Eye of Experience #3:
Just 40 Hours?

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AVweb's Howard Fried asks, why does the FAA continue to push the myth that you can get your Private Certificate with only forty hours of flight time? Isn't it about time we fessed up and were honest about this? Forty hours may have been quite adequate years ago, but wouldn't flying be better served by using a more reasonable number today, like maybe 60 hours? Howard suggests that it might just make the moribund Recreational Pilot Certificate a popular and useful rating and get more people into aviation. What a radical concept!

Eye Of ExperienceWay back when the CAA (predecessor of the FAA) decreed that forty hours of training and practice was a sufficient amount of experience and training for the Private Pilot Certificate, it no doubt was. In fact, it was easy to prepare a student for the responsibility of the Private Certificate within the allotted forty hours, thirty-five under FAR Part 141. However, I wonder if this is any longer a valid minimum amount of time for the training required today. Both the equipment and the airspace have become infinitely more complex. It is amazing to me that anyone can master the airplane and learn the mountain of stuff the student has to acquire today before he or she is ready to assume the responsibility of commanding an airplane with passengers aboard.

There is not a single instructor or flight school with which I am familiar that is willing to say that forty hours of training and practice is sufficient to produce a competent private pilot. I am sure that one hundred percent of the aviation education community recognizes this fact, but in order to convince the public that flight training is affordable, they cling to the unrealistic forty hour minimum. And, on the subject of affordability, anyone who thinks the investment in flight training today is outrageous, just compare what inflation has done to other things. When I was growing up and flight training was $8.00 per hour for dual instruction and $6.00 per hour for solo, a single dip ice cream cone was 3 cents and a double dipper was a nickel. The last ice cream cone I bought cost three and a half dollars! In those days an adult admission to a movie was 33 cents as compared to $8.00 today, milk was 11 cents a quart and gasoline for an automobile was 15 cents a gallon for regular and 17 cents for Ethyl. So on a percentage basis, flying is less expensive than ever.

Not good airplane manipulators

Back when the J3 Cub and the 7AC Champ were the primary trainers, the majority of the training time was spent getting the student to work his or her hands, eyes, and feet together to make smooth, coordinated maneuvers. Today, we must teach our students to keep the airplane upright by reference to the flight instruments, and we must teach the use of avionics for communication and navigation as well as a myriad of other relatively new stuff. We're certainly turning out better, more knowledgeable pilots now than we were then, but, on the whole they are not nearly as good airplane manipulators. Of course, they don't have to be that good since the airplanes of today are designed to be much more stable. Pilots can and do get away with some pretty sloppy flying, particularly with respect to rudder usage. Many of today's pilots, who learn to fly in a modern trainer with a "training wheel" out in front, simply plant their feet firmly on the floor and drive the airplane through the sky as if it were an automobile.

When the Recreational Pilot Certificate first came out I thought this was a foolish move on the part of the FAA. Who would want such a restrictive certificate? However, on more serious reflection, perhaps there is merit to the thing after all. I simply cannot believe I am doing this—sitting here extolling the virtues of the Recreational Certificate. However, I have long been concerned with the increasing sophistication of the airspace in which we operate and the effect it has on restricting the activity of the basic VFR pilot. I have always maintained that there must be a place for the fair-weather, Sunday afternoon flyer who enjoys taking a friend along on a pleasant airplane flight. But, they're pushing this poor guy out of the sky. It appears that the Recreational Certificate may offer a solution for this kind of pilot. And, he can be just as serious and safe an aviator as the ATP operating one of those flying condominiums across the big puddle. There's no rule mandating that the airspace be reserved for the professional pilot who earns his living by shoving tons of metal around the sky. In fact general aviation pilots far outnumber air carrier pilots.

Recreational Certtificate an End in Itself?

Although the FAA pushes the Recreational Pilot Certificate as a stepping stone along the way to the Private, there is most definitely a place for this certificate as an end in itself. There are lots of people who enjoy flying in light aircraft. You know who I mean, those who go out on Saturday or Sunday and take a friend with them for the one hundred dollar hamburger. For this individual, the Recreational Certificate is all he or she ever requires. For these people the burden of acquiring the additional knowledge for the Private Certificate is a total waste, and may just be enough to discourage them from flying altogether. And, this is something I would hate to see happen. Thus, it is possible that the Recreational Certificate may offer a solution for the individual who enjoys this kind of aviating.

Of course, I can see it now. The dear old Feds will be pushing all those who hold Recreational Certificates to go forth and acquire a Private Certificate, just as they are now pushing every certificated pilot to acquire an instrument rating, whether or not he or she ever intends to use it. But, that's another subject altogether. However, if I may be permitted to digress for a moment, let me point out something that has been happening and I fear will get worse. Prior to 1957 there was no requirement whatever for a private pilot to have any instrument training whatever. We used to tell our students, "See that cloud over there? Go in that cloud and you're gonna die!" Scared 'em into staying out of IMC is what we did. Then, by giving them a smattering of instrument training (theoretically enough to keep the airplane upright while they got out of any IMC into which they may have blundered), I fear we began to instill a false sense of confidence in the student and private pilot.

And now, with the recent changes in FAR Part 61 requiring even more instrument training, I fear that the situation will become even worse. The balance between teaching flight students to get out of IMC if they should inadvertently blunder into it and permitting them to acquire a false sense of confidence is questionable. I wonder if it is worth it? What do you think? I'm open-minded on the subject, but I think these are valid concerns.

Forty hours woefully inadequate

The FAA has long recognized that the forty hour minimum experience requirement for the Private Pilot Certificate is woefully inadequate and over the years several attempts have been made to increase this minimum to a more realistic number. However, the manufacturers, who until a few years ago were building basic training airplanes, along with the flight schools, put up such a howl that the proposals were dropped. With the current emphasis on, and the requirement for, an increase in the amount of instrument training in the private curriculum, the situation is likely to get even worse.

Now, with the availability of the Recreational Pilot Certificate, there is no excuse for maintaining the forty hour minimum experience requirement for the Private, particularly in those cases in which the Recreational Certificate is used as a stepping stone on the way to the Private Pilot Certificate and advanced certificates and ratings. If the minimum experience requirement for the Private were to be raised to a more reasonable sixty hours, say, we would no doubt see a substantially greater number of students applying for Recreational Pilot Certificates and using this as a sort of temporary stage as they work their way up to the private and beyond.

Better pilots

And, they would be better pilots for it. At the very least they would be much better airplane manipulators. In the interim they would be gaining experience and their piloting skills would be increasing. It is my understanding that the primary reason for retaining the forty hour minimum of training and practice for the Private is to keep the supposed investment in the certificate low enough to continue to attract student pilots, but since the investment in a Recreational Certificate is theoretically even less, that is no longer a valid reason for retaining the forty hour minimum for the Private.

And, as long as we are on the subject, I also saw no need to increase the requirement for the Commercial Certificate from 200 to 250 hours. Of course, formerly the Commercial was a sort of glorified Private, but a few years ago the FAA quite rightly decided that if a pilot intended to earn his or her living as an aviator and carry passengers for hire, he'd better be able to safely operate complex machinery in today's sophisticated airspace, but 200 hours of training and practice ought to be sufficient.

Next month we will be discussing the unacceptable rate at which people quit flying, both those who drop out during the training process and those who quit after having acquired certificates of various grades.

In most cases, someone else has already gained the experience you need the hard way—keep an eye out!