Pilot Changes: Nice, Just Not Legal

There is a considerable gap between the creativity of people who fly airplanes and the limits set by people who write regulations. In short, there isn’t much you can legally do by yourself to change an airplane. Oh, you can take the plane in to an interior shop and change the interior to your heart’s content… provided you stay within the design parameters and use the right materials. You can have your aircraft painted any color of the rainbow (or all of them), and you can take it in and have someone modify the airframe… provided those modifications result as described by an STC or by an FAA approved Form 337 change.

A mechanic at the local FBO peered in with amazement at a Cessna 152 that had been brought in for an annual inspection. He had performed the pre-purchase inspection on the plane some months before, and had noted the generally poor condition of the interior. Imagine his surprise when he found two new front seats in the airplane.

They were very nice leather-lined bucket seats, and they fit right into the original Cessna seat-track bolt holes. From the fabric stitching patterns and writing on the seats, our sage mechanic determined that the seats were ‘original equipment‘… on a Pontiac Fiero.

The mechanic called the owner to inquire about the seats. “Aren’t they cool?” asked the owner, who freely admitted that he had pulled them out of his car after it had blown an engine, and installed them in his plane. The mechanic asked him whether he had obtained the proper testing of the seats, in accordance with the regulations. The owner said he thought it would be okay, since the bolt holes lined up.

Editorial aside: How some people manage to get a pilot’s license is anyone’s guess, but in defense of this doofus, I don’t recall ever having to answer a written or oral question on what changes I could make to my airplane. So, perhaps it truly was an act of ignorance. Heck if you’re going to do something stupid, dream big… and this was big.

Some of us have heard of things called fire retardant materials and have a slight aversion to putting large inflammable objects in our aircraft. While airplane seats may offer the best view, they’re not always the most comfortable. Still, there are other benefits; the FARs regulate the materials that can be used to build them, how quickly those materials can burn, and what kinds of gasses they can give off. If our pilot had experienced an in-flight fire, who knows what those seats would have done.

The seats in airplanes, while constructed of aluminum, steel and foam, are designed to survive certain forces — forces specific to aircraft crashes. The way the seats are attached to their seat-rails is part of the design. If subjected to forces which they were not intended to encounter, the seats could come loose in an accident, making an already bad situation worse. In this case, the question of whether the Fiero’s seats were designed to sustain aircraft-type impacts remains unanswered. . Let’s just say that car seat stops aren’t designed with flight… or crashes… in mind.

Finer Points: An aircraft’s seat tracks are designed to hold the seat in place. If the seat track let go while on landing or on takeoff and the seat went back, the pilot and his hand on the flight controls would go with it. A stall, spin, and crash would be the result. After that would come the lawsuit… but I digress.

For starters, learn about Supplemental Type Certificates. If you have questions on what you can legally do, check out Part 43 of the FARs, which provides guidance as to the maintenance an owner can do under the guidance of a qualified mechanic. If you don’t like reading rules, just ask an A&P. They went to school for years to learn how to repair planes properly, and they know what can be done legally. They also are well equipped to tell you if your idea is a good one, or if you would be better off to forget it.

THE BOTTOM LINE: Whether you like your seats or not, you DO NOT have the authority to install seats from a car (or another airplane for that matter) in your production airplane without re-certifying your airplane as an experimental. As the owner and pilot of an airplane, it is your job to keep it airworthy. That means you cannot make an illegal modification to your airplane… no matter how “cool” it looks.