Close Encounters of the Federal Kind,
by Paul Kinzelman, Feb 27, 2005, AOPA 595381
We've all heard the stories of the
horror of ramp checks. The horrible stench. The evil eyes.
The fangs. The inspector who grounds a Q-tip prop because he
thought the curved tips were the result of a prop strike.
But how many of these are real? OK,
some are. Then how many included major contributions by the
pilot in the form of a bad or arrogant attitude? And do the
horror stories really characterize the majority of
interactions with the FAA inspectors? Or do the stories grow
hair as they are retold countless times? Or are they the
I have no real data to base my
conclusions on, nor, I imagine does anybody else. But I can
relate my personal experiences in my rather few brushes with
the feds in 28 years of flying, occasionally the result of
dumb luck, but usually a result of something stupid I did.
You could say that sometimes I've been the passenger and the
PIC at the same time.
With all due respect (or perhaps lack
thereof) to the official position of various attorneys and
other authorities well-versed in aviation law, I disagree
with their standard opinion of "Tell them nothing" and
"Don't call the tower if they ask you to." Yes, you are
within your rights to do that, and you will probably win
that battle, but aren't you really after winning the war (as
an old DE used to say)? Isn't the most important thing to
keep your certificate in your pocket? And just as important,
keeping the lawyers' hands out of your wallet? Remember,
the feds hold most if not all of the cards. Do you really
want to yank the tail of the dragon?
Do not take this as anything more than
one person's opinion, but for myself, I favor the "full
grovel approach". It's managed to keep my certificate in my
pocket for 28 years through all the embarrassing and stupid
things I've done. When the woman says "Call the tower", I
call the tower. When she says "What were you thinking?", I
don't make up some stupid excuse that is insulting to their
intelligence. I've made an honest mistake, I admit it,
submit to a verbal spanking, and that's been the end of it.
Oh, and make liberal use of the NASA
ASRS forms. Don't leave home without some blank ones. But
I've fortunately never had to resort to that "Get out of
jail free" card, although I have filed quite a few. I've
heard there are some pilots who file one on every flight.
On to ramp checks... I've now started
actually flying for income (meager tho it is) after about 27
years of flying as a hobby. I passed my Part-135 ride a
little while ago and have graduated to the bottom run of the
And last week, when I arrived back at
home base, our POI (Principal Operations Inspector) was
waiting for me. I know what you're thinking... no, she
hadn't heard about me, she was just doing a surprise
inspection of the facility.
She was polite but business-like, and
wanted to see me open the cargo door. All she checked was
that my cargo net was properly securing the cargo. And she
asked to see my pilot certificate and medical. I have a
feeling that if any one of these three things had been
amiss, she would have gone over a lot more stuff with a
And I think it was probably the MOI
(Maintenance Operations Inspector) who was snooping around
the plane in the dark looking for anything that was not
right. And that was it. They could have done a lot worse.
My attitude was very friendly. And I
asked her (POI) something about which I was going to call
the local FSDO. I wanted to clarify a question about the
regs, which also I think demonstrated my interest in really
understanding the nuances of the regs. Plus the question
had to do with a "gray area", and her interpretation is the
one that counts.
But it was funny to watch most of the
other pilots and maintenance people scurry around like
cockroaches on the kitchen floor when you turn on the light
And some say that you should never
"hand over" your pilot certificate when they ask to see it.
You should continue to hold it in your hand while showing it
to them, because an evil inspector can interpret the
"handing over" as you "surrendering" your certificate and
then they would be within the letter of the law in keeping
it. But I've never actually heard of that happening. And
maybe I'm just a sucker, but I think doing that would
demonstrated a confrontational attitude that would get them
"searching". Remember, you want to win the war, not just the
battle. Because if they look hard enough, they can always
find something to bust you on. But the "surrendering" your
certificate thing sounds like one of those "urban legends"
of aviation to me.
Fortunately, this inspector seemed to me to be interested in
making sure we were compliant, and was not trying to get in
the way of getting the transportation job done. They have a
job to do as do we. And that's the way it should be