Pilot Counsel

Required documents

May 1, 2006

John S. Yodice, legal counsel for AOPA and IAOPA, owns and flies a Cessna 310.

In my continuing effort in this column to cover the regulations that general aviation pilots and aircraft owners need to know and meet, I have dealt in detail with the documents a pilot is required to have, as well as what must be in the aircraft, for a typical private flight. In the rare violations that we have seen, it usually has been the case that the required documents exist but they are not where they should be, or that there is some hypertechnical problem with a document. What also is typical, and especially noteworthy, is that such violations do not come to light unless the FAA is called upon to investigate an accident or incident. Then the FAA always asks for the necessary documents. It is then, suddenly and unexpectedly, that it becomes a problem.

So, what happens if you do slip inadvertently?

Here is a case that tells us. A pilot had her commercial pilot certificate suspended for a period of 25 days for failing to produce a number of the required documents to an FAA inspector.

In this case, the pilot had a landing mishap while flying an Experimental, amateur-built airplane. While she was attempting a landing at a local airport, she lost control of the airplane and ran it into a ditch, causing damage to the nose gear and propeller. The FAA investigated. In the course of the investigation, the pilot was asked by an FAA inspector to show her airman certificate, her photo identification, and her medical certificate. She was unable to produce any of them. She had them, but not on her at the time. When the inspector asked for the aircraft's registration, the pilot could only produce what the FAA said was a registration belonging to the aircraft's previous owner. She also had trouble producing an airworthiness certificate; she could only produce an expired ferry permit.

Based on these facts the FAA suspended the pilot's commercial certificate for a period of 30 days (later reduced to 25 days). Here is a list of the regulations that she was charged with violating. Although these requirements are generally known, this listing of the requirements, as applied in this case, is a good review for all of us:

  • FAR 61.3(a)(1) requires that the person acting as pilot in command of a U.S.-registered civil aircraft have a "valid pilot certificate" (or special-purpose pilot authorization) in his or her "physical possession or readily accessible in the aircraft when exercising the privileges of that pilot certificate or authorization."
  • FAR 61.3(a)(2) requires that pilot also to have a "photo identification" (usually a valid state-issued driver's license) in his or her "physical possession or readily accessible in the aircraft."
  • FAR 61.3(c)(1) requires that pilot to have a "current and appropriate medical certificate" (or other acceptable documentation) in his or her "physical possession or readily accessible in the aircraft."
  • FAR 91.203(a)(1) requires that the person operating the aircraft ensure that it has "within" it an "appropriate and current airworthiness certificate" (or special flight permit).
  • And FAR 91.203(a)(2) requires, in addition, "an effective U.S. registration certificate issued to its owner" (or pink copy temporary authorization) "within" the aircraft.

The pilot contested the FAA's imposition of the 30-day suspension. She appealed to the National Transportation Safety Board. At the conclusion of a hearing before an NTSB law judge, the judge affirmed the FAA charges but reduced the period of suspension to 25 days. The pilot appealed the judge's decision to the full National Transportation Safety Board. The full board affirmed the charges and the 25-day suspension.

With respect to the charge related to the pilot certificate, the pilot defended by saying that she inadvertently left her permanent pilot certificates in an old purse, while transferring her old, expired, temporary certificates to a new purse. On some of the other charges, she defended by saying she had relied on the (former?) aircraft owner's advice that the registration and airworthiness certificates in the aircraft were appropriate. Specifically, with respect to the charge related to the registration certificate, she argued that the aircraft in question had within it a dealer's registration certificate issued to the entity that she said was the real owner. On the other hand, the FAA contended that the entity she described as the "real owner" was the previous owner. With respect to the airworthiness certificate, she had this argument: She argued that the airplane, an Experimental, amateur-built airplane, had within it a special airworthiness certificate. The FAA contended that in fact it did not have a valid airworthiness certificate, but only had an expired ferry permit. Both the law judge and the full board found against the pilot on these as well as the remaining charges related to the photo identification and the medical certificate. The board's decision doesn't tell us what the pilot's defenses were to these remaining charges except that she was relying on her timely filing of a report with NASA under the Aviation Safety Reporting Program (ASRP).

As we detailed in earlier columns, under the Aviation Safety Reporting Program the imposition of a certificate suspension may be waived, even though there is a finding of a regulatory violation, as long as certain other requirements are satisfied in addition to the filing of a report within 10 days. One such requirement is that the violation must have been inadvertent and not deliberate. The law judge concluded that her operation of an aircraft without her certificates and her photo identification was not inadvertent. The program did not apply. However, he did apply the ASRP to reduce the sanction by five days, because he found that the pilot had relied on the aircraft owner's advice that the registration and airworthiness certificates in the aircraft were appropriate.

Bottom line — a 25-day pilot certificate suspension for failure to have the required documentation on her person and in the aircraft.

An interesting sidelight: In the appeal to the full board, the pilot sharply criticized the law judge's conduct at the hearing, arguing too that the law judge was biased in favor of the FAA. She said that she did not get a fair hearing. The board gave short shrift to these criticisms of bias, rudeness, and lack of judicial temperament.