To Fly or Not to Fly
by Richard Davis

How many times in our flying careers have we found ourselves down at the local fixed base operator renting an aircraft we've never seen or flown before? We go through the usual routine of signing the rental agreement, completing the company flight checkout for insurance purposes, and making arrangements for our hard-earned dollars. Of course we take time to find out about how to access aircraft during non-business hours and in the case of a "wet lease," how to pay and get reimbursed for those extravagant fuel costs And we're all set, let's go flying! But, have we covered all the bases?

Have we met all of the FAR? More importantly, have we assured ourselves, our passengers, and the public that the aircraft we are about to operate is airworthy and safe for flight? Have we forgotten to research the aircraft's maintenance records to make sure of the aircraft's maintenance and inspection status?  Did we personally inspect the aircraft to assure that it meets the minimum requirements specified in the regulations? Or, are we assuming that the fixed base operator has taken care of all these details? Did we even ask?  The purpose of this article is to address various areas and misconceptions regarding the pilot's responsibilities to assure that the aircraft flown are airworthy and safe for flight and to provide some tools to help accomplish that goal.


Who is Responsible?

FAR § 91.7 states in part that, "No person may operate a civil aircraft unless it is in an airworthy condition." This rule goes on to say that "the pilot in command of a civil aircraft is responsible for determining whether that aircraft is in condition for safe flight."

 FAR § 91.403 also states that, "The owner or operator of an aircraft is primarily responsible for maintaining that aircraft in an airworthy condition including compliance with Part 39 [AD Notes] of this chapter."

 These two regulations reference a "person" and an "owner or operator" as the responsible party required to assure an aircraft is airworthy and safe for flight. An operator is considered to be the person who operates the aircraft for the purpose of air navigation (i.e., the pilot). An operator can also be defined as the person who causes or authorizes the operation of the aircraft such as the aircraft's owner or lessee. Where does the owner or lessee's responsibility end and the pilot's begin? As we have seen, both can be held responsible. Consequently, it is important that pilots take reasonable care in determining that the aircraft they fly is airworthy and safe for flight. It is equally important that operators provide the pilot with the necessary records and information to help him or her come to this very crucial decision.


Every aircraft that comes off the production line is issued an airworthiness certificate that signifies at that moment that the aircraft conformed to all the rules, engineering data, and specifications referenced in the aircraft type certificate. The "type certificate" is the document that approves the design of the aircraft. We say an aircraft is airworthy if it conforms to its type design and is in condition for safe flight.

Because aircraft age and wear out as they are flown, "terms and conditions" are issued on the airworthiness certificate to assure the certificate continues to be valid. Each airworthiness certificate states under the "terms and conditions" that the airworthiness certificate is effective as long as the maintenance, preventive maintenance, and alterations are performed in accordance with FAR Parts 43 and 91.

What Records?

Some pilots may not be aware that FAR Part 91 requires owners and operators to keep numerous maintenance records. These include records of maintenance, preventive maintenance, inspection, and alterations. When maintenance is accomplished there must be an entry made in the aircraft's record stating:
   A description of the work performed
   Date of completion for that work
   The signature, certificate number, and kind of certificate of the person approving the aircraft for return to service

 Additionally, records must be kept showing:

   Total time in service
   Status of life limited parts
   Time since last overhaul
   Current inspection status
   Status of airworthiness directives
   FAA Form 337's showing major alterations and repairs

 With this information in hand it would be easy for a pilot to determine the aircraft's maintenance status. If these records are not readily available, the pilot should ask for them.

Is It Airworthy?

What can a pilot do to determine that an aircraft is airworthy? What actions should a pilot take to ensure that an aircraft is safe for flight?

There are two steps that every pilot should take before flying any aircraft. First, a comprehensive review of the aircraft's records is necessary. Secondly, a thorough preflight walk-around must be conducted. Each of these should be accomplished with the intent to determine the condition of the aircraft and not with the added pressure of an estimated time for departure in mind.
Records Review

Now that we've asked the owner/operator for the aircraft records, let's sit down and get started on our records review. At a minimum our review should verify the following items:

 ° A current annual, 100-hour(if required), or progressive inspection
° Correction of any reported discrepancies found as a result of an inspection or flight
° Current status of airworthiness directives
° Items deferred in accordance with an MEL or FAR § 91.213(d)
° Current weight and balance
° Current equipment list
° ELT battery expiration date
° Biannual test of transponders
° Biannual test of altimeters and static pressure system
° Major repairs and alterations recorded on FAA Form 337

 Obviously, a pilot would find it difficult to determine exactly what maintenance a mechanic accomplished without observing the work. Therefore, it is important that a pilot locate the required maintenance record entry to satisfy his or her requirement to ensure that the maintenance was accomplished and the aircraft approved for return to service. If no entry exists, the maintenance was not accomplished. FAR §§ 43.9 and 43.11 both specify what items must be included in the applicable maintenance entry.

 A thorough review of all the above mentioned records should give any pilot a comprehensive idea of the maintenance status of the aircraft they intend to fly. Initially, this review might take a couple of hours, thereafter, it would only require a few minutes to determine the aircraft's current status. Some operators will provide a "status sheet" or a "status board" which, if current, can assist the pilot in quickly determining the aircraft's maintenance status.

Now that our records review is complete, let's go out to the aircraft and check it out!

Aircraft Visual Inspection

Most pilots are familiar with the acronym ARROW:
Airworthiness certificate
Registration certificate
Radio license
Operating limitations
Weight and balance

This is a great start! The pilot should review each of these documents to assure that they are in the aircraft and are current and appropriate. A close look will often reveal an expired pink, temporary registration, a registration number change not reflected on the airworthiness certificate, or even missing documents. Operating limitations for older aircraft are normally shown in the form of placards on the aircraft. Many aircraft are required to have an "FAA approved flight manual" which specifies the aircraft's operating limitations and placards. A pilot can review the "required equipment list" and/or the aircraft's "type certificate data sheet" to find out if there exists an approved flight manual. All IA's should have type certificate data sheets as part of their library. Check them out. Anytime a new piece of equipment is added to the aircraft a new weight and balance must be computed. It is essential that you verify that the weight and balance used for flight planning is the most current.

 FAR Part 91, Subpart C specifies numerous types of equipment that need to be installed for specific kinds of operations. The aircraft required equipment list specifies the equipment that must be installed for any aircraft flight operation. Additionally, some equipment may be required to meet the standards of a TSOÑ technical standard order. A TSO is a published standard to which an item is manufactured. Items that may fall into this category might be transponders, seatbelts, and emergency locator transmitters. Any article manufactured to a TSO standard will be clearly labeled with the applicable TSO number. FAR § 45.11(d) also requires that an external data plate be installed on the aircraft exterior indicating the aircraft model designation and serial number so it can be read by a person on the ground. If this data plate is not installed, you could find yourself unnecessarily detained!

In addition to the items we've already discussed, your walk-around should always include a close examination for signs of improper or poor maintenance. If you really want to be thorough, bring an unbiased mechanic along with you. Drain the fuel sumps and check a sample for appropriate color and signs of contamination. If you find "auto fuel" check to see that the appropriate auto fuel STC is installed. A dirty, cluttered cabin, crazed glass, oil streaks, oil stains on the tarmac, underinflated tires and oleo struts, rusty hardware, and copious amounts of duct tape are all signs of a poorly maintained or abused aircraft. Remember, if the aircraft looks like it is being cared for, it probably is. If the aircraft looks rough, and the paperwork is incomplete,'s anybody's guess.
Bottom Line

It is in the best interest for pilots to check out the aircraft they intend to fly. It's critical that they conduct a complete records review and an extensive preflight walk-around. More importantly, every pilot needs to become informed about all the aspects of the aircraft they fly. We can't assume that someone else has taken care of all the details. Remember, nobody cares like you do!

 It is also in the best interest of the owner/operator to provide pilots with the necessary records for them to assure that the aircraft are airworthy and safe for flight. Not only does this show they are interested in the safety and welfare of their customers, but it also establishes an expected higher level of knowledge, awareness, responsibility, and professionalism on the part of the pilot. When the operator promotes an attitude of higher standards and safety, it pays dividends, which translate into:

   Better care of rental aircraft
   Informed decisions
   Better pilots
   Happier customers

 Bottom line: It is not the rules, the time, or the expense. What really counts is the safety of you and your customers.
 ?AvStop Online Magazine                                                                                                      Contact Us              Return Home