Flying Like an Outlaw

Not on purpose. I am an inveterate rule follower. Montessori forever, man. One of the things I like about aviation is that there is a place for everything and everything has its place. And there are little tricks to remember the myriad, spiraling, layered regulations that you need to follow. Here’s one: ARROW. It is what you are required to carry on each flight. Your Airman certificate, the Registration for the aircraft, your Radio station license, the Operating manual for the aircraft, and the Weight and balance calculation for the flight.

(In December 1996 the FAA admitted that no one was getting a Radio Station License anymore and that requirement was dropped. Last I looked it is still required for Canada and I am properly licensed. AROW. Darn.)

The POH (Pilots’ Operating Handbook) for the aircraft lives in the plane, tucked under a flap on the floor of the baggage area. So that’s always with me. The weight and balance calculation is performed with an app on my iPad. I’ve now flown the same plane for over a thousand hours and I know what I can easily put in the plane with various fueling configurations so that it is within previously calculated envelopes. I’ve only had to scrub one flight because I had too much fuel on board and couldn’t stay in the envelope.

When you are learning to fly they stress that you are not getting a license. You are being “certificated” to fly an airplane. My certificate never expires. My ability to fly legally and, in particular, to legally carry passengers in the aircraft I am certificated to fly, depends on more than my little piece of plastic and having passed the various FAA practical, written, and oral tests I subjected myself to. So I can have the piece of plastic but if I haven’t made three landings (to a full stop) in the past ninety days then the federal government’s aviation arm says that I cannot legally carry passengers in the plane. And I need to have a current medical signed off by an FAA doctor, and a flight review with a Certified Flight Instructor, and so on.

(There are times that I shouldn’t have been allowed to parallel park a car. That licensing system had to scale so its missing some of these subtle corrective actions.)

That is my gorgeous chunk of plastic. There is the photograph of the first flight (also the first photograph that photographer ever took, which sure is a hard one to top). So the Wright Brothers are right there.

Every time my certificate changed they would send me a new one. When I added my instrument rating they sent a new one. When I added my multi-engine rating they sent another one. When I changed my address to Washington state they gave me thirty days to notify the FAA and then issued a new certificate.

During the pandemic, I didn’t get out to fly as much as I wanted to. I worked on my usual aviation webinars and completed exercises. And then I saw something about getting your drone operator certificate added on and I thought, “That’s a fine thing to clip on to the rest of the piloting skills, why not?” It was a little online course, a couple hundred dollars, and I passed the FAA exam on the first try. After the usual governmental delay plus the pandemic delay, they sent me a new certificate.

I was really bummed that they removed the artwork that showed Wilbur and Orville. That seemed sad and cheesy even if I still got my hologram and got to keep my pre-pandemic weight. Ah well. I put the certificate in my wallet and carried on.

Unlike your drivers license, your pilot certificate rarely comes out of your wallet. It isn’t used for identification and unless you are renting airplanes, no one asks to see it. You can get “ramp checked,” which is where an FAA representative randomly shows up at an airport and if you are unlucky enough to be selected they will check your paperwork. Most pilots I have talked to have never been ramp checked in their entire time as pilots. It’s not like a speed trap, they just don’t have the personnel to do it very often.*

Then the country turned a little more fascist and they started asking for more documents when you cleared customs in a little plane. (I am not sure about the legality of the new requirements. Light research says you could fight it in court if that was how you wanted to spend your time.) In addition to your passport, they now wanted you to show your Airmans certificate, your current medical, the registration for the aircraft, the airworthiness certificate for the aircraft (issued when the plane was manufactured and always kept in the plane), and (at one point) proof of insurance. (AMRA? AMRAI? Amirite?)

Nonsense, all of it. The Customs and Border Patrol agents I talked to said that they had no recourse if you didn’t have your medical with you. (That didn’t help me when I destroyed my medical by getting it wet in the plane. I wanted to fly my brother up to Canada but couldn’t risk the return to my own country. I flew him close and then drove him over the border.)

I’ve been doing a few flights up to Canada. Ottawa, specifically.** So I’ve been showing the CBP agents at Burlington my paperwork on each return. (The flights up are a lot easier. I land, telephone Canadian Customs to tell them I have landed and then I am on my way. We should be more like Canada for little planes.) On one of the stops the agent even looked at the certificate and said, “You’re a drone pilot too?” and we talked a little about it. I mentioned the thing about the Wright Bros.

After one of the trips I looked closer at the certificate. There was no mention of my other ratings. That seemed odd. A little research on the web revealed that, no, the drone rating is not added to your pilot certificate, it is entirely separate. So I have been flying around without my Airmans certificate on my person. It was home in my drawer of “dead documents.” And, when I realized it, I couldn’t even find it.

The FAA has a cool feature where you can login and get a PDF copy of your certificate and you are legal to fly with that for thirty days while they print you a new plastic one and mail it to your. I still showed the drone one to the CBP guys, since they had seen it already and the paper one was harder to explain. A couple weeks later I went back to being fully legal.

It was almost as bad as the time I put the measuring cups back in the wrong order at pre-school. Still trying to live that one down.

* There is a reporting system where you can admit messing up. I’ve used it several times. It is not a get-out-jail-free card, but apparently it will work in your favor if you admit to wrongdoing, have already performed a corrective action, and have recorded that with NASA.

** I’ve been flying up to Ottawa to drop Dexter up there for graduate studies at the University of Ottawa. I have a bunch of photographs of recent winter operations and that’s my next blog entry.

About Colin Summers

I am an architect, programmer, private pilot, husband and father. A couple of those I am good at.
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