The correct answer to my question, however, is "all available information." That simple phrase in the opening paragraph has tremendous implications-pilot, passengers, airplane, and environment. Let's start with the pilot, and like the FAA practical test, the stage-check student is considered to be a private pilot.
What documentation must you carry in order to fly? Your pilot certificate, a current medical certificate, and a government-issued photo identification card-usually a driver's license, passport, or military ID card.
Your logbook must contain a specific endorsement. What is it? A flight review or FAA practical test within the preceding 24 months. You can eliminate the flight review if you participate in the FAA's WINGS Pilot Proficiency Program. This program, conducted by the FAA Safety Team, encourages pilots to continue their aviation educational pursuits and requires education, review, and flight proficiency in the areas of operation found in current practical test standards-the booklet that describes what you will be tested on during your FAA practical test for private pilot certification. For complete information view the video presentation online.
But being prepared for flight is about more than documentation. You have a headache and take an aspirin. Are you legal to fly? Yes, it's an over-the-counter medication that does not have one of the following warnings on the label: causes drowsiness or do not operate machinery. But that's not enough. You must have used aspirin previously and suffered no adverse reaction-a requirement that applies to any medication.
You have a medical problem and your personal physician gives you a prescription drug. What must you do? Contact your aviation medical examiner or AOPA's Pilot Information Center (800-USA-AOPA) to find out if you can fly with that medication. But again, even if the medication is legal, you can't fly until you've used it without experiencing an adverse reaction.
Must you always use current navigation charts? Of course. If you don't have current charts, you don't have all available information. Some pilots think that if a specific subject is not mentioned in the regulations that subject is not regulated. Not so. For example, if you deviate from a procedure that's described in the Aeronautical Information Manual-which is not regulatory-and your action causes a problem, you can be violated under FAR Part 91.13, Careless and Reckless Operation.
To carry passengers, what must your logbook show? Three takeoffs and landing within the previous 90 days-they must be full-stop landings at night if a night flight is planned.
What is the safety belt rule for passengers and pilots? Everyone must keep all belts fastened for taxi, takeoff, and landing. Pilots must keep their seat belt fastened during flight-a passenger who does not do likewise is not using good judgment.
We also need to make sure the airplane is prepared. Why do you preflight an airplane? To make certain it is airworthy. How do you know it's airworthy? The airplane complies with its type certificate specifications and you determine that it is safe to fly.
When an airplane is manufactured it receives an airworthiness certificate and a sheaf of papers known as the type certificate data sheets, which list the equipment that was on the airplane when certified. Some equipment is required; some is optional. To fly legally, the required equipment must be installed and operating. Two references must be used: the airplane's equipment list-normally found in the pilot's operating handbook or airplane flight manual-and FAR 91.205, which lists the instrument and equipment requirements for VFR day, VFR night, and IFR flight.
You preflight the airplane, determine that it's safe to fly, and check the required paperwork. This consists of the airworthiness certificate, registration certificate, radio station license (required only if the airplane will be operated internationally), operating limitations, and weight-and-balance information. Pilots use the acronym ARROW to remember those items.
But did you say pilot's operating handbook (POH) instead of operating limitations? The correct answer is operating limitations, not the POH. Operating limitations refer to the limitations listed in the POH and those listed on placards affixed to the airplane. If one of those placards is illegible or missing, the airplane is not airworthy and cannot be flown. You can, however, write the limitation on a piece of tape, affix it to the proper location, and write it up so that the placard is properly replaced at the next maintenance opportunity.
As pilot in command, you also have to know how to deal with equipment failures. After engine start, you determine that one of the two communication radios is inoperative. Is the airplane airworthy? Yes, because the radio is not listed in FAR 91.205 and it's listed as optional equipment in the airplane's equipment list. Can you take the airplane? Yes, if you determine that it's safe to conduct the flight-but you must deactivate the radio (turned off and circuit breaker pulled if able), and placard the radio as inoperative.
You repeat that flight the following week. The radio has been repaired, but after engine start the suction gauge is reading zero. Is the airplane airworthy? Yes, because the gauge is not listed in FAR 91.205 and it's listed as optional equipment in the equipment list. Can you take the airplane? Yes, but that would be a mistake and would demonstrate faulty pilot thinking. With respect to the previous radio problem, you made a logical decision because it was a simple problem that you fully understood. Not so with the suction gauge. Was it the gauge or something in the system that caused the problem? Have a mechanic check it out first.
He inspects the system, determines that the gauge did fail and the rest of the system is working properly, placards the instrument as inoperative, and writes it up for replacement. Now, knowing the exact problem, you can use your judgment to decide whether or not the flight can be conducted without compromising flight safety. In this case, it is a personal choice.
Have you now reviewed all available information? No, you must check for maintenance inspection compliance. What is required? The 100-hour inspection if the airplane is used commercially, the 12-month annual inspection, the 12-month emergency locator transmitter inspection (the battery must be replaced if half its useful life has expired or it has been used cumulative for one hour), the 24-month transponder inspection, and the 24-month altimeter and altitude reporting equipment inspection (if the airplane will be flown in instrument conditions by an instrument-rated pilot).
Anything else? Absolutely. If the airplane has been modified under a supplemental type certificate, that modification must be listed in the aircraft logbooks. Manufacture's service bulletins will also be logged. And then there are FAA airworthiness directives (ADs) that mandate compliance. Can you verify compliance? Not likely. ADs are sent to the aircraft owners, and they are available to pilots through the FAA's Web site (www.faa.gov). A problem occurs, however, because there are four categories: airframe, engine, propeller, and appliances. You do know the type of airframe, engine, and propeller, but most certainly not the serial number and manufacturer for all the appliances-magnetos, fuel pumps, alternator, et cetera. So, it takes a mechanic and a pilot to make certain that an airplane is airworthy. Airplanes cannot fly unless both individuals are involved.
Flying has six cornerstones that are mandatory for proper pilot knowledge: federal regulations, procedures (AIM), Airport/Facility Directory-called the "little green monster" by some-pilot's operating handbook/airplane flight manual, navigation charts, and meteorology. They, along with common sense and good judgment, are essential elements of all available information.
Ralph Butcher, a retired United Airlines captain, is the chief flight instructor at a California flight school. He has been flying since 1959 and has 25,000 hours in fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft. Visit his Web site.