A Pilot Training Reform Report Card

In just two years, we’ve seen movement toward reform that might nudge the accident rate downward. But the FAA needs to get more creative. (And aggressive.)


Two years ago, at AOPA’s Summit in Long Beach, California, both the association and the Society of Aviation and Flight Educators (SAFE) announced pilot training reform efforts. AOPA, alarmed at the pilot dropout rate, focused more intently on student retention while SAFE’s efforts zeroed in laser like on the relationship between training and safety and how poor training may reduce retention and flying activity in general.


In the meantime, the NTSB just concluded a study on amateur-built aircraft safety and it focused a two-day forum exclusively on that topic. Two years later, it’s fair to ask: Have we made any concrete improvements in training?

The short answer is that SAFE recognized from the outset that training reform would be an evolutionary process, not something that would occur overnight or even over months. The organization made a number of recommendations, including better accident analysis, improved flight training curricula and delivery, and CFI accreditation, to name three. We’ve seen significant progress on some of these issues, but less on others. Here’s a summary of where we stand.

Some Background
The main players in improving GA safety continue to be AOPA and SAFE. The AOPA Student Pilot Flight Training Retention Initiative was kicked off at the organization’s Summit in November 2010 and is focused on issues both enhancing and detracting from the student pilot experience. It is not focused on safety issues, even though there is considerable evidence the current general aviation safety record is a deterrent to the “latent” market of potential pilots. Dale Klapmeier of Cirrus also often refers to the “reluctant spouse” issue and emphasizes that the latent market is much bigger than the traditional “enthusiast” market.

In May 2011, SAFE followed through on its commitment by holding a Pilot Training Reform Symposium, convening it in Atlanta. (Full disclosure: I moderated a panel at that conference and remain involved with SAFE’s activities.) In June 2011, SAFE followed up and issued a report on the Symposium (see our July 2011 issue for details). The June 2011 SAFE report specified six recommended “projects” the FAA, industry and the aviation community could undertake to implement training reform. They are discussed in the sidebar on the opposite page.

When SAFE published that report, it recognized none of those projects could be implemented in the short run and that training reform would be an evolutionary process. Nevertheless, it should be possible to measure incremental progress on them, based on activities underway or announced. So, I will try to give an objective accounting of where things stand, the impact on the general aviation community and an overall “grade” on results. I’ll also suggest what it means to the typical pilot and what you can do now, on your own, to implement your own “personal” training reform program.

I’m going to separate the six “progress summaries” into two groups. In the first, I’ll list the four projects where I believe progress has occurred. I’ll then cover the remaining two in which not much has happened, and I’ll explain why. At the end, I’ll sum up where the whole process stands and describe some additional barriers to success which must be addressed in order for training reform to be fully effective.

Looking at the following four projects in the SAFE report, we can see hopeful signs that training reform is underway. I will note right away that numerous organizations and individuals, not just SAFE, are responsible for initiating these proactive approaches and some of this activity pre-dates the SAFE Symposium and report. I also will point out that the following brief summaries do not do justice to each activity, since there is a deeper story behind each of them.

1. Better Accident Analysis
The General Aviation Joint Steering Committee (GAJSC) is an industry/FAA group formed to analyze accidents and recommend changes in programs, standards and training. The GAJSC formed a loss of control (LOC) work group to determine root causes of LOC accidents and recommend mitigations.

Although the work group didn’t tackle the need for a better accident root cause analysis process for all accidents, they at least came up with numerous mitigations to address LOC issues. Several of these could be effective, in my opinion, if they were widely implemented. These include creating a risk-based flight review, better aeronautical decision making by using flight risk assessment tools (FRAT) and producing better educational materials to improve single-pilot resource management (SRM). The work group delivered its report to the FAA early in 2012.

The three mitigations I listed above could have an important impact on general aviation safety if they were embraced by the general aviation community, even though the LOC work group didn’t propose a fundamental change in accident analysis procedures.

I give this effort an overall C+ grade. A higher grade is not warranted at present because the work group really didn’t create a better root cause analysis process. If it had, it likely would have revealed the prominence of poor risk management practices in fatal GA accidents. I’d be willing to give this effort a higher grade if the three mitigations listed actually got adopted and flight instructors and pilots started using them.

2. Modernizing Standards
Meanwhile, in early 2011, the FAA chartered an industry aviation rulemaking committee (ARC) to examine the knowledge-test process and recommend changes in standards for questions (More disclosure: I was an alternate member of this ARC, backing up SAFE’s executive director). The ARC finished its work and transmitted a report to the FAA in April 2012 containing nine recommendations. While in Washington in June 2012 for the previously mentioned NTSB activities, I attended the meeting in which FAA communicated its response to these recommendations.

The FAA essentially agreed with eight of the nine recommendations covering knowledge test development, content and interface with the community. In its only rejection of the ARC recommendations, the FAA stated it would continue to withhold the test questions from the public, committing only to further study the issue.

In my view, the most significant recommendation was the industry/FAA commitment to create a single testing standard for both the knowledge test and the practical test. The ARC report specified this should include three emphasis areas covering all that a pilot must know and demonstrate: knowledge, skills and, most significant, risk management ability.

In the long term, this could have a significant impact on general aviation safety as new pilots are subject to a more integrated testing approach, including greater emphasis on risk management. Its only impact on existing pilots, however, will occur when they apply to upgrade certificates and ratings.

I give this reform effort a solid B, for now. I’ll be willing to upgrade this later, if FAA and industry follow through by updating handbook material and ensuring curricula changes to reflect the new standards. This should happen automatically, since we teach to the test, but it could represent a departure from the rote method of instruction we historically use. Its implementation also could meet cultural resistance from an entrenched training community.

3. CFI Accreditation
Among its other activities, SAFE is taking a leadership role here, forming and chairing a committee composed of industry stakeholders to create and propose an accreditation process for the instructor community. As I write this article, the product is in beta testing and, hopefully, will be unveiled later this year.

This process is designed to benefit working CFIs, their customers and flight training organizations by creating a model and standard for what new working instructors really need to know to be successful. This would include topics like customer relations and other aspects of professionalism, as well as technical subjects such as use of a syllabus.

The program is designed to fill the gap between the minimums represented by the FAA flight instructor practical test and the higher-level Master Instructor program operated by industry.

The accreditation program could help eliminate variability in the way flight instruction is delivered and reduce the student pilot attrition rate, as well as produce safer pilots.

Again, I’ll give this effort a solid B. I’ll definitely upgrade this at a later date if SAFE can find a way to sign up a significant portion of the instructor community and prove effectiveness of the accreditation process and standard.

4. Curricula And Delivery
Numerous flight schools have experimented with innovative curricula and other ways of delivering better flight training, but the boldest approach I’ve seen recently is the partnership among Redbird Simulations, King Schools and Cessna. At Redbird’s “Skyport” training center in Texas, this team is using greater simulation, integrated with online training and flight instruction, plus risk management training from day one of flight instruction.

The parties are using this curriculum to improve training quality and prepare students for operations in the real world, rather than to just pass the required tests. The center was only opened in October 2011, yet the initial round of students are obtaining their private certificates at near the minimum required airplane instruction time—32.5 hours in a Part 141 curriculum.

This approach, if successful, can have a huge influence on both the general aviation safety record and the manner in which personal aircraft are used. Redbird promises to share the data it is accumulating on student performance with the rest of the community.

This effort earns an A- in my view. The initial results are promising and if the Redbird team can export their best practices to the rest of the GA community, it easily could end up being an A+, as well as a home run for the general aviation safety record. That’s the good news.

The Other News
So, four out of the six SAFE training reform project recommendations are being implemented in one form or another. What about the other two? The prognosis for improved flight instructor training and a better flight review option rests in the hands of the FAA.

That’s because the requirements for a flight instructor’s initial training are largely controlled by the applicable knowledge tests (both the fundamentals of instruction test and the aircraft category tests). Flight instructor renewal is largely accomplished through the flight instructor refresher clinic (FIRC) process. Similarly, the FAA can create flight review options by approving different forms of pilot proficiency or “Wings” programs.

The language in the relevant FAR specifies satisfactory completion of “an approved flight instructor refresher course” as a renewal option. The FARs also offer satisfactory completion of “an FAA-sponsored pilot proficiency award program” as a means of complying with the flight review requirement. Both rules provide the FAA with flexibility. In other words, all of the above actions can be accomplished with the stroke of a pen. Doing so would avoid years of costly, unnecessary rulemaking while not violating any precedents or regulatory procedures.

My background includes serving in an executive-management role at the FAA from 2001-2005 (and earlier, from 1993-1996, in an acting-manager capacity). During that time, I and others made liberal use of this kind of flexibility to get things done without spending 10 years trying to change the rules. I always looked for opportunities to provide regulatory relief or improve safety using these tools. So what’s happening now?

When we transmitted the SAFE report to FAA, we were hoping for proactive FAA responses on our recommendations. As I’ve described, the FAA has proactively participated in at least two of the four projects where progress has occurred. Yet, the FAA has yet to respond to proposals on flight instructor training and the flight review.

In all fairness to the agency, it’s possible these two projects proposed in the June 2011 report on the Pilot Training Reform Symposium were not adequately explained to the FAA. Accordingly, both SAFE Executive Director Doug Stewart and I provided FAA with further information on these projects, most recently in June 2012. We’re hopeful the FAA will respond to the challenge of creating more effective flight instructor training and offering more effective options to the “one-size-fits-all” flight review and Wings program. The latter is especially important, since the flight review requirement or the Wings alternative is the only way to effectively and regularly reach the existing population of nearly 600,000 pilots, compared to the 20-30,000 new private pilots certified each year.

On balance, I’ve concluded that an “incomplete” is warranted on these two projects—for now. Meanwhile, if you’re a flight instructor, you should go beyond the requirements of the FIRCs, learning how to provide risk management and other training to reduce the accident rate. If you’re a GA pilot, seek such an instructor for your next flight review and ask for a scenario-based review that emphasizes risk management techniques.

Who knows—by this time next year FAA may make a bold move and offer a completely different kind of Wings program that targets the 75 percent of GA fatal accidents resulting from poor risk management.





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