There are a couple of things that strike fear into a pilot's heart. I've already talked about our annual flight physical, perhaps the scariest thing we endure. Right after that comes inflight fire, and catastrophic structural failure. But among them on the list has to be a little visit from the FAA we call a "ramp check."
What happens is this: You land somewhere. A well-dressed person with a clipboard and the usual ID-on-a-lanyard approaches your aircraft. He or she announces that they are with the FAA and they'd like to ask you a few questions. They will usually proceed to verify the legality and safety of you and your rusty, trusty steed. It is the aviation equivalent of getting stopped by the cops and getting a random driver's license check along with a vehicle inspection.
We pilots have a bunch of rules we must comply with. A bunch of rules. Among them, there are certain documents we must carry on our person and in the aircraft. Although we are not required to keep our maintenance logs in the aircraft, we must be able to prove that the ship has a current Annual Inspection in effect, and that it is loaded within the weight and balance limits.
While going over your documents and while perusing the aircraft, there is always a chance that the FAA inspector will catch something that is not to his liking. Thus, we fear getting "grounded" in a place other than home. It is why many pilots get nervous when the FAA shows up.
When I was at Petroleum Helicopters, they told us to not fear the Ramp Inspection. The company took great pains to comply with all applicable regulations. As long as we pilots did our part and followed the rules (both company rules and those of the FAA), we had nothing to be afraid of. In the 13 years I was with PHI, I never got ramp-checked even once.
But this past week, an FAA inspector showed up at our Home Base and asked the airport operator if we were there. As it turned out we were gone. He said he'd be back. From his description I knew who it was - but we'd never met. So I called the guy and offered to set up a time when we could meet. I did not ask what it was all about, although I was curious as you can imagine.
The inspector arrived on the appointed day. It was cold in the hangar and I knew he wouldn't be hanging around very long. He gave the ship the once-over, then dove into the maintenance records. Not to brag, but we have a very squared-away operation; I keep very good records.
I know from experience that the FAA does not care too much about the actual plane. Let me explain. Any aircraft has little niggling stuff...we call them "discrepancies"...which can render the ship unairworthy depending on who's doing the looking. Some planes have more than others (mine has very few - if any). The FAA knows this. They know that they can go and "ground" just about any aircraft they look at. So instead they look at the paperwork. If the paperwork is in order - well organized and up-to-date, then they assume the aircraft has been receiving good maintenance. A sketchy airplane with bad paperwork will put them on edge. A nice-looking ship with good paperwork puts them at ease. It's just human nature.
After about an hour, my FAA inspector was satisfied - and pleased. He did give me a few items he felt needed correcting (e.g. a missing placard on the instrument panel, and a logbook maintenance signoff he felt was incomplete - both easily fixed).