The concept of airworthiness is used by pilots on a daily basis, but often misunderstood. Most aircraft have an airworthiness certificate, but few pilots have ever looked at it, let alone know what it says.
The words on the airworthiness certificate provide the basis for determining whether an aircraft is safe to fly and are followed by some specific actions required by the pilot prior to any flight. So, it is important for pilots to understand what it means for their helicopter to be airworthy, including any and all mission equipment that was installed after the helicopter was manufactured. We also must know who is responsible for keeping the helicopter in airworthy condition.
14 CFR Part 91 Section 91.7 tells us that no person may operate a civil aircraft that is not in an airworthy condition — and that the pilot is responsible for determining whether the aircraft is in condition for safe flight. Airworthiness is not defined in the regulations, but the certificate tells us the aircraft must conform to its type certificate to be in condition for safe operation.
Section 91.403 tells us that the owner or operator of the aircraft is primarily responsible for maintaining that aircraft in airworthy condition. The maintenance technician employed or contracted by the owner or operator must follow the maintenance manual for the particular aircraft — observing all inspection intervals, life-limited parts, etc. — in order to keep the aircraft airworthy. Still, the responsibility lies with the owner or operator.
Most helicopter pilots care about one thing: performing their mission in the safest manner possible. As a law enforcement pilot, my focus is on supporting the officers and deputies on the ground in catching bad guys or locating missing persons. I don’t have a copy of the type certificate of the helicopter I fly, and I have never seen the original drawings or specifications of the type design. So how do I know if my helicopter is airworthy?
A quick review of the flight manual gives me a long list of items to check during the preflight inspection of the helicopter. Written by the manufacturer who designed the aircraft, it tells me almost everything I need to know to determine if the helicopter conforms with the type certificate and is in a safe condition to fly. There are many ways to perform a preflight inspection, but it is very clear in Section 91.7 that it is my responsibility as a pilot to determine if my helicopter is safe to fly — period. If I’m not sure whether a particular component is working properly or unsafe, I can consult with the maintenance technician to give me clarification.
As a law enforcement pilot, my helicopter has additional mission equipment installed on the aircraft. So, not only do I need to follow the manufacturer’s preflight inspection, but I also need to ensure that the mission equipment — especially anything that is attached to the exterior of the aircraft — is properly installed and secure prior to taking off on a mission. I need to pay particular attention to thermal imager and searchlight mounts, microwave video downlink antenna mounts and cannon plugs for all of the mission equipment electrical connections.
On a certificated aircraft, the mission equipment will be installed in conformity with an STC or a field approval, depending on the aircraft. On a military surplus aircraft, the equipment can be installed without an STC or any FAA approval, therefore mechanics and pilots must ensure that equipment is installed with mounts and techniques that are in line with industry standards, even if no certification is required. If the aircraft has a problem in-flight that could have been identified during pre-flight as affecting the airworthiness of the aircraft, then the pilot could be held responsible for this issue, regardless of whether the aircraft is certificated or military surplus.
In our initial training as helicopter pilots, we learn about all of the required equipment and inspections that determine if an aircraft can be flown — airworthiness certificate, ELT currency, pitot-static inspection and a long list of other requirements. Though we routinely conduct pre-flight inspections, it is imperative that we pay close attention to the manufacturer’s preflight inspection requirements, as well as determining if the mission equipment is properly installed and secure, to be confident that our helicopters are flown in an airworthy condition and are safe to perform our mission.