March 2004Departments

Legal Briefing

Placards and MELs

Operating with inoperative equipment

Pilots must know and understand numerous regulations pertaining to pilot-in-command responsibilities and aircraft airworthiness. Many of these regulations make practical sense to pilots, and they are a bit easier to incorporate into our flying habits. Then there are a few regulations that seem to make sense in their language, but just seem a bit impractical in their application.

In my opinion, FAR 91.213 is one such rule, as became evident during a recent Sunday afternoon at my home airport. Since the dialog that day occurred between a newly minted private pilot and a retired FAA inspector, I thought it was a good time to refresh our knowledge of the regulation.

FAR 91.213 states generally and succinctly that "no person may take off an aircraft with inoperative instruments or equipment installed." There are a few limited exceptions to this regulation, but it means what it says: If there is an instrument or a piece of equipment installed in the aircraft, it must be in working order. If it is not, then your aircraft may be effectively legally grounded. A popular example of how nonsensical the application of this regulation may be is one where the cigarette lighter in the airplane doesn't work, or the pilot has removed the lighter from the aircraft and placed a cap in the receptacle. In the strictest interpretation of the rule, operation of that aircraft could place the pilot in jeopardy of an FAA enforcement action based on a violation of FAR 91.213.

In our experience, FAA inspectors generally exercise good judgment when they come across these cases; they will consider what may be technically in violation of the regulation and what may be practically in violation of the regulation, and handle the matter sensibly. Some pilot examiners like to make this issue a part of the oral examination. That said, let's examine the exceptions that may keep you flying in accordance with the rule.

One of the exceptions relates to a minimum equipment list (MEL), which permits takeoff with an inoperative instrument or piece of equipment if the MEL specifies and provides for it. However, most general aviation aircraft do not have an MEL, so this is not a very helpful exception.

Another exception involves placarding coupled with deactivation or removal of the inoperative component. This exception is apparently intended to be helpful for general aviation aircraft, but sometimes it may not be worth the effort required to comply with the rule.

Let's look at the effort involved to placard an inoperative item in the aircraft. First, the pilot or a certificated mechanic must make a determination that the inoperative instrument or piece of equipment does not constitute a hazard to the aircraft. Then, the pilot must determine that the inoperative instrument or piece of equipment is not "part of the VFR-day type certification instruments and equipment prescribed in the applicable airworthiness regulations under which the aircraft was type certificated." Depending on how old your aircraft is and what component we're talking about, it could involve quite a bit of research to discover the airworthiness regulations that were in effect when your aircraft was manufactured.

Then, the pilot must look at the aircraft's approved flight manual or owner's handbook to discover whether the inoperative instrument or piece of equipment is required by the aircraft's equipment list. Next, the pilot must look at the operating limitations to see if the inoperative instrument or piece of equipment is required for the intended operation, such as VFR, IFR, day, and night flights. Follow that with a look at FAR Part 91 to check that the inoperative instrument or piece of equipment is not required by a regulation for the specific kind of flight operation intended, such as VFR day, VFR night, high altitude, or Category II. Then, the device must be removed or deactivated and placarded.

At last your flight may take place. But, at the next required inspection of the aircraft, the inoperative instrument or piece of equipment must be repaired, replaced, removed, or inspected. At that time, if the item is to remain inoperative, only a mechanic may authorize the continued required placarding and must make the appropriate maintenance entry. The pilot's responsibility is to ensure that the mechanic does this before further flights in the airplane are made.

So, as a general proposition, this regulation makes sense, but it also doesn't make sense when considered in light of some of the things that can stop working in an aircraft. Either way, the pilot is charged with knowing, understanding, and complying with the regulation. So, as part of your preflight, check that everything is working.

Kathy Yodice is an attorney with Yodice Associates in Washington, D.C., which provides legal counsel to AOPA and administers AOPA's legal services plan. She is an instrument-rated private pilot.