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was pulling on one of the propellers. After the aircraft was out on the ramp, the owner continued to hold onto the towbar while the pilot went into the aircraft and set the brakes. They both then went about the business of getting ready for the flight. The pilot loaded bags on the aircraft and then escorted the two passengers to the aircraft and helped them to secure the door behind them. When the pilot exited and reentered the aircraft, his business took him towards the rear of the aircraft. He never passed in front of the aircraft, where the towbar would be obvious.
The pilot felt that the owner, familiar with his own aircraft and the last wone physically holding on to the towbar while the pilot set the brakes, was responsible for ensuring the removal of the towbar before takeoff. This was the pilot’s position when he appealed the FAA’s suspension to the National Transportation Safety Board.
A hearing was held before an administrative law judge of the NTSB. After the hearing, the law judge affirmed the charges brought by the FAA but reduced the term of suspension. The judge held that the pilot, as pilot in command, had the ultimate responsibility for the safe operation of the flight and that he failed in that responsibility. However, the judge did find that the pilot had not been “reckless” in violation of FAR 91.13; rather, he found that the pilot had been “careless,” a lesser offense. Considering all of the circumstances, the judge didn’t believe that a 120-day suspension ordered by the FAA was warranted. He reduced it to 80 days.
The pilot appeased the judge’s decision to the full five-member Board, asserting the defense of “reasonable reliance.” The Board rejected the pilot’s defense. The Board restated its “reasonable reliance” rule, as follows:
“As a general rule, the pilot in command is responsible for the overall safe operation of the aircraft. If, however, a particular task is the responsibility of another, if the PIC has no independent obligation (e.g., based on operation procedures or manuals) or ability to ascertain the information, and if the captain has no reason to question the other’s performance, then and only then will no violation be found.” (The reference is made to “captain” because this law was developed mostly in cases involving aircraft requiring more than one pilot, principally airline operations.)
The Board said that the pilot failed to establish that the removal of the towbar was the responsibility of the owner. Furthermore, according to the Board, even if the owner had some responsibility (the pilot said that the owner had removed the towbar on a number of similar occasions in the past), the pilot had an independent obligation and ability to determine whether the towbar had been removed. The pilot had the ultimate responsibility to ensure the aircraft’s airworthiness. Had he made a preflight walk around the front of the aircraft after it was moved, he could have and should have seen the towbar. For these reasons, the Board said, the pilot did not satisfy the terms of the general rule quoted above.
The implication of the case is that a pilot, even in a single-pilot operation, may reasonably rely on others, but that the Board will narrowly apply the “reasonable reliance” rule in the situation of single-pilot operation.
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John Yodice is the Senior Partner of the Law Offices of Yodice Associates, a law firm experienced in aviation legal matters involving DOT, FAA and TSA certification and compliance, corporate governance, aircraft transactions and more. www.yodice.com