Pilot Counsel

FAA paperwork requirements

June 1, 2004

FAA paperwork. Extensive and mostly monotonously uneventful — especially for those of us who are "noncommercial" owners and pilots operating under Part 91 of the federal aviation regulations, and even more especially for those of us who rely on maintenance personnel to keep our maintenance records up to snuff (commercial operators are schooled to maintain records). On a number of occasions in this column we have noted that the FAA paperwork requirements can sometimes pass unnoticed for a long, long time, lulling general aviation aircraft owners and pilots into thinking the records are unimportant. We also noted that these requirements grow in importance if there is an aircraft accident or incident, which, thankfully, is rare. Then it is a virtual certainty that an FAA inspector will ask to see pilot and aircraft logbooks and records. The FAA will review the paperwork looking for compliance, or lack of compliance, with the FARs. An FAA enforcement action can follow, even if the alleged violation had nothing to do with the accident or incident that led to the logbook and record review.

Here is a case that again illustrates my point, and serves as a reminder to all of us about what can happen.

The case involves an aircraft owner's responsibility for the paperwork required to show compliance with airworthiness directives (ADs). The aircraft involved was a relatively modest two-place 1956 Piper PA-18A Super Cub. This airplane had been used in a banner-towing operation (nevertheless considered by the FAA to be a noncommercial operation under FAR Part 91, with a waiver for banner towing). The owner and operator of the Cub was fined $2,000 by the FAA for being unable to produce the paperwork to prove that two ADs had been met. The owner's explanations fell on deaf ears.

Before getting to the facts of the case, let's review the two relevant FARs. We've seen them before:

FAR 39.3 provides that "no person may operate a product to which an airworthiness directive applies except in accordance with the requirements of that airworthiness directive."

FAR 91.7(a) provides that "no person may operate a civil aircraft unless it is in an airworthy condition." While the FARs surprisingly do not define airworthy condition or airworthiness, the FAA has long held that to be airworthy, an aircraft must 1) conform to a type design approved under a type certificate or supplemental type certificate and to applicable airworthiness directives (both usually satisfied by a current airworthiness inspection); and 2) be in a condition for safe operation. This definition has been confirmed in many enforcement decisions of the NTSB, and has been used as the basis for finding many a violation against a pilot or an owner.

Now to the facts. As you have probably guessed, the Super Cub was involved in an accident. It got caught in wind shear while landing. The two persons on board sustained minor injuries. The airplane was destroyed. In the investigation of the accident, the FAA asked to see the maintenance records for the airplane. (The FAA probably asked to see the pilot's credentials and logbooks, too.) The owner had no difficulty showing that the airplane had a current annual inspection. The airplane was subject to two airworthiness directives (both involved in this case) that were satisfied at the time of that inspection and the time of the accident. AD 60-10-08 required that at least every 100 hours of time in service the fuel selector valve on PA-18 airplanes equipped with two wing tanks must be inspected to see if the detent engagement is positive and properly aligned with the markings on the indicator plate. If not, the valve must be replaced and/or the plate repositioned properly. The other AD, 68-05-01, required inspections of the engine exhaust muffler and associated equipment in various models of Piper aircraft including the PA-18 at least every 100 hours of time in service.

The accident occurred on May 2, 1999. The last annual inspection was done on February 15, 1999, when the tach time was 1,033 hours. As I said, that inspection, current at the time of the accident, reflected that the two ADs had been met at the time of the accident. That didn't satisfy the FAA. The FAA looked back to the next earlier annual inspection. That was done on October 25, 1997, at 799 hours on the tach. There was no annual inspection between October 1998 and February 1999 because the aircraft was grounded for repairs. This 1997 inspection, too, reflected that the ADs had been accomplished. It was the time in between that concerned the FAA. After reviewing the records, the FAA questioned whether prior to February 1999, the two ADs had been complied with in a timely fashion. After all, more than 100 hours had expired between October 1997 at 799 hours and February 1999 at 1,033 hours. The FAA was not satisfied that when the airplane was operated between 899 hours (when the next AD inspections were due after October 1997) and 1,033 hours, when the records next reflected AD compliance in February 1999, the airplane was in AD compliance.

The owner insisted that the required AD inspections had been performed between the AD inspections of October 1997 and February 1999. He said that a certain maintenance facility had done the work. He called the facility. It said that it had no record of the AD inspections, but it did recall doing the work. Where were the records of those inspections? The owner offered many possible explanations for the absence of records, some of which will be familiar to some of us. According to the owner, the pilots do not carry the logbooks in the airplane. As a result, when the aircraft is away from its home base, mechanics record maintenance performed on stickers or pieces of paper or as addenda to maintenance invoices, which are easily misplaced or lost. The owner pointed out that he had earlier provided the maintenance records to an FAA inspector investigating a September 1998 forced landing into a parking lot because of a power loss. This was at a time when the 100-hour inspections were due, and obviously the records had satisfied that FAA inspector. The records had since been returned, but maybe inadvertently, not all. Also, during this interim the muffler and exhaust stacks had been replaced, maybe addressing one of the ADs. Lastly, the owner explained that after the 1999 accident, both the FAA and the insurance company had requested the aircraft's maintenance records. He provided the "large majority" of the records to the FAA to establish that the aircraft was airworthy at the time of the accident and provided other information to the insurance company that shortly thereafter took possession of the wreckage. Lots of possibilities for misplaced or lost records.

The bottom line, according to the FAA, is that the owner failed to provide any records that established that the required inspections were performed on time in that interim period. Even though the owner had established that the ADs had been met at the time of the accident that was being investigated, and even though any lack of compliance could not possibly have had anything to do with the accident, the FAA concluded that for a time the Cub was operated beyond the time limitations for compliance with the two airworthiness directives. The FAA found the owner was in violation of FARs 39.3 and 91.7(a), quoted previously. The FAA imposed a $2,000 fine to "promote adherence to the FARs and act as an appropriate deterrent to others."

So, this is another case reminding us that FAA-required paperwork must be maintained by even "noncommercial" owners and pilots in order to satisfy an FAA request that likely will never come, but could.