Believe it or not, airworthiness can be a fuzzy thing. Most of us think that if we approach an aircraft that we understand is being maintained by an FAA certificated mechanic, that passes our preflight walk-around and our taxi and pretakeoff checklists, and that otherwise seems safe to fly, that’s usually enough. Right? Maybe. But maybe not.
As the pilot in command of an aircraft, federal aviation regulation 91.7 makes you responsible for determining whether your aircraft is in an airworthy condition before it is flown. What does “airworthy” mean? It has been defined to mean that the aircraft satisfies two conditions. First, the aircraft must conform to its type certificate, as modified by supplemental type certificates, airworthiness directives, and major repairs and alterations, if any. Second, the aircraft must be in a condition for safe flight. The definition has been interpreted to include the requirement that the aircraft has been maintained in accordance with the FARs and has had the appropriate required inspections, transponder check, ELT up to date, system checks, and VOR check, as may apply to the particular operation.
Making sure the aircraft is in a safe condition for flight is best determined during your walk-around and operational checks, which we do before every flight. Extra attention to the walk-around and the operational checks is important when flying the aircraft for the first time after maintenance was performed. And, making sure that the proper maintenance entry has been made in the aircraft’s logbook before flying the aircraft is required of you as the PIC under FAR 91.407.
However, you don’t usually pull out and check the type certificate, any supplemental type certificates, and the applicable airworthiness directives for the aircraft before you go for that quick flight around the patch. Still, it is your regulatory responsibility. And, remember, if there is something on the aircraft that is not in working order, such as the aircraft lights or a back-up instrument, the aircraft may not be airworthy and may not be flown, even if the “broken” item does not render the aircraft otherwise unsafe for the operation. FAR 91.213 makes it clear that you’re not permitted to take off with inoperative instruments or equipment installed, unless permitted by a minimum equipment list, which does not usually exist with our smaller general aviation aircraft. However, if the item that takes the aircraft out of conformity is only a scratch, dent, pinhole of corrosion, missing screw, or other such minor defect, it will usually not adversely affect this prong of the legal definition of airworthiness and will not render the aircraft unairworthy.
So, assessing the airworthiness of the aircraft for flight is not limited to its flyability. Don’t be lulled into this thinking. We’ve seen quite a few cases come about recently where the FAA has taken action to suspend a pilot’s certificate for flying an aircraft away after taking a mechanic’s representation that the aircraft is fine and the maintenance sticker “is in the mail” and for flying an aircraft to another airport for a repair without first getting a special flight permit or placarding the inoperative item. We need to pay attention to what airworthiness really means and what we need to do before flying off.