Pilot Counsel

Preflight action

August 1, 2003

FAR 91.103 sets out what preflight action a pilot must take before beginning any flight. It is a regulation that deserves review from time to time because the FAA often cites it in enforcement actions against pilots. The structure of the regulation is that it sets out an overall requirement that is very general, and very obvious. Then the rule sets out specifics about such things as weather, fuel requirements, and runway data.

'All available information'

Here is the general, and obvious: "Each pilot in command shall, before beginning a flight, become familiar with all available information concerning that flight." This catchall has been used to cover such things as failure to check the security of a fuel cap on a preflight inspection (resulting in fuel exhaustion and a forced landing), failure to notice a missing rudder (and the inevitable crash), and an attempt to take off with 250 pounds of concrete chained to the tail of a Beechcraft Bonanza. It has even been used to suspend the certificate of the pilot of an airliner who landed at the wrong airport. In more recent times, it has been charged against pilots failing to check notams, resulting in violations of restricted airspace.

The regulation then gets more specific. It says that "for a flight under IFR or a flight not in the vicinity of an airport," the information that must be checked includes:

  • weather reports and forecasts,
  • fuel requirements,
  • alternatives available if the planned flight cannot be completed, and
  • any known traffic delays of which the pilot in command has been advised by ATC.

The regulation, by implication, relieves a VFR pilot on a local flight from checking information that would have little relevance to his or her flight. However, the general "all available information" still applies.

Checking weather

Overall, the failure to check weather has probably accounted for most of the enforcement cases in which a violation of FAR 91.103 has been charged, though notam violations are catching up fast. These cases ordinarily involve a VFR pilot who gets caught in IFR conditions. This automatically leads to the inference that the pilot failed to check the weather adequately. If the pilot actually did check weather, and the weather closed in on him or her despite this precaution, the cases, admittedly a minority of the cases, make clear that the pilot may use the emergency authority of FAR 91.3 to excuse the violation. Checking the weather through a flight service station, DUATS, or another method that can later verify the check is obviously a good idea.

Fuel requirements

While FAR 91.103 requires a check of fuel requirements, it is two other regulations that provide the detail. The requirement for a flight in VFR conditions is contained in FAR 91.151 and for flight in IFR conditions, FAR 91.167.

According to FAR 91.151, for a daytime flight in an airplane under VFR conditions, a pilot may not begin the flight unless there is enough fuel to fly to the first point of intended landing and to fly after that for at least 30 minutes. For a flight at night, a 45-minute reserve is required. In a rotorcraft, the requirement is for at least a 20-minute reserve. The regulation specifies that in calculating the requirement a pilot must assume normal cruising speed, and must take into account wind and forecast weather conditions.

For a flight in IFR conditions, an aircraft must carry enough fuel to complete the flight to the first point of intended landing, to fly to the alternate airport, and then to fly after that for 45 minutes (30 minutes for a helicopter). Again, in calculating this requirement a pilot must assume normal cruising speed, and must take into account weather reports and forecasts. A pilot may eliminate from his or her computation the fuel necessary to fly from the first airport to the alternate if the following conditions are met: The first airport must have a standard or special instrument approach. And, for at least one hour before and one hour after the estimated time of arrival, the appropriate weather reports and forecasts must indicate that the ceiling will be at least 2,000 feet and visibility will be at least 3 statute miles. For helicopters, at the estimated time of arrival and for one hour after that, the ceiling must be expected to be at least 1,000 feet, or at least 400 feet above the lowest applicable approach minimums, whichever is higher, and the visibility must be expected to be at least 2 sm.

Notice that the IFR fuel requirement applies only to flight in IFR conditions. Presumably, an IFR flight in VFR conditions need only meet the VFR fuel requirements.

A note about how to determine the available fuel. In an enforcement case several years ago, the FAA and the NTSB were critical of a pilot's reliance on "eyeballing" the fuel quantity in the tanks, and of relying on the fuel gauges, to ensure the minimum fuel required by the regulations. They said that when a fuel tank is not full, or up to a calibrated tab, the best way to establish the amount is with a calibrated dipstick. The pilot, who happened to be a captain for a major airline, had his ATP certificate suspended for 30 days for violating FAR 91.103 and FAR 91.167 (and 91.13, "careless or reckless"). This was a hindsight analysis because the pilot ran out of fuel in a Piper Archer, crashing and injuring himself, his wife, and children. It does illustrate the cautious approach that must be taken in determining available fuel.

Runway data

FAR 91.103 also specifies that a pilot is required to become familiar with all available information concerning runway lengths at the airports of intended use, and the takeoff and landing distance information for the aircraft being used. If the aircraft has one, the pilot must become familiar with the takeoff and landing distance data contained in the aircraft or rotorcraft flight manual. This information must be used by the pilot to assess the suitability of the runway to be used.

Of course some aircraft do not have flight manuals, and some aircraft have manuals that do not provide takeoff and landing distance information. The important thing to note is that the rule applies only to information that is available. For an aircraft for which a flight manual has not been approved, the pilot must consider any other reliable information about aircraft performance and apply it to the expected conditions such as airport elevation and runway slope, aircraft gross weight, wind, and temperature.

Alternatives and traffic delays

With respect to the remaining two specific requirements, that is, that a pilot must become familiar with the "alternatives available if the planned flight cannot be completed" and "any known traffic delays of which the pilot in command has been advised by ATC," I have not seen them interpreted or applied in any enforcement case. They have not been troublesome for pilots. There is not much to say about them except that they are in the regulation.