Surviving the Ramp Inspection
by Joel D. Wilcox

The horror stories abound about FAA aviation safety inspectors arriving at the airport and grounding airplanes left and right, yanking certificates, and smiling in the face of outraged pilots. A small incident is retold second and third hand; superfluous and inflammatory information is added to the point where the story that reaches the pages of commercial aviation publications hardly resembles what actually happened. W

hereas the FAA, as with any human endeavor, has its share of problem employees, those individuals are in the extreme minority, and they are shown quite readily that their behavior will not be tolerated. In truth the tales of widespread FAA abuses of power are, quite simply, myths concocted and promulgated by those with a hidden agenda. What follows is an accurate description of what a typical ramp inspection entails. Like the author, although I've never received one in 18 years of flying, I have conducted the occasional one, with pleasant results all around. We hope this will allay some fears and clarify some confusion about the dreaded "ramp check."


I don't know how often, on average, the general aviation pilot receives a ramp inspection from an FAA Aviation Safety Inspector (ASI). In my 17 years of flying, I've never had one, and I know many pilots who've flown 30 years and more and never had a ramp inspection. However, since ASI's perform a few hundred "ramps" each year in my state of Alaska, I'm sure there are pilots who feel they're getting more than their fair share. If you've never had a ramp inspection, here's what it's all about.

 First, the ramp inspection is almost never targeted at a specific pilot or airplane; that is, unless Air Traffic has called in an unsafe operation, the ASI doesn't leave the office with anything more in mind than an airport. Other reasons to perform a ramp inspection are when a complaint is received or when the inspector him- or herself sees a possible act of non-compliance with the FAR. Otherwise, the inspector's goal is to perform a normal work function as assigned by headquarters or the local office. Inspectors in Alaska are typically charged with performing about 10 inspections apiece each year. Consider the ramp check as something akin to taking the pulse of compliance and safety.

 You can expect the ASI to introduce him- or herself to you when you've just returned from a flight or preparing to leave. You won't receive a ramp inspection while you're waxing or working on your airplane; the ramp inspection is an operational inspection in accordance with FAR Part 91.

An ASI may examine the exterior of an unattended aircraft but can't board the aircraft without the knowledge of the pilot/ operator. Sometimes two inspectors perform ramp checks together: The operations inspector specializes in pilot paperwork, while the airworthiness inspector looks at the aircraft and its paperwork.

 The operations inspector can perform either inspection alone, although he or she is required to coordinate later with an airworthiness inspector in the case of a suspected airworthiness discrepancy. An exception to this coordination would be if the operations inspector found an obviously unairworthy aircraft. In this case he or she must tag the aircraft with an Aircraft Condition Notice. Technically speaking, the Condition Notice cannot ground an aircraft, although it can specify that operation of the aircraft with the discrepancies uncorrected may be contrary to the pertinent FAR or that a Special Flight Permit is required to operate the aircraft.

 Before the ASI checks your paperwork, he or she is required first to show you FAA identification. This may be followed a chat about what kind of flying you're doing that day or comments (hopefully good!) about your aircraft. On the one hand the inspector needs to know what kind of flying you're doing, but, then again, many inspectors just enjoy talking about what other pilots are doing.

 Next, the inspector will ask you for your airman and medical certificates.

 The airman certificate must have the appropriate ratings and limitations for the operation being conducted, while the medical must be current and of the appropriate class.

The FCC radiotelephone license is no longer required, except for international operations. Although you're not required to have your pilot logbook with you, the inspector may ask if it's available. He or she will be looking for a current BFR or completion of a phase of the WINGS program, instrument currency or an instrument proficiency check (if required), and PIC currency (90-day landing currency for carrying passengers).

 Much of the aircraft inspection covers paperwork, as well. The aircraft must have the proper airworthiness and registration certificates. Once back in the office, the ASI will do a computer search to make sure the registration certificate is issued to the current aircraft owner. Radio station licenses are the concern of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), not the FAA, although an inspector should remind the pilot/owner if he or she notices an expired license.

 The aircraft must have appropriate markings and placards, a current and approved flight manual if appropriate, and weight and balance information. A thorough check here will also include comparing the equipment listed on the weight and balance form to the installed equipment. If the aircraft has a minimum equipment list (MEL), the ASI will check that it matches the aircraft serial and N-numbers and contains a Letter of Authorization from a flight standards district office (FSDO). If the aircraft is being operated IFR, the inspector will look for a notation in the aircraft log or some other place that shows a VOR check within the last 30 days. Although an aircraft log is not required to be on board the aircraft, the ASI can ask to see it at a later date. If, for example, he or she noticed that a required ELT was missing from the aircraft, he or she may want to see an entry in the log acknowledging that the ELT would not be missing more than 90 days.

Checking aircraft documents may also mean checking that aeronautical charts appropriate to the operation are available. Finally, the aircraft must have FAA Form 337, Major Alterations and Repairs, for auxiliary fuel tanks installed in the passenger compartment.

The ASI will perform a general inspection to determine the airworthiness of the aircraft. This will include looking at the seats and safety belts for installation and condition and checking the expiration date of the ELT battery. He or she will also want to see than an aircraft identification plate is secured to the aircraft exterior (usually near the tail section).

Whenever possible, discrepancies found during a ramp inspection will result only in an administrative action-such as a letter of correction-and not an enforcement action. The ASI will attempt to work with the pilot/operator and will allow time, for example, for the operator to provide evidence of missing documentation. If no discrepancies are found during the ramp check, the Aviation Safety Inspector's Handbook advises the inspector to compliment the pilot or operator. And that's all there is to it.
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