If I’ve piqued your curiosity with this seemingly disjointed headline, that’s good. Bear with me on this.
Air traffic controllers are highly trained professionals tasked with a very important job. One of their primary functions is to separate aircraft and issue safety alerts. Their procedural guides (multiple FAA Orders) contain more than 1,000 pages of material prescribing how they are to do their jobs. Nowhere in these orders are controllers tasked with assessing the airworthiness or mechanical condition of the aircraft they control. Well, of course not, you might be thinking. That’s our job as pilots, right? Right. 14 CFR 91.7 gives pilots the authority to determine whether an aircraft is in condition for safe flight. It also dictates that we discontinue a flight when unairworthy mechanical, electrical, or structural conditions occur.
During primary flight training and beyond, we are taught to aviate, navigate, and communicate when faced with an emergency situation. Communicating with ATC is nearly always advisable when you have a known or developing problem. ATC is a tremendously helpful resource. Be advised, however, that communicating an equipment malfunction will likely produce post-flight scrutiny and you need to prepare for it.
Let’s say, for example, that you depart a towered airport and during climb out your engine starts running rough. If you advise ATC of your desire to return for landing due to the observed condition, ATC will likely give you special handling and treat it like an emergency. Note that you don’t have to declare an emergency to get special handling. ATC is allowed to determine on their own if an emergency or in-flight hazard exists, so as to coordinate traffic and direct the activities of any assisting facilities, as needed. After expediting your arrival and clearing you to the ramp, ATC has one last function. They will fill out a mandatory occurrence report (MOR), which will wind its way to a flight standards district office (FSDO) where it will be assigned to an inspector. Among other things, the inspector will inquire about the mechanical condition of the aircraft. The inspector will want to verify that the aircraft was in annual at the time of the event, but just as significant, he or she will want to know if the airplane was adequately inspected after the event. In most cases, the inspector will want to see a mechanic’s log entry confirming the same. Here’s the tricky part. If the FAA finds out that you subsequently flew the airplane without first verifying its airworthy condition, you could be exposed to legal action.
As with all things relating to aviation safety, a cautious and conservative approach to airworthiness will serve you well. If you have a mechanical issue, in-flight or otherwise, it deserves careful attention. If the fine folks at ATC are in the mix, i.e. aware of an in-flight equipment malfunction (actual or potential), make certain you attend to it before your next flight. Your certificate may depend on it.