Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Surviving Ramp Check


It doesn’t have to be the encounter most pilots dread


Willits, Calif., is one of those happy getaway locations that pilots love. Snuggled deep in the state's magnificent Napa Valley, the little airport at Willits makes a popular destination for pilots from all over the West Coast.

A few years back, I was a member of a large flying club in Southern California, and our penchant was to fly away on weekends. Willits is only about 400 nm from Los Angeles, and that puts it within striking distance of virtually every member's one-tank range.

The club reserved almost an entire hotel for the Labor Day weekend, and we all flew away to Northern California to ride the Skunk Train through the Redwoods from Willits to Fort Bragg and back, ride rafts down the Russian River, generally hang out and tell lies about who had the fastest airplane. I departed Long Beach early on Saturday and arrived by 9:30 a.m. in the middle of a gaggle of club members.

As I was tying down my airplane, I noticed a man with a clipboard walking the line of transients and stopping at the airplane next to mine. He walked up to the owner who had landed just before I arrived, and I heard him say, as cheerfully as possible, "Hi, I'm with the FAA, and I have a few questions for you."

Of course, like anyone, my first thought was that I was next. This was a dreaded ramp check. I watched Bob Lang, owner of the Bellanca next door, drag out his airplane's papers and his own credentials, and the courteous young FAA inspector copied down all the details.

By this time, several of the other club members had gathered around and began to give the inspector a piece of their collective mind. What was he doing harassing pilots on a holiday weekend? Why was he picking on aviators at little, uncontrolled Ells Willits Airport in the middle of nowhere, rather than at a major general aviation hub such as Oakland or San Jose?

The inspector was surprised at what he must have regarded as a near-mob mentality and stammered that he was just doing his job conducting random ramp checks and had no intention of busting anyone unless there was a good reason to do so.

Since I was obviously next, I didn't join in the harangue, but it became academic. After a few minutes of collective harassment, the inspector put away his pen and retreated toward a gray Chevy sedan in the parking lot, obviously intimidated by nearly a dozen angry aircraft owners.



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