You’re driving down the highway on the way to the airport, with the cruise control set at 65 mph, the speed limit. So you’re surprised when a highway patrol officer pulls you over.
You politely produce your driver’s license and other documents. Then the officer tells you that one of your brake lights is out and he wanted you to know so that you could get it repaired. On your way, you may be irritated over the lost time, but you realize that the police officer was simply upholding the law and acting for your safety.
Now, you arrive at the airport, give your plane a quick preflight inspection, and go for a routine flight around the local area. After you land, an FAA inspector approaches and advises you that s/he will be conducting a ramp inspection.
What to Expect
You’ve never had a ramp inspection; you don’t know anyone who has ever had a ramp inspection. You’re at a loss for what to do and what will be expected of you. FAA Document 8900.1 Surveillance, Chapter 1, “Part 91 Inspections,” lists the instructions to the FAA inspector as to how to conduct a ramp inspection. Let’s take a look.
“The objective of this task is to determine that an airman, operator, and/or aircraft is in continuing compliance with Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations (14 CFR)…”
That’s it. The inspector is just checking that you and your aircraft are in compliance with the regulations—just like the patrolman. At this point, you may decline if you so choose. There are even some situations where you could decline without causing further problems.
If you decide that you don’t want to cooperate with the inspector and decline the inspection, you may be invited to the FSDO. If that happens, you should probably consider bringing your lawyer to that meeting, because it will likely be far less cordial and more official. So, let your judgment be your guide. In the long run, it’s usually better to cooperate.
Having said that, the FAA guidelines are that ramp inspections should not interfere with commerce. So, if you are flying a charter and the passengers are waiting, the inspector is supposed to stop the inspection for you to keep your schedule. Assuming that the inspector hasn’t found any safety issues, the inspector will probably comply with that guideline.
The inspector should, in compliance with FAA regulations, always have identification available. In all likelihood, the inspector will produce his/her identification when he/she first approaches you. If the inspector does not produce the identification, you should certainly ask to see it, lest you get pranked by one of your airport buddies.
FAA inspectors carry a shiny gold-colored badge, which looks very much like a police badge. However the statement engraved on the back of the badge, says that the bearer is not authorized to arrest anyone.
So, after you play, “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours,” and exchange identification, including your government-issued photo ID, the inspector will begin to check those items listed on the Job Aid.
You will be required to produce your pilot’s certificate and medical certificate for the FAA inspector. The inspector will also ask to see evidence of your most recent flight review or equivalent (an FAA checkride, for example). Don’t worry if you don’t have proof of a flight review; it’s not required to be in your possession. You might score a point by offering to send a copy to the inspector’s office, but be prepared to do so.
In addition to the pilot’s required documents, the inspector will likely ask to see the aircraft airworthiness certificate, registration certificate, radio station license, a copy of the operating limitations, weight and balance data, the minimum equipment list (MEL), and aeronautical charts appropriate to the flight. Although the aircraft radio station license is on the inspector’s list, it is not an FAA requirement. It is an FCC requirement and technically beyond the FAA’s purview. In fact, you need not even have one for flight solely inside the U.S., but it is required for flight beyond the U.S. borders.
When inspecting the aircraft the inspector will check the general airworthiness, the ELT battery, evidence that all your IFR equipment and inspections are up to date and current if you’re flying IFR—if you’re only flying VFR, don’t worry about that. The inspector will also survey the condition of the aircraft: seats, safety belts, sun visors, deviation card for the compass, placards, etc. Note that the inspector may not enter your aircraft without your permission, but again, it’s usually better to cooperate.
The inspector will record the results of the inspection and will advise you of any discrepancies. In addition the inspector will discuss any pertinent safety information with the pilots or operator. Then the inspector will return any documentation and advise you of any upcoming accident prevention or other safety meetings in the local area.
How’s Your Attitude?
In the (unlikely?) event the inspector finds no discrepancies, you might even get a compliment. More likely, though, the discussion will focus on the—hopefully minor—items needing remedy.
Before you get your knickers in a knot and get upset with the inspector, you need to understand that the FAA inspector is acting in your interest and promoting aviation safety, similar to the highway patrol officer who acted in the interest of safety when you were stopped and informed of the failed brake light.
If you are polite and professional in dealing with the FAA inspector, you may expect to be treated in the same manner. However, consider this situation. You are flying a charter, as mentioned above. When your passengers arrive, one of the passengers is obviously intoxicated. The FAA inspector is still there and observes the intoxicated passenger start to enter your aircraft. What will you do?
You should remember 14 CFR 91.17 Alcohol or Drugs: (b) Except in an emergency, no pilot of a civil aircraft may allow a person who appears to be intoxicated or who demonstrates by manner or physical indications that the individual is under the influence of drugs (except a medical patient under proper care) to be carried in that aircraft.
So if you carry the intoxicated passenger, you will be in violation of the FAA regulations and you will be subject to certificate action. Here, it’s best to confer with the passengers, point out the problem, and suggest the trip be delayed.
A ramp check need not be feared, as long as you and your aircraft are in compliance with the FAA regulations. If you are in violation of the FAA regulations, it is better to find out before you have an accident or an incident where the discrepancies become evidence.
So, here are a few guidelines that may help you in the event that you get an FAA Ramp Inspection. First, try your best to always be in compliance with the rules and regulations. If you do get a ramp inspection, be professional and polite with the inspector. If you can do so without being too obvious (so you don’t appear to be preparing for a conflict), you might wish to record the inspectors name and identification number, along with the time, date, and location of the inspection. Also, be sure to record any discrepancies as noted by the inspector, so that you can correct them.
An FAA Ramp Inspection should be a positive experience. If the inspector finds something wrong, the inspection may prevent an accident or a violation. If the inspector does not find anything wrong, you should feel proud that you are in compliance and are doing it right. Either way, it’s a win-win.
We wish to thank Mr. Paul King for his assistance preparing this article.
George Shanks hasn’t seen too many FAA inspectors at his private ranch and airstrip outside Dallas.