Pilot Counsel:

Logbook entries; an important reminder

August 1, 2011

John YodiceIn the many columns in which I review the rules that govern our flying I have tried to include an important secondary message. These are the rules that have associated logging requirements. Pilots pay strict attention to the substantive requirements of the rules, the main reason for the columns. But even the most conscientious pilots are sometimes lulled into complacency about the logging requirement, even though they actually meet the substantive requirements. That’s because we rarely get a request, one that we don’t expect, from someone in authority that asks us to evidence the associated logbook entries. However, the requests, although rare, inevitably follow an unexpected accident or incident. Few realize that the absence of a required logbook entry is itself considered a serious violation even if the pilot actually meets the requirements. So, this secondary message is worth a column of its own. And, we now have a case—admittedly an extreme one—but one that clearly illustrates my secondary message.

A pilot attempted a takeoff from an airport in California in his Piper Cherokee PA-28-140. In the darkness, the aircraft ran off the left side of the runway and came to rest entangled in a fence some 210 feet off the runway. Apparently the pilot was unable to turn on the runway lights because of confusion about the correct Unicom frequency to activate them.

The FAA routinely investigated the accident. As part of the investigation the FAA aviation safety investigators asked the pilot for his logbook and maintenance records, following up with two letter requests. The pilot provided the inspectors copies of most of the records, but he failed to provide proof of a current FAR 61.56 flight review, more commonly known as a “biennial flight review” or “BFR.”

A pilot is generally required to have a review every 24 calendar months, consisting of one hour of flight training and one hour of ground training, typically with a certified flight instructor, and both the pilot and the CFI are required to document the review in their logbooks.

Because the pilot failed to provide a logbook entry of the required review, the FAA issued an emergency order suspending the pilot’s certificate until such time as he provided proof of his review. An emergency order means an immediate grounding. The pilot appealed the suspension to the NTSB. In the appeal, the pilot admitted that he did not provide evidence of his review to the FAA in response to the FAA’s requests. He argued that he did produce his medical and pilot certificates as well as documentation on the annual inspection of his aircraft, as requested. But, as for the evidence of his review, he explained that his briefcase, containing his logbook, had been behind the front seat of the aircraft during the accident, and was stolen from the aircraft after the accident, rendering him unable to produce his logbook. He told the FAA inspectors that he had completed his review with a CFI named Jim who was from a certain town in California. The FAA tracked down two CFIs named Jim in the areas around the town, but they both stated that they had not conducted a review for this pilot. In the FAA’s attempt to further refute the pilot’s explanation, one of the first responders to the scene of the accident was a fire chief who testified that about an hour and a half after the accident, he escorted the pilot back to the aircraft to retrieve some personal belongings. Since it was nighttime, the chief held his flashlight inside the aircraft to assist the pilot. Contrary to the pilot’s testimony that he did not remove his logbook from the aircraft, the chief testified he witnessed the pilot take some papers, flight charts, and a logbook from the aircraft. Later that evening, the chief again escorted the pilot to the aircraft. On that trip, the pilot removed additional items from both of the front seats and behind the seats. The chief then ensured that no personal items were left in the aircraft and secured it for the evening. At no time did the chief see a briefcase in the aircraft, nor did he see the pilot remove a briefcase.

After a hearing, an NTSB law judge denied the pilot’s appeal, believing the fire chief’s testimony over the pilot’s. The full board affirmed the law judge. The result is that the pilot is grounded until he produces evidence of a review (presumably dated within the prior 24 calendar months of the accident, though the NTSB decision does not discuss this aspect). A serious and maybe impossible penalty.

For completeness I must mention that in a separate but related case, the FAA brought other charges against the pilot arising out of this same accident. In addition to the recordkeeping violations, the pilot was charged with failure to familiarize himself “with all available information concerning that flight;” with “careless or reckless” operation; and with not actually having accomplished the review. These charges resulted in a 180-day suspension of his private pilot certificate. I am still scratching my head, unable to reconcile the two suspensions.

In any event, the main message of this column, making more explicit the secondary messages in past columns, is that we almost certainly will be asked for logbooks at a most inopportune time—after an aircraft accident or incident. Knowing that, we should try to keep our logbooks up to date. And as a footnote that you may not read anywhere else, in my opinion you may even update the logbooks after an FAA request so long as the entry is truthful and accurate.

John S. Yodice is an instrument rated provate pilot and owner of a Cessna 310.

John S. Yodice