Staying Legal: Airworthiness

Is it airworthy? The technician’s dilemma


Recently we had occasion to discuss the matter of aircraft being airworthy with some “airworthiness” inspectors and some field maintenance people … it was an interesting discussion to say the least. Nothing will draw more interest or more divergent ideas than the matter of airworthiness and aircraft.

The inspectors
As we all know, or should know, Airworthiness inspectors are one of three types that the FAA hires and appoints. The others are operations inspectors and the third manufacturing inspectors. Avionics inspectors are a part of the airworthiness group and are usually included within that group. Airworthiness inspectors are assigned to general aviation or air carrier activities, and are the ones usually involved in enforcement actions against individual technicians and maintenance operations.

By far the majority of airworthiness inspectors are hard working and have years of aviation experience. However, in dealing with inspectors one should be aware that they all do not have the same understanding of the maintenance sections of the FARs or that they are as up to date about aircraft maintenance procedures as they should be. Many are candid enough to admit their need to be “educated” by field maintenance people.

Inspectors usually have been far removed from hands-on aircraft or engine work experience for many years. They are required to be buried instead in the complex paperwork burden that they are forced to endure as part of their job. Also, inspectors are burdened with an unending series of time-consuming meetings, seminars, inspections, training, and any number of ancillary responsibilities that would consume a whole page here if all were enumerated. Unfortunately, the more capable and experienced inspectors are usually promoted into management or training, which adds additional work assignments for them. There are just never enough field inspectors to go around.

Airworthiness 101
Most people think of airworthiness as the dictionary says … having conformed to acceptable standards for flying safely. Webster’s.

It’s a little more complicated than that. Firstly, you have to recognize that the FARs have always been confusing both to the practicing technician and to inspectors. Airworthy and airworthiness are commonly confused expressions that are used throughout the FARs but are nowhere defined with any precision.

Administrator v. Norman 27 CAB 1194 (1958): In 1958 Civil Aeronautics Board Examiner, J.C. Caldwell, discussed this lack of a definition for these two terms during his decision on the case.

The case had to do with a pilot having his certificate suspended for operating his aircraft in an unairworthy condition. In order to decide the case the examiner (they are called NTSB Administrative Law Judges now) stated his decision as to what the definition of the words meant for the record.

“To be airworthy an aircraft must conform to its type certificate or type design, as such certificate has been modified by any supplementary type certificates and airworthiness directives, and must be in condition for safe operation.”

The FAA and the NTSB have since adopted this statement but have not printed it in the FARs.

The continuing problem
Many commentators have made efforts to point out the problems with this definition. A type certificate is made up of many documents. The manufacturer presents them to the FAA in order to get an aircraft certified for flight and to sell to the public. The following items are routinely included … the type design, the operating limitations, and the type certificate data sheets. However, the only items available to the technician or others in the business are the operating limitations and the type certificate data sheets.

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