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On another aviation board I'm on, (link), one poster is making the claim that operators of airplanes for Public Use Operations (eg. Police planes, Search-and-rescue aircraft, most government planes), do not even technically need a pilot's license, and do not have to meet FAA maintenance rules. He even cites an FAA Advisory.

I find this extremely hard to believe. But I haven't found anything to refute this.

What are the rules for Public Use Operations, and what role does the FAA play in keeping them safe?

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  • $\begingroup$ I see in the document it keeps saying something to the effect "The FAA has limited oversight of PAO, though such operations must continue to comply with the regulations applicable to all aircraft operating in the NAS. The government entity conducting the PAO is responsible for oversight of the operation, including aircraft airworthiness and any operational requirements imposed by the government entity. The government agency contracting for the service assumes the responsibility for oversight of a PAO." Which seems to say that they still need to play by the rules, but FAA may not enforce. $\endgroup$ – Ron Beyer Sep 19 '16 at 17:44
  • $\begingroup$ Part of the discussion centers around the difference in privileges afforded to private vs commercial pilots, and whether private pilots can fly Public Use aircraft. In other words, I interpret some of the discussion on certificated pilots to by type of certificate, not whether the individually holds any pilot certificate. $\endgroup$ – J Walters Sep 19 '16 at 19:17
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Short answer: public (federal or state government) aircraft operations can be exempt - but aren't always - from most FAA regulations, provided they're non-commercial operations. Any regulation that specifically applies to a "civil aircraft" doesn't apply to a public aircraft operation.


First, some definitions from 14 CFR 1.1:

Civil aircraft means aircraft other than public aircraft.

Public aircraft means any of the following aircraft [...]

The definition of "public aircraft" basically comes down to 'any aircraft the government owns or has a long-term lease on'. That potentially covers everything from Air Force One down to the Podunk Sheriff Department's C172. With that in mind, a lot of regulations apply only to civil aircraft, e.g. 14 CFR 61.3 requires a pilot's certificate to operate an aircraft (emphasis mine):

(a) Required pilot certificate for operating a civil aircraft of the United States. No person may serve as a required pilot flight crewmember of a civil aircraft of the United States, unless that person:

So 61.3 doesn't apply to public aircraft. Similarly, 91.203 requires an airworthiness certificate for civil aircraft only (emphasis mine):

[...] no person may operate a civil aircraft unless it has within it the following:

(1) An appropriate and current airworthiness certificate

As for maintenance, part 43 only applies if an aircraft has that certificate, per 43.1:

this part prescribes rules governing the maintenance, preventive maintenance, rebuilding, and alteration of any—

(1) Aircraft having a U.S. airworthiness certificate;

In other words, if your aircraft is public use then you don't need a pilot's certificate to fly it, you don't need an airworthiness certificate, and therefore you don't need maintenance! See also 91.7, 91.9 and many other regulations that only apply to "civil aircraft".

Whether or not a specific flight is a public aircraft operation (PAO) or not is explained in AC 00-1.1A, Public Aircraft Operations. Pages 10 and 11 have flowcharts for determining whether a flight is a PAO but to simplify, if the aircraft is owned by the government and the flight isn't for commercial purposes (also defined in the AC) then it's a PAO. And that means many regulations don't apply to them:

What Oversight of PAO Does the FAA Have? The FAA has limited oversight of PAO, though such operations must continue to comply with the regulations applicable to all aircraft operating in the NAS.

Again, if you read the regulations with the civil/public distinction in mind then you can see a lot of exemptions. For example, 91.131 is the regulation for operations in class B airspace. It says (emphasis mine):

(a) Operating rules. No person may operate an aircraft within a Class B airspace area except in compliance with §91.129 and the following rules:

(1) The operator must receive an ATC clearance from the ATC facility having jurisdiction for that area before operating an aircraft in that area.
[...]
(b) Pilot requirements. (1) No person may take off or land a civil aircraft at an airport within a Class B airspace area or operate a civil aircraft within a Class B airspace area unless—

(i) The pilot in command holds at least a private pilot certificate;

That means (a) applies to all flights but (b) applies only to civil flights, i.e. a PAO flight still needs a clearance for class B airspace, but the pilot doesn't need to have a pilot's certificate. It looks to me like the regulations are generally written so that everyone has to follow the same rules of the air (for obvious safety reasons) but public aircraft are often exempt from licensing, airworthiness and maintenance requirements.

Does this all mean that US airspace is full of unlicensed pilots flying non-airworthy aircraft that haven't been maintained properly, all under the cover of government business? Not really; the government has as much interest in safe and productive flying as anyone else, and that requires qualified pilots and well-maintained aircraft. There are some plausible reasons for the PAO exemptions, like allowing military pilots to operate civil flights, and federal and state governments are often exempt from their own legislation in all sorts of areas, not just aviation.

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  • $\begingroup$ Where it gets messy is when you have an aircraft that has civil registration/airworthiness cert but is performing public operations outside the scope/boundaries of the FARs (Omega's tankers come to mind here -- N707MQ's one of them). $\endgroup$ – UnrecognizedFallingObject Sep 19 '16 at 23:15
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    $\begingroup$ "you don't need an airworthiness certificate, and therefore you don't need maintenance!" - if only regulations could bend reality like that. $\endgroup$ – immibis Sep 19 '16 at 23:54
  • $\begingroup$ @immibis Yes, it's a really extreme example of "legal is not safe" :-) $\endgroup$ – Pondlife Sep 20 '16 at 0:08
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Not sure if this fully answers your question, but I think they're misreading the circular. The misread here is the word operator which does not mean pilot. The circular is saying you don't need an operator's certificate, nor necessarily comply with the requirements under part 135. Not whether the person flying the aircraft (which may or may not be the same) has to have a license. A pilot can be an operator as well, but they are two separate things.

It does, however, waive the part 91, § 91.7 airworthiness requirements and places that responsibilty with the government entity conducting the flight.


Edit: Although the circular quoted does not pertain to pilot requirements, I must defer to Pondlife's answer regarding that. In the appendices of this report .pdf the NTSB does specify that part 61.5 doesn't apply, so no licence is required by the FAA.

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