Single Pilot Operations: Sometimes the FAA Screws Up (and Then Fixes It)

Do you remember a 2013 post on this blog about “safety pilots”, single pilot Part 135 operations, autopilot, and CVRs?

If you don’t operate single pilot, keep reading anyway. There’s a lesson here for all operators.

Here’s the scenario discussed in that 2013 blog post: a charter operator conducts Part 135 flights in a King Air 200, which is certificated for single pilot operations and is not typically equipped with a cockpit voice recorder (CVR). In 2014, the FAA issued a new interpretation addressing this exact scenario.

The interpretation discussed §135.151, which prohibits a person from “operating a multiengine, turbine-powered airplane or rotorcraft having a passenger seating configuration of six or more and for which two pilots are required by certification or operating rules unless it is equipped with an approved cockpit voice recorder (CVR)”. “By certification or operating rules” is a critical phrase because it means if the aircraft is not equipped with a CVR, the operator is limited by §135.151 to single pilot operations. However, § 135.101 requires two pilots for Part 135 operations in IFR conditions.

The 2014 interpretation said, “Section 135.105 allows for the use of an autopilot in lieu of a second in command. Accordingly, although you are required to have two pilots to operate in IFR conditions under § 135.101, you are able to operate using one pilot and an autopilot under the exception allowed in §135.105. When qualified under those circumstances, you ask whether a cockpit voice recorder is required under §135.151(a). Yes, a CVR is required for IFR operations. Section 135.151 includes in its applicability the phrase ‘and for which two pilots are required by certification or operating rules’ (emphasis added). As noted, §135.101, an operating rule, requires a second pilot when operating under IFR. This triggers the §135.151(a) requirement for a CVR when two pilots are required by an operating rule.”

This interpretation caused near panic among many Part 135 operators. The King Air 200 scenario discussed above is a pretty common one and has been accepted by FAA field inspectors for decades.

In April, the FAA issued a new interpretation, responding to an NBAA request for interpretation by NBAA’s VP of Regulatory and International Affairs Doug Carr. The “Carr Interpretation” reversed the 2014 interpretation, saying, “We now determine it is reasonable to read §135.105(a) as an operating rule that provides relief from the two-pilot requirement of 135.101, and find that a CVR is not required for operations under §135.105 when the required autopilot is used to comply and the certificate holder possesses the appropriate operations specifications in order to conduct single pilot operations under §135.105. However, when the required autopilot is not functional, the aircraft is restricted to either VFR operation with a single pilot, or to operation with two pilots under a valid SIC program with a CVR installed on the aircraft and used during the operation.”

If you’re a single pilot operator without CVR, you did a happy dance when the Carr interpretation came out and this isn’t news to you.

If you aren’t a single pilot operator, there is still a lesson to be learned here: The FAA can be wrong but can be persuaded to see the light (the interpretation actually uses the phrase “in light of these circumstances”) when presented with the right information.

Why was the 2014 interpretation so… bad? It’s possible the initial request for interpretation didn’t present enough information for the FAA attorneys to make a reasonable decision. It’s possible the FAA attorneys had a rough day. Anything is possible. But FAA interpretations are legally binding on the agency and they set precedent for future oversight and enforcement actions. A bad interpretation can have long-lasting effects.

Kudos to the FAA for acknowledging their error and publishing a clear, definitive interpretation that supports the long-held position of its field inspectors, and thanks to the folks who pushed for the original interpretation to be reversed.

Stay tuned for the next post for more insight into the power of FAA legal interpretations, how to request one, and when you (maybe) shouldn’t.


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