According to the FAA, the answer is "yes." This question was discussed and answered in a recent Legal Interpretation issued by the FAA's Office of the Chief Counsel. The issue arose after the FAA amended 14 C.F.R. § 47.40 to mandate that failure to renew an aircraft's U.S. registration at the end of the three-year registration period results in the expiration of the certificate. Apparently at least one Flight Standards District Office ("FSDO"), and other individuals, had taken the position that an aircraft could not be returned to service as airworthy after an inspection if the aircraft's U.S. registration had expired.
The Interpretation initially observed that an aircraft's airworthiness certificate is not "effective" if the aircraft's U.S. registration is expired. It also noted that 14 C.F.R. Part 43, which contains the FAA's general maintenance regulations, applies to a U.S. registered aircraft whether or not it has a current registration certificate and "[n]othing in the regulation indicates that a failure by the owner to renew the registration is a type of discrepancy contemplated by part 43."
The Interpretation concluded that "no current FAA regulation proscribes an approval for return to service of a U.S.-registered aircraft following an inspection required by parts 91, 125, or 135 if the aircraft's registration certificate is not current." As a result, an aircraft may be approved for return to service as airworthy as long as the aircraft
has an airworthiness certificate (regardless of whether or not it is effective);
conforms to its type certificate (including any applicable supplemental type certificates (STC) and is in compliance with all applicable airworthiness directives (AD)); and
is in condition for safe operation.
What can we learn from this situation, beyond the obvious interpretation of the regulations? FSDOs don't always interpret or apply the FARs correctly. As a result, if you disagree with a FSDO's interpretation and application of the FARs, you should definitely pursue relief up the FAA food-chain to the regional or national level. Although you still may not get the relief you would like, at least you should be able to get the correct answer.
In a recent opinion issued by the National Transportation Safety Board ("NTSB"), the Board affirmed the findings of violations issued by an administrative law judge ("ALJ"). The case, Administrator v. Haddock arose following the crash of an experimental helicopter operated by an airman shortly after his purchase of the helicopter. After investigating the accident, the FAA issued an order alleging that the airman had not properly registered the helicopter and, at the time of the accident, the helicopter did not comply with its experimental operating limitations because it did not have a current condition inspection. According to the order, the airman's operation of the helicopter violated FARs 91.403(a) (owner or operator responsible for maintaining aircraft in an airworthy condition), 91.13(a) (prohibiting operation of an aircraft in a careless or reckless manner), and 47.3(b) (prohibiting operation of an aircraft unless registered or using temporary registration). The airman appealed the order to the NTSB and requested a hearing before an ALJ.
After a hearing, the ALJ determined that the prior owner of the helicopter had used the wrong language to indicate he had completed the required condition inspection and thus the ALJ found that the helicopter was not airworthy at the time of the accident. However, the ALJ did not make a specific finding as to whether the airman had relied upon the prior owner's verbal statements to him regarding the condition inspection and the airworthiness of the helicopter. The ALJ also found that the airman hadn't produced any documentation to show that the aircraft registration had actually been submitted to the FAA Registry prior to the accident flight. But the ALJ did reduce the sanction from 90 days to 60 days based upon evidence that the airman had apparently made a “substantial attempt” to register the aircraft.
The airman appealed the ALJ's decision and the Board remanded the case back to the ALJ for more detailed findings on certain issues. The ALJ obliged, and issued an order again affirming the findings of violations, but providing further explanation regarding most of the issues with which the Board was concerned. The airman then appealed the ALJ's order on remand back to the Board.
On appeal, the airman argued that the ALJ erred in determining the helicopter was not properly registered at the time of the accident. He also contended that the ALJ improperly concluded he was responsible for operating the helicopter when it was in an unairworthy condition because the prior owner had, in fact, completed a condition inspection before the accident and he had reasonably relied upon the prior owner's verbal statements to that effect.
With respect to the registration issue, the Board first noted that the ALJ had not addressed its question concerning the paperwork required to register an aircraft pursuant to FAR 47.3(b). However, rather than remanding to the ALJ a second time, the Board relied upon the ALJ's credibility finding in favor of the two FAA inspectors who testified at the hearing to support the Board's own conclusion regarding the documentation required under FAR 47.3(b).
Since one of the inspectors opined the helicopter was not registered to the airman until he sent the registration to the FAA, sometime after the accident, the Board considered that opinion to be an interpretation of FAR 47.3(b) to which it must defer. When it combined that interpretation with the inspector's testimony, which the ALJ found more credible and to which the Board also had to defer, the Board agreed that the pink copy of the application for registration needed to be present in the aircraft on the date of the accident in order for the airman to have complied with the requirements of FAR 47.3(b). As a result, based upon the inspector's testimony that the pink slip was not in the cockpit at the time of the accident, the Board concluded that the helicopter had not been properly registered.
With respect to the airworthiness issue, the Board rejected the airman's defense based upon the doctrine of reasonable reliance. Since the prior owner was neither the airman's copilot nor crew member, as required by that defense, the airman, as owner and operator of the helicopter, had a duty to ensure that the helicopter complied with its type certificate and was in a safe condition for operation.
The Board found that the airman could have "reviewed the maintenance log and compared it with the requirements of the experimental operating limitations applicable to the aircraft, which explicitly provide the language necessary to indicate the aircraft underwent a satisfactory condition inspection." If he had done so, the Board reasoned, he would have discovered that the prior owner had not used the language to properly document a condition inspection. The Board concluded that the airman's reliance upon the prior owner's statements that the helicopter was airworthy was not reasonable under the circumstances and did not excuse his violations of FARs 91.403(a) and 91.13(a).
This decision highlights the responsibility pilots have for confirming the airworthiness of their aircraft before they fly. If pilots, or aircraft buyers, are going to trust representations by others, as the airman did in this case, they will also need to take reasonable steps to confirm those representations. Similarly, aircraft owners need to comply with the requirements of the aircraft registration regulations on a timely basis to ensure proper registration of their aircraft while they are flying. Although the requirements are simple and straightforward, they need to be met to avoid the consequences suffered by the airman in this case.