Sure, You Voted. But Can You Renew Yourself?

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It’s inevitable, unpleasant and recurs every two years. No, not elections. We’re all very proud of your I Voted And You Didn’t sticker that’s been on your kombucha-stained, Sporty’s flight suit since 2010, but did you renew something fundamental in your life? If you’re a pilot, you probably did. If you’re not a pilot … what’s holding you back? You think Oprah is going to knock on your door and drag you to the airport? Actually, if I think that out, and I haven’t, getting Oprah into flight training could just be what GA needs. But let’s stick with renewals.

My instructor’s certificate will expire ten days before I turn 65, and this confluence has unleased double-barreled junk mail. Airline training offers have been replaced by ads for walk-in tubs and Medicare Part D scams. The whiff of my expiring CFI ticket has drawn a frenzy of offers to renew online with numerous flight schools. Non-instructors should know that the CFI renewal process is vaguely like a flight review that often doesn’t include flying (ironic).

Many pilots dread getting a BFR, but that biennial, sweaty-palm ritual wherein you explain to the CFI that your logbook isn’t lying, and you really have only flown three hours since your last review, pales when compared to what a CFI suffers to keep her instructor’s ticket. The FAA offers several paths to refreshing one’s CFIness. Let’s review those, and I’ll suggest an alternative that the FAA will surely ignore.

Instructors with a fondness for hotel conference rooms along the New Jersey Turnpike can enroll in two-day, 16-hour CFI renewal courses that include free coffee. I tried this route some years ago and sat among a couple dozen other CFIs, resembling kids who hadn’t done their homework, all hoping the teacher wouldn’t call on them. The course was efficient, informative and blew by like a Weekend At Bernie’s, if Bernie was a FAA-approved cyborg who charged from subject to subject, making all topics meld into a joyless bundle of get-me-out-of-here. Which is why two years later I opted for CFI Renewal Plan B.

Renew-at-home-in-your-underwear has been my choice for the past few cycles. Making sure to tape over the camera lens on my monitor, so the online instructors can’t see me, I log into the renewal link, enter my Visa card and travel at my own pace through the mandatory—and a few optional—topics that remind me just how little I retain after the PowerPoint goes dark. Relativity explores new dimensions when the 16 hours take weeks to complete outside a classroom environment, but at least I don’t have to pretend I’m listening … or even stay awake. During the periodic quizzes I scroll back to discover what the lesson was actually about. Upon successful completion—and I’ve never met a CFI who hasn’t been successful—I hit a key, a bell rings, and a tiny reward pellet drops from the computer, allowing another CFI to renew his wings.

After many years of our relationship, though, I had to tell my online school that I was exploring other renewal possibilities. It’s not you, Martha, it’s me. One renewal method involves letting the old certificate expire. That’s stupid, expensive and involves taking a real checkride. I can’t speak for other instructors, but my initial CFI ride with FSDO was thorough. No way I want to do that again. That’d be like demonstrating how lousy I am at parallel parking in order to renew my driver’s license.

The easiest renewal I had was two years ago when I invoked the FAR 61.197 clause that says if an instructor successfully gets 80 percent of five students (FAA’s way of saying, “four”) through a practical test for a certificate or rating inside 24 months, CFI renewal is automatic … well, almost. There’s paperwork, a goat is sacrificed, and you do have to shine your shoes before visiting your local FSDO, which for many pilots isn’t so local.

Before my last renewal I’d tallied seven new private pilots, so my CFI recert was in the bag. But I have to wonder: Why just checkride recommendations? Flight instructors do so much more than grind out new pilots. Why can’t the rule include other worthy CFI services, such as giving successful flight reviews or additional training for complex and high performance? My specialty is tailwheel training, so why can’t those newly skilled pilots count the same as graduates from an easy-to-land Cherokee program?

Even teaching a student to fuel a Cessna 172 while standing on a rickety stepladder in Iowa winter should count for something. Or getting that stuck can of Dr. Pepper from the FBO’s vending machine. These are important instructor skill sets. Gussy them up with a few layers of lesson plan objectives and, maybe, see-and-avoid, some ADM and CRM, and I’d say these undervalued CFI achievements should be renewal-worthy. I’ll await the FAA’s response to my suggestions.

Meanwhile, I have airport fences to mend. My past 24 months’ primary training tally was low, so I need to contact my old friends in the cyber-renewal world. Hope there won’t be any hard feelings, because I really need that I Renewed sticker on my flight suit. I’ll let Oprah handle the Medicare stuff for me.

Comments (10)

Hey Paul,
What about renewing your CFI certificate using the 15 WINGS flight credits method as described in AC 61-91J? See paragraph 6(e). That's the equivalent of 5 flight reviews over the past 24 calendar months, or some other combination of flight credits for at least 5 pilots. Yeah, I know, it's another paperwork chase. But it gives you credit for something other than just 80% pass rate on practical tests.

Posted by: Russ Kelsea | November 18, 2018 7:56 AM    Report this comment

HI Paul,
I'm not a CFI or even a Pilot. I am (slightly) older than you, and have had this escapist fantasy of becoming a pilot for 60 years (I'm seemingly in great health with a current medical, by the way) and I am about to begin...well, honestly, just to see...if the reality matches my dreams.
Now you know the context for the following comment.
Gee Wilikers! I'm hoping that whomever I choose to really take me through the rigors of THINKING, hand-eye-seat of the pants coordination, and everything else involved in learning to safely fly an aircraft, is thoroughly grounded and deliberate and up to snuff.
And, unfortunately, your article sort of caused me a bit of doubt about the process of becoming a CFI and maintaining that status.
On the other hand, as a professional in a field that requires 24 hours of continuing education every two years, I know how useless a lot of post degree training is...and that my fellow practitioners, all duly licensed, sometimes...well actually, most of the time, give me pause, and lead me to think that they are, if not actually, pretty darn close to demonstrating ignorance.
Except in my field, the worst that we can probably do is leave people feeling unhappy.
In your field, the worse you can do is leave someone liable to kill themselves and others.

Posted by: Richard Katz | November 18, 2018 8:13 AM    Report this comment

Been doing online FIRCs nine times out of ten. Works for me. BTW: Good point on teaching students to fuel aircraft. I do it.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | November 18, 2018 8:41 AM    Report this comment

Been doing online FIRC's since I got my CFI 13 years ago--some are better than others. I always hated the ones with timers. When I could avoid the timers they were much better.

Was talking to a DPE a few years ago about the CFI renewal ride. If I remember the conversation right, he said it wasn't like the initial ride--I thought he said expect the flight to be about 0.7 hrs or so. (I may remember wrong) I was surprised, my initial CFI was an ordeal--we started the oral at 7:00am, and didn't go flying until 3:00pm--and the flight itself was not short.

If the online FIRC's weren't available, I think I'd chose a 0.7 hour chedckride over 16 hours of "FAA-approved cyborg"

Heck it might even be worth it over 2.7 hours of reading powerpoints followed by 13.3 hours of moving a mouse to let the timer wind down...

Posted by: Colin Reed | November 19, 2018 8:10 AM    Report this comment

Hello Mr. Katz! I hope you will endeavor on your dream to fly, unaffected by the impressions left by the blog above. You see, becoming a CFI is much more involved than maintaining this status and in lieu of knowing better or listening to the stakeholders in this industry, the FAA has upheld a fairly mundane and at times boring procedure for instructors to actually renew their certificate.

The various ways to renew one's certificate are listed under and you will find them to vary in effort and cost required. Online renewal clinics are fairly common for instructors who don't finish or complete their 5 students per year or spend a lot of time with specialized and advanced training.

While the overall pass rate of students is industry wide accepted method to evaluate an instructors skill and experience as well as instructional quality, what may matter more should be to find the right fit for your own flight training, while trying to avoid any of the "gifts to aviation", who linger around on their extended wait for a seat in an airliner cockpit.

After my short time in aviation, I prefer to be taught about flying from people who love flying and teaching, even if they end up having to use toothpicks during mandatory renewal classes, which can be slept trough for their entirety, without the instructor ever missing a single important piece of information and knowledge, that hasn't already been tested and proven to the FAA.

For comparison, I hold various commercial trucking licenses in Europe. Part of the legal requirement to retain the "privilege" is to attend 5 full day modules of theory training and and to listen to hours and hours of stoically rattled down information that is of little to no relevance, but legally required to be heard, once every 5 years. Cost: 500 Euros.

The truck I sometimes drive (for fun) weighs 40 tons (cough) and cruises at bone-crushing speeds, loaded with things who have a tendency to screw up peoples days, once they get loose. I am 43, have held the license since my military days 22 years ago. No medical exam, no vision test, no mental health test. Just a license to operate commercially, subject to renewal every 5 years...

Posted by: Jason Baker | November 19, 2018 8:12 AM    Report this comment

The CFI renewal process leaves out recurrent training on one essential skill that all CFIs must pass on to their students; that is, the ability to locate the cheese-cracker vending machine at a remote FBO. Aside from finding a source of 100LL, finding a pack of Nabs at Acme County FBO on a dark Sunday night after closing time has to be one of the time-honored essential flying skills handed down from Orville Wright and Wiley Post!

Posted by: A Richie | November 19, 2018 9:00 AM    Report this comment

Right you are A. Richie.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | November 19, 2018 5:48 PM    Report this comment


Very entertaining writing. Except for the flashbacks to my ATP test prep!

Mr. Katz,

Flying is amazing fun, but regardless of age, I always ask people what they want a pilot license for.

Because without a mission of some kind after you're licensed, it can be a big investment for little utility.

Until you have an honest answer to that, you may want to consider related options like just doing the ground school, or gliding. In the Bay Area, you can also get involved with the Hiller Aviation Museum or use their wide variety of simulators.

Posted by: James Briggs | November 19, 2018 7:57 PM    Report this comment

Mr. Katz, flying is not for everyone, just like flight instruction is not for everyone. But for many of us, well, let my friend John Gillespie share his opinion.

High Flight

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds, --and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of --Wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov'ring there
I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air...
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I've topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark or even eagle flew --
And, while with silent lifting mind I've trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | November 21, 2018 7:44 PM    Report this comment

I have done both the mind (and butt) numbing weekend sip with a straw from a fire hose weekend course and, most recently over the last 3 cycles, online courses, and, because I hold a CFI-IA cert, but work at a full-time job, find the online a bit more doable.

Oh, there is the advantage of being in a room of fellow instruction professionals...the hangar stories are well as budding connections and flighty friendships, but, in this day and age of oversubscription to activities, unfortunately ease of access wins out over companionship and CFI fellowship at the watering hole on Saturday evening.

Given that probably (due to my Real Job schedule) most of my time as a CFI is dedicated to giving 'Intro" flights to pilot wannabes on Saturdays (and I have a high success rate in turning them into students...I actually use the flight to do more than run through the 4 fundamentals and we actually, in a short hour/hour and 10 lesson travel to another airport...after all, isn't this WHY we learned to fly in the first place...most 'get it' and can't wait to dream of winging their way somewhere in 2 hours that takes 6 or 7 on 4 wheels), the online path is working for me.

I guess, when I retire, I'll have more time to actually be one of the grey-hairs at my desk in the airport, teaching students through the whole course...but for now? Online, intro flights, phase checks, BFRs, and the occasional Wings participant (wasn't it a lot more fun when you received that little lapel pin than a handshake and email) has to satiate my exercise of my privileges.

(And my initial ride with the FAA, in 2000, was 8 hours debrief and 2 hours in the air. It was the most exhausting test I've ever had...and found out later that the inspector, who did sign me off on the first go-round, had an east coast reputation as being the ultimate CFI stone-crusher...)

Posted by: Bryan Boyle | January 7, 2019 9:00 AM    Report this comment

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