Born: United States of America
Primarily active in: United States of America

From Leadership Profile: Vertiflite May/June 2017

 James Viola, Manager, General Aviation and Commercial Division, US Federal Aviation Administration, Flight Standards Service

With his aviation safety inspectors and aviation safety analysts stationed from Washington, DC, to Washington State, Jim Viola formulates and implements Federal Aviation Regulations and policies for a broad fixed- and rotary-wing portfolio. “In General Aviation, I have everything other than Part 121 scheduled carriers,” he explained. “So we have all the training and certification of pilots to include ground and flight instructors. We’ve got the corporate jets, fractional ownerships and public aircraft operations.” Thirty to forty percent of Viola’s time is now spent on vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) aircraft. “Lately, we’re working a lot of helicopter issues. I’m kind of the senior helicopter guy in Flight Standards, so a lot of stuff seems to come my way.”

Hot topics for the FAA General Aviation and Commercial Division include former military helicopters with civilian owners and the first commercial tilt rotor with its hybrid flight characteristics. The longtime Army aviator noted, “There was a lot of talk at HAI’s Heli-Expo about the Black Hawks and Chinooks coming out of the Army right now. Based on the rules, they’re either going to be in Restricted Category or Experimental. Under the rules, you can only use them for the operational purpose, and you can’t use them for flight training. When you’re going to have someone do firefighting in an aircraft, I’d sure like to have him trained up and taking check rides in the aircraft that he uses for firefighting. We’re working on ways to clean that up so people can train in the aircraft in which they’re doing the Restricted Category mission.”

The AW609 Tilt Rotor, due for certification by the end of 2018, poses its own training and certification challenges. “A lot of our rules say ‘helicopter’ or ‘airplane,’ but nothing says ‘powered lift’ or ‘VTOL.’ We have to be sure our rules are open enough to allow for pilot training. Right now, we’re working through a gap analysis.”

Earning Wings 
Jim Viola grew up in Dunmore, Pennsylvania, just north of Scranton. “I was always interested in flying from early on.” He actually recalls jumping from a garage roof with cardboard wings. “It didn’t work, but I certainly learned how to do a drop-and-roll without getting hurt.” The future helicopter pilot went on to major in physical education at East Stroudsburg University. “The reason I went to college was to run cross-country. When I got there, I was running out of money. I ended up enlisting in the Army Reserve between my freshman and sophomore years and going through basic training, and when I came back, I enrolled in ROTC [Reserve Officers’ Training Corps]. Right after I graduated, I saw an advertisement in the Army Times for second lieutenants who wanted to go to flight school. I jumped all over that.”

Graduation from Army flight training at Fort Rucker, Alabama, led Viola to fly OH-58C Kiowa scout helicopters with the 82nd Airborne Division. A follow-on assignment in Korea provided a transition to AH-1F Cobras and lots of flying on night vision goggles. “I was an attack company commander, so I had five ‘58s and seven Cobras. I flew almost 500 hours in that year-and-a-half, almost all of it goggle time.” The experience helped earn Viola a spot flying MH-6 Little Birds with the Night Stalkers of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. “You really trained, trained, trained for a no-fail mission,” he noted. “I certainly learned early-on there that you could train hard, but if you trained a little bit too hard and had an accident, you’re going to hurt your whole team.”

The MH-6J had a partial glass cockpit and introduced Jim Viola to integrated avionics. He explained, “I went from the 1st Battalion of the 160th to the 3rd Battalion of the 160th in Savannah, Georgia, with the MH-47D Chinook, and that ended up being even more glass. After two years, I moved back to Fort Campbell and basically standardized the use of the glass cockpit in the MH-47E. The unit had just received 24 full-glass-cockpit MH-47Es in 2nd Battalion and had a couple of CFIT [Controlled Flight into Terrain] accidents. After standardizing what pilots would have on their flight displays, we had no further accidents.

“At the same time, we were really pushing the terrain-following radar and training in IMC [Instrument Meteorological Conditions] on the low-level IFR military training routes around Nashville. The biggest ‘attaboy’ that I got for training that hard was around 2004 when I crossed paths with the current [160th] Regiment commander who thanked me for pushing that training in 1998–99, because that’s how his unit was able to fly over all the mountaintops in Afghanistan” early in Operational Enduring Freedom.

By 2008, Col. Viola was Division Chief of Army Aviation in the Pentagon and looking to retire with an eye to becoming a designated pilot examiner with the FAA. Returning from a trip to Afghanistan and Iraq, he found an FAA letter offering an interview for an “ASI” position. “I had to look up what the heck an ASI was because I had no idea what an aviation safety inspector was. When I found out an ASI was a designated pilot examiner’s boss, I figured, ‘I can do that.’”

Working in Washington 
Jim Viola began his FAA career at the Flight Standards District Office (FSDO) in Herndon, Virginia. “I was working as an airplane guy when I got hired. Then the helicopter emergency medical services industry had all those accidents. I crossed over and became both an airplane and a helicopter ASI out at the Dulles FSDO,” near Washington, DC. (A Flight Standards District Office is a locally-affiliated field office of the FAA.) He subsequently transferred to the General Aviation and Commercial Division of the Flight Standards Service (under the FAA’s Associate Administrator for Aviation Safety) as manager of the Airman Training and Certification Branch. In 2013, Viola became the division manager at the FAA’s headquarters. He oversees a widely dispersed team heavy with subject matter experts. “When we staff up now, we don’t hire off the street anymore at the policy level, we actually reach out to the FSDOs. Because of teleworking with our remote ASIs now, I actually get better-quality inspectors with people who really want to do policy versus people who want to move to DC.”

Ongoing safety concerns about helicopter operations are driving training for helicopter-specific ASIs. “We’d like to have better training for all of the different variations of helicopters out there. We’re trying to figure out which helicopters need the most inspectors and try our best to hire guys with that type of background. One of them is the Robinson aircraft. Since we do a lot of Part 141 oversight of schools and training, we need to get younger inspectors who have piston time.”

Jim Viola helped form — and now co-chairs — the US Helicopter Safety Team (USHST), a regional subset of the International Helicopter Safety Team (IHST). “They’ve labeled the areas of personal/private, helicopter air ambulance, commercial, and aerial applications the top four for fatalities. We’re working to get some educational outreach in those areas specifically.” The FAA is consequently spreading safety messages through specialized industry associations. “For the aerial applicators, we’re trying to tie in to NAAA — the National Agricultural Aviation Association — to be part of the training that they do for their community.”

Viola observed, “I don’t think we did a good job years ago educating people on the actual risks of aviation. Step one is to identify the risk. Step two is to mitigate it. Education, education, education is really the key.” He added, “I don’t think more regulation is the answer. Normally, in order to have an accident they’ve already violated — either intentionally or unintentionally — some rule that was there. The new Airman Certification Standard we’ve started for airplanes and are starting for helicopters is all about risk identification.”

More realistic simulators enhance safety. “A lot of the simulation and aviation training devices are getting better for helicopters. Airplanes were getting pretty good ones, but people seemed to be shying away from all the nuances in helicopters. What we want to see in the simulators is that they can run through all the emergency procedures. You want a boring flight in the real aircraft. When you come out of the simulator, you want to be sweating because you did every emergency procedure in the book.”

Modern cockpit technologies also pay off, noted Viola. “I’ve really started becoming a believer in data recording. The data monitoring helps before the fatal accident. You can go back and look at the data after you’re done flying and say, ‘I didn’t realize I did that,’ and learn from that so you don’t get to that red line.”

 Rotorcraft safety requires no new technical breakthroughs. “The technologies in the glass cockpits are all there,” said Viola. After a recent visit to the Dallas area, he noted that the president of Airbus Helicopters, Inc, Chris Emerson, “told us about a lot of the safety stuff he puts on every helicopter. If the owner wants to take it off for weight savings, at least [Emerson] feels he did the best he could for safety. I kind of like that mentality — making the safest thing you can.”

The FAA General Aviation and Commercial Division formulated the Part 107 regulation for unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) and the mobile “B4UFly” application to promote safe operations of small fixed- and rotary-wing UAS. “It’s not your typical rule that says what you can’t do,” noted Viola. “This rule is enabling because it says if you have an aircraft less than 55 lb. [25 kg] and if you’re in uncontrolled Class G airspace, and if it’s registered, you can fly.” UAS registration online simultaneously provides remote pilot/operator training. “The certification of the UAS operator for aircraft over 55 lb. is certainly a challenge for me and my division,” said Viola. “What are the requirements for that operator? Is he going to be a full-up pilot? Is he going to be just an operator? What we’re really trying to do is level the playing field for those who are new to aviation and have a large learning curve and those who already fly airplanes and helicopters who want a remote pilot certificate.”

Small UAS regulations also have important implications for makers of bigger vehicles. “As we’re writing rules for the future, we’re trying to write more performance-based rules. If your battery starts dying, do you really need to fly another 20 minutes? If you’re flying in line-of-sight, could you have two minutes?”

The FAA General Aviation and Commercial Division manager is an active contributor to AHS International. “AHS is a great professional organization,” he concluded. “I actually was able to speak to a chapter when I was in India. Without all the engineers tied together in a professional organization helping to develop VTOL-type aircraft, who else would do it?”