Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Surviving Ramp Check

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

The inspector isn't entitled to enter your aircraft unless you specifically invite him. He can look inside through a window or door, but that's the limit of his inspection if you don't grant permission. If the inspector asks about cargo that's enclosed in packages or inside suitcases, you're not required to reveal the contents or open anything.

Of course, keep in mind that the inspector can make the procedure as tough or as easy as you make it. Even many folks inside the FAA acknowledge that some inspectors adopt a godlike attitude, but you'll probably find most of them to be fair and reasonable people. If you're reluctant to cooperate, an inspector can nitpick you.

Alternately, he can cut you a break because you have a good attitude, and the documents appear to be in reasonable order. Most inspectors will weigh your attitude against any minor infraction. According to the FAA's guidelines, the inspector has no power to "unreasonably detain" you, so if you suggest you're in a hurry, he'll be forced to expedite his inspection.

If the inspector does find something questionable, he can't seize any pilot or aircraft paperwork, or ground you or your airplane. If you're stupid enough to climb down after a flight with beer on your breath, an inspector could very well call the local gendarmes to report you, but he isn't empowered to enforce the law.

Should the inspector find what he regards as a safety infraction, no matter how trivial, you'd be a total idiot to fire up and depart while he's standing there witnessing your takeoff. That's almost guaranteed to generate some form of FAA action.

I've been flying for more than 40 years, and I've had a few disagreements with the feds. Fortunately, none of them have escalated past the talking stage. The vast majority of FAA personnel are friendly, compassionate people who do their job with the same kind of professionalism they expect from pilots. If you're the victim of a ramp check, keep your cool and don't succumb to the temptation to argue with an FAA inspector. Be prepared, know your rights and, if necessary, call your attorney.

Legal Protection For Pilots

In order to get a more professional view of the problems of pilots during ramp checks, we contacted Scott Williams, an attorney who specializes in aviation law. Williams works with the Small Business Law Firm in Thousand Oaks, Calif., and has defended a variety of clients with problems with the FAA.

Williams says the most common problem with pilots is that they talk too much. "It's a tired cliché, but it's true: Anything you say can be used against you. We advise clients to answer only the questions asked and not to elaborate or expand on the answers. Pilots too often talk themselves into trouble by trying to be too helpful."

Williams also suggests pilots should be better informed about what an inspector can and can't do. "Most pilots have no idea what their rights are and what the inspector is allowed to do," Williams adds. "He can't unreasonably delay you," says the attorney, "he can't search your airplane, and he has no powers of arrest."

For more information, contact Scott Williams at Small Business Law Firm,, or at (855) 524-9529.


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