Pilot Counsel

Aircraft maintenance and preflight

March 1, 1999

If you are an aircraft owner, you have been up to your ears in aircraft repairs, inspections, and generally what the FAA calls maintenance. You might be surprised to learn (or be reminded about) how much responsibility an owner-pilot has after an aircraft comes out of maintenance. That's because in the real world, most of us tend to rely on our maintenance facility or mechanic when we are told that the work has been completed and the aircraft is ready to go. That is based on our good experience. Maintenance facilities and mechanics are usually very reliable.

Well, that may be the practice, but as a case that I am going to describe tells us, that's not enough to comply with the regulations. An owner-pilot has an independent responsibility to ensure that the proper paperwork is completed after maintenance. The case even suggests a regulatory requirement for a higher order of preflight inspection on the next flight.

The owner-pilot took his Cessna 310J to his local fixed-base operator to have some work done on the cabin heater and to have the heater inspected for compliance with an FAA airworthiness directive. A mechanic working for the FBO started on the job. The mechanic took the heater out of the airplane and worked on it on the bench for several days.

When the work was due to be completed, the owner of the Cessna advised the maintenance facility that he wanted to go flying. To accommodate the owner, the mechanic reassembled the heater and was in the process of reinstalling it in the airplane when the owner arrived. In order to reinstall the heater, the mechanic went through the nose gear well. The space was tight, and for easy access, the mechanic disconnected the linkage rods that operate the gear doors.

When the owner arrived at the airport, the aircraft was not yet ready. The mechanic was still in the nose gear well, troubleshooting the heater. The owner started his preflight inspection, noted the disconnected nose gear door linkage rods, and discussed the work with the mechanic. The owner completed the preflight and returned to wait in the FBO lobby while the mechanic worked for about another 20 minutes. The mechanic couldn't get the heater to work. After finishing his work, he told the owner that the aircraft was "good to go" but that the heater was not working.

The owner went to his aircraft with his passenger and began his flight. He didn't recheck the maintenance that had been performed, relying on what the mechanic had told him. The gear door linkage rods were still disconnected. As a result, after takeoff, the gear doors were sucked up into the gear well. When it was time to land, the nose gear would not deploy. The owner was forced to land with the nose gear in the retracted position. The aircraft was badly damaged on landing.

The FAA investigated. It became apparent to the FAA that no logbook entries had been made describing the work done on the aircraft, and that there was no logbook entry returning the aircraft to service. The owner had relied on the mechanic's advice, given to him personally and through the FBO owner, that the aircraft was ready for the owner to use. That wasn't good enough for the FAA. According to the FAA, it was the owner's responsibility to verify that the paperwork had been completed before operating the aircraft.

As if the trauma of the incident and the resultant damage were not enough, the FAA threw the book at the owner, charging him with violation of FAR 91.405(b), requiring a logbook entry for the airplane's return to service; FAR 91.407(a), requiring logbook entries for the maintenance performed; FAR 91.7(a), operating an unairworthy aircraft (inoperative heater, disconnected gear door linkage rods); and FAR 91.13(a), being careless or reckless. Despite an appeal to the National Transportation Safety Board, the owner-pilot ultimately suffered a 45-day suspension of his commercial pilot certificate and the resultant black mark on his FAA record.

The report on this case doesn't tell us what, if any, action was taken against the mechanic or the maintenance facility.

What this case does tell us, and what sometimes escapes notice and proper emphasis, is that an owner has an independent responsibility regarding the required paperwork that must be completed after maintenance. Let's look at the specific regulatory provisions.

FAR 91.405(a) is directed to "each owner or operator of an aircraft." It requires that the owner or operator "shall ensure that maintenance personnel make appropriate entries in the aircraft maintenance records indicating the aircraft has been approved for return to service." This provision is independent of, and in addition to, the FARs requiring maintenance personnel to make appropriate logbook entries after maintenance.

FAR 91.407(a), which overlaps to a great extent, provides that "No person may operate any aircraft that has undergone maintenance, preventive maintenance, rebuilding, or alteration, unless (1) it has been approved for return to service by an [authorized person] and (2) the maintenance record entry required by [FAR Part 43] has been made." Of course, the person referred to clearly includes the owner-pilot.

So, if these are the requirements, what must an owner-pilot, unsophisticated in such things, look for? An owner-pilot should at least be aware that there must be a written entry in the aircraft logbooks; the entry must approve the aircraft for return to service; it must be signed; and it must state the date on which the work was completed, describe the work that was done, and give the name of the person who performed and approved the work.

How far these regulations extend is not very clear to me. For example, since they apply to an "operator" and any "person," does it make sense to apply them to a renter-pilot, a casual user, or other technical "operator" who may not even be aware that the aircraft just came out of maintenance? Consider another interesting question not answered by the case: Can a person rely on the oral representation of a reputable maintenance facility that the appropriate logbook entries have been made, without personally looking at them? I suspect this happens quite often.

Clearly, however, in a plain-vanilla situation an owner-pilot must take reasonable steps to ensure that the appropriate logbook entries have been made before the owner or anyone else operates the aircraft.

There is another point to the case that bears mention. The clear implication of this case, by both the FAA and the NTSB, is that the first preflight inspection of an aircraft after it comes out of maintenance should include stricter scrutiny of the components that were worked on, assuming, of course, that they are reasonably viewable on a preflight inspection. The FAA and the NTSB were critical of the pilot for not rechecking the very area of the aircraft that he knew had been partially disassembled and that he could easily have checked before starting his flight. The FAA and the NTSB concluded that this constituted carelessness on the part of the owner-pilot, in violation of FAR 91.13(a).