Pilot Counsel:

Preflight action

November 1, 2008

John S. Yodice pilots a Cessna 310 from Frederick, Maryland.

In our continuing review of the flight rules that govern general aviation operations, here is one that seems to find its way into many FAA enforcement actions. FAR 91.103 sets out what preflight action a pilot must take before beginning any flight. It is an overall requirement that is general and obvious. The rule sets out specifics about such things as weather, fuel requirements, and runway data.

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 failing to check the security of a fuel cap on a preflight inspection (resulting in fuel exhaustion and a forced landing), even a missing rudder (and the inevitable crash), and an attempted takeoff 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 that landed at the wrong airport. Most recently it has been charged against pilots failing to check notams, resulting in violations of temporary flight restrictions and the Washington air defense identification zone.

For the specifics, it says that “for a flight under IFR or a flight not in the vicinity of an airport,” the information that must be checked must include: 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.” Notice that the rule seems to relieve a VFR pilot on a local flight from checking information that would have little relevance to his or her flight, presumably because the weather should be obvious.

Second only to notam violations, the failure to check weather probably accounts for most of the enforcement cases in which a violation of FAR 91.103 has been charged. These cases ordinarily involve a VFR pilot who gets caught in IFR conditions, creating the inference that the pilot failed to check the weather adequately. Checking the weather through a flight service station or DUATS or other method that can later verify that a check was made, is obviously recommended.

While FAR 91.103 requires a check of fuel requirements, it is actually two other rules that provide the detail.

For a daytime flight in an airplane under VFR conditions, FAR 91.151 specifies that 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. In calculating the requirements pilots 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, then to fly to the alternate airport, and then to fly after that for 45 minutes (30 minutes for a helicopter). Again, assuming normal cruising speed, and taking into account the weather. A pilot may eliminate from his computation the fuel necessary to fly from the destination airport to the alternate if the following conditions are met: The destination 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/forecasts must indicate that the ceiling will be at least 2,000 feet and visibility will be at least three 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 minima, whichever is higher, and the visibility must be expected to be at least two statute miles. What is odd is that the IFR fuel requirement applies only to flight in “IFR conditions.” An IFR flight in VFR conditions need only meet the VFR fuel requirements.

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. 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’s ATP certificate was suspended for 30 days.

FAR 91.103 is also specific 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. The pilot must become familiar with the takeoff and landing distance data contained in the aircraft or rotorcraft flight manual. 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, and wind and temperature.

The remaining two specific requirements for “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,” have not found their way into many FAA enforcement actions.