February 2023 – The CAA may like to think that it is the custodian of aviation standards in South Africa, but the reality is that the designated flight test examiners (DFEs) are the keepers of flying standards. Yet they are under threat.

Guy Leitch.

THE QUESTION ARISES; who checks the DFE’s – who ‘guards the guards?’ Or as the regulators like to say, “You can’t expect what you don’t inspect.”

To check that the DFEs are not letting standards slide, the CAA employs Training Standards Officers (TSOs). These are career bureaucrats whose job it is to ‘oversee’ the DFEs.

Once again the DFEs are in open conflict with the TSOs. Nearly five years ago, in my ‘CAA Dossier’ series, I discussed the damaging toxic relationship in this, the highest levels of aviation. The issue went quiet for a while, but is flaring up again.

Some context may be needed. To evaluate DFEs the TSOs sit in on a DFE conducting a proficiency check on an instructor or flight crew. This can be a lengthy process, usually requiring an hour’s briefing, and then about three hours in the simulator, and another hour’s debriefing. You end up with at least four people in a crowded ‘sweatbox’ of a simulator cockpit: the two crew flying the plane, the DFE evaluating their performance and the TSO overseeing the DFE’s performance.

International standards are important. ICAO requires the TSOs to be; ‘equivalent to, or more qualified’ than the DFEs they are evaluating. The challenge is where to find these very highly qualified instructors. In aviation around the world there are usually enough retired airline Training Captains who can be persuaded to continue knowledge by taking these TSO posts. But in South Africa, many claim the inherent racial tension at the CAA has created a toxic working environment which just does not make it attractive enough.

‘SACAA is fanatic about ICAO compliance’

So South Africa makes do with TSOs who were at best Grade 2 instructors – many years ago. This is far below the standard required by ICAO. Tensions between the underqualified TSOs and DFEs run high. Once again there has been an outbreak of cases reported to me of the TSOs grounding DFEs – by trapping them with arcane legal questions about the regulations.

The aggrieved DFE’s are reported to be resigning their DFE status in disgust. And thus the industry loses their vast repository of experience.

The odd thing is that the SACAA is fanatic about ICAO compliance and often adopts international standards – usually from either the FAA or EASA. This has produced a hash-up of sometimes contradictory regulations and awkward outcomes. Thus, what the world considers to be Chapter 8 of the regulations has become Chapter 9 in South Africa.

This then gives the TSOs the opportunity to create their own ‘tea-time rules’ of Technical Guidance Material, in one case even creating a personal ‘rubric’ of requirements.

The DFE’s naturally have an inherently low tolerance for the excesses of underqualified TSO’s and soon give up in disgust. And so, the loss of essential skills continues. Over the next few issues I will continue to investigate this worrying trend.

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