FAA Feedback: Wet Paper Bag of Responsibility

Who is responsible for the airworthiness of an aircraft? Is the pilot? The owner? Or the mechanic? Who has to ensure that the aircraft is airworthy?

April 1997 issue of Aircraft Maintenance Technology

In the past 10 years as one of FAA headquarters part-time, talking heads, it’s my lot in life not only to explain the Federal Aviation Regulations, but also to defend them at over 420 safety presentations. It’s not easy standing up there all alone; I sit down on scar tissue.

At these meetings attended by both mechanics and pilots, the second most asked question from the audience is, “Who is responsible for the airworthiness of an aircraft?” Is the pilot? The owner? Or the mechanic? Who has to ensure that the aircraft is airworthy?

At my last meeting, one rather large, grizzled redheaded mechanic stood up. He was tall, about 40, and with arms so big that he looked like he could bench-press a Harley Davidson motorcycle without so much as a grunt. He smiled sweetly at me, adding to my apprehension, and put the same “who is responsible” question to me in a more memorable way. He said, “Hey, Mr. Fed, who gets to hold the wet paper bag of responsibility? The owner, the pilot, or me?”

Gathering my failing amount of courage, I replied, “All three individuals get to hold the wet paper bag of responsibility.” After a rather long pause, during which time the mechanic, who still remained standing, slowly digested my sage advice, squinted his eyes as if to put me in some imaginary gun sights, and said, “Your answer, Mr. FAA, was a perfect Washington, D.C. reply.”

“How so?” I responded, falling headfirst into his trap.

“Your answer was probably 100 percent right, but it’s 100 percent useless,” he said.

The crowd laughed, the mechanic’s smile got even bigger, and my ears got red. “OK,” I said to the crowd of folks who were enjoying themselves at my expense. “Will you please give me a chance to defend my answer?” I asked the crowd, but at the same time feeling like a fallen gladiator hoping that Nero was in a good mood. A series of nods from the audience gave me the encouragement to try to make my point. I even got a nod from the mechanic as he sat down to enjoy my discomfort.

“OK,” I said, taking the high road, “Before we go any further, we need a benchmark, a standard that we can all agree to. The best way I’ve found to reach this standard is to agree on the definition of the term ‘airworthy’.”

I continued, “You would think that such an important and fundamental aviation term would be defined in Part 1 Definitions and Abbreviations of the Federal Aviation Regulations (FAR); however, this is not the case. But in the last 40 plus years, National Transportation Safety Board case law and civil court decisions generally agree that the term ‘airworthy’ means that an aircraft or one of its component parts, meets its approved type design or properly altered condition and is in a condition for safe operation.”

Seeing no outright opposition, I asked the audience if we can agree that this definition of the term “airworthy” or “airworthiness” is the standard which all three individuals, the owner/operator, the pilot, and the mechanic must meet. The crowd’s agreement to the definition wasn’t what one would call very enthusiastic, but at least it was not hostile, so I pressed on.

Owner’s responsibility

Falling easily into my bureaucratic mode, I said, “Title 14, Part 91, Section 91.409 (a), states that the owner or operator of an aircraft is primarily responsible for maintaining that aircraft in an airworthy condition.

“This includes compliance with Part 39 (airworthiness directives). To comply with these rules, it means that the owner/operator must have the aircraft inspected, ADs performed, life-limited parts called out on the aircraft, engine, or propeller, and the type certificate must be changed when required.”

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