand watt bulb in a power surge. It’s a simple story. We bought a Swiss registered Fuji FA 200 180 last year?a very nicely restored example of the exemplary Japanese four seat aerobatic tourer. Switzerland is an EASA member state?that bit is important to remember. She wasn’t the first Fuji we had bought. We operated two of them in Uganda where we had a bush flying operation?one was from Germany, the other from Holland. We registered the Dutch one in the UK in 2008?without drama?before exporting it to Uganda.

So our new Swiss Fuji was clearly not a ‘first of type’ in UK. In fact, there were nine other Fujis listed on G-INFO last year. Indeed, Fujis have been on the UK register since 1972. That’s forty-eight years ago. Quite reasonably, we had anticipated no problems in swapping from the Swiss register to the UK register?which we had to do because non-residents can’t own Swiss aircraft. So, before flying our new Fuji from Switzerland to Goodwood we would have to move her to the UK register, and in order to operate her legally we needed a Certificate of Airworthiness (C of A) and all the other paperwork aeroplanes need so they can fly. We thought this would be easy peasy. Ho hum!

Flight Data Recorder, please?

Registering HB-EXC as G-MDAM was simple, and done online in a trice. The next step was swapping the Swiss EASA C of A to a UK EASA C of A. The system is supposed to be transparent?changing a EASA C of A of one nation to a EASA C of A of a different nation is a straight paperwork swap?supposedly. This is where it went horribly, horribly wrong. Far from just surrendering the Swiss C of A and being sent an equivalent UK C of A, we found ourselves deluged with peculiar questions from Gatwick. Emails pinged into Madame’s inbox from a CAA lady at the shared service centre at Gatwick.

The CAA lady didn’t seem to understand that a Fuji is a four seat, piston aeroplane, not a slightly larger Boeing 737. She asked all sorts of questions including whether we had a flight data recorder, and seemed quite disgruntled when faced with answers in the negative. Her extensive check list was clearly not being ticked as she had hoped. Miffed, she started playing Gotcha! To her credit she was jolly good at the game.

Fifteen emails later our opponent made a virtuoso move by demanding the Japanese, Type Certificate Data Sheet (TCDS). Apparently the American FAA TCDS?which, remember, the CAA has accepted for the past forty eight years?was no longer acceptable in the United Kingdom. Yet for all these years the FAA document had been acceptable in UK, Germany, Holland, Australia, Switzerland and?well, everywhere in the world. Even Uganda. But this inferior FAA certificate would no longer pass muster with our determined bureaucrat. We wondered whether she would delve into G-INFO and ground the other nine Fujis retroactively.

Frantic calls to the German Fuji Club, fellow owners, and to Mr Fuji UK, Maurice Colson, our CAMO, revealed that no one had ever even seen the Japanese TCDS because no one had ever needed it?not even once in forty-eight years.

Madame emailed Fuji Heavy Industries, and in the small hours one morning a cryptic message was received from Nippon. If we could prove we were the rightful owners of a Fuji ,then we might?just might?be blessed with a copy of the Japanese TCDS. I had formed a conviction that this treasured document was located in a holy sanctuary at the foot of Mount Fuji, closely guarded by fearsome Samurais. Madame leaped out of bed and sent confirmation of ownership to Japan, and was rewarded with a password allowing her access to the holy of holies. Gasps of astonishment resounded throughout the European Fuji community as the precious document was furtively emailed between Fujistis. We were all saved!

It was no wonder that no one had seen this document?the Japanese TCDS was a new document, produced in May 2019 (somewhat retrospectively since the first Fujis were built in the sixties), and this certificate was the basis for the aircraft appearing on the ‘EASA Product List, Small Aeroplanes, 10/07/2019’?therefore the UK CAA, being an EASA member, must have had access to this document all along?seriously.

Was that the end of the story? Was a C of A dispatched immediately in recognition of a Tolkeinesque quest fulfilled with élan? Not on your Nellie. Another request zipped into Madame’s inbox?yet another bizarre question from Gatwick, probing for weaknesses in our outlandish quest for a C of A. ‘What are the serial numbers of the propeller blades?’ the email demanded. Which, after further faffing?remember we are in Sussex and the Fuji was in Switzerland?we managed to answer.

Eventually this tedious and lengthy inquisition petered out and a C of A was sent. What on earth had the CAA achieved from this utterly futile exercise? I suppose it kept a bureaucrat entertained for a couple of weeks. It made Madame mad, which in turn led to me sheltering for a week in the under stairs cupboard. But safety? Security? Anything of value for UK aviation? Not that I can discern. Perhaps the CAA had decided that we needed a character building exercise, or possibly a test of our marriage. Either way honours were even and I think we drew at Gotcha!

From bizarre and baffling to highly insulting

Well, that was our first experience of the CAA. The second was equally bizarre and baffling. And also highly insulting to Madame.

Some background: Madame is an FAA pilot and holds the entire alphabet of certificates and ratings?multi-seaplane, even. She’s only missing a rating for ornithopters, a regulatory category that I helped to introduce into the East African aviation regulations when I, as an industry representative, became bored during a high level regulatory meeting in Tanzania. I perked up the proceedings by pointing out that ornithopters were the coming thing and should be regulated. It worked! Land, Sea and Amphibious Ornithopter classes now appear in their Registration & Markings regulations. An inspired prank. And a rare win at Gotcha! I digress. Apologies.

Madame is an experienced pilot, having been flying commercially for some decades, mostly in small aeroplanes. Her total hours are north of eight thousand, of which three thousand are instructional. Returning from Africa, and splitting our time between homes in England and Ireland, Madame converted her FAA privileges to EASA. A long slog, those fourteen mandatory exams. She did this at Atlantic Flight Training Academy in Cork. Fortunately, and correctly, the Irish CAA decided her actual flight training need only be done ‘to requirement’ given her experience, and this amounted to ten hours of actually flying aeroplanes.

By now we were living mostly in Sussex, and Madame decided that it might be better to have a UK licence. Since it still remained for her to convert her FAA flight instructor rating to the EASA equivalent she booked a slot at Gatwick and drove up to see what would be required of her.

Emma staggered into Aviation House under the weight of her logbooks, her FAA certificates and ratings, her Ugandan licences, and her EASA licence. A kind lady from Flight Crew Licensing listened to her request?to become a British EASA pilot, and to convert her FAA instructor rating to a UK EASA rating with a reasonable allowance for her three thousand hours of instructional flying.

Madame explains what happened next. “The CAA lady was very nice until she saw my FAA licence. She looked like she had just sucked a lemon. I asked her about a dispensation based on my experience and I showed her my log books. I was completely amazed when she asked me if I could prove the logbooks were true! They had been good enough for the Irish CAA. She told me that I would have to get letters from all the flight schools where I had taught, and looked very unimpressed when I explained that most of them had gone out of business after 9/11. She then told me that without proof I would have to do the full one hundred and twenty-five hours of ground school and thirty hours of flying. She made me feel like a criminal imposter. It was so insulting.”

Madame does not appreciate institutional ‘gaslighting’. We’d had enough of that in Africa. She decided on the spot to remain an Irish pilot. Yes indeed, the CAA had played and won at Gotcha! Hot darn! The CAA was one game up.

The Irish CAA was rather more trusting. A pre-assessment was made, and after eight hours of ground school and eight hours of flying?at a UK ATO no less?the Irish CAA gave her a shiny new EASA flight instructor rating. I remain utterly bemused by the hostility she faced at Gatwick. I have a simple question. Why? Anyone know? Were her eyes too close together? Did she show traits of criminality?

A Covid story

The third story is a Covid story. Well actually, it’s a Covid Gotcha! story. Our Zlin 326 has her Annual and ARC scheduled for April each year?a convenient time of year for a thorough check just before we start aerobatting our way through the spring and summer. This year the pestilence was upon us and the CAA told us all that we could not fly during lockdown. Even if we could have flown, Maurice, our CAMO, was shielding, his small strip was closed, and his hangar, full with aeroplane, was suspended in time. Maurice is in Wiltshire, and BEWO the Zlin is at Goodwood?a forty minute flight. By the time lockdown eased, and Maurice cautiously trudged up from the village in the valley to unlock the hangar on the hill, poor BEWO had overrun her ARC and was out of annual. Oh dear!

Now, you might think that the CAA could reasonably have said that aircraft which were airworthy prior to lockdown and which needed to be flown to their maintenance hangars after lockdown would be allowed so to do. After all, they cannot have flown during lockdown. Seems logical, doesn’t it? (Indeed, I believe that EASA had suggested that national regulators could do exactly this.) But that would be no fun for our bureaucratic Gotcha! opponents.

Maurice called Madame. “Sorry Emma,” Maurice said mournfully, “I’ve checked with the CAA. You are going to need a ferry permit. There’s a long on-line form to fill out, and a £209 fee to pay.” Before Maurice takes up the story let me tell you that BEWO has been on the UK register since 1977, has had a valid ARC and been properly maintained, and as far as I know has never attracted any CAA attention.

So how do bureaucrats calculate their first move in a game of Gotcha!? Well, the starting point is to look for weaknesses. The more abstruse the better. Zlins were made in Czechoslovakia, and Czechoslovakia, you may remember, was behind the iron curtain?the bit of Europe that we planned to nuke in the bad old days. So, in 1966, when BEWO was made, Zlins did not have an EASA Type Certificate Data Sheet, mainly due to EASA not existing until 2002?and the Czechs being the official enemy, of course. Our aircraft, like other Zlins in those halcyon days of the seventies and eighties, was on a special permit issued by the CAA.

As we have seen, Gotcha! mavens like nothing better than to study a TCDS to winkle out weaknesses, so the Zlin 26 series TCDS issued in 2013 by EASA, forty-seven years after BEWO was built, is a treasure trove of delight, if that’s your thing. During this tale of woe please keep in mind that all we wanted was permission to fly for forty minutes. To our maintenance base. In an aeroplane that three weeks earlier was completely legal.

Maurice takes up the story from here. “I applied for two ferry permits as a result of the Covid lockdown. In each case there were technical objections from the CAA. In BEWO’s case it was that the aeroplane has a Hoffman propeller. The Hoffman propeller doesn’t show up on the EASA TCDS, so the CAA decided it was illegal?even though BEWO’s Hoffman is listed on G-INFO. So the CAA refused a ferry permit. BEWO’s logbooks show that the Hoffman was actually fitted after a prop strike many years ago?long before EASA existed. Luckily, I know the Hoffman people in UK and after a long search through their archives they located the authorisation for this offensive prop.”

An exasperated Maurice finishes his tale, “and do you know what?” he asks, “it’s barely credible, but it was the CAA itself that authorised Hoffman propellers for Zlins all those years ago! The CAA had the record all along because they were the issuing authority!”

I should also mention that Maurice was utterly outraged when one of the other grounds for refusing ferry permits was that the CAA said they had no record of who he was. He was asked to submit details of himself?despite having been chief engineer and Form Four holder at his small company for the past thirty years, and being in very regular contact with the CAA. Eventually, a ferry flight was permitted. The losers at Gotcha! were Madame and I?someone has to pay for Maurice’s time researching an answer the CAA possessed all along. If there was any justice the CAA would foot this bill.

Just a snapshot of the bigger picture

Having now talked to many UK aviators I understand that these three stories of CAA zealousness are just a snapshot of the bigger picture. Our experiences are quite normal.

I come back to one simple question. Why is this? Is it us? Are we uncontrollable cowboys intent in ignoring regulation and doing whatever we want? Are we too stupid and delinquent to understand and stick to regulations? I don’t think so. Well, what is going on, then? Why is it the CAA’s default position that we in GA are liars and cheats, and that their mission is to catch us out?

Since starting this article I have asked every engineer, pilot and aircraft owner one simple question: “How do you find dealing with the CAA?” I have not yet had even one positive answer. Not one. I find it astounding that the UK CAA is viewed in this way. I also find it unexpected?and disappointing. The CAA’s Shared Service Centre at Gatwick is mentioned most often as being especially problematic. Maurice Colson has this observation, “the issue isn’t that most CAA employees are officious, they aren’t, it’s just that they don’t have a clue.”

I must mention, striving for some balance, that I have often been told about particular CAA employees who have helpfully intervened in some dire, Dantean circumstances. Sadly, my respondent often goes on to say, “she was really helpful, old Janet, but she couldn’t take any more of the CAA and retired.”.

On 1 January 2021 UK will leave EASA. The UK CAA will then be our sole Lord and Master. Is this cause for consternation? Is there something deeply rooted within the culture of the CAA that makes many of its bureaucrats over-zealous, hostile and seemingly ill informed about our sector of aviation? I think we should be concerned, and quite possibly worried.

So, am I alone in thinking this? No. And what would the CAA itself say about it, not to mention the Department for Transport?

Meanwhile, let me leave you with a question. Why does US registration continue to hold such appeal to UK owners? Might it not be unconnected with the FAA’s airworthiness requirements being simpler and cheaper, and more straightforward than our home-grown equivalents?

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