This is a brief review of the responsibility of a renter pilot for aircraft airworthiness violations. It was prepared for general information purposes only, may not apply to a specific set of circumstances and cannot be relied upon as legal advice.
FAR 91.403(a) provides that the “owner or operator of an aircraft is primarily responsible for maintaining that aircraft in an airworthy condition. The balance of 91.403 and the regulations following it prohibit operating an aircraft that does not meet airworthiness requirements. As examples, 91.407 prohibits operation after maintenance without the proper maintenance entries and a return to service; 91.409 prohibits operation without a current annual inspection (or 100 hour inspection if applicable); 91.411 prohibits operation under IFR in controlled airspace without the required altimeter/static inspections. Exactly who is an “operator” under the FAR tends to vary a bit depending on the context, but, at least with respect to a determination of airworthiness, the term encompases “the piloting of aircraft” (see, i.e. FAR 1.1). So, aside from the PIC’s ultimate responsibility for the safety of flight under FAR 91.3, the FAA specifically imposes on the PIC the obligation to determine if the aircraft is airworthy.
So, how much can a renter pilot (or club member or aircraft borrower) rely on others including the owner or fleet operator? Not too much, according to the few cases on the subject.
Administrator v. Southworth, is a 1999 enforcement action in which a pilot was charged with a violation of 91.409(a)(1), operating a rental 152 without a current annual. The pilot argued he was “justified in assuming that the aircraft was in an airworthy condition when it was offered for rent” and that “there is no requirement in the FAR that a pilot, before he rents an aircraft, check its logbooks to ensure that the aircraft has had all the requisite inspections.”
That was rejected by the NTSB. Pointing out that the pilot never even asked to see the logbooks, the NTSB tells us blind reliance on the owner/FBO — presuming without inquiry that an aircraft offered for rent would comply with all airworthiness requirements — was an unreasonable assumption to make and does not mitigate the PIC’s obligation to determine airworthiness.
So, how far does this obligation go? Does reliance at some point become reasonable? Can we rely on the aircraft inspection and maintenance summary sheet provided by some flight schools, FBOs and co-ownership groups as part of the dispatch documents to avoid the need for pilots to go into the aircraft logs on every flight? Unfortunately, the answer is a solid “maybe.”
The Southworth case appears to hold out some hope. It points out that the pilot merely assumed the airplane would be airworthy because it was being rented. There was no inquiry at all. Is there some inquiry that would make reliance on the FBO reasonable? In this respect, the NTSB decision distinguishes Southworth from an earlier “out of annual” case, Administrator v. Miller:
The instant case can be distinguished from Administrator v. Miller, 5 NTSB 407 (1985), where a respondent also had rented and operated an aircraft when it had not passed an annual inspection within the previous 12 months. We noted that Mr. Miller relied on his own personal experience with the plane over the previous six or seven years, representations by the owner regarding the condition of the aircraft, as well as “occasional reviews of its maintenance records,” when he assumed that the aircraft had been properly maintained.
Problem is, Miller does not give us any real comfort. The pilot in Miller, despite his general knowledge of the aircraft maintenance history and records, was still found to have violated the FAR. All he got for his efforts was a recognition that his transgression was unintentional and received a reduction in the sanction — his pilot certificate was suspended for 15 days rather than 30.
So where does that leave us? Ultimately, it is our responsibility as PIC to ensure that the aircraft we fly and teach in meet airworthiness requirements. Faced with an airworthiness violation in a case where a pilot relied on an FBO or club dispatch sheet, would the FAA accept it as excusing the violation or will it have required the pilot to go further and personally check the aircraft logs? We don’t know. We do know they’re not always correct; I had a student who, for his private checkride, found that an “annual” had been signed by an A&P, but not by an IA. The airplane had flown for a few months without anyone noticing.
The safest regulatory answer is, of course, to check the maintenance logs. Perhaps a more practical answer is to use a “trust but verify” approach. If the organization you fly with provides a dispatch sheet, use it but at least periodically verify it’s accuracy. That will likely not eliminate the risk of a violation but may reduce it.