By its nature, a pilot logbook is evidence. Its primary purpose is to provide a reliable record of aeronautical training and experience. FAR 61.51(a) doesn’t require pilots to log every flight, only training and experience used to meet the requirements for a certificate or rating, and fulfillment of recent flight experience requirements.
For each flight or lesson that must be logged, FAR 61.51(b) specifies the exact information to be recorded. This includes date, total times, arrival/departure location, aircraft ID, name of any safety pilot, type of pilot experience/training, and flight conditions. The rules don’t define the term “logbook,” but the FAA has recognized that it can be any record, such as a training tabulation document or computer-generated log sheets, from which the FAA can decipher this information.
Given the information that must be logged for required entries—and many pilots choose to log every flight—a logbook can be used for more than just establishing a pilot’s qualifications. The FAA may, for instance, identify who operated an aircraft on a certain flight by inspecting the logs of each pilot who has access to the aircraft. Likewise, arrival and departure locations may be used to help identify what kind of operations the aircraft is conducting, while flight times can be compared with other pilots’ logbooks or aircraft records to identify discrepancies.
Whatever the reason, any FAA request to inspect a pilot’s logbook might be more accurately described as a demand given the regulatory authority the agency has concerning logbooks. FAR 61.51(i), Presentation of required documents, requires a person to present their pilot certificate, medical certificate, logbook, or any other record required by Part 61 for inspection upon a reasonable request by the FAA; an authorized NTSB representative; or any federal, state, or local law enforcement officer. While an “inspection” could include an in-person review, photocopying, or taking a picture of the logbook pages or a printout of electronic records, it does not require surrendering custody of the logbook.
The NTSB and its law judges have long held that if the FAA’s request is “reasonable,” a pilot “does not have the liberty to decide whether to comply” and failure to do so generally warrants an indefinite suspension of the pilot’s certificate until he or she complies. As illustrated by one landmark case, “reasonable” in the context of FAR 61.51(i) only means that complying with the request itself “presents no undue or inappropriate burden” to the pilot.
The case began when the pilot received a written request from the FAA to produce his logbooks within 10 days for inspection. Investigating a possible airspace incursion, the FAA sought his logbook to determine whether he met all currency requirements during the flight. He refused, taking the position the FAA did not have a reasonable basis for the request, and the FAA suspended his certificate. On appeal, the NTSB rejected the position that the FAA even needed to show a “reasonable basis” for the request, holding that “so long as the request itself is reasonable, in the sense that compliance presents no undue or inappropriate burden, the Administrator is not obligated to explain or establish why he wants or should be permitted to see the logbooks.”
A pilot’s refusal to respond to a formal FAA request to produce logbooks based on the grounds that the request itself is not reasonable carries the risk that a law judge will disagree. Such was the case of another pilot who refused to comply, asserting that in addition to an FAA investigation, he was also under criminal investigation by law enforcement, so being required to produce his logbooks would violate his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
Ultimately a U.S. court of appeals agreed with the NTSB. The court found that pilot logbooks were within the “required records” exception to the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, in that logbooks are kept for an essentially regulatory purpose (ensuring that the airways are safe); are the kind of record customarily kept by a regulated party (pilots); and assumed “public aspects” (public interest in safe airways).
When it comes to logbooks, the best thing you can do is to simply ensure that any information you log is accurate. However, try to avoid including information that isn’t required to be logged. A note to ask your mechanic about something you noticed during a preflight, or even names of passengers, could unnecessarily raise questions. If the FAA asks you to present your logbooks, consider contacting qualified counsel to examine your logbooks and the circumstances surrounding the request.