Know your aircraft
Inspection oversight can prove costly
As a flight instructor, are you responsible for maintenance and inspections of the aircraft you fly? As both a cautious lawyer and an active CFI, let me suggest that you not be too quick to say, "Nawww, that's the FBO's job." What you don't know can hurt you.
Your job is teaching students how to fly safely. Part of that job is teaching careful preflights, of course, but surely that doesn't include tracking each aircraft's annual and 100-hour inspections, AD compliance, and aircraft log entries, does it? Well, not so fast! Sticking your head in the sand when it comes to maintenance shortcuts and discrepancies could be dangerous to the health of your flying career.
For lawyers as well as CFIs, it's risky to make assumptions. In both professions, regulations are an important source of information, and the three most important things to remember about regulations are: 1) read the words, 2) read the words, and 3) read the words.
So what do the words in the federal aviation regulations say? Well, first of all, you may think of yourself as a pilot and an instructor (and you're right), but, in the jargon of the regulations, you're also an "operator." The regulations frequently use the phrase "owner or operator" and impose all sorts of obligations on them collectively. For example, did you know that the "owner or operator" of an aircraft is "primarily responsible for maintaining that aircraft in an airworthy condition"? Or, that each "owner or operator" of an aircraft "shall have that aircraft inspected as prescribed" and, between inspections, must generally "have discrepancies repaired"? Take a look at FARs 91.403 and 91.405. That's what they say.
"But I'm not the owner," you say. "The FBO is operating a business, and it must be the operator. So I'm in the clear, right?" Again, slow down. Under FAR 1.1, "operate" with respect to an aircraft broadly means to "use, cause to use, or authorize to use aircraft for the purpose...of air navigation." Still not convinced you're included? The regulation removes all doubt about your status, adding that "operate" includes "the piloting of aircraft with or without the right of legal control (as owner, lessee, or otherwise)."
"All right, so I'm among the people responsible for maintenance and inspections," you might say, "but the FBO and the mechanics are responsible too." Yes, that's right. "So I can rely on them to do their jobs and maintain the airplane, can't I? I'm OK to fly an airplane they put on the line, so long as I make sure a careful preflight has been done, aren't I? Please?"
The regulations don't clear you for takeoff. You see, FAR 91.409 says, "no person may operate"--there's that word again--"an aircraft unless...it has had an annual inspection" and "no person may give flight instruction for hire in an aircraft" without its annual or a 100-hour inspection within the last 100 hours of time in service. What's more, if an aircraft has undergone maintenance, rebuilding, or alteration, you can't operate the aircraft unless it "has been approved for return to service" and the "maintenance record entry required...has been made" (FAR 91.407).
For a career pilot to whom a clean FAA record is everything, these regulations look like cumulostinkus clouds. Surely the FAA can't possibly expect you to review the maintenance logs of each aircraft and be held accountable for the failures of others, can it? Yes, it can, and it does.
Take the case of a CFI who had rented an aircraft from a fixed-base operator on several occasions. One day in June 1996, he rented a Cessna 152 and took it for a flight (apparently, not an instructional flight). He returned without incident. But the FAA conducted a routine inspection of the FBO and discovered that the aircraft had been 12 days overdue for its annual inspection. The FAA charged the CFI with violation of FAR 91.409 and suspended his pilot certificate for 15 days.
At his hearing and, later, during an appeal to the NTSB, the pilot contended that he was justified in assuming that the aircraft was in an airworthy condition when it was offered for rent. He also pointed out that there is no requirement in the FARs that a pilot check a rental aircraft's logbooks to ensure that it has had all the necessary inspections. The FAA, however, took a hard line, countering that there was no evidence that the pilot asked to see the logbooks or even asked whether the aircraft was current in all its inspections. While there is no explicit requirement in the FAR to check the logbooks, the FAA argued that "it is the best and most assured way of confirming that the aircraft has been inspected within the past 12 months."
The NTSB upheld the suspension. It ruled that the pilot in command is ultimately responsible for conducting flight in accordance with applicable regulations, one of which prohibits operation of an aircraft that has not received an annual inspection within the past 12 months. The NTSB seemed also to rely heavily on the fact that the pilot was a commercial pilot and a certificated flight instructor, because "as such [he] should have known that the PIC is responsible for ascertaining whether the aircraft is airworthy."
Clearly, you can't just assume that all is well just because an aircraft is on the line and available. Must you review the logbooks before every flight in every aircraft? Must you become an expert on all ADs applicable to the airplanes you fly and whether they have been complied with? That's not a terribly practical solution.
Another FAA enforcement case indicates that even an attempt to verify an aircraft's maintenance status could help a pilot's case. A private pilot had periodically rented a Beechcraft Baron from two physicians over six or seven years. During that time, he occasionally reviewed the aircraft's maintenance records. A few days before the flight in question, the pilot telephoned one of the owners, who advised him the aircraft was just out of the repair shop and was performing "beautifully." The ensuing flight ended with a landing accident that caused the collapse of the nosegear and one main gear. The Baron was about six weeks beyond the due date for its annual inspection.
The FAA charged the Bonanza pilot with a violation of FAR 91.409 and sought to suspend his certificate. An administrative law judge found the pilot to have violated the regulations by operating an aircraft without a current annual inspection, but ruled against suspending his certificate. The FAA appealed the decision not to sanction the pilot, and the pilot appealed the finding that he violated the regulations.
The NTSB upheld the violation, stating that "safety in...air commerce and the public interest" required it. But it also ruled that the violations were "essentially technical in nature" and "did not warrant the imposition of a disciplinary or deterrent suspension."
What's a CFI to do? There are no guarantees here, unfortunately, but it's clear that the more information you have about the maintenance of the aircraft you fly, the better off you'll be. Does your FBO have an aircraft readiness board or other "tickler" system that shows at a glance when each aircraft's inspections are due? If not, perhaps you might diplomatically suggest such a system. Regularly checking an aircraft readiness board might be enough to keep you out of trouble, but you'll be held to a pretty high standard as a CFI. The wise and cautious flight instructor will probably want to add a little insurance by occasionally reviewing the logbooks of the aircraft he or she flies (and keep a record of it!) to confirm that annual, 100-hour, and other periodic inspections are being made. It also wouldn't hurt to make sure that the logs refer to compliance with ADs as well.
And if you think that's too much to ask, keep in mind that you have your students review aircraft logbooks before their practical tests, so they can demonstrate to the examiner that the aircraft is airworthy.
Steve Frahm is an attorney who learned to fly in the 1970s. He is a part-time CFI with the Navy-Annapolis Flight Center at Lee Airport in Edgewater, Maryland.
By Steve Frahm