Chasing Ratings

Advanced ratings may make you a better pilot - to a point. Checkrides help your judgment, but, as Ron Levy recently explained in Aviation Safety, no one can argue with experience.


Advancing your ratings makes you a better/saferpilot. We’ve probably all heard that statement more times than we can count, andmost pilots probably accept it as an empirical truth. However, others feel thattheir lack of advanced ratings does not make them any less safe or competent tofly the planes they do, the way they do.

At the risk of sounding like a lawyer, the truth, I think, is that whetheradvanced ratings makes you a better/safer pilot depends a lot on what you meanby "better" and "safer." Many folks equate the type offlying a pilot does or the certificates/ratings he holds with some sort of rankordering of pilot skill/safety/proficiency.

Few people would argue that your average 747 or F/A-18 pilot would becompetent to land a Super Cub on an enclosed mountainside dirt strip. But thisdoesn’t mean the average bush pilot is a better pilot than an ATP flying jumboson international route or a Blue Angel. I would suggest that the fundamentaltruth of that basic statement really depends on the parameters within which itis made.

It’s difficult to examine the accident rates for pilots of variouscertificate levels and ratings because there’s no real way to tell how manyhours are flown by pilots with different certificate levels in similarcircumstances. For example, we have a pretty good idea of the total number ofhours flown by pilots on flights deemed personal, but there is no breakdownbetween non-instrument-rated private pilots, instrument-rated private pilots,commercial pilots and ATPs.

But that’s not to say we can’t make some guesses. You can probably assumethat virtually all corporate operations are flown by Commercial and ATP pilots.Thus, the Air Safety Foundation’s Nall Report stats for"Executive/Corporate" versus "Personal" flying (which doesnot include flight instruction) come into play. The numbers for 1999 show thatalthough Executive/Corporate flying accounted for nearly 5 percent of all GAflight hours, it accounted for only 0.3 percent of GA accidents.

On the other hand, Private flying (which would include most non-instructionalflying by Private Pilots) encompassed less than half the GA hours but led tomore than two-thirds of the GA accidents. This would suggest that Commercial andATP pilots have a lower accident rate than Private pilots.

But it’s never that easy, and these statistics cannot be taken at face value.Executive/Corporate operations generally involve two pilots, two turbineengines, and advanced systems for navigation, communication, weather detection,and icing. Meanwhile, the average Personal flight is probably a single pilot ina moderately equipped single piston engine airplane.

Clearly, the bizjet has a lot of systems for dealing with conditions andfailures for which the personal plane is ill-equipped.

Dialing it back a notch, a look at Business flying shows that it accountedfor almost 16 percent of the GA flight hours, but less than 5 percent of theaccidents. Since Business flying usually involves equipment more closelyanalogous to Personal flying, and usually involves pilots with at least anInstrument Rating and often a Commercial certificate, we are starting to see atrend, as pictured in the accompanying chart of relative accident rates forvarious types of flying.

Where’s The Danger?


Checkride Advice

1. Relax and enjoy it. Nationwide, about 90% of applicants pass on the first try, so look around and see if you think you’re as good as 9 out of 10 other students. Also, your instructor must maintain a pass rate of at least 80% to get his ticket renewed, so he’s not going to send you up unless he’s pretty darn sure you’ll pass. Otherwise, he has to find four other people to pass to make up for you, and that’s not always easy.

2. The day before the checkride, go over the logbooks of the aircraft you’re going to use to make sure it’s all in order. If the airplane’s paper busts, so do you. Run a sample W&B, too — get the examiner’s weight when you make the appointment. Even examiners can’t waive max gross weight limits.

3. Relax.

4. Rest up and get a good night’s sleep the night before. Don’t stay up cramming.

5. Relax.

6. Read the entire PTS, including all the introductory material. Use the checklist in the front to make sure you take all the stuff you need. Remember to have the examiner’s fee in the form he or she requires (usually cash).

7. Relax.

8. You’re going to make some minor mistakes. Correct them yourself in a timely manner "so the outcome of the maneuver is never in doubt" and you’ll be OK. If you see the maneuver will exceed parameters and not be smoothly recoverable, tell the examiner and knock it off before you go outside those parameters, and then re-initiate. That shows great sense, if not great skill, and judgment is the most critical item on the checkride.

9. Relax.

10. During the oral, you don’t have to answer from memory anything you’d have time to look up in reality. So if the examiner asks you about currency, it’s OK to open the book to FAR 61.56 and 61.57 and explain them to him. But make sure you know where the answer is without reading the whole FAR/AIM cover-to-cover. On the other hand, for stuff you’d have to know immediately, such as best glide speed for engine failure, you’d best not stumble or stutter. Know that stuff cold.

11. Relax.

12. Remember the first rule of Italian driving: "What’s behind me is not important." Don’t worry about how you did the last maneuver or question. If you didn’t do it well enough, the examiner would have notified you. If you are on the next one, forget the last one because it was good enough to pass. If you get back to the office and he hasn’t said you failed, smile to your friends as you walk in because you just passed.

13. Relax and enjoy your new license.


The immediate inclination is to conclude that these numbers suggest Privatepilots are more dangerous than those with a Commercial or ATP but, again, theydon’t take into account the advanced procedures, standards and equipment used inExecutive/Corporate flying.

In fact, procedures and standards receive increased stress at each level upthe certificate ladder. Items such as standardized procedures for flying theplane, crew coordination and cockpit resource management are effective ways toimprove safety. When pilots go through these higher level training courses, theincreased emphasis on such issues cannot help but to give them additional meansto be safer pilots.

But perhaps the best indications of how ratings affect safety come from thepeople who stand to make or lose money on the issue — the insurance companies.Insurance actuaries very carefully study the accident experience of pilots ofvarying age, experience and qualification in order to decide how where to setinsurance premiums.

They compare the accident histories of pilots with similar qualifications insimilar airplanes to come to a highly quantified measure of risk. Insurancecompanies take a good look not only at the pilot, but also at the aircraft andthe conditions in which it is likely to be flown.

Most insurance companies will refuse to cover a pilot in a high-performancecomplex single such as a Bonanza, Saratoga HP, or Cessna 210 unless the pilothas an instrument rating. A pilot doesn’t need an instrument rating to fly oneof those airplanes safely, but the insurance companies have found that it helps.

If one considers the PTS requirements for the various licenses and ratings, acommercial certificate seems to make more sense as a prerequisite for the pilotof an airplane in this class, as the commercial has requirements for complexaircraft operations while the instrument rating can be obtained in a Cessna 150.So why do insurance companies demand the instrument rating but give little extracredit for a commercial certificate when you go to them to insure your Bonanza?

The insurance companies have concluded that an instrument rating is necessaryto safely fly these airplanes the way their owners typically fly them.Specifically, people don’t get a 210 to make $100 hamburger runs on sunnySundays. They buy it for the speed and capability to make long trips for bothbusiness and vacation travel.

Trips like this are usually planned well ahead of time, and cancellation ofsuch trips due to weather is often a less palatable choice than skipping aspur-of-the-moment pleasure hop. The insurance companies point to cases ofnon-instrument-rated pilots crashing airplanes like this in IMC or very marginalVMC on cross-country trips that could have been made safely under IFR.

On the other hand, the insurance companies seem to feel that, after a certainexperience level, additional licenses do not reduce the company’s risk. Forexample, a commercial pilot with 5,000 hours is generally viewed as an equalrisk as an ATP with the same experience. This begins to suggest that experience,as well as license level, is a major factor in lowering accident potential.

Tools In The Toolbox

To determine if advanced training can reduce the risk of the kind of flyingyou do, you must first examine what you get in the various advancedratings/certificates.
The first thing pilots usually go for after getting their basic PP-ASEL is aninstrument rating. After all the legal hoops are jumped, an instrument ratingbasically serves three purposes. It improves your ability to fly by reference toinstruments, analyze weather patterns more effectively, and work within the ATCsystem.

Each of these three skills gives you more tools in your toolbox — you havegreater capability than you did before. Flight by reference to the instrumentsgoes beyond IFR flying; it’s also an invaluable skill even in VMC.

Summertime murk is a familiar environment to anyone who flies in coastalareas or other humid places. You’re flying in a bowl of milk, with no horizon toguide you, and about the only thing your view outside the airplane is good foris collision avoidance — and even that capability is slashed by the haze.

In conditions of reduced visibility, you must actually spend more timelooking outside, as you will have less chance of seeing airplanes farther out,and therefore can’t take as long a break to look inside as when you can see formiles and miles — it’s a matter of reduced warning time available.

You are forced to rely on the instruments for attitude reference and evennavigation, yet you must spend less time looking inside to do it. Having theadditional skill to be able to quickly scan and interpret your flight andnavigation instruments is a big plus in this situation.

Weather smarts is another area where it’s tough to get too much. A thoroughunderstanding of weather is probably the best defense a pilot has against the"continued VFR into IMC" accident. If you know what’s out there, it’sa lot easier to avoid it.

The weather training at the Private level is pretty rudimentary, and theadditional weather knowledge that is part of the instrument rating helps developthe pilot’s ability to look ahead, in flight as well as during preflightbriefing, and make a good decision about when to knock it off and either stay onthe ground or turn around and land.

If you already have an instrument rating, don’t get fooled into thinking thatVFR into IMC can’t happen to you. A large percentage of such accidents involveaircraft piloted by instrument-rated pilots. Sometimes they’re not proficient,sometimes they don’t bother checking the weather, and sometimes they get caughtwhile waiting for a pop-up clearance.

Perhaps the most important skill gained with the instrument rating isimproved proficiency in working with ATC. Many pilots have a strong aversion toworking with ATC, and usually it’s because they aren’t very good at it. They maybe intimidated by the rapid-fire style of controllers in busy airspace or anuncertainty over whether they’ll sound like amateurs.

They can’t make their requests in a fashion that elicits a cooperativeresponse from the controller, and that makes it worse. I once heard a busycontroller tell a VFR pilot, "If you can’t listen as fast as I talk, Ican’t have you in my airspace — remain clear of the Class Bravo Airspace,maintain VFR, squawk 1200, frequency change approved, good day."

Working with controllers while flying VFR gives you more information and moreoptions. By being "in the system" you get better access to weather andtraffic information, and you’ll often be cleared through airspace you’d have tofly around if you weren’t talking.

Anything that expands the space available to you is good, especially if itlets you fly where the visibility is better, the air smoother and the trafficmore predictable. Simply eliminating the additional stress of low-levelturbulence when you’re performing basic pilot functions like map-folding makesit easier to avoid task saturation — a major factor in many accidents.

We can extend these effects to the Commercial certificate. The two skills theCommercial will enhance are precision control of the airplane and, again,expanded weather knowledge. While a PTS chandelle or Lazy 8 isn’t the mostuseful maneuver in the world, it requires concentration, skill and precision.

Also, the certificate requires better precision in landings in controllingthe touchdown point — both down and across the runway — which can be a majorfactor in avoiding runway accidents. Runway loss of control continues to be thebiggest cause of general aviation accidents.

The commercial standards for landings are significantly tighter, requiringspeed be maintained in a 5 knot window instead of the +10/-5 tolerance forprivate, as well as touching down within 200 feet beyond a designated pointinstead of 400 feet. In addition, the instructor giving the training will likelyinsist on consistent landings on the centerline rather than even a foot or twooff.
Given the number of runway accidents that show up, these precision landingskills are important to improved safety.

Advancing to an ATP certificate means the standards are stricter in virtuallyevery phase of flight.

But Do You Need It?

None of this is to say that a pilot has to get advanced licenses or ratingsin order to be a safe pilot.

For the sake of argument, consider Charlie, one of the typical pilots whohang around our local airport. Charlie’s a retired schoolteacher with a Privatecertificate earned back in the pre-SSN certificate number days, and his startswith a "1."

He’s got about 2,000 hours in his logbook, dating back nearly 40 years. Forhim, flying has never been anything but a weekend hobby, consisting mainly of$50 hamburgers with his wife or a friend in the 1966 Cessna 150 he’s owned forover 20 years. He used to take some of his high school students up forintroduction to flying rides, and continues to do so as part of the EAA YoungEagles program.

He limits his flying to about a 100-mile radius of his home airport (a small,non-towered field with about 40 airplanes based there), sticks with sunny days,and stays on the ground when the wind is bending the trees. He’s a regular atthe FSDO’s Safety Seminars and each spring he gets with a local CFI and brushesup on all aspects of the flying he does, getting a BFR signoff whether he needsit or not.

A couple of generations of CFIs agree that Charlie’s a far betterstick-and-rudder pilot than they are. Is it likely that adding an instrumentrating or upgrading to a commercial license will make Charlie a"better/safer" pilot?

On the other hand, a newer member of the regular set is Steve, a localbusinessman in his late 30s who took up flying two years ago as a means tofurther his expanding business and visit his vacation home a few hundred milesaway. He got his Private ticket pretty quickly in a C-152 and moved up to theC-172 and C-182 as fast as he acquired the hours to satisfy the FBO’s insurancerequirements.

Now Steve is looking at a used but fairly recent Bonanza in order to getwhere he’s going faster on business trips and be better able to haul his growingfamily up to the cottage by the lake. Does his situation make it seem morelikely that upgrading will improve his safety or his skill?

The Real Advantage

Another reason why advancing your certificates/ratings can be a factor inenhancing your safety is that it will force you to spend time under the tutelageof a CFI and then take a practical test to FAA standards from a DPE or FAAinspector. This review and examination of both the knowledge and practice ofpiloting will also serve to identify and fix any weak areas you may have. Andthis will go beyond the obvious requirements of the particular practical testyou are taking.

Even the instrument practical test forces you to ensure that your landingsare up to speed, since landing out of an instrument approach is a specific taskin the instrument PTS. In fact, a study done about 10 years ago by Baltimorearea CFIs Harry Kraemer and Dave Moslein found that crosswind landings wereamong the top reasons applicants had failed instrument practical tests locally.

It also seems intuitive that the type of pilot who works to advance hislicenses and ratings is also the type of pilot who takes more seriously the needto continue to hone his skills and knowledge long after getting that initialpilot certificate.

These are the folks that seek out tough instructors for their BFRs and ICCs.They’re the people who take part in the Wings program because they have theattitude that it is not a public admission of inferiority to take part in such aprogram. They recognize that there are new things to learn and old things theyhave forgotten. Only by taking part in some activity to learn the new andrelearn the old can they remain safe, competent pilots.

This concept is well-accepted in many professions, from education tomedicine, where professionals in those fields are required to participate insome manner of continuing education in order to maintain their professionalcertification. That advanced training could be an additional degree,certification in some specialty of their profession, or simply training seminarsin the latest information in new techniques or findings in the field. Whateverit is, it forces the individual to keep the sharp edge on his knowledge andskill.

Thus, training for advanced certificates and ratings helps create better,safer pilots simply by the fact that all your knowledge and skills need to be upto the standards needed to continue to pass checkrides. It also gives you theopportunity to be exposed to the latest changes and advances in techniques,rules and equipment.

For example, GPS is now a part of most instrument rating course materials andCRM techniques are part of the human factors section of commercial courses.Those who advance their licenses and ratings are exposed to these items, whichcan improve their skill and safety.

Those who do not seek out exposure to such advances may be presented withequipment they do not know how to use properly or fail to learn new conceptsthat can make them safer pilots. While much of this can be picked up fromindependent research and reading, it’s never the same as proper training.

There’s also a lot to suggest that certain types of advanced training thatdoes not gain you any new paper from Oklahoma City may have considerable value.

Over the last few decades, there has been increasing concern about theability of all pilots from Cub drivers to airline captains to cope with"upsets" — the recovery from extremely unusual attitudes due toturbulence both man-made and natural.

Wake turbulence and clear-air turbulence have caused or contributed to awhole string of accidents ranging from light GA airplanes to airline disasters.United Airlines was one of the first to add "advanced maneuvers" toits recurrency training syllabus, and a wide range of flight training schoolsare adding basic aerobatic and specialized "emergency maneuver"courses to their offerings.

Comments from pilots who’ve taken these courses suggest that they havesubstantially improved their ability to recover from such situations, as well asimproving their basic flying skills. Thus, it’s not only license/rating courseswhich make you "better/safer" but also just about any training thatsharpens your flying and adds tools to your aviation tool kit.

Tricks and Traps


  • Pursue the ratings that apply to the kind of flying you’re likely to do.

  • Learn it for life, not just for the checkride.

  • Treat the rating like adding tools to your toolbox, to use when the situation arises.


  • Expect checkrides past to prevent you from losing proficiency during inactive periods.

  • Forget that non-rating training, such as emergency maneuvers, can also be useful.