Are Flight Instructor Reforms Needed?

Weaknesses in CFI experience levels, initial training and testing, and recurrent certification undermine effectiveness.


Both industry and the FAA recently have emphasized the importance of effective flight training to improve the fatal accident record. Flight instructors, who serve on the front lines in this effort, are the crucial human element in the flight training delivery system and the glue holding the other elements together.

But questions regarding their experience, training, continuing education and professionalism raise doubts about whether the service they provide is effective, consistent, relevant and customer-friendly. After all, if they were doing their job,


would the trend lines in general aviations safety record be as flat as they are?

Past and Present

The changes in flight instructor “demographics” over the last 50 years have been dramatic. While the changes have been studied only casually, permit me some anecdotal observations about this long-term trend and what it means.

When I learned to fly in the early 1960s, all of my instructors (there were several) learned to fly in the 1930s, before a formal general aviation training system even existed, and they were in the last phase of their careers. They had many thousands of hours of flight time and instruction given and often passed on considerable aeronautical wisdom-if you made the effort to extract it.

The instructors Im thinking of were the strong, silent type, so when they spoke, you listened. It didnt make much sense to have a dialogue with them anyway, since most of them were hard of hearing by this point, after 30 years in Cubs and Champs without noise-canceling headsets. Nevertheless, if you persisted, they would take you under their wing and you really could learn a lot, at least a lot about the stick and rudder art of flying. Higher order skills such as risk management were another matter, although even here there were occasional nuggets you could glean if you persisted, to tap the aeronautical wisdom gained from years of experience.

There were certainly younger instructors with less experience in that period, but they earned their instructor credentials under the watchful eyes of the old pros. They also tended to stay on the flight instructor front lines longer, so you rarely flew with brand-new instructors.

In the mid 1960s, this began to change, as airlines started their hiring boom. That boom didnt last long, because of the fuel crises and recessions in the 1970s and the plentiful supply of ex-military pilots that provided most of the airlines new hires. It wasnt until after airline deregulation really took hold in the early 1980s and demand for pilots increased that the flight instructor communitys fundamental nature began to change.

Today, we have a far different situation in the flight instructor community. Flight instructors usually only instruct long enough to get the experience necessary to secure that entry-level right seat job with a regional airline. Until recently, the criteria for those positions were becoming increasingly less stringent and were approaching the regulatory minimums in FAR 121. Recent legislation will supposedly require the co-pilot also hold an airline transport pilot (ATP) certificate, thus ensuring even first officers have at least 1500 hours of flight time. The jury is still out on how the FAA will implement that requirement, since it requires formal rulemaking specifying how those 1500 hours can be spent, and it might involve some combination of flight, simulator and other training time.

The bottom line is your flight instructor is likely to have minimal experience when he/she provides your initial or recurrent training. If the ATP requirement takes full effect, we may even see a perverse effect where instructors end up with more experience but become quickly jaded and unmotivated. That would happen among people who are really not interested in being flight instructors, but only in securing that elusive airline job instead.

Toward Motivation

To have any hope of reversing these effects of low experience and poor motivation in the flight instructor community, we need to look closely at the doctrine, standards, and curricula that compose flight instructor initial and recurrent training, as well as their professionalism.

The requirements to become a flight instructor are spelled out in FAR Part 61, but are really contained in FAA doctrine material, such as handbooks and advisory circulars, containing the “what” and “why” of what instructors must know. These include the same documents covering pilot certificate requirements, such as the Airplane Flying Handbook and Pilots Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge, as well as the unique doctrine covered in the Aviation Instructors Handbook.

The good news is that all of these handbooks have been recently revised and are an improvement over previous guidance. The bad news is the training doctrine is still largely maneuvers-based-rather than scenario-based-and the emphasis on instructor training is still heavily concentrated on rote learning and performing classic training maneuvers, rather than on how to teach. Techniques such as student-centered learning and grading, teaching risk management and other newer techniques are either not addressed, or are addressed incompletely. Nevertheless, the doctrine has been greatly improved from previous guidance and could at least serve as a foundation for more effective flight instructor training if only the testing and curricula were set up to accomplish this.

Performance by ROTE

The FAA knowledge and practical tests for the flight instructor certificate, like knowledge and practical tests for pilot certificates, are based on rote knowledge of subject material, rather than mastery of concepts. As weve noted, the practical test is maneuver-based, rather than scenario-based, and concepts such as student-centered learning are ignored in the testing process.

Many members of the flight training community offer the opinion that the test isnt as important as the curricula, and progressive and innovative schools can go beyond the regulatory requirements to ensure that flight instructor candidates are fully prepared to tech effectively. Such well-intentioned offerings are not realistic. Like it or not, we teach to the test. Thats how curricula are designed by schools, and later approved by the FAA.

Speaking of the FAA, its interesting to note that the failure rate for flight instructor initial practical tests is as high as 70 percent in some areas of the country. Its tempting to blame the schools for this appalling statistic, but we need to remember the FAA supervises these schools, approves their curricula and is supposed to monitor the quality of the training. The fact is the FAA either doesnt have enough resources to do this adequately, or does a poor job of it. Im inclined to think its the latter and this is based on not only watching the current situation from inside the industry as a consultant, but also from my past life as an FAA inspector at a Flight Standards District Office (FSDO) and later as FAAs chief senior executive for general aviation oversight.

Its not that the hard-working FSDO inspectors arent trying to do their jobs. Rather, its the multiple priorities they must balance, the conflicting guidance they often receive from intermediate management levels and-last but not least-the quality and nature of the FAA training they have received. This training is important because it tends to emphasize rigid adherence to black-and-white criteria and answers on tests, rather than flexible responses based on higher concepts, such as the “system safety” concepts that FAA keeps touting as its new approach to safety oversight.

Given this framework, its fairly easy to trip up any candidate on the oral portion of the practical test, if you ask enough questions about obscure regulations, irrelevant subjects (How many satellites are there in the GPS constellation?) or other subjects that dont really assess how effective the candidate will be as a working instructor.

Recertifying Instructors

Flight instructors are required to renew their certificates every two years. The vast majority renew by completing industry-operated flight instructor refresher clinics (FIRC). The FIRCs use FAA-approved training course outlines (TCOs) and may be conducted live, online or by other methods. The training time for these events is specified as 16 hours. The subjects taught are dictated by the FAA and specified in the latest version of Advisory Circular AC 61-83, Nationally Scheduled FAA-Approved Industry-Conducted Flight Instructor Refresher Clinics.

The FAA has progressively modified the FIRC guidance in AC 61-83x over the years. As one result, the current version, 61-83F, Change 1, is a great improvement over earlier guidance. There are now 15 core subjects specified in Appendix 1 of the AC that must be addressed in each FIRCs TCO. In Appendix 2, the AC also lists 33 elective topics that FIRCs may optionally address. The FAA does not specify a minimum training time for each subject. Remember, however, that the total minimum training time is only 16 hours, and all FIRCs can be expected to adhere to this for competitive reasons. You might ask, how can any of the subjects be covered fully and adequately with only 16 hours available?

The answer, of course, is that you cant cover it all, so the FIRC provider must be both selective and creative in designing the TCO. Its beyond the scope of this article to cover the details of FIRC subjects. However, the concept of recurring education for any profession is a valid one and doctors, lawyers, certified public accountants and other professions are subject to similar requirements. The FIRC concept should work well in theory, but often is less effective in practice. Most FIRCs present the material in the same rote fashion as original flight instructor training, rather than offering training scenarios. There may be another approach to keeping flight instructors up to date.


I just mentioned that recurrent education of individual practitioners is now the accepted norm in most professions. Physicians, for example, may have a medical degree and a residency at the start of their careers, but most then become “board certified” in some specialized area. Of more relevance to flight instructors, public school teachers typically have both practice teaching requirements and continuing education that exceeds state regulatory requirements.

I believe we need a similar concept for flight instructors. There is currently a successful industry Master Instructor (MI) program that specifies an extensive, well-rounded continuing education program, but it is directed at advanced instructors who are at the top of the flight instruction profession. There are about 93,000 flight instructors who hold current FAA certificates, but fewer than 700 of them hold an MI designation.

I suggest we need a more basic professional accreditation for entry level flight instructors. This accreditation would emphasize the practical aspects of being a working flight instructor and include topics such as customer relations, student-centered learning, scenario-based training, business aspects of instructing and selected technical subjects that are either not covered, or poorly covered by most FIRCs. The balance in the accreditation requirements should be such that the continuing education component of the accreditation process would meet standards for renewing the FAA flight instructor certificate.

Although accreditation would be a voluntary process, it would have benefits for instructor credibility, student performance, appeal to potential employers and probably to the FAA, thus providing a win-win all around. It also would result in more consistent flight instructor performance, resulting in more effective flight training, and therefore would lead to potential improvements in the fatal accident rate.

Instructor Organizations

You may have the impression that I have a low opinion of flight instructors in general. This is not correct. Most instructors try to do their jobs well, in accordance with how they were taught, and a large number become very effective instructors, usually by learning how to think outside the box. It is clear, however, that they could use a little support.

I am an active member of SAFE, which has created a flight instructor mentor program, and this is a perfect example of an effort that will encourage flight instructors to emulate instruction excellence. The SAFE board of directors is elected by the organizations membership and is aligned with the interests of working instructors. The organization is also proactive on training reform, as evidenced by the symposium held on this issue in May 2011 and mentioned in the sidebar above.

The other organization representing flight instructors is the National Association of Flight Instructors (NAFI). Unlike SAFE, the NAFI board of directors is not entirely composed of directors elected by its members. I was on the NAFI board from 2005 until 2009, but resigned from the board, and my NAFI membership, in February 2009 to support SAFE. It should be pointed out that NAFI and SAFE membership together represents only a minority of the flight instructor community.

What Comes Next?

The SAFE Pilot Training Reform Symposium in May 2011 recommended six projects that industry and FAA should implement in order to reduce fatal accidents and increase student pilot starts. Two of these were directed at flight instructor performance. One of these focused on improving FAA initial and recurrent training standards and the other dealt with professional accreditation of flight instructors.

SAFE expects a reply to these recommendations from FAA and industry by the end of September 2011. It will be interesting to see whether they are willing to step up to the plate and embrace real change in the way flight instructors are trained.

Bob Wright is the President of Wright Aviation Solutions LLC and is a former FAA senior executive. In addition to holding an airline transport pilot certificate, he has been a flight instructor for 39 years. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of any clients he represents or of any organization mentioned in this article.


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