Ramp Checks: Taking Them in Stride

They're a fact of life - but being subjected to one will ramp up your adrenaline level. Here's what they are and how to handle it when you're "ramped."

It had been such a good day. Things at the office weren’t too crazy, you finished a major project and got immediate, enthusiastic feedback so you shut off the computer, headed for the airport and took advantage the lovely weather with a flight around the area. 

It went great. As you finished tying down the airplane, your mind still on the landing that you’d just rolled on, a nicely dressed individual walked up, held out a government ID, politely informed you that you were being ramp checked and asked you for your pilot and aircraft documents. 

Suddenly, you are certain that your airplane is now incapable of flight because you can’t breathe—there’s no air whatsoever in the vicinity. Your blood pressure spikes, and your brain begins kicking out a parade of horribles—the FAA is going to yank your pilot certificate and your medical, you’ll have to hire an attorney, you’ll have to sell the airplane, life as you know it will end. 


It’s not that bad. Unless you do something truly foolish, the next five minutes will be nothing more than a little uncomfortable. 

To help you get some perspective, I’ll note that all of the FAA inspectors I have ever met hated doing ramp checks. They just wanted the check to go smoothly and be over with so they could put a check in the box and go on to other things. 

If faced with a ramp check, my recommendation is to be polite and professional as you provide the requested documents. Being a jerk sends a clear message that you’re trying to hide something, which doesn’t do you any good at all. By the same token, inspectors have been known to give some leeway to a polite pilot who discovers they can’t lay their hands on a document they thought was in the airplane.

Also, don’t run your mouth—I’m aware of pilots who got into trouble because they mentioned violating FARs when they should have just been pulling out paperwork.


I’ve heard a lot of pilots loudly claim that the FAA has no right to do ramp checks and if they ever have an FAA inspector (or police officer—some states authorize some branches of law enforcement to perform ramp checks) ramp them, that they’ll not cooperate. 

They’re wrong.

The Federal Aviation Act of 1958 created the FAA and required that it scrutinize the aviation community for the purpose of flight safety. Under the act, the FAA has the power to demand that any pilot, at any time, take a flight test to demonstrate their competency. 

In my opinion, that’s not only unreasonable but unrealistic. Fortunately, the FAA thinks so too, and in its published policy and procedures manuals does not give its employees that kind of authority—it requires that a pilot do something egregious enough to give the FAA probable cause to call them in for a competency check.

What the FAA does do under its mandate to scrutinize the aviation community is conduct ramp checks. The whole matter of authority has been long ago litigated and the FAA has it. It’s not worth your time to try and refuse a ramp check and doing so could cost you a lot of time and money and potentially be harmful to the health of your pilot certificate. 


While the FAA can demand a great deal of a pilot, during a ramp check all the inspector wants to see are documents.  

For a pilot operating under Part 91 (not air taxi or airlines), you will be asked to show the inspector your pilot certificate, a photo ID and medical certificate. If you are a light sport pilot or operating under BasicMed, you have to show a valid U.S. driver’s license. 

For the aircraft documents, it’s the AROW acronym you learned while working on your private ticket: airworthiness certificate, registration, operating limitations and weight and balance paperwork. 

The airworthiness certificate has to be displayed where it can be seen—that usually means that it’s in a clear pouch created by the manufacturer. It’s usually stashed with the registration. The thing to remember is that the airworthiness certificate has to be on top of the stack and visible. 

The operating limitations portion of AROW throws off a lot of pilots flying older airplanes. If the airplane has a Pilot Operating Handbook (POH), that document is airplane specific and is required to be in the airplane. It contains both the airplane’s operating limitations and its weight and balance paperwork. 

However, most airplanes manufactured prior to the mid-1970s do not have a POH—they have owner’s manuals. For those, the “O”—operating limitations—are the placards installed on and in the airplane and the color-coding on the instruments. The “W”—weight and balance paperwork—is just that, several pages of weight and balance papers specific to that airplane. 

Owner’s manual aircraft do not have to have an owner’s manual in the airplane. The reason is that the owner’s manuals are generic, not individualized. 

The inspector can ask to see the aircraft logbooks and yours. Making such a request is unusual. If such a request is made, I suggest you tell the inspector that you’ll make an appointment to meet with them and show the logbooks. 

In my opinion, your logbook and your aircraft logbooks are so valuable (the aircraft logbooks are worth 10 to 20 percent of the value of the airplane) that you should not carry them in the airplane. The only exception is for  student or recreational pilots—they are required to carry their logbooks when flying solo. 


If you are flying under BasicMed things have a slight twist during a ramp check because of the documentation requirements under those regs. 

First, the only document you are required to carry with you when you fly under BasicMed (other than your pilot certificate) is a current and valid U.S. driver’s license.  

Second, BasicMed documents—certificate of completion of the BasicMed course and the completed Comprehensive Medical Examination Checklist (CMEC)—are kept in the pilot’s logbook. A BasicMed pilot is in compliance with a ramp check if the pilot subsequently provides legible copies of those two documents when asked by the FAA inspector. FAA Notice N 8900.420 gives the details. 


That’s it. Contrary to the aviation myth mill, you do not have to buy any commercial product to protect yourself during a ramp check, you do not have to have current (or any) charts in the airplane, you do not have to perform a weight and balance for the inspector, the inspector cannot get into the airplane without your permission and, no, the inspector cannot hang on to your pilot certificate and claim that you “surrendered” it. Part 61.27 covers surrendering a certificate—the pilot has to do it in writing using specific language.


I’ll reiterate: A ramp check is a document check, pure and simple. Going through one is no fun, but they’re one reason that you do a preflight that includes the paperwork for the airplane and you.