There’s one thing you can always count on with a Stearman these days…it’s pretty hard to land anywhere unnoticed. Now ordinarily that’s a good thing, but what if someday one of your onlookers steps up and greets you with a badge? You guessed it… ramp check! Hopefully, you didn’t provoke the FAA’s interest with an ostentatious display of your flying skills. In any case, you will now have to prove that you and your airplane are legal and airworthy.
Notwithstanding your arrival, a little preparation can help a Stearman ramp check go your way. Let’s begin by saying a properly identified FAA inspector does indeed have the authority to conduct a ramp check if:
- he observes an unsafe operation in the traffic pattern or on the ramp,
- he is conducting a normal surveillance, or
- he has been notified by ATC of an unsafe operation. Furthermore, you as the PIC are responsible for ensuring the aircraft is airworthy, so blaming the “owner” is a bad way to start off. Let’s take a look at some of the items he is authorized to inspect on a typical stock Stearman.
Airman Certificate and Medical
When asked, just give them to him. I know you technically don’t have to “surrender” them, but he is authorized to inspect them per FAR 61.3(l) and he’s not going to run off with them. Antagonizing him with a tug of war will get the whole thing off to a bad start. Note that you do not have to carry your pilot logbooks (and you shouldn’t!), however, you must present them after a reasonable request per FAR 61.51(i)…usually within a few days.
Certificate of Airworthiness
FAR 91.203(b) states the C of A must be displayed at the cockpit entrance so it is legible to the passengers or crew. The key words here are “displayed” and “legible.” Stowed in the baggage compartment does not comply. Good locations are: 1) attached to the headrest area behind the rear seat, 2) attached to the back side of the front seat back, or 3) attached to a cockpit side panel. It must be visible and legible… just make sure it can’t blow out. If the signature on it has faded away, then it’s no good. Although not required, a handy copy of your annual inspection will validate the current airworthiness of the aircraft and help avoid a request for your logbooks.
This certificate does not have to be displayed and can be stowed in the baggage compartment. The N-number on the aircraft, registration, and C of A must all match. Under the new rules, the aircraft has to be re-registered every three years, so make sure it hasn’t expired. The pink duplicate of an Aircraft Registration Application form can serve as temporary authority to operate without registration.
Weight and Balance
The weight and balance report must be on board the aircraft to comply with the Type Certificate Data Sheet A-743, Note 1. However, it does not have to be accessible to the pilot in flight and can be stored in the baggage compartment. Although there is no FAR requirement to calculate a weight and balance for each and every flight, you should be prepared to prove you are operating within the published limitations of the aircraft.
Flight Manual, Placards, and Markings
This one is a little complicated since no approved civil flight manual exists for Stearmans and is therefore not required per FAR 21.5(a). You must, however, satisfy FAR 91.9(b)(2) by complying with the operating limitations set forth by the Type Certificate Data Sheet A-743. For Stearmans, this includes:
- Max level and max dive airspeeds
- Max engine rpm 3.
- Any prop limitations
- “Solo from rear seat only” placard located in the front hole
- “Maximum capacity 60 lb” marking located in the baggage compartment
One way to satisfy the airspeed limitations is to mark the airspeed indicator with a redline at 186 mph and a green arc from stall speed to 125 mph. The tach should be redlined at 2075 rpm for Continental 220 hp and 2100 rpm for Lycoming 225 hp engines. Placards will satisfy all of these requirements, too. You might also need yellow arcs on the tach and/or placards for specific prop limitations.
FAR 91.103(b)(2) states that in order to satisfy preflight requirements when no approved flight manual exists, you must use “other reliable information appropriate to the aircraft, relating to aircraft performance under expected values of airport elevation and runway slope, aircraft gross weight, and wind and temperature.” This information is readily available in the original military flight manuals, such as the “Pilot’s Flight Operating Instructions for Army Model PT-17 Airplanes.” Note there is no requirement to calculate takeoff and landing distance for each flight, nor is this info required to be readily available to the pilot. Nevertheless, carrying this data on board will help assure an inspector that you meet the requirements of FAR 91.103.
There is no FAR requirement to carry current charts or to have an up-to-date GPS database in a VFR Stearman. However, you may be asked to produce them or otherwise explain how you comply with FAR 91.103, which states that during a preflight you must become familiar with all available information concerning a flight, including runway length and airport elevation… even if you are just remaining in the pattern. This is only a preflight requirement, but you should be ready with a good answer to this question.
With few exceptions (training and crop dusting), you must have an ELT in a Stearman. The expiration date for replacing the battery must be legibly marked on the outside of the transmitter per FAR 91.207(c)(2). If it’s hard to get to, duplicate that info somewhere else for easy reading.
Transponder and VOR Check
FAR 91.413(a) requires a transponder check (if installed) every 24 months and a handy copy of the logbook entry will expedite this inspection; otherwise, you may have to provide your logbook later for inspection. If it’s out of date, then you must deactivate the transponder and placard it as inoperative. Maintenance facilities sometimes conduct the FAR 91.411 static system check at the same time, but it isn’t required on VFR-only Stearmans and just adds expense. A VOR check is not required for VFR-only Stearman operations, so no record is needed.
Seat Belts and General Airworthiness
You can expect a seat belt installation and condition inspection as well as an exterior airworthiness inspection of the aircraft. If your seat belts are old and the TSO information on them is not legible, then the belts are not legal. As a side note, many Stearman shoulder harnesses are routed improperly and will damage the seat back (and your face) in a crash. The exterior inspection will likely be similar to a thorough preflight walkaround, and this would be a good time to politely zip your mouth closed and just let him look (ask me sometime how I know this).
The inspector will look for the model and serial number to be displayed near the tail surfaces per FAR 45.11(e). This must be permanently marked but need not be on a fireproof data plate as required for aircraft built after 1988 as long as the original Boeing data plate in the cockpit is installed.
Are you using chutes? They must be currently packed per FAR 91.307 if they are in the cockpit. Stating that you don’t do aerobatics or that you are using chutes only as seat cushions won’t matter if they are out of date. In case you’re a little rusty on FARs, the chutes are good now for 180 days after being packed.
So now what?
So how do you handle a ramp check? First of all, be careful talking to strangers. On rare occasions an inspector might strike up a conversation for a while before identifying himself. Second, don’t get started on the wrong foot with an attitude, but don’t get too chatty, either. It’s real easy to talk yourself into trouble, and he doesn’t have to read you your rights like on TV.
He cannot enter your aircraft without your consent; but it is, after all, an open cockpit airplane. He cannot enter your private property without an invitation, and he cannot ground you or unreasonably detain you, but he can certainly identify airworthiness issues that should make you reconsider your plans to fly. Also, never admit to anything. Learn how to say, “I’m not sure” and “I can’t recall.” As my Dad used to say, “Never pass up a good opportunity to shut up.”
The inspector may ask for information that you do not have to provide to him immediately. You have a reasonable amount of time (three days or so) after a request to produce items that are not required to be on board such as logbooks, STCs, 337s, etc. It’s worth repeating: do not carry pilot or maintenance logbooks with you. He may ask for an FCC radio station license, but that has not been required for domestic flights since 1998, so you really don’t need it.
There are a few things you can do to help a ramp check go your way. Mostly, just be polite and cooperative. The following items, although not technically required on board, will help avoid a ramp check gone bad or, almost as serious, a request for your logs (did I mention…don’t carry your logs?):
- Current charts
- Military Stearman Flight Manual
- Copy of transponder check
- Copy of annual inspection
- Copy of biennial flight review
Just put together a small folder containing most of the items above along with your registration and weight and balance info and you will make a great first impression on an inspector (unless the nature of your arrival already has something to do with his first impression).
I have referenced the applicable regs throughout so you can read up and decide for yourself just how bad you want to comply. In any case, a few minutes spent checking over some of these particulars (don’t forget to check your logbooks, which…repeat after me, are not in the airplane) will help ensure that your aircraft is safe and legal in the ever-present eyes of the FAA. Your preparation, cooperation, and professionalism will go a long way toward a successful ramp inspection if ever one day you come face to face with an inspector’s gold badge.