Eye of Experience #34:
The Biennial Flight Review

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Depending on your viewpoint, the Biennial Flight Review (BFR) is either a curse or a blessing. Regardless, it is a fact of aviation life in the U.S. AVweb's Howard Fried examines how the BFR came into being, what the instructor's responsibilities are, why it's probably the most violated FAR, what it entails and more importantly what it doesn't.

Eye Of ExperienceA bit over 25 years ago, the FAA selected a General Aviation Operations Inspector in each of two District Offices (Detroit and Grand Rapids, Mich.), designated them Accident Prevention Specialists, and charged them with the responsibility of establishing a safety program on a test basis. Each of these two inspectors selected several flight instructors in his district to work with him as volunteer Accident Prevention Counselors, and they set to work developing a workable safety program for pilots. At the end of the test year it was decided that the program was worthwhile and the Accident Prevention Program now called the Aviation Safety Program was born. It went national and one inspector in each District Office was designated as an Accident Prevention Specialist, later Accident Prevention Program Manager (give 'em the title "manager" and you don't have to give 'em a raise), and, finally, Safety Program Manager. It seems that the FAA is in love with words they keep changing the names of things. Since the term "accident" has a negative connotation it was dropped in favor of using the word "safety" and instead of specialists, the folks who administer the program became managers.

The Safety Pin

One of the features of the original program was the "safety pin," a lapel pin with the Spirit of St. Louis in the center. This pin was awarded to any pilot who took a "voluntary proficiency check ride" with one of the Accident Prevention Specialists or Counselors. After a few successful years of this, the voluntary proficiency check became mandatory, and the Biennial Flight Review (BFR) was born. By the bye, the current Wings program is an extension of the voluntary proficiency check as well.

The thinking of the powers that be at the very top of the Flight Standards Division of the FAA was and is that since professional pilots, particularly air carrier pilots and charter pilots, are required to get recurrent training and proficiency checks, why shouldn't the general aviation pilot as well? The casual or infrequent flyer no doubt needs to have his or her skills and knowledge reviewed more than does the professional who is flying every day.

When the flight review first became mandatory, I attended a meeting for flight instructors at which a prominent FAA Inspector implied that the assembled flight instructors were all going to get rich giving BFRs (what a joke!) He went on to state that if a pilot who was out of time (more than two years had elapsed since his last review) taxied across the field to get the review it was okay, but if he had to fly in from a distant airport, you could nail him with a violation! Good thinking, huh?

In my considered opinion, anyone who is conscientious enough to come in for a review is deserving of extra consideration he or she should not be a subject for for a violation. And on the subject of time, it was explained to me that the BFR was the only timed event in the FAA's body of regulations that expires on its anniversary date rather than on the last day of the anniversary month because it was the result of congressional action, rather than the regulatory people at the agency. Of course, that has since been changed with the most-recent rewrite of Part 61.


From its very inception, the conduct of the BFR has been left entirely to the discretion of the administering instructor. This, of course, has resulted in the review consisting of anything from a perfunctory "once around the patch" to several dual instruction sessions involving multiple hours of flight instruction. It wasn't long before literally every publisher in the business came out with a pamphlet, booklet, or checklist setting forth guidelines for the conduct of the review.

The FAA has carefully refrained from designating specific maneuvers or procedures in the conduct of the BFR. It has, however, offered guidelines for the instructor, and the definitive guide is the FAA Advisory Circular, AC 61.98A. Although this is a description of recommended procedures for the conduct of the review in text form, it is, in effect, a textual checklist that the instructor may use as a guide in the conduct of the review.

The review itself is not meant to be a pass-fail situation, but without a "satisfactory" endorsement from the instructor the applicant may not legally operate as pilot in command of an aircraft even all by himself, alone, solo. Therefore, despite protestations to the contrary, every pilot must "pass" the review. No one ever gets an "unsat." If the performance is unsatisfactory, his or her logbook merely reflects the amount of dual instruction received.

Since the purpose of the review is to ensure that all pilots maintain the level of proficiency they had reached at the time they originally acquired the certificate, the ideal review involves the use of our old friend the Practical Test Standards (PTS) as the guide for the conduct of the review. If the pilot fails to meet the standard set forth in the PTS for the certificates held, the instructor won't endorse the logbook for the review, but will merely sign his/her log as having received dual instruction for that session. Another instructional period (or more) is necessary until the pilot once again achieves the standard of the PTS. Let the PTS be the guide. After all, that's what applied in the first place.

Or did it? Perhaps the pilot acquired his certificate under an older, different standard, in which case maybe he should be "grandfathered" in under that standard? You can't very well ask him to be better than he was when he got the certificate.

Who Needs It?

Probably the most violated of all the Federal Aviation Regulations is Part 61.56 (formerly 61.57), which sets forth the requirements for the BFR. It seems to be easier for the pilot to forget this than the need for a medical every six months, twelve months, or twenty-four months as the case may be. Some AMEs (Aviation Medical Examiners) send reminders to their pilot patients. I'm sure the vast majority of those who fail to timely schedule a flight review do so by inadvertence.

However, there is that large group of pilots who harbor the infamous anti-authority attitude. They maintain that they have nothing to prove so they refuse to expose themselves to an instructor for a review of their skill, ability, and knowledge. After all, they did it at the time they acquired the certificate, so why should they have to do it again and again, periodically? These are the guys who keep an airplane at a remote, probably private strip, hangared in a barn. The airplane hasn't had the benefit of being looked at by a mechanic for several years, and the pilot hasn't seen an AME (Aviation Medical Examiner) since he acquired his certificate if indeed he even has a pilot certificate. The irony of this is that these are the guys who need it the most. The serious, safety-minded pilot who is very current with his flying and who conscientiously presents himself to an instructor for a review every 24 months (or more often) is the one who will benefit from the review the least. He probably doesn't really need it. Certainly not to the extent that the pilot with a chip on his shoulder who refuses to expose himself to the scrutiny of an instructor needs it.

Current Standards

The most recent changes in the evolution of the flight review regulations include the on again, off again annual flight review for the Recreational or Private Pilot with less than 400 hours total time and the Private Pilot who does not have an instrument rating on his pilot certificate. Additionally, there is the requirement for a minimum of one hour of ground and one hour of flight instruction during the review. These refinements in the requirements of the flight review have been proposed, abandoned, and re-proposed. In fact, the discretion of the administering flight instructor has been restricted by the imposition of the one-hour ground and flight instruction minimum requirement. But this is once again under review by the regulators. What is covered in these required hours is still discretionary with the administering instructor, so really, the instructor's role is not seriously curtailed.

What Constitutes A Review?

Any required flight check counts as a flight review, the most notable of which is the addition of an additional rating to a pilot certificate or the addition of a higher-grade certificate. These required checks include six-month checks for charter pilots, renewal of a flight instructor certificate (but only if the CFI actually flies rather than a non-flying renewal). Interestingly, an instrument proficiency (formerly instrument competency) check does not count since the review is supposed to ascertain that the pilot is still up to the standard of his/her certificate. Even so, I am aware of at least one BFR that was signed off by no less than a DPE (Designated Pilot Examiner) for a friend without not only not flying, but without so much as asking a single question!

Because any required flight check counts, I have personally never had a specific flight review. As the chief pilot for my company's Part 135 charter operation, I was required to expose myself to the FAA for regular six-month checks and as a DPE each year I had to fly for the feds. Each of those checks counts as a BFR. Since I no longer hold a 135 certificate and am no longer a DPE, I have been flying for the renewal of my CFI, which also counts.

Usual Boilerplate: If you have a comment regarding this column, please post it here rather than sending it to me by direct email. That way others may benefit from your input.