In Administrator v. Chemello, the airline transport pilot landed a hot air balloon in a high school parking lot in the morning shortly before the start of classes. Of course, the balloon attracted a lot of attention from the teachers, students, local law enforcement and, not surprisingly, the FAA. The FAA investigated the incident and subsequently issued an order suspending the airman’s ATP certificate for 90 days for alleged violation of FARs 91.119(b) (prohibiting operation of an aircraft over congested area below an altitude of 1,000 feet above the highest obstacle within a horizontal radius of 2,000 feet of the aircraft) and 91.13(a) (careless and reckless). The airman appealed the suspension to the NTSB.
After an evidentiary hearing, an administrative law judge (“ALJ”) affirmed the suspension. Relying upon his determination of the witnesses’ credibility, the ALJ held that the school parking lot was a “congested area” at the time of the landing and that no emergency was present that would have prevented the airman from landing the balloon in a different, suitable location. The airman appealed the ALJ’s decision to the full Board arguing that the ALJ’s credibility determinations were contrary to the evidence.
The Board initially observed that an airman’s “selection of a suitable landing site for a balloon is dependent upon the balloon’s proximity to power lines, buildings, and trees, and the availability of alternative landing sites.” It also noted that, in addition to generally deferring to an ALJ’s credibility determinations, the Board will specifically defer to an ALJ’s “credibility determinations with regard to whether a respondent believes that he or she must land a balloon in a certain area due to wind conditions.” The Board concluded that the airman had not presented any evidence to compel it to disregard the ALJ’s credibility determinations. As a result, the Board affirmed the ALJ’s decision.
Tough to get a decision reversed when it is based upon the ALJ’s credibility determinations. Unfortunately, this is typically the situation when a case involves a factual dispute, as opposed to a case involving a determination of whether undisputed facts support a violation. The key is to convince the ALJ at the hearing. But that, too, is easier said than done.