Pilot Counsel

Logbook entries

June 1, 1998

Here is an FAA enforcement case that suggests to us lessons to be learned about maintaining our pilot logbooks. For one thing, it shows us how strictly the FAA can construe the regulations requiring logbook entries. For another, it alerts us that even the most experienced and conscientious pilots can get caught — in this case, it happened to an experienced and outstanding flight instructor. And, it prompts me to remind pilots that even though we may have actually satisfied a particular training or experience requirement, a failure to properly log the required training or experience is still a violation of the regulation.

The case got started because a student pilot made a bad landing. She was flying solo in her vintage Ercoupe. It had been only a week earlier that she had made her first solo under the watchful eyes of her flight instructor. On that day, she made two solo landings. They were very good ones.

On the second occasion, her flight instructor flew with her once around the pattern before turning her loose. She again performed very well. The instructor got out of the airplane. She taxied to the runway, took off, and came around the pattern for her solo landing.

This is how she explained what happened: "As I was coming in for a landing, I hit some sink just before landing. And then I flared, and then I started to oscillate three times. Then I put the power in for a go-around."

In the flare, the Ercoupe stalled and bounced onto the runway. It bounced and porpoised three times before the student added power and made a go-around. The nose gear, strut, and engine mount were so badly damaged in the attempted landing that the airplane was very difficult to control. On the go-around, the student was able to make only shallow-bank, wide sweeping turns to get back to the runway. Everyone agreed that she did an excellent job of bringing the damaged airplane in for a safe landing.

Several weeks later, a pair of FAA inspectors was at the airport on another matter. They noticed the damaged Ercoupe and began making inquiries. They learned about the landing incident, as well as the identity of the student and her flight instructor. They immediately focused on the flight instructor.

The instructor in question was a highly regarded veteran pilot and flight instructor. A pilot for more than 50 years, during 42 of which he had been a flight instructor, he had turned out a huge number of successful pilots. He had accumulated some 34,000 hours of flight time. Not the least of his instructor credentials was a doctorate in education, with 35 years of experience as an educator in high school and junior colleges.

As a matter of routine, the FAA asked to see the instructor's training records for the student, as well as the student pilot's certificate and logbook. Here is one of the first lessons suggested by this case. In our experience, one of the first things the FAA will do in the investigation of an aircraft accident or incident is to ask for the pilot's and aircraft's certificates and logbooks.

The FAA was not satisfied with the documentation the instructor provided. The FAA was particularly dissatisfied with the instructor's solo endorsements in the student's logbook. It said things like "pre-solo check ride, OK to solo," and "first solo supervised," but, according to the FAA, it didn't contain the presolo certifications required by FAR 61.87(m) [now FAR 61.87(l)]. It didn't have the instructor's certification that he had given instruction in the make and model aircraft in which the solo flight was made (although the fact that the instructor had given the student instruction in the Ercoupe was apparent from other entries in the logbook). It didn't contain a certification that the instructor had found that the student received the required presolo flight training (though arguably that was apparent from the instructor's training records and entries in the student's logbook). And it didn't contain a certification that the instructor found that the student was competent to make a safe solo flight in that aircraft ("OK to solo" is not enough). This is the second lesson to be learned: The FAA may strictly construe the logging requirements.

After reviewing the logbook and training records, the FAA was not satisfied that all of the required presolo training had been done.

The instructor argued that all of the required presolo training had been given and that he had "made every log entry required by the language of the regulations." This was to no avail. The FAA ordered the suspension of the flight instructor's pilot and instructor certificates for 90 days, later reduced to 30 days.

The flight instructor, insisting that he had done nothing wrong, appealed the FAA order to the National Transportation Safety Board. The case was assigned to an administrative law judge who, after a hearing, sustained the logbook violations. However, the flight instructor was able to persuade the judge that the required training had been given. Those charges were dismissed. The judge reduced the suspension to 10 days.

The instructor further appealed to the full Board. The third lesson to be learned from this case is that actually satisfying the training or experience requirements does not excuse the logbook violations. Here is what the Board said in sustaining the logbook violations:

"Although [the flight instructor's] failure to properly certify that the pre-solo requirements were met is certainly less significant than a failure to meet those requirements, we cannot ignore the violation of section 61.87(m). It is clear from the [judge's] dismissal of the alleged violations of sections 61.195(c) and (d) [now both paragraphs are in 61.195(d)] that [the flight instructor] ensured that the pre-solo instruction requirements were met, but to therefore ignore [the instructor's] failure to certify that fact, as section 61.87(m) requires, would render 61.87(m) meaningless. The Board has no jurisdiction to do so. Similarly, although [the instructor] seeks to have us construe various entries throughout the student's logbooks to comply, in the aggregate, with the certification requirements of section 61.87(m), we think that doing so would significantly distort the plain meaning of the regulation. More importantly, we do not construe the entries [the instructor] made in his student's logbook to even meet the certification requirements. [The instructor], himself, testified that there wasn't enough room in the logbook to record all the training required by section 61.87, and that he therefore kept separate, more detailed, records of each student's training."

Obviously, this case arises in the flight training context. But it has much broader implications. The principles it espouses apply equally to all pilot logging requirements. It is important to mention what has been more troublesome to a general aviation pilot outside of the flight training context — the recent experience requirements of FAR 61.57, especially takeoffs and landings, instrument approaches, and the new IFR requirements for holding and tracking procedures. If there is an accident or an incident and a logbook fails to evidence the required recent experience, we could well be facing an understandably skeptical FAA inspector. Even if we actually have the required recent experience, failure to log it is an independent violation.

John S. Yodice