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Must you always carry a sectional?

A FAAST (Federal Aviation Administration Safety Team) member--one of the FAA folks who wear the white hats in helping GA pilots stay on the right side of the regulations and fly safely--raised an interesting question recently about carrying current aeronautical charts. According to this official, an FAA inspector of his acquaintance had been threatening to bust any GA pilot who did not have a current sectional when ramp checked.

While the AOPA Air Safety Foundation heartily endorses carrying current charts, a rigid requirement to always carry them struck us as a bit arbitrary. For example, suppose you're on your way to your aircraft on a CAVU day to make a few circuits around the pattern to practice landings at your home airport. And suppose your aircraft has a GPS with a current database, so if there's a mishap on the runway, you can divert to a nearby airport. Are you breaking the rules if you don't have current charts in your flight bag?

Ask a few pilots or fellow CFIs if current charts are required to be on board under all circumstances, and we'll bet you get a lot of different answers. Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be one definitive answer that fits all situations.

In our search for an answer, the first stop was the AOPA Pilot Information Center, whose representatives answer more than 200,000 member questions every year, many involving interpretations of FAA regulations. The manager of that department had just returned from FAA Inspector School in Oklahoma City and was brimming with information. He concluded that FAR 91.103, Preflight Action, is the appropriate regulation covering this circumstance. You'll recall it says you must become "familiar with all available information" concerning a flight. It also lists some specifics, such as weather reports, fuel requirements, runway lengths, and aircraft performance data. Some of those requirements apply to any flight, and others apply only for flights under instrument flight rules or not in the vicinity of an airport. But the word charts is nowhere to be found in the regulation, and it certainly doesn't say that current charts must be on board for every flight.

Some hangar lawyers will also quote FAR 91.503, which says that the pilot in command of an airplane must have "pertinent aeronautical charts" available for each flight. But read carefully and you'll see that FAR 91.503 is under subpart F, Large and Turbine-Powered Multiengine Airplanes and Fractional Ownership Program Aircraft. So, yes, if you're flying something that burns Jet A, or weighs more than 12,500 pounds, or is part of a fractional ownership operation, then you must have current charts aboard. Does the fact that FAR 91.503 is not applicable to the single-engine pistons most of us fly, and 91.103 doesn't mention charts, suggest that the omission means they aren't always mandatory?

How about real-world experience with enforcement cases? We checked NTSB records but didn't find any cases involving a pilot who received a violation for not having charts while about to practice landings at his home field on our CAVU day.

But we did find some enforcement cases involving a lack of charts, even if the circumstances in these cases were a bit murkier. One involved a commercial pilot who ran over something while taxiing and bent his prop rather badly. Badly enough, in fact, that one blade was bent 90 degrees, and the aircraft mechanic on the field advised the pilot to have it fixed by a certified prop station.

Ignoring that advice, the pilot--who was not a mechanic--went to work on the prop with a sledgehammer. Now, here's where charts came into play. After making his "repair," the pilot took off on an IFR flight across several states. Upon arriving at his home field, he was greeted by an FAA inspector, who performed a ramp check (the inspector had been advised that the pilot-repaired aircraft was on its way). The pilot's en route charts and approach plates were years out of date. He had also failed to designate an alternate airport on his flight plan. The airplane did not have a current airworthiness certificate, and its VOR and transponder checks were overdue. The NTSB had no difficulty upholding the FAA in this case. The violations included not carrying current charts and thereby failing to become familiar with all available information for the flight.

Less over the top was a pilot who was charged with violating FAR 91.5 (the section number for FAR 91.103 before Part 91 was renumbered several years ago) when he flew his Cessna 182 into the Detroit Class B airspace (then called a terminal control area, or TCA) without a clearance and didn't have the current TCA chart on board. The record isn't clear, but the pilot claimed the Detroit Sectional was available. The NTSB upheld both the violation and the FAA's suspension of the pilot's certificate. What's particularly interesting about this case is that the FAA argued that FAR 91.5 required not just familiarity with all available information, but that necessary charts actually be in the aircraft. While the NTSB said it was unnecessary to reach that issue, it pointed out that the two cases the FAA relied on did not establish that rule and the board was unaware of precedent adopting that interpretation.

There is no doubt that failing to carry current charts can be a violation of FAR 91.103 if there is an incident (such as an airspace violation) or the pilot's conduct is egregious. But we haven't found support for what lawyers call a per se rule--requiring current charts in all situations. It would seem that the FAA might have a hard time making a ramp check violation stick against our hypothetical pilot walking without current charts to his aircraft equipped with a GPS and current database and about to make a few practice landings at that airport.

But what about other situations? What if a pilot is planning to fly to the local practice area or a nearby airport to which she has traveled many times? What if there is no GPS database on board? Suppose that, upon her return from the practice area, she found the airport closed because of an accident? If she diverted to a nearby airport after calling Flight Service or ATC to get the frequencies, would she be in violation? Keep in mind that if the alternate is a nontowered airport, there is nothing that says you must be on the CTAF, even though it's the smart thing to do.

Or, suppose you're on an IFR flight plan with only current IFR charts, and you decide to cancel IFR when the destination is in sight. Are you in violation for not having VFR charts on board? Perhaps not, if you're familiar with the airspace and the frequencies needed for communication.

If you haven't broken an explicit rule, created an undue risk, or caused a disruption, and you weren't involved in an accident or incident, one might think chart possession shouldn't be an issue on a ramp check. Familiarity and the ability to operate safely in the chosen environment should be the intent when determining whether one has become familiar with all available information for the flight. But the result in some situations may be uncertain.

Lest anyone get the idea ASF is against carrying current charts, we think it's certainly a good idea to carry them at all times, even when just flying locally. Busting some airspace without a current VFR chart on board is almost certain to bring a violation under FAR 91.103.

However, intelligent application of the regulations benefits all of us. Pilots shouldn't be harassed about small stuff, and FAA inspectors should concentrate on real problem areas. What's your view? Drop us a note at the AOPA Air Safety Foundation. Selected responses may be published.

By Bruce Landsberg and Steve Frahm

Steve Frahm is an attorney who learned to fly in the 1970s. He is a part-time CFII for Capitol Air Services at Tipton Airport in Fort Meade, Maryland. Bruce Landsberg has been the executive director of the AOPA Air Safety Foundation since 1992.

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