Answers for Pilots: Aircraft Airworthiness

September 1, 2011

Aircraft AirworthinessI remember how surprised I was as a student pilot when we finished up a preflight of the airplane we’d flown a few times before, and my flight instructor asked me, “Are you sure this airplane is airworthy?” The preflight had indicated no problems, so I cleared my throat, and suppressed a bit of uncertainty as I quipped, “It better be—we’ve flown it three or four times already.” He chuckled, then answered seriously, “Let’s go have a look at its logbooks.” And here I’d thought the only important logbook was the cherished one I kept in my new flight bag. We walked into the maintenance facility and there I got my first lesson on airworthiness—and realized it involved a whole lot more than a thorough preflight.

The maintenance department pulled the paperwork for us, and we checked the logs for compliance with airworthiness directives, performance of required inspections, repairs, and maintenance. And we verified that after the work had been done, it had been properly signed off.  I’ve since realized I had a great instructor—many pilots, whether they rent or own—rarely, if ever, look at the aircraft’s logbooks, but rely solely on maintenance facilities to perform required inspections and repairs and sign the work off properly. But, whether the pilot realizes it or not, it’s the PIC who is responsible for determining that the aircraft is, in fact, airworthy.

So, what exactly is airworthiness?  Generally speaking, it involves 1) whether the aircraft conforms to its type certificate and applicable airworthiness directives; and, (2) whether the aircraft is in condition for safe operation.

The regulations place the responsibility for determining airworthiness squarely on the pilot-in-command’s shoulders. FAR 91.7 Civil aircraft airworthiness, states:

  1. No person may operate a civil aircraft unless it is in an airworthy condition.
  2. The pilot in command of a civil aircraft is responsible for determining whether that aircraft is in condition for safe flight. The pilot in command shall discontinue the flight when unairworthy mechanical, electrical, or structural conditions occur.

Aircraft Airworthiness - aircraft logsAnd 14 CFR 91.407 places additional responsibility on the operator by stating, “No person may operate an aircraft that has undergone maintenance, preventative maintenance, rebuilding, or alteration unless: (1) It has been approved for return to service by a person authorized under 43.7 of this chapter; and (2) The maintenance record entry required by 43.9 or 43.11 , as applicable, of this chapter has been made.”

I asked my CFI if this meant I had to review all these logbooks and records before each flight and out of the corner of my eye I caught the looks of angst that passed between the excellent (and patient) mechanics. To their relief, and to mine as well, my instructor said, “No, not before every flight, but certainly after the aircraft has been in the shop for any reason.” 

Find out more about aircraft airworthiness including information on inspections, modifications, and whether or not you must comply with guidance recommended in the AIM in AOPA’s subject report. Or call AOPA with your questions, Monday through Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Eastern time, 800-USA-AOPA (872-2672).