Phoenix Aviation Law: Who Can Determine Airworthiness?
Unlike cars in parking lots, aircraft here in Arizona do not typically get many dents or dings while out taxiing around the airfield thanks to skilled pilots, careful air traffic controllers, and specific taxiway demarcations that prevent incursions. Aircraft are far more likely to encounter problems during ground handling or in the hangar, where dings and dents are common enough to have earned the nickname “hangar rash.”
While most pilots cringe at the thought of any damage to their aircraft, many would not think to have a plane inspected after a minor dent or scratch. If there was not significant structural damage, and the flaw appears to only be cosmetic, what would the point of an inspection be, and who is capable of deciding what is acceptable?
Here is where the matter goes from simple to slightly more complex. In the cases of Administrator v. Smith and Administrator v. Scuderi, two airmen were operating their own aircraft too closely to parked aircraft, each striking a wingtip against a portion of the parked plane and causing damage to both.
In the case of James W. Smith, following the collision he noticed a paint scratch on his wingtip tank but, claiming that he believed it to still be airworthy, took off for his next destination anyway. The investigation found that Mr. Smith later took his Cessna 210 to an A&P mechanic to ensure that it was, in fact, airworthy, and to repair the scratches.
The Federal Aviation Administration learned of the incident and suspended Mr. Smith’s pilot certificate for 60 days, finding him in violation of 14 C.F.R. Part 91.7(a). After an appeal from Mr. Smith, the National Transportation Safety Board’s administrative law judge (ALJ) determined that the FAA’s actions were appropriate, and that Mr. Smith should have known that the aircraft would need an inspection prior to further operation.
Even a fairly simple case like Administrator v. Smith has an abundance of grey area, but one thing is very clear—no one disputed the fact that Mr. Smith should have known that a collision resulting in visible damage to his aircraft would require an inspection of airworthiness prior to flying it again.
While it may seem like overkill, hangar rash and other dents and dings may very well mean the difference between an airworthy aircraft and a non-airworthy aircraft. After an incident that leaves your aircraft with visible damage, play it safe and have an A&P inspect the damage and give you a proper sign-off. While it may seem like a hassle, if you knowingly operate the aircraft with damage, you may face serious enforcement and/or administrative actions on your certificate.
If you have been involved in a ground handling incident where another pilot or individual caused damage to your aircraft, or if you played by all of the rules and the FAA is still taking action on your certificate, you have the right to stand up for yourself. The Arizona aviation attorneys at Curry, Pearson & Wooten are available to discuss your case with you today, and can help you defend your certificate or collect damages—call us now at 602-258-1000 to speak with an experienced aviation lawyer.
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