Eye of Experience #9:
Consistency and Logic in the FAA?

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No one has ever accused the FAA of being either logical or consistent in the interpretation of its regulations. AVweb's Howard Fried examines some classic examples of the FAA's often less-than-sensible approach, both in regulations and in how we train to fly. We've sent Howard our Kevlar flack jacket.

Eye Of ExperienceAs far as I can recall, no one has ever accused the FAA of being either logical or consistent in the interpretation of its regulations. The recent changes in Part 61 of the regulations provide several glaring examples of the inconsistent and illogical manner in which the regulations are interpreted by the FAA. Of course, from that time beyond which the memory of man runneth not to the contrary, the Friendly Feds have followed the policy of first deciding just what they want to accomplish, and then bending or interpreting the regulations to permit them to do it. A prime example is the new interpretation of flight instruction as not being a commercial activity.

Always before, flight instructors, if they were being paid for their services, were required to hold second-class medical certification. A flight school airplane, if somebody (an instructor) was being paid to sit in it, was considered to be involved in a commercial operation. But, as of August 1997, the FAA has determined that instructors are being paid to teach, not to fly, and thus require only third-class medical certificates when administering primary dual, and no medical at all when teaching students who, by virtue of their own certificates, are qualified to fly the aircraft.

Now, this raises a question. Always before, a rental aircraft, unless there was an instructor being paid to sit in it, did not require one-hundred-hour inspections, since it was not considered to be a commercial operation. Now, under the new interpretation of instruction as not being a commercial activity, must school airplanes still be subject to one-hundred-hour inspections? Good question. I'd like to see just how the FAA General Counsel justifies the answer to that one. The answer is no doubt, of course school airplanes require one-hundred-hour inspections, but then, maybe not. Who knows? Not me.


A glaring example of how differently the regulations can be interpreted by those in authority emerged from a question asked at a CFI revalidation clinic a couple of years ago. An instructor in attendance asked the speaker if the safety pilot who is looking out for traffic while the pilot, practicing instrument procedures, is operating the controls with a view-limiting device in place, should log his time as second-in-command. Now the regulation appears to be quite clear (or is it?). Second-in-command time may only be logged if the EQUIPMENT (the airplane by virtue of weighing over 12,500 pounds maximum gross takeoff weight, or a jet), or the OPERATION (such as a charter flight carrying passengers on an IFR flight plan under FAR Part 135) requires a second-in-command. The lecturer turned to an FAA Inspector from the local FSDO who was sharing the platform with him for an answer to the question of how the safety pilot should log his time, and the inspector in a very positive tone said, "They should both log the time as PIC (Pilot-in-Command) because the manipulator of the controls is ACTING as PIC and the safety pilot may LOG PIC, since he or she is responsible for the safety of the flight." Sounds reasonable, right? Just wait.

Not being satisfied with this answer, the guy in charge of the program called the FAA Regional Office and asked an Associate Regional Counsel (Government Lawyer) for an opinion and was told that since the operation required a safety pilot, he/she should log it as SIC, but added, "You'd better check with Washington." So Washington was called, and their answer was that the safety pilot shouldn't log it at all! I suppose he/she is considered a mere passenger. How's that for consistency?


The evolution of the Flight Instructor Certificate has traveled the following path: First, the CFI was a rating on a pilot certificate and the instructor was authorized to teach whatever category and class of aircraft was listed on his or her pilot certificate. Then, in 1957, the CFI became a separate certificate, renewable every twenty-four calendar months, and the holder was authorized to teach whatever was on his or her pilot certificate. Then, later it was decided to put ratings on the CFI certificate, for category of aircraft and for instruments. Finally, it was decided to require the teacher of multiengine procedures to have a separate multiengine rating on his or her flight instructor certificate, because it is a class rating.

Well, if this is the reasoning, why not have a seaplane rating on the CFI certificate? Isn't that a separate class rating as well? But, no, if an airplane flight instructor has a seaplane rating on his or her pilot certificate, he or she is entitled to teach seaplane students. Again, how's that for being logical and consistent?

Logging Time

The whole subject of logging time is full of inconsistencies. Until the requirement of complex airplane time was added to the qualifications needed for the commercial certificate, when an applicant (even one who was qualified to fly the airplane) was being given instruction, only the instructor could log the time as PIC, and the applicant was limited to entering the time in the dual-received column. However, since most (if not all) insurance carriers require a considerable amount of time in any complex airplane before the pilot may be covered, the FAA in its infinite wisdom decided that both the instructor and the applicant (advanced student) should log it as PIC. That way both the requirement for PIC time in a complex airplane and the insurance industry could both be satisfied. In this case, the student (who is operating the controls) is acting as pilot in command and the instructor who is giving dual instruction may log it as PIC time since he is responsible for the overall safety of the flight.

Many knowledgeable pilots fail to understand the difference between acting as pilot in command and logging PIC time. And, it gets even more complicated in the courtroom situation. Setting aside the concept of vicarious liability which falls on the owner/operator, some jurisdictions (states) have statutes that hold a CFI responsible if one is aboard (or was aboard when the crash occurred). In others this is a rebuttable presumption if there is evidence that someone else was in charge of the flight. In still others, the airman holding the highest grade of certification is deemed to have been in command. When two (dead) pilots were sitting in the front seats, some jurisdictions hold that the one talking on the radio was PIC, while others reason that the one working the radio was not the one flying the airplane. Of course, the question of who was sitting in which seat frequently comes into play. See how complicated it gets? I could go on and on, but you get the idea.

Four Pilots in Command

Picture this situation if you will: an advanced student sitting in the left front seat is manipulating the controls. He logs PIC time, because he is acting as PIC. Next to him is a CFI giving him instruction. He logs PIC time. In one of the rear seats sits a pilot who holds an ATP Certificate. He's supervising the CFI, so he logs PIC time. And in the other rear seat of the four place airplane is the owner/operator (perhaps even a non-pilot). He is responsible for the safety of the flight, so he, too, is entitled to log PIC time. You think this is ridiculous? So do I. The point I'm attempting to make is that the regulations are full of inconsistencies, some of which are downright silly— irrational to say the least.


Having demonstrated a few inconsistencies, we can now turn our attention to just how hidebound the agency is in refusing to permit progress to creep into the world of aviation. In the name of safety, the insist on seeing that things are done in the tried and proven way. The ignition systems in virtually all certified general aviation light planes are magneto driven. Most modern automobiles are fired by electronic ignition, which has no moving parts, and which is extremely accurate as regards timing. Not only that, but it costs much less to produce than magnetos which are full of gears and moving parts. It certainly makes sense to use this form of ignition in airplanes, even if a backup source of electric energy were to be required, but since when has what makes sense had any influence on the FAA?

An electronic tachometer can be reliable within a single revolution, but are electronic tachs in widespread use in general aviation aircraft? No, we must still live with the old definitely unreliable mechanical tachometers, with lots of moving parts, gears, and cables, all subject to failure. When electronic tachs are allowed, the FAA, in its infinite wisdom, required them to show RPM to single revolution accuracy, even though plenty of research has shown that to be distracting and unnecessary. The more complicated you make something, the more there is to go wrong. It is my contention that a simple design is better, and I'm sure most pilots would agree with me.

Slow to Catch Up

Flight training has consistently been running ten to twenty years behind the state of the art. A prime example of this is the way I was trained in the early 1940s. Back in the early 1930s (and before), aircraft engines were so undependable that every time you took off you could toss a coin as to whether or not the engine would quit. Consequently a great deal of time in primary training was devoted to the practice of "forced landings."

The instructor would reduce the power to idle at several unexpected times during every training flight and the student would pick out a suitable landing area and glide toward it, explaining to the instructor just how he planned his approach (into the wind, parallel to the plowed furrows, etc.). Out in the open country we would glide right down to the flare before the instructor would give the engine back for the climb out. Now, since engines are infinitely more dependable, we still teach the technique, but with not nearly the emphasis we did back then, nor do we bring the airplane down anywhere near as low to the ground as we did then.

Those days, on virtually every session with the instructor, the student would get a simulated engine failure during the performance of one or another of the high-altitude maneuvers, and the best suitable field would be right below the airplane. A one-eighty overhead approach is required to set up the forced landing. From this evolved the three-turn spiral that is required of commercial applicants today.

Revise or Eliminate Maneuvers

There are several other maneuvers and procedures in the training curriculum that probably ought to be revised or eliminated. The original purpose of the ground reference maneuvers was twofold. First, to train the student to divide his attention between inside and outside references. The student is required to constantly be checking their altitude, while also carefully observing his ground track as well as planning ahead to correct for wind drift. Even more important, however, was the objective of making the student aware of what the wind is doing to his flight path at all times and this is just as important today as it was back then.

Formerly, when the primary training airplanes were the J3 Cub and the 7AC Champ, the ground reference maneuvers were very valid procedures. The airplanes were going fifty or sixty miles per hour and the maneuvers were performed at four to six hundred feet above the surface, so the wind drift was readily apparent. Today, however, with training airplanes that are going ninety to one hundred knots, and the maneuvers being accomplished ten to twelve hundred feet above the surface, it requires a substantial wind for the drift to become apparent to the pilot.

The bottom line purpose of all these ground reference maneuvers (S turns across a road, turns about a point, eights along a road, and the rectangular course) was to prepare the student to fly a proper pattern at the airport, to shade the bank on the first turn to crosswind so that the crosswind leg is perpendicular to the departure path, to crab to the right while on the crosswind leg, to again shade the bank on the turn to downwind leg, to fly the downwind leg parallel to the runway, to again shade the bank on the turn to the base leg, ending with a crab to the left, and finally, to shade the bank on the turn to final, ending up aligned with the runway.

In those days the traffic pattern at uncontrolled (non-tower) airports (and the vast majority of training was done at such fields) was four to six hundred feet above the ground, and again, wind drift was readily apparent. It was essential to train the student with the ground reference maneuvers away from the airport to prepare the student for flying a good pattern at the airport. A good landing follows a good pattern. Today, with ten- to twelve-hundred-foot patterns and faster airplanes, the time spent on the crosswind and base legs is so short that the student hardly has an opportunity to observe what the wind is doing to his flight path. In those days we flew much tighter patterns than is common in today's training. We stayed close enough so that once we had reached six hundred feet above the ground, we could make the airport from any point in the pattern. We might not make the runway, but at least we'd be in a position to land (not crash) on the airport property.

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

I have been getting a fair amount of email about these columns, and please don't misunderstand me, I enjoy getting email and I answer all of it, but if your comments have any validity, why not share them with other readers? If you have a question, odds are many others, too shy to speak up, do as well. So, I'd really appreciate it if those desiring to comment upon these columns would post them using the "Post your thoughts about the column" link below, rather than emailing me directly. Thanks very much.