Failing the Annual

Once a year, aircraft owners lay their airplane bare while an expert methodically checks and prods it for any indication the standards under which it was produced or modified are no longer met. It’s called the annual inspection. A vital task to assure airworthiness (all too often this is the only real going-over an airplane gets each year), the “annual” is a pass/fail exam … and owners wonder what their options are if the inspector turns thumbs down.

Unlike other aircraft maintenance, the person who performs an annual must hold an Inspection Authorization (IA). Certificated aircraft mechanics must ply their trade for at least three years and meet other requirements to be granted this authority to conduct annuals. Although airplane owners may “assist” with the inspection under the supervision of a mechanic (which may or may not be the IA), the IA cannot delegate the actual inspection of the airplane using a manufacturer’s checklist — he or she needs to do the detailed check personally. Hence the IA has the final say as to whether the airplane still conforms to its original Type Certificate as modified under any properly endorsed Supplemental Type Certificates (STC). If the IA finds any discrepancies at all, he/she cannot return the airplane to service. This may include items as simple as worn tires and brakes, low compass fluid, an inoperative light or a weak battery. The word on the street is that “failing” an annual inspection immediately grounds the airplane until an expensive list of repairs is made and the airplane re-inspected … but that word is wrong.

In fact, FAR 43.11 (the Federal regulation detailing logbook entries following annual inspections) provides for IA endorsement of a logbook even when the airplane has “failed” an annual. Specifically, the rule says (with emphasis added):

a) The person approving or disapproving for the return to service of an aircraft… after any inspection…shall make an entry in the maintenance record of that equipment containing the following information:

(5) Except for progressive inspections, if the aircraft is not approved for return to service because of needed maintenance, noncompliance with applicable specifications, airworthiness directives, or other approved data, the following or a similarly worded statement-I certify that this aircraft has been inspected in accordance with (insert type) inspection and a list of discrepancies and unairworthy items dated (date) has been provided for the aircraft owner or operator.

(b) Listing of discrepancies and placards. If the person performing any inspection required by part 91 or 125 or §135.411(a)(1) of this chapter finds that the aircraft is unairworthy or does not meet the applicable type certificate data, airworthiness directives, or other approved data upon which its airworthiness depends, that persons must give the owner or lessee a signed and dated list of those discrepancies. For those items permitted to be inoperative under §91.213(d)(2) of this chapter, that person shall place a placard, that meets the aircraft’s airworthiness certification regulations, on each inoperative instrument and the cockpit control of each item of inoperative equipment, marking it “Inoperative,” and shall add the items to the signed and dated list of discrepancies given to the owner or lessee.

Translation: An IA cannot “ground” an airplane as a result of an annual inspection, but must endorse the inspection as above and provide the owner a list of items that need to be addressed.

Inside Information: The IA may be in a better position signing off an inspection with discrepancies than if he/she signs a blanket “return to service” annual endorsement — not putting his/her license on the line by saying everything in the airplane works perfectly.

Say your IA gives you such a list. What do you need to do?

  • Check the paperwork. Ensure the airframe logbook is endorsed precisely as described in 43.11 for an airplane inspected but not returned to service.
  • Accept the list of discrepancies. Note that the list does not need to be made in the airplane’s permanent logbook — although a record may help demonstrate your compliance to a sharp buyer if you decide to sell the airplane.
  • Prioritize the repairs. Of course any “airworthiness items” will need to be fixed and signed off by a certificated mechanic (not necessarily the IA or his/her shop) before further flight. Any items permitted to be inoperative as per a Pilot’s Operating Handbook “Kinds of Operations and Equipment” limitations and/or FAR 91.213 do not have to be fixed so long as they are properly placarded and documented.
  • Fix the airworthiness items. Make required repairs (and any others you choose to perform at the time). Owners can perform some items (Part 43 Appendix A subpart c); others must be performed or supervised by a certificated mechanic (of your choosing).
  • Log the repairs. Properly log all repairs, as with any other maintenance. Proper logging includes an entry for return to service by the person performing the repairs.
  • Fly away. The “annual” is now complete. Note that you are NOT required to have the airplane “re-annualed,” or even have the IA that endorsed you logbook take a look at the fixed discrepancies. The owner/mechanic return to service statement is all you need to fly another year.

If an IA tries to “ground” your airplane during an annual inspection, first ask him/her to show you in the regulations where he/she as an inspector has any option other to endorse the aircraft as airworthy or to endorse the aircraft with discrepancies. Chances are this will trigger the “discrepancies” option that gets you back in the air sooner. If you’re still at an impasse, the airplane’s still flyable, and it’s early enough in the process that you don’t owe the IA a lot of money yet, consider moving it to another inspector.

Insider’s Tip: The FAA routinely grants Special Flight Authorization (“ferry“) permits to out-of-annual airplanes for the purpose of obtaining an inspection. It’s an easy process — ask your local Flight Standards District Office (FSDO).

If the airplane’s in pieces and the IA won’t put it back together and release it to you, it may be time to call an attorney. But don’t let it get that far — communicate your expectations to the IA before you bring the airplane in for annual.

THE BOTTOM LINE: An IA that lets an airplane slide without noting discrepancies, or an owner or pilot-in-command that flies an airplane with “knowledge” that it is unairworthy, is not doing anyone a favor … and may be committing criminal negligence. Remember, the whole idea of an annual inspection is for a disinterested party to check that the airplane still meets the standards under which it is certified — to keep you, and your passengers, safe.

NOTE: I learned about this, and much, much more about owner rights, responsibilities, and keeping airplane maintenance costs down, at The Savvy Owner seminar (