John S. Yodice is AOPA's legal counselor. He owns a Cessna 310.
All pilots want to know about their rights and responsibilities if they are ramp checked by the FAA. This is a subject where there is more lore than law. Over the years I have listened to lectures and read about ramp checks. I have never felt satisfied with the guidance being given to pilots. The only direct on-point legal decision I could find is one that I reported in this column years ago (see " Pilot Counsel: A Ramp Check," May 1996 Pilot). It was a case decided by the NTSB in which the board had an opportunity to clarify the law, but didn't. The board avoided the hard questions, and predictably, proceeded to sock it to the pilot. So in the absence of any official guidance, here is my best effort at some preliminary guidance, at least as it relates to general aviation (private, noncommercial) operations.
For those of you who have not experienced a ramp check — and they are not that common for private operations — it involves being approached on an airport by an FAA inspector and asked to see your pilot and aircraft paperwork and sometimes your aircraft. Pilots dread the prospect, and with some justification. The regulations are so voluminous and complex (we try to cover them in this column from time to time) that even the most compliant and safety-conscious GA pilot can be caught in an inadvertent violation. The inspection could lead to FAA administrative or legal enforcement action against the pilot. Fortunately, many FAA inspectors recognize this and provide some friendly counseling rather than punitive enforcement.
If you are approached by an FAA inspector for a ramp inspection, it is perfectly proper for you to ask the inspector to see his or her FAA credentials. Ask politely. The FAA inspector is required to have identification available, and should not be offended by the request. If the inspector properly identifies him or herself, then you are obliged to show the inspector certain paperwork. If the inspector does not show you an FAA picture ID, which I guess could happen, then, in my opinion, you are not required to show anything.
Pilot documents. You are required by regulation to "present...for inspection" your pilot and medical certificates and a photo ID (usually a driver's license) upon request by an FAA inspector. I have heard debates about whether you should hold on to your certificates as the inspector looks at them. If you have asked to inspect the inspector's credentials, the inspector should be aware of your sensitivity, since the he will have the same sensitivity about his credentials. Let the inspector have the certificates for a reasonable look. The inspector should return them to you promptly. The inspector should not walk away with them.
"Present...for inspection" does not mean that you must "surrender" your certificates. There have been some unfortunate cases of confusion (see " Pilot Counsel: Hoover: The system didn't work," January 1996 Pilot). Surrender is a term of art meaning voluntary surrender. Once you have surrendered your certificates, you have no right to get them back. FAR 61.27 requires an FAA inspector to get the pilot to sign a statement making it clear that he or she understands the consequences of the voluntary surrender of the pilot certificate (there is no comparable regulation for the medical certificate).
You may be asked for your pilot logbook. You are not required to have your logbook with you when flying (unless you are a student or recreational pilot), but if you have it handy and it is requested, you are required to present it for inspection upon reasonable request.
Aircraft documents. The regulations require that an aircraft have within it a registration certificate, an airworthiness certificate, and a flight manual (approved manual materials, markings, and placards). An FAA inspector has the right to inspect these documents upon reasonable request.
If the ownership of the aircraft has recently changed, and a registration certificate has not yet been issued, a pink copy of the application, good for up to 120 days, will temporarily substitute for the registration certificate.
The airworthiness certificate must be "displayed at the cabin or cockpit entrance so that it is legible to passengers or crew." If the aircraft is not airworthy but capable of safe flight, and it is to be flown, it must have a special flight permit (or ferry permit).
Among the manual materials required to be on board the aircraft are weight-and-balance documents, including a list of equipment. Some multiengine operators have minimum equipment lists with a letter of authorization issued by a district office. These constitute a supplemental type certificate for the aircraft and also must be on board.
You may be asked for the aircraft logbooks, i.e., maintenance records. You are not required to have these records on board the aircraft, but you are required to have them available for inspection by the FAA.
The aircraft. The inspector may inspect the exterior of the aircraft. The inspector also may ask to board the aircraft. Here is where I have been unable to find any useful law or precedents (other than border crossings, which are not relevant here) except the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution that generally protects us and our property from warrantless searches. It would be unusual for an inspector to show up with a warrant in the typical ramp inspection. I can't offer any guidance at this time. But I will continue to watch for more helpful information, and report it to you as I find it.