Is flight training hopelessly and irretrievably broken? And if it is, is there anything we can do about it? Those two questions were at the top of the agenda at last week's first Symposium of Aviation and Flight Educators.
Permit me a paragraph on the organization of this event. It was simply superb. Organizers Doug Stewart, Bob Wright and Rich Stowell assembled a well-conceived, fast-moving program that consisted of six panels on various subjects. Within those panels, each person was given about 10 minutes to cover a specific topic. As a result, the information was crisp and on-target and the day never dragged. I scribbled madly, filling a notebook with facts and ideas. Anyone putting together such a thing on any topic would do well to emulate SAFE's efforts.
The underlying assumption here is that flight instructorsor educators, if you prefercan improve the industry's vitality by helping reduce the fatal accident rate. Using the best data available, it stands at 1.2/100,000 hours, more than 240 times the rate of the scheduled airlines. After day one, I compared notes with Bob Miller, who runs a busy flight school in Buffalo, New York. I confessed that I don't buy the notion that improving the fatal accident rate, while laudable, will have any effect on pilot starts. I just don't see the direct connection. But Miller, who's a lot smarter than me and is actually in the day-to-day world of flight training, does see the connection. It's the cocktail party reaction. When he mentions what he does for a living, Miller hears, "Oh, aren't those little airplanes dangerous?" What I hear or what I think I hear is, "Oh, I always wanted to try that." So right out of the gate, at least two guys don't agree on the fundamental supposition.
But we do agree that reducing the fatal accident rate through improved training is commendable. But how? At the end of this blog, I'm listing most of the nearly 30 recommendations SAFE came up with. As was intended, many of these are education-centric, since the underlying assumption is that the way to reduce fatals is to force a cultural change first among instructors who can then pass this knowledge and skill into the piloting ranks.
It has become an article of faith in this country that government regulation of any kind is bad and that the private sector or the regulated participants are best suited to clean up their own houses. Even the FAA is onboard. At the SAFE symposium, agency representatives, including Randy Babbitt, made it abundantly clear that they want to tackle this GA fatals problem without additional regulation. That's good as far as it goes. So I asked how are we going to make any of these recommendations stick? GA pilots have clearly demonstrated that they won't flock toward recurrent training voluntarily, although some do. I didn't get a compelling answer to this question.
The required FAR 61.56 flight review laughably passes as recurrent training, but instructors have their own version of this folly. It's called the Flight Instructor Refresher Clinic or FIRC. The biggest challenge in these things is staying awake for 16 hours. They are dumbed down to the point of uselessness. The upshot is, due to our demonization of things "required," we have created two problems: a flight instructor revalidation process that's market-driven and guarantees mediocrity and the opportunity for those rusty instructors to get at pilots who need recurrent training only once every 24 months. (OK, so not all the instructors are rusty, but you get the idea.)
What I'd do is this: I'd tweak FAR 61.197 to allow flight instructors to renew through a FSDO, just as they can now, or take the checkride again, as they also can now. But at every other renewal, they would have to complete a Flight Instructor Refresher Clinic meeting the requirements of AC 60-XX. This is a new as-yet-be-written advisory circular specifying what a FIRC has to do. Some of SAFE's recommendations included using AC's as tools and the FAA is happy with this.
Groups like SAFE, if they're serious about a culture change, could then put some teeth and challenge into this AC, relying on nothing more than a minor wording change to FAR 61.197 to make it stick. There are a lot ways to do this and the FAA seems to be saying it will give the industry a free hand to make it happen. There's a temptation to dumb it down to keep CFI's from dropping out; to make it easy and jolly them along. That should be avoided, because some of them should drop out if they're not serious about recurrency.
If I were writing that AC, the FIRC would be a challenging, task/scenario based curriculum, not hours based. It would also have a flight component, which none of the FIRCs now do, because it's not practical. So I'd write into the AC a specific set of mandatory and optional flight tasks totaling perhaps three or four hours of flying, with an endorsement required from an instructor. You'd do that training independent of the FIRC itself before showing up. For the in-classroom portion, I'd hand everyone an iPad upon arrival and hit them with a bunch of short quizzes to see what they know, with the grading in real time right up on a big flat screen, sort of like those online games some airliners have now. It could just as easily be done via webinar. Follow that with immediate instruction to address shortcomings.
If you're ill-prepared or hopelessly rusty, it will show and nobody likes to look dumb. At the end, I'd require a written that you'd have to pass or face a pink slip. You'd have some skin in the game and you'd be challenged to brush up before arriving. One other tweak: I'd change the FAR 61.56 flight review requirement to 12 months from 24 months. This idea would ignite huge opposition, but you can't change culture unless you can get at the people who need changing. If you're okay with the current fatal accident rateand, bluntly, I suspect some people are--then don't change a thing.
My test case for this is drunk driving. Since the 1990s, the incidence of drunk driving accidents has declined sharply due to the kind of culture change we're talking about here. That involved education, public service spots and community outreachthe soft stuff. That's good. But we also started arresting and fining people for driving drunkthat's the regulatory partand more drivers slowly decided that drinking and driving is socially unacceptable. They didn't reach that conclusion out of altruism. We didn't "incentivize" or "motivate" such people, we arrested and fined them.
We don't need to fine pilots, but those who need recurrent training won't always seek it out. In fact, the ones who do seek it aren't the problem. I suppose another alternative is to offer insurance price breaks or penalties for those who don't seek recurrent training. I'm open to suggestions.
In another blog, I'll look at accidents and judgment, which is at the core of this problem.
Selected SAFE Recommendations