Trying to Teach Pilots About "Airworthiness"

by Tony Janco and Bob Martens

We’ve tried everything. Sometimes we start with FAR § 91.7(a) which states: "No person may operate a civil aircraft unless it is in an airworthy condition." What is unclear or confusing about this? Sometimes we start by reading from a standard insurance policy which will state: "There is no coverage if the aircraft is operated in-flight with your knowledge and consent knowing its airworthiness certificate is not in full force." That, too, is in language that is fairly clear. Sometimes we start with a story about the innumerable pilots who have purchased the "bargain "airplane only to find out on their first annual inspection that they’ve bought a piece of junk.

This is distressing to most pilots and generally results in a call to the FAA for action against some maintenance shop. In many cases, the owner will have to pay a large sum of money to make his or her aircraft "airworthy." No matter what approach we take, whether it be one of legality, liability, or money, the subject of "airworthiness" seems to confuse and perplex most aviators. From feedback we receive, it seems that A) either the subject is far too complex to be of value to pilots or B) the airworthiness of airplanes is the mechanic’s responsibility. Far too often, pilots get really upset when we try to explain their responsibility with regard to airworthiness issues. WHY? Who has more to lose than the poor pilot if an aircraft is poorly maintained??????



Having clearly established the importance of airworthiness, we will then ask someone to define it for us. Blank stares appear. We ask where they might find it defined. We see more blank stares. Yes, it does seem strange that the only place the definition appears is on the Standard Airworthiness Certificate. Airworthy means that the aircraft conforms to its type certificate and is in condition for safe operation. So, what the heck is a type certificate? This is getting confusing. Most pilots are amazed to know that each certificated aircraft has a "birth certificate" that spells out in explicit detail what was on the aircraft when it left the factory.

Is the pilot really responsible for knowing these intimate details? We then explain that at least once a year, a mechanic who holds an Inspection Authorization (IA) ensures that the aircraft conforms to type design on the annual inspection. Just how many pilots know the difference between an annual and a 100-hour inspection? This leads us to the maintenance areas of FAR Part 91. Pilots get real glassy eyed when we talk about the regulatory compliance with Part 39. Part what? Yup, that’s the part that talks about Airworthiness Directives (AD). And we all know how important they are, right? Unfortunately, many pilots view AD’s as "nit noid" items rather than proven accident cause factors in aircraft accident reports.

Documentation of maintenance done on aircraft IS important, especially if the lack thereof requires a previously accomplished item to be done again because the records don’t contain an accurate account of what was accomplished. Remember, when the IA returns the aircraft to service, he or she has to be absolutely sure all required inspections and/or maintenance was accomplished. They put their livelihood on the line each time they do this. Everyone loses when maintenance actions are not properly recorded. Maybe that’s why FAR § 91.405(b) requires each owner or operator to "ensure that maintenance personnel make appropriate entries in the aircraft maintenance records indicating the aircraft has been approved for return to service.

It should be painfully clear at this point that pilots and those who perform maintenance on aircraft MUST be involved in continual dialogue. This may come as a shock to many of you, but we have a long way to go to achieve this worthy goal. One last thought. The practical test standards which mandate the minimum level of qualification the FAA will accept when certifying pilots provides excellent guidance as to what is expected. Private pilots must "exhibit knowledge of the elements related to certificates and documents by locating and explaining the airworthiness certificate, airworthiness directives and compliance records, maintenance requirements, tests, and appropriate records."

Just for grins, try asking any certificated pilot to perform the above task. The results may amaze you. Lest we be accused of being "heavy handed nay-sayers, "we will clearly admit that maintenance related causal factors in aircraft accidents are way down. That is wonderful news. But, with the legal, financial, and liability issues we raised at the outset, can we really afford to ignore this VERY important issue of "pilots responsibility for airworthiness issues

We think not!!

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