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How to export an airplane

May 10, 2014

I almost wrote “how NOT to export an airplane”. That sounds too condescending but it’s hard to overstate the importance of doing everything correctly when exporting an airplane. I’ve seen too many buyers run into problems because they relied on bad advice from a seller or inexperienced pilot. It’s not fun when I have to go retrieve an airplane that was left stranded in the middle of nowhere because another pilot flew without valid registration, failed a ramp check somewhere or things of that nature. Those types of problems can cost the new owner a lot of money.

So if you’ll bear with me and forgive the “do this don’t do that” tone, here are some of the most common questions or issues regarding aircraft export. If I’ve overlooked anything or you have any corrections / additions please let me know:

Where to close the sale?

You can “close” the sale of the airplane either in the country of origin or in the destination country. Both are perfectly acceptable as long as you are aware of the implications for the ferry flight. If you close the sale in the country of origin, the buyer legally owns the airplane from that point on and will be responsible for the airplane, registration, airworthiness, etc. If you close the sale in the destination country, the seller is responsible for all of those things until the airplane is delivered. In General Aviation, the seller usually wants to close the sale in the country of origin, they simply don’t want the responsibility of the ferry flight or the (perceived) risk of flying their airplane to a foreign country.

The important consideration here is when you “close” the sale, for a US registered airplane, the aircraft’s existing registration (in name of the seller) becomes invalid and the airplane must then be re-registered by the buyer.

Additionally, you should always use a reputable escrow service to exchange funds for clear title to the airplane. Any other arrangement such as paying the seller directly or releasing funds (other than any agreed upon advance) without filing the FAA title at the same time leave the buyer open to significant risk.

Aircraft registration for the ferry flight:

If you “close” the sale in the destination country the aircraft registration remains valid (assuming the seller has the airplane registered properly) in name of the seller for the duration of the ferry flight. For longer trips in General Aviation aircraft it is not common for the seller to agree to this.

If you “close” the sale in the country of origin, the airplane must be re-registered in name of the buyer prior to commencing the ferry flight. This is probably the area where most problems occur. Nowadays the FAA is more strict about requiring that sellers return their registration certificate to the FAA but I have seen buyers run into problems because they simply flew the airplane with the previous owner’s registration certificate in the airplane, only to realize that it was no longer valid when they got ramp checked or passed through Customs.

Aircraft registration in the country of origin or destination country?

If the buyer closes the sale in the country of origin, he or she must then decide to register the airplane in the country of origin or in the destination country. Most countries’ civil aviation authorities will readily issue a registration for an airplane that is being imported but you if you go that route, you will also need a provisional airworthiness certificate from the importing country – airworthiness and registration must be from the same country. This is typically more complicated for a used airplane. Depending on the requirements of the importing country, it may be quite expensive to get a provisional airworthiness certificate as the civil aviation authorities may require that the airplane is inspected by someone licensed in that country. There are also TSA security procedures that must be complied with for operation of some foreign registered aircraft in the USA.

If you wish to register the airplane in the country of origin for the duration of the ferry flight, the buyer must follow the correct procedure for that country. For a US registered airplane, the only legal and correct procedure for a foreign person or entity to register an airplane is via a “trust” (there are some exceptions if the airplane is intended to be physically based and operated in the USA).

This is also an area where many problems occur. The trust is fairly easy and inexpensive to create and is a fully legal structure. Using a trust allows operation on US registration indefinitely. However, other “solutions” such as setting up a Delaware corporation to be the registered owner or asking a seller not to file the FAA paperwork until the airplane arrives at it’s destination are not legal and DO NOT protect the buyer. Alternatively you can use an intermediary to export the airplane but only if the intermediary is in fact the legal owner of the airplane.

Export Certificate of Airworthiness:

Most countries require an Export CofA for aircraft being imported. There are a multitude of bi-lateral agreements that govern this subject but the basic idea is that the Export CofA states 2 things: 1) the airplane is currently airworthy in the exporting country and 2) the airplane meets any additional requirements of the importing country.

If you plan to keep operating the airplane on US registration, an Export CofA is typically not required but it is still a good idea to check if your airplane meets the additional requirements of the importing country because you must meet the “operating requirements” of the countries you fly in. So if you fly in Europe where most countries still require DME for IFR operations, you must have a DME in the airplane if you plan to fly IFR, even if you fly on N-registration.

The “additional requirements” of the importing country can vary from trivial to very expensive. For example, most countries outside North America require an altimeter in millibars. More expensive issues could exist around validation of STCs. If your airplane has been modified in accordance with any STCs (supplemental type certificates) it is important to verify that those STCs have been validated in the importing country. Maintenance requirements may also be more stringent in the importing country: for example, some countries mandate engine overhauls in accordance with the manufacturer’s recommendations of time in service as well as calendar time. The US FAA does not mandate those overhaul periods (for privately operated aircraft).

US Customs export:

US Customs export is mostly a formality but it is a requirement by law. Exporting an airplane is a bit unique in that the airplane is both the mode of transportation and the commodity being exported (if flown, not if containerized, in that case it is just a commodity being exported). What’s important here is that “import” and “export” for Customs purposes are typically determined by physical base of operations, not by country of registration. The export formalities can be handled by a licensed customs broker.

Ferry flight:

Depending on the destination and route of flight, there are likely to be operational requirements for the ferry flight above and beyond those of the exporting country. For example, requirements for survival gear, emergency equipment, pilot’s licensing and fuel reserve are more stringent during the ferry flight than during operations in the continental USA. It’s important to be sure your ferry pilot observes all the requirements. For example, a pilot who flies directly from Goose Bay to Narsarsuaq in an airplane that doesn’t meet the Transport Canada equipment and fuel reserve requirements would be at risk of violations, fines, invalidate the aircraft’s insurance, etc.

If you have any questions regarding aircraft export or ferry flight feel free to contact me. This is not meant to be an exhaustive, step-by-step guide but only a summary of the most common issues based on my own experience as a ferry pilot.


One Comment leave one →
  1. Christian C permalink
    August 26, 2014 4:30 pm

    Hello, We are looking to export A few Cesna’s into Sri Lanka via container. I have talked to FAA, Customs and Department of Commerce and each organization is saying something mildly different. Do you know what specific forms we need to fill out? Customs said that if the Cesnas where licensable there wouldn’t be any required forms for customs. Up to this point I understand that we have to get the Cesnas De-Registered

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