AOPA has found that this simple area of aircraft paperwork needs a review by all pilots from time to time. If you have ever been ramp checked and it didn't touch on manuals, consider yourself lucky. Pilots climbing into the newer aircraft, or maybe the pilot climbing into that classic or antique, are often the ones left unprepared on the ramp check.
Very simply, March 1, 1979, is the key date for regulatory change concerning manuals.
Aircraft under 6,000 pounds gross weight, manufactured and flown by their first retail owners before March 1, 1979, don't require an approved airplane flight manual (AFM). Conversely, aircraft over 6,000 pounds, all transport-category aircraft, and all aircraft manufactured after March 1, 1979, do require an official AFM. Note: A handful of aircraft built before March 1, 1979, but not delivered and flown until after March 1, 1979, would also have to have an AFM.
AFMs, also sometimes just called "flight manuals," are labeled by specific part number and are assigned to a specific aircraft serial number. They are the most complete, official information source for the aircraft because they are updated by the mechanic or aircraft owner with ongoing manufacturer data.
A pilot's operating handbook (POH) may contain similar or even more detailed data than an AFM. However, a POH can only substitute for an officially required AFM if the POH has an otherwise complete AFM as a component part of the POH. The term "POH" came into existence in the mid-1970s as a result of AOPA's and GAMA's efforts to standardize and expand information contained in the owner's manuals or information manuals of the day. An example of this format would be the typical POH Section III, Emergency Procedures.
An information manual may provide good aircraft information by model type but is not specific to the particular aircraft by serial number and cannot be substituted for an AFM. The term "pilot's manual" is sometimes used in place of "information manual."
Last, but not least, is the owner's manual. This is the older name for an "information manual." Most of us with aircraft built before 1979 should have one of these. It may vary from one or two pages on a 1938 Cub up to the 50-page booklet on the Cessna or Piper of the 1960s and 1970s. The owner's manual, along with the placards and markings on the aircraft, meets the certification requirements for aircraft manufactured and flown before March 1, 1979.
One exception to these explanations comes to mind: Beech Aircraft has provided aircraft serial number-specific updated AFMs since the early 1950s. Apparently, because they were using AFMs on their aircraft over 6,000 pounds, such as the Beech Model 18, it was logical to provide the same updated AFMs for Bonanzas and Barons.
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