Who Needs A Certificate Anyway?


From the curious headline file: Crash Pilot Had Certificate Revoked. We published that last week atop a story describing the fatal crash of a Cessna 335 in which it was revealed that the owner/pilot had apparently been flying without a pilot certificate for 21 years, having lost it by revocation.

A curious headline generated an equally curious response and became, if not a morality test, an ignition point on the value—or lack thereof—of government regulation. Asked one reader, “Did his lack of a certificate cause the crash?” The question goes to the heart of why the story ran in the first place. The lack of a certificate was the news hook. Otherwise, it’s just another fatal airplane crash and we don’t routinely run those unless there’s something spectacular about them, such as multiple fatalities or damage or injuries on the ground. Whether to run a crash story or not is sometimes an arbitrary decision that’s reached more by feel than formula.

But for this discussion, that’s secondary to what the lack of certificate had to do with the crash. The answer is: nothing. A slip of plastic simply isn’t determinative in whether an airplane flies, crashes or remains parked. But what’s behind the certificate certainly may be. That begets a question for those rugged individualists who believe the government ought to butt out of everything. Should anybody be able to buy an airplane, learn to fly it wherever he or she pleases sans any government licensing? Or even any insurance? Or approved instruction?

Or is there a reasonable public interest to be found in government oversight of training and licensing? Logically extended, how about certification of airplanes not used for commercial purposes? Should any company be able to sell anything it wants to the unsuspecting public, with caveat emptor the only restraint? These are not easy questions to answer because there’s no reliable data measuring the effectiveness of pilot certification, leading one commenter to inanely—but accurately—observe that far more pilots with certificates crash than those without. Other than that, Captain Smith, how was your maiden Atlantic crossing?

My own deep dive into this quicksand revealed more questions than answers. My research into the light sport aircraft accident pattern revealed that it’s between four and five times higher than GA on the whole. And while light sport is generally less regulated than the rest of general aviation, there are far too many unknown variables to conclude that FAA oversight impacts safety in any meaningful way.

Airports aren’t just places with runways and hangars. They’re also gossip mills. Most of us know people on the field who may skirt the requirement for a medical or perhaps even a certificate. I knew of one pilot who flew regularly and hadn’t had a medical in 20 years. You might expect the insurance industry to close the holes in this net, but there’s no requirement for aircraft insurance and some owners happily self insure. As a condition of hangarage, some airports require proof of insurance, but far from all do.

The FAA, thankfully, lacks the resources to conduct a dragnet of pilot scofflaws and I think we can all agree the impact on safety would probably be nil if they did. So as much as we all like to whine about the onerous boot of the FAA on our necks, the reality is that you have to almost work at getting busted. The enforcement net is wispy at best.

And if we’re honest here, we all have to concede that regulations are rubbery in the margins. If you’ve never busted the 2000-foot VFR cloud requirement, taken off a little over gross or flown an approach just a tad out of legal currency, post your affidavit below and I’ll put you in for a Meritorious Compliance Certificate.

Still, even if we nibble at the margins, most of us have a threshold beyond which we’re simply not going to venture. Flying without a certificate would be far beyond my personal pale and so would flying without a medical where one is required, even though I know the medical requirement is demonstrably silly.

It relates to attitude and consciousness of competence. If I think I don’t need a certificate and reject the medical and insurance if I can get away with it, then it’s a short step to thinking recurrent training and proficiency and an annual for the airplane are just for the chumps who believe that this rules crap has anything to do with risk mitigation. And once I have reached that point, I’m well on the way to being what I always hoped I wouldn’t be: a menace.