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What Is an Airworthiness Certificate?





The FAA doesn’t just license pilots. It also licenses mechanics, air traffic controllers, businesses like airlines, maintenance shops, flight schools, and even airplanes. The airworthiness certificate is a license that the FAA gives an aircraft to prove it’s safe to fly.

But the ins and outs of the airworthiness certificate are a little involved. Let’s look at why these licenses exist and what they really mean.

What Is an Airworthiness Certificate and What Does It Mean?

You may know the Airworthiness Certificate as the A in ARROW. This is the checklist pilots use to make sure nothing is missing in the plane.

It stands for Airworthiness certificate, Registration certificate, Radio license (if needed), Operators handbook, and Weight and Balance form.

These are the legally required documents you must have onboard before taking off.

Unlike the other documents, the airworthiness certificate should be displayed in the cockpit. Most planes have a clear vinal pocket mounted where it can be kept safe. Since the certificate stays with the plane, most planes carry the one they came with when they left the factory.

The Airworthiness Certificate is issued for each aircraft by the FAA.

airworthiness directive during preflight

It certifies the aircraft met all standards and was airworthy when the certificate was issued, usually at the factory. It indicates that the factory built the aircraft to specifications as they were approved to do so by their Type Certificate. 

The Type Certificate is the license that the FAA gives an aircraft maker to start producing aircraft. You can download the Type Certificate Data Sheet for any make and model aircraft on the FAA website. Type designs are covered in FAR Part 21

If the aircraft is ever modified in any way from the type certificate, then the airworthiness certificate is invalidated.

There are two types of airworthiness certificates: standard and special. If a plane is used for commercial operations, it will have a standard airworthiness certificate.

It may have a special airworthiness certificate if it’s used only for pleasure or recreation or for special-purpose operations like aerial spraying.

For example, Light Sport Aircraft (LSAs) have special airworthiness certificates, while a Piper PA28 Archer or Cessna 172 would have standard airworthiness certificates. 

Categories of Airworthiness Certificate

Like your pilot’s license, the Airworthiness Certificate is issued under different categories and classes of aircraft.

The aircraft category is determined by how it will be used and, therefore, how it should be designed to be considered airworthy. The class is what you would think of as different aircraft: airplane, rotorcraft, lighter than air, etc.

Categories of Standard Airworthiness Certificate

  • Normal
  • Utility
  • Acrobatic
  • Transport
  • Commuter
  • Manned free Balloon

Categories of Special Airworthiness Certificate

  • Restricted
  • Experimental
  • Light Sport
  • Limited

Most light training aircraft you find will be certified as Normal or Utility. FAR Part 23 defines these terms and sets specifications that designs must meet to be eligible for that category.

One example of differences between categories is the designed limit load factor. A Normal Category airplane must withstand + 3.8 to – 1.52 Gs, while Acrobatic planes must handle + 6.0 to – 3.0 Gs.

Can You Fly Without an Airworthiness Certificate?

No, you can’t operate an aircraft if it doesn’t have an airworthiness certificate.

If a plane doesn’t have one, you can contact the FAA and request a special flight permit, sometimes called a ferry permit.

This temporary and limited-use airworthiness certificate gives you the authority to move an aircraft to a location where it can then be made airworthy.

Does Having an Airworthiness Certificate Make an Aircraft Airworthy?

No, possessing the airworthiness certificate does not ensure an aircraft is airworthy. The airworthiness certificate has an unfortunate name because it causes some confusion among new pilots. 

The regulations require the pilot-in-command to ensure an aircraft is in “airworthy” condition before flying.

This is why we check the physical condition of the aircraft and its maintenance history before every flight during your preflight checklist. To be airworthy, it must have its legally required documents on board. So, for its part, the airworthiness certificate is just one small piece of what is required for a plane to be airworthiness.

From a broader point of view, the airworthiness certificate only indicated that the plane was built to the type design’s specifications when it left the factory.

You may be flying a 50-year-old airplane one day, and it might have a 50-year-old, yellowed, and tattered airworthiness certificate that’s still “valid.”

But if the plane hasn’t been maintained in safe condition, with all required inspections and airworthiness directives taken care of, then it’s not airworthy.

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