No matter how you are involved in aviation—whether for business, leisure, or sport—you need to understand what airworthiness certificates are and how they work. The FAA requires an airworthiness certificate for each aircraft registered in the US, and it is vital to stay aware of the regulations that keep the certificates current, not only for safety reasons but for legal compliance.

Although the rules themselves are complicated, there are simple principles to keep in mind. Generally speaking, an airworthy craft must conform to approved designs for its type and be safe to operate. However, the FAA can also find a craft airworthy if it is modified or can only be operated under certain conditions. There are two classifications of airworthiness certificate—standard and special—with further categories based on the aircraft’s capabilities and permitted use.

Categories of Airworthiness Certificate

Standard airworthiness certificates cover the following categories of aircraft:

  • Normal
  • Utility
  • Transport
  • Commuter
  • Manned free balloons
  • Special classes as defined by the FAA

In recent years, these categories have been redefined by performance and capability rather than description. Generally speaking, a normal category airplane is configured to carry 19 or fewer people, with a maximum certificated takeoff weight of 19,000 pounds or less. There are four levels of normal certificate, defined by the size of the aircraft, from Level 1 (0–1 passengers) to Level 4 (10–19 passengers). They are also categorized by “low speed” or “high speed” capability. Airplanes not certified for aerobatics may not perform certain turns or angles of turn. See 14 CFR 23.2005.

Special airworthiness certificates are categorized as:

  • Primary—a very light aircraft, unpowered or low-powered, carrying not more than 4 persons; see 14 CFR 21.24
  • Restricted—modified for a particular use, such as crop dusting or aerial advertising
  • Limited—certain surplus military craft converted for civilian use
  • Light-sport—including gliders and lighter-than-air craft
  • Experimental—trial purposes including testing, training, R&D, and sales demonstrations; also includes amateur-built aircraft
  • Special flight permits—for specific purposes such as transporting the aircraft for delivery
  • Provisional—limited operations for modified aircraft
  • Multiple category certification

The Certification Process

Many owners will not need to apply for a new airworthiness certificate. An aircraft’s buyer can receive a transferred standard airworthiness certificate as part of the sale. However, if the aircraft is newly built, modified, or intended for a new purpose, applying or reapplying for a new certificate will be necessary.

An owner or their agent can submit an application online or via a paper form. The FAA’s certificate management sections handle cases by region; for example, the Orlando branch handles certifications for Florida, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands. Certifications can be issued by FAA aviation safety inspectors (ASIs) or by officially authorized persons or companies (ODAs).

Once the application is received, the certification process begins with a document review for the aircraft. Almost every aircraft is manufactured according to a type certificate (TC) for its make and model. Most are also manufactured under production certificates (PCs)—an approval for production of FAA-approved designs.

The inspector will review the TC and PC for the aircraft together with its own records, including:

  • Its current registration
  • Its maintenance records, which must include timely inspections
  • The weight and balance report
  • Any manuals and documents required for the craft, which the owner must have
  • Any necessary flight tests

They will note any possible safety hazards, and, if necessary, conduct an inspection.

An aircraft assembled under a current PC can receive a standard airworthiness certificate without further inspection. However, a used aircraft needs to have received an inspection within 30 days before the application. However, an inspection is necessary for special airworthiness certificates and aircraft assembled under a TC alone, in order to confirm that the aircraft conforms to the intended design while remaining safe.

Staying Airworthy

Once issued, most airworthiness certificates remain current so long as the aircraft is US-registered and the maintenance and inspections are up to date as required by FAA regulations. Special flight permits are time-limited, as are some experimental certificates.

Pilots often use the acronym “AVIATE” to recall the checks and inspections required for continued airworthiness:

  • Airworthiness directives (ADs) from the FAA—these bulletins contain safety directives that aircraft owners must comply with
  • VOR equipment check every 30 days for those flying under IFR rules
  • Inspections of the aircraft—an annual inspection and/or an inspection for every 100 hours of flight time
  • Altimeter system checks for IFR flight every 24 months
  • Transponder inspections every 24 months\
  • ELT (emergency locator transmitter) inspection every 12 months

What You Need to Know

It can be difficult for owners or pilots to understand what the FAA wants them to do. What about your kit-built craft? What about your seaplane or your crop duster? Are your modifications OK? How do you stay ahead of new ADs?

Aviation attorneys understand that the certification process can be full of delays, difficult paperwork, and questions about the regulations that apply to you and your situation. We are here to help you determine which category and procedure is right for you, saving time and expense for you and your business. Contact Aero Law Center at 954-869-8950 for a free consultation about your aircraft certification needs.