The Data Plate Dance
As most of you probably know, a type-certificated aircraft must have an identification or “data” plate issued by the aircraft’s manufacturer secured to the aircraft in order to be airworthy. Ordinarily, that requirement isn’t an issue for an aircraft owner. But what happens when an aircraft is missing its data plate? Perhaps the aircraft was wrecked, or the owner purchased the aircraft as salvage. This can leave an aircraft owner in a tough spot. The aircraft might be in a condition safe for flight, but it isn’t flying anywhere without a data plate.
What can an aircraft owner (and the maintenance provider who might be assisting the aircraft owner) do? One option is to contact the aircraft manufacturer and request a replacement data plate. Unfortunately, since product liability exposure is always a concern for manufacturers, they are reluctant to issue a new data plate and expose themselves to potential liability for an aircraft whose condition they have been unable to verify. As a result, that option is seldom successful.
Another option that might tempt an aircraft owner or maintenance provider in this situation would be to simply purchase another wrecked or salvage aircraft that is the same make and model and then use that aircraft’s data plate on the other aircraft missing its data plate. After all, this seems like a logical and reasonable option to get an aircraft that might be in perfectly safe, flyable condition back in the air — right? Unfortunately, the FAA doesn’t agree and a recent decision by the NTSB affirmed the FAA’s position that this option is contrary to the regulations.
In Administrator v. Tre Aviation Corporation and Robert E. Mace, Tre Aviation Corporation (TAC) purchased a Bell 206B (serial number 3570) helicopter that was missing a data plate. Although Mace tried, on behalf of TAC, to obtain a data plate for the aircraft from Bell, that attempt was unsuccessful. Mace decided that TAC would use the helicopter for its parts. Later, Mace, again on behalf of TAC, purchased another Bell 206B (serial number 3282), which was missing an engine and many other parts but did include a data plate. Although TAC purchased 3282 with the intention of repairing it, inspection of the aircraft disclosed that 3282’s fuselage was corroded beyond repair and required replacement.
Later, in what would otherwise appear to be a reasonable way of making the best of the situation, TAC replaced the corroded fuselage and tailboom on 3282 with the fuselage and tailboom from 3570. It also painted the registration number for 3282 on the tailboom of 3570. During the replacement, TAC used only the upper right and left engine cowlings and the particle separator, as well as other “small” parts from 3282. TAC then applied for and received a standard airworthiness certificate for the aircraft from an FAA designated airworthiness representative (DAR). With that in hand, Mace, who is an A&P mechanic with inspection authorization, approved the aircraft for return to service.
Unfortunately, when Mace was talking with several FAA inspectors during the course of an inspection, he told several inspectors what he had done. Shortly thereafter, the FAA issued an order revoking the aircraft’s airworthiness certificate. TAC appealed the FAA’s order and, after a hearing, an NTSB administrative law judge (ALJ) affirmed the FAA’s order. The ALJ found that TAC’s apparent removal of the data plate from 3282 and installation on 3570 resulted in the aircraft being improperly identified and thus lacking qualification to hold a standard airworthiness certificate. TAC then appealed the ALJ’s decision to the full NTSB.
On appeal, TAC argued, among other things, that it had simply repaired the aircraft and that replacement of the 3282 fuselage was simply replacement of a component rather than switching the aircraft. In response, the Board initially cited 14 C.F.R. § 45.13(e) that states, “[n]o person may install an identification plate removed in accordance with paragraph (d)(2) of this section on any aircraft, aircraft engine, propeller, propeller blade, or propeller hub other than the one from which it was removed.” Consistent with this regulation, it also noted the importance of having an accurate data plate in light of airframe times and airworthiness directive compliance.
Turning to the specific facts of the case, the Board rejected TAC’s argument that it had simply “repaired” the 3282 aircraft. Rather, the Board determined the resulting aircraft was really the 3570 aircraft with the addition of a few parts, the registration number and data plate from the 3282 aircraft. As a result, the Board found that Section 45.13(e) specifically prohibited the replacement of the data plate in that situation.
The Board also rejected TAC’s argument that the “fuselage” was merely a component, rather than the “aircraft” itself. It observed that “[a] fuselage is a substantial aspect of any rotorcraft” and under the language of Section 45.13(e) “the absence of the terms ‘fuselage’ and ‘airframe’ indicates a data plate’s installation on an airframe or fuselage or any other component designed to exist permanently on an aircraft is the same as the data plate’s installation on an aircraft.”
The Board then confirmed that Section 45.13(e) precludes replacing virtually all parts and components of a wrecked aircraft and then attaching that aircraft’s data plate to the assembled of replacement parts and components. Based upon the record, the Board determined that is what TAC had done and it affirmed the ALJ’s finding that TAC had violated Section 45.13(e).
This is a tough situation for an aircraft owner to be in. It can also be difficult for the maintenance provider assisting the aircraft owner and trying to get the aircraft back in the air. As with most cases, whether an aircraft is simply being repaired, or whether it is being completely rebuilt with replacement parts and components, will be decided based upon the unique facts of each particular situation. If an aircraft owner in that situation suggests or requests a remedy that involves removal or installation of a data plate, maintenance providers should be wary.
In this case, the FAA was only taking action to revoke the aircraft’s airworthiness certificate. However, the FAA will often also pursue action against the mechanic who worked on the aircraft or returned it to service. If you are asked to replace or install an aircraft data plate, make sure you understand the regulations and the risks before you agree to participate in the data plate dance.
Greg Reigel is an aviation attorney, author and pilot. He holds a commercial pilot certificate with an instrument rating and can fly single-engine land and sea, as well as multi-engine land aircraft. His practice concentrates on aviation litigation, including insurance matters and creditor’s rights, FAA certificate actions and transactional matters. He represents clients throughout the country on aviation law matters. He also an adjunct professor at Minnesota State University - Mankato where he teaches aviation law and at William Mitchell College of Law where he is an instructor in the advocacy course. He can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.
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