Pilot Counsel:

Pilot and aircraft documents

December 8, 2009

From time to time, we need to focus on the less frequently cited regulations that could sneak up on us unexpectedly, and could be troublesome when they do. The credentials and aircraft documents that a pilot must have at hand before a typical private, noncommercial flight fall into this category. Most of us can go our whole flying career without ever being challenged to produce any of them except in the normally anticipated situations such as flight tests or checks. But in the unanticipated circumstances such as an accident or an incident or the rare ramp check, we may not be prepared. You can be certain that if the FAA is investigating, you will be asked for required documents.

With respect to pilot credentials there is a legal concept that applies to each credential, and it offers an option that is not so obvious. According to the regulations, the credential must be in the pilot’s “physical possession or readily accessible in the aircraft.” Most of us carry our pilot credentials in our personal possession. But if for some reason they are in the aircraft, that is a legally acceptable alternative.

FAR 61.3(a)(1) requires that the person acting as pilot in command of a U.S. registered civil aircraft must have a “valid pilot certificate” (or an FAA-issued 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 to also have a “photo identification” (usually a valid state-issued driver’s license, but other specific photo identifications are acceptable) 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 documentation acceptable to the FAA) in his or her “physical possession or readily accessible in the aircraft.” There are complex exceptions that require special study but should not obscure the important general requirements. For example, glider and balloon pilots are excepted. In general, a sport pilot is excepted but must hold a current and valid U.S. driver’s license (not excepted if a medical certificate has been suspended, revoked, or denied); so, too, a student pilot of a weight-shift-control aircraft or a powered parachute is excepted. Here is a much-debated point. A flight instructor who is exercising the privileges of his or her certificate in giving flight instruction, but is not acting as pilot in command or as a required pilot flight crewmember, does not have to have a medical certificate.

Of course, there are other documents that the FAA can require that a pilot produce, but that documentation does not have to have at hand. A pilot is not required to have in his or her possession a pilot logbook (except pilots such as students that require endorsements in certain circumstances); however, the FAA may require that a pilot’s logbook be produced within a reasonable time.

As for aircraft documentation, FAR 91.203(a)(1) requires that the person operating the aircraft must assure that it has “within” it an “appropriate and current airworthiness certificate” (or special flight permit). “Within it” has been regulatorily amplified to mean, displayed at the cabin or cockpit entrance so that it is legible to passengers or crew. FAA inspectors and most of us realize that in most instances the airworthiness certificate is very little indication of the current airworthiness status of the aircraft since it was issued and put in the aircraft at the time of original manufacture many years ago. The current inspection and maintenance documents would tell the story, but they are not required to be “within” the aircraft.

FAR 91.203(a)(2) requires, in addition, that “an effective U.S. registration certificate issued to its owner” (or pink copy temporary authorization) be “within” the aircraft (but not necessarily displayed the same as the airworthiness certificate). The registration certificate is a more meaningful document, and the subject of FAA enforcement emphasis at TSA’s urging. It must bear the name of the current owner of the aircraft.

FAR 91.9 requires that a current approved Airplane or Rotorcraft Flight Manual be available in the aircraft, or if one was not required by the certification rules or subsequently, approved manual material, markings, and placards—or any combination thereof—are required.

And, as with some pilot documentation, there are other documents that the FAA may request that are not required to be in the aircraft. The aircraft logbooks, which are good evidence of airworthiness, do not have to be “within” the aircraft. In an investigation the FAA will frequently ask that the aircraft logbooks be produced within a reasonable time.

In most situations the required documents exist but they are not at hand when flying. But in one more aggravated case, the pilot defended saying that she inadvertently left her permanent pilot certificates in an old purse, while transferring her old, expired, temporary certificates to a new purse. That explanation did not carry the day. For that violation and other related violations, the pilot suffered a 25-day suspension of her pilot certificate. Worse still, a TWA captain, who was unquestionably qualified and credentialed, had his pilot certificate suspended for seven days because he didn’t have it and his medical certificate in his personal possession on one of his flights.

Legal counselor John S. Yodice has served AOPA for the past 40 years. He owns and flies a Cessna 310.