VOLUME 14 COMPLIANCE AND ENFORCEMENT
CHAPTER 3 SPECIAL CONSIDERATIONS
Section 4 Airworthiness
14-3-4-1 AIRWORTHY OR UNAIRWORTHY? The term “airworthiness” or
one of its derivatives is not defined in Title 49 of the United States Code
(49 U.S.C.) or Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations (14 CFR). Nevertheless,
a clear understanding of its meaning is an essential tool for the compliance
program. Airworthiness is a concept that represents the substance of two of
the most fundamental safety regulations: 14 CFR part
43.15(a) and 14 CFR part
A. Airworthiness. Since “airworthiness” is not defined in the
revised 49 U.S.C., Subtitle VII, Part A, or in 14 CFR part
a clear understanding of its meaning is essential in conducting a violation
investigation. A review of case law relating to airworthiness reveals two conditions
that must be met for an aircraft to be considered “airworthy.” These conditions
1) The aircraft must conform to its type design (certificate).
Conformity to type design is considered attained when the required and proper
components are installed and they are consistent with the drawings, specifications,
and other data that are part of the type certificate (TC). Conformity would
include applicable Supplemental Type Certificates (STC) and field-approved alterations.
2) The aircraft must be in condition for safe operation. This
refers to the condition of the aircraft in relation to wear and deterioration;
such conditions could be skin corrosion, window delamination/crazing, fluid
leaks, tire wear, etc.
B. Regulatory Background.
that each person conducting a 100-hour, annual, or progressive
inspection required by part
perform those inspections in such a manner as to determine whether
the aircraft meets all applicable airworthiness requirements.
that no one may operate a civil aircraft unless it is airworthy.
C. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Decisions. The
example below clearly expresses the view that an aircraft is airworthy only
if it is capable of a safe operation and it conforms to its TC.
1) In this case, the issue was whether the pilot had violated §
operating an aircraft that was not in an airworthy condition.
The respondent had taxied the aircraft into a mud hole, causing the propeller
to strike the ground. As a result, one blade was bent and the other was nicked.
Upon restarting, the engine ran smoothly, so the pilot did not consider the
damage to be significant. The pilot decided to give the aircraft a test flight
and found that there was no unusual engine vibration or other indication of
malfunction. The pilot then operated the aircraft from Nevada to Kansas to New
York to Pennsylvania, and to several locations in Florida.
2) Upon hearing the case after a subsequent investigation revealed
the damage and the violation, the examiner held that the damage to the propeller
caused it to be unairworthy and sustained the Federal Aviation Administration
(FAA) allegation that the respondent had violated §
The examiner’s findings were based on the theory that an aircraft
is airworthy if it conforms to its type certification, but that it is not airworthy
if its original design and specifications are altered without FAA approval.
3) The concept of airworthiness expressed in this case must be
considered to be the correct one because it is the one which best lends itself
to effective enforcement. It is supported clearly by some NTSB precedents and
is reinforced by the framework of 49 U.S.C. and the practical operation of the
FAA itself. The concept that an aircraft need only be capable of a safe operation
to be airworthy cannot be applied effectively because it places too much discretion
in the individual pilot or mechanic, safety being a subjective value.
D. Additional Interpretations. A careful study of 49 U.S.C. indicates
that the term airworthiness should be interpreted in the manner that it has
been in the example above.
1) Title 49 U.S.C. § 44704(d)(1) allows the registered owner
of an aircraft to apply for an airworthiness certificate. If the FAA finds that
the aircraft conforms to the TC for that aircraft and determines, after inspection,
that the aircraft is in condition for safe flight, the FAA issues the airworthiness
2) The statutory language in § 44704(d)(1) clearly establishes
that two tests be applied in determining whether the owner of an aircraft should
be granted an airworthiness certificate. First, the aircraft must conform to
the TC for that aircraft. Then, if that condition is met, the aircraft must
be inspected to determine that it is in a condition which will permit its safe
3) The very term “airworthiness certificate” implies that an
aircraft granted such a certificate is “airworthy.” Therefore, an aircraft denied
such a certificate is not airworthy. The plain meaning of § 44704(d)(1) indicates
that 49 U.S.C. intended that an aircraft should not be considered to merit the
issuance of an airworthiness certificate unless it conforms to the TC applicable
to it. Therefore, it can be argued that 49 U.S.C. established the concept of
airworthiness to mean, “…conforms to its type certificate and, after inspection,
is in condition for safe operation.”
4) The practical operation of the FAA should also be considered
in determining which concept of airworthiness is most appropriate. If the term
airworthy were interpreted to mean only to be in a condition for safe flight,
at times it would be unreasonably difficult, if not impossible, to enforce the
regulations which turn upon the meaning of that term. In order to prove that a pilot
operated an unairworthy aircraft or that a mechanic certified
an unairworthy aircraft as airworthy, the FAA sometimes would be required to
undertake an extensive test-flight program of an aircraft that did not conform
to the applicable TC.
5) Moreover, if airworthy meant only to be in a condition for
safe flight, it would render the entire airworthiness certification procedure
meaningless. Title 49 U.S.C. provides for the issuance of a TC, a certificate
that includes the type design as dictated by the type certification data in
the aircraft’s operating limitations and any other conditions or limitations
prescribed in the applicable regulations. Title 49 U.S.C. specifies that the
TC is to be referred to in determining whether an aircraft should be granted
an airworthiness certificate. However, if an aircraft need only be capable of
safe flight to be considered airworthy, after the original airworthiness certificate
is issued, any mechanic could modify a particular aircraft in any manner that
pleased the mechanic and the aircraft would be presumed to be airworthy unless
the FAA could prove that the modification was in some way detrimental to the
aircraft’s flight characteristics or structural strength.
E. Conclusion. To be airworthy, an aircraft must conform to its
TC as well as be in a condition for safe operation. A word of caution is necessary,
however, if this concept of airworthiness is to be applied effectively in enforcement
cases. Where the evidence clearly shows the aircraft is not in a condition for
safe operation, the NTSB will normally sustain a finding that the aircraft was
unairworthy. However, even if the aircraft is not in conformance with the TC,
the NTSB will probably not sustain a finding that the aircraft was unairworthy
unless the evidence also shows it was unsafe for flight. More detailed evidence
is required about the TC and the way the aircraft improperly deviates from the
TC in order to sustain a finding of unairworthy based on nonconformance alone.
14-3-4-3 through 14-3-4-17 RESERVED.