The FAA defines a ramp inspection as “surveillance of an airman, operator, or air agency during actual operations at an airport or heliport,” and it is a routine function for an inspector in response to notification or observation of a possible violation of the federal aviation regulations or as part of random surveillance. It is the FAA’s policy not to conduct random ramp checks at organized aviation events, though the inspector can still do so if he or she observes something that raises a concern.
For the most part, ramp checks are conducted professionally, cordially, and without much consequence. If an inspector approaches you at your aircraft, be aware that a ramp inspection is being done and if there may be a reason for it. The FAA inspector is expected to have credentials and to be able to show them to you, so ask to see them. Then, upon the inspector’s request, you must show your pilot and medical certificates and photo identification, and you must present the aircraft documents, including airworthiness certificate, registration certificate, radio license (if you have one), operating manual, and weight and balance information. If you’re required to carry a pilot logbook with you on a flight, the inspector will ask to see it. If you happen to have the aircraft logbooks with you, though we don’t recommend that any logbooks be regularly carried in the aircraft if not necessary for the flight, then the inspector may ask to review them. If you are carrying logbooks with you, make sure they are up to date.
The inspector may hold and review the documentation that you provide, and maybe even make copies on a portable printer, but the inspector must return the documentation to you promptly. The inspector does not have any authority in a ramp check to confiscate your certificates or to ground the aircraft, and the inspector should conduct the inspection in a manner that avoids any delay to your flight. The inspector will likely walk around the aircraft, in the nature of a pre-flight inspection. The inspector may ask your permission to board your aircraft to check placards and charts inside the aircraft. If the inspector notices anything amiss during the ramp inspection, the inspector is to communicate his or her observations to you.
When members of the AOPA Legal Services Plan/Pilot Protection Services call us about a ramp inspection, we advise the member to be courteous, remain calm, and be responsive. Listen to what the inspector has to say and avoid volunteering information that may be beyond the scope of the ramp inspection. If practical, have or invite a witness to join you during the ramp inspection. If the inspector is using the ramp inspection as an investigative tool because of a possible violation of the FARs, then the inspector is expected to provide you with a Pilot’s Bill of Rights notification that you are under investigation. Don’t be defensive, but be on guard because the FAA can use anything discovered during the ramp inspection against you.
So, there is always a chance you may be ramp checked at random when you are out flying, and chances are that the ramp check will be a double check that your certificates and the aircraft documentation are in order. That is, you are doing your job as the pilot of the aircraft and the FAA is doing its job in making sure of our compliance.
To learn more about the Pilot Protection Services program, visit the website.
In my experience, FAA “ramp checks” are a bit of a mystery. We hear about them, but because there are so many airports and so many airmen, and not as many FAA inspectors, the chances of being ramp checked are not too big. Still, it can happen to you any time that you’re getting ready to take off or when you’ve just landed, so let’s look at the question, “What is a ramp inspection?”