Base Inspections for Part 91 Flight Departments

Kent S. Jackson | April 14, 2020

The FAA is Coming

For years the FAA’s lack of budget dictated cut backs on “non-essential travel” to places like: airports. Budget cutbacks also resulted in Flight Standards Offices (formerly known as FSDOs, or GADOs if you are older) migrating from convenient airport office buildings to cheaper office parks that are nowhere near an airport. And of course, many inspectors now “telecommute” from home on many days.

The result? There have not been random ramp checks for Part 91 operators for years. Ramp checks never went away for Part 135 and Part 121 pilots, but even those encounters have become less random. The inspectors don’t want to drive out to the airport for a surprise inspection only to find that there are no pilots to surprise.

Why are inspectors visiting Part 91 flight departments? The 2018 FAA Re-authorization has two provisions that bear on the present investigations:

  1. Congress mandated that the Comptroller General study the effectiveness of the FAA’s 2015 Compliance Philosophy.
  2. Congress mandated that the Secretary of Transportation report on “followup” (or lack thereof) on illegal charter complaints. These studies are underway, and they have resulted in increased scrutiny of aircraft leasing/reimbursements in the corporate aircraft community.

What does the FAA look for?

What will the FAA look for when inspecting a Part 91 flight department? The FAA recognizes that the record-keeping rules of Part 135 do not apply to Part 91 operators. But the inspectors are advised: “Even though record keeping is not required of an executive/corporate operator, many do maintain training records. The inspector should encourage all operators to keep and maintain records to verify compliance with 14 CFR §§ 61.55 and 61.58.” The guidance goes on to instruct the inspectors to examine such records if they are maintained.

If you are operating an aircraft subject to a lease under Part 91, make sure that you have a copy of the lease and that you, and everyone in the flight department, understands the lease. If the aircraft has a max gross takeoff weight over 12,500 pounds, then a copy of the lease must be kept in the aircraft.

But, once the FAA is in the hangar, the inspection won’t stop at training and lease records. If you have a Minimum Equipment List, the inspectors will check to see if the Master Minimum Equipment List has been subsequently revised. If you operate a large/turbine powered multi-engine airplane, you are required to have an emergency checklist, one-engine inop climb performance data, and 2 D-cell flashlight (§91.503). Expect to show where you find each of these items in the cockpit. Make sure that the flashlight works. Passenger briefing cards are not required, but if they are used to supplement an oral briefing, then they must be available to all passengers and must refer to the specific type and model of airplane (§ 91.519).

Will they inspect your aircraft or just the records? Inspectors are advised: “When an inspector checks the aircraft for general airworthiness, he or she should keep in mind that the inspection should not resemble a 100-hour or annual inspection. Rather, it is similar to a pre-flight inspection to check for obvious discrepancies which could affect the safety of flight (§§ 91.403 and 91.405). For example, some obvious discrepancies to check for include fuel or oil leaks, damaged tires, prop seal leaks, broken exhaust hoses, etc.”

What’s in a ramp check?

The FAA is also ramp checking corporate operators as part of the current effort. Are you ready? At some point in your flying career, you probably memorized “ARROW” so that you would be ready for an inspector visit: Airworthiness Certificate, Registration Certificate, Radio Station License, Operator Handbook, Weight & Balance. These are the aircraft’s required documents, and this is still a pretty good acronym to jog your memory, but the ARROW requirements have evolved. Your aircraft also needs an FCC Radio Station License if you fly internationally. If you do, you also need to carry a Restricted Radiotelephone Operator Permit. The FAA will also be checking to see if each pilot has “a photo identification” (§ 61.3 lists all of the acceptable forms of ID, a state-issued driver’s license will do nicely.)

What are the rules of a ramp inspection? You must “present” your airman & medical certificates. Don’t play games. Smile. Hand them to the inspector. If the inspector wants to make a copy, ask for the certificates back and tell him that you can get a copy for him at the FBO.

Who determines when a ramp check is over? You do. An inspector has no right to detain you. You do not have to speak with an inspector at all. However, if you are rude, the inspector may question your compliance attitude and begin an investigation. On the other hand, this is not a social engagement. Don’t drag it out. Smile and excuse yourself politely as soon as the inspector has verified that you and the aircraft have the required documents.

This article appeared in the March/April, 2020 issue of Business & Commercial Aviation as a Point of Law article.