Great news for flight instructors

December 1, 1993

Have you ever done something for so long that the reason for doing it that way was no longer in memory? Flight instructor refresher training clinics, or FIRCS for those inclined to use acronyms, is one of those longstanding programs that has not changed much since its inception in the late1960s. But times are changing with computer-generated graphics, videotapes, and more interactive teaching techniques.

The FAA, quite properly, requires that all CFIs renew their certificates every two years. There are several ways of doing this: take a check ride, have enough students successfully complete their flight checks in a given period so that the FAA knows your record speaks for itself, know an FAA inspector well enough so that he or she will vouch for your capability, take a correspondence course, or attend a FIRC.

The AOPA Air Safety Foundation helped the FAA in pioneering the FIRC concept and executing it in the early 1970s. Since that time, the foundation has conducted more FIRCs, in more places, serving more instructors, than anyone else.

Until recently, attending a FIRC meant sitting through 24 hours of classroom study. Some of the required topics include regulations, publications, flight maneuver analysis, fundamentals of instruction, aerodynamics, etc. Because most of the CFI audience has survived multiple writtens, orals, and flight tests, a quick review of the unchanging basics is adequate. This leaves more time for discussion of recent changes or problems that are implicated in the accident record. Many of us have often felt that these were 16-hour courses crammed to fit into 24 hours.

Because most instructors teach part-time and earn money to support themselves in other ways, most FIRCs are built around a weekend schedule to minimize the disruption to a full-time job. Most program providers, including the ASF, have attempted to fit the mandatory 24 hours into a Friday night and two loooong days to meet the flight instructors' scheduling constraints and the regulations.

Back in December 1992, having once again proved that the mind can absorb only what the posterior can endure, I felt it was time to ask the obvious question: Why were we doing this? Was there a greater good that could be served by improving the quality of instruction, taking advantage of new teaching technology, and inserting a bit more flexibility into the process that would allow us to do a better job?

We polled the course instructors who allowed that they would be much happier teaching a shorter seminar. After the backside has turned to stone, mental retention of anything is questionable. If you can appreciate the difficulty of keeping one flight instructor happy when you're flying with them for an hour, then you can see how keeping a whole roomful under control after they're tired and grumpy is akin to making gold from lead. It takes a magical touch.

The course critique sheets from the CFIs themselves have always lobbied for a more incisive approach, so the only party that needed any persuading was the FAA — a big task. The foundation does a lot of work with the FAA, particularly in Flight Standards, so we knew exactly whom to visit.

"Nothing is so powerful as an idea whose time has come," said writer Victor Hugo, and the FAA's response to our request to shorten the FIRC to 16 hours met with some enthusiasm. All you have to do, we were told, is petition for an exemption and submit a new training course outline — a piece of cake. The ASF's vice president for advanced training, Frank J. Whyte, complied with the request, and we thought approval would be easy — how naive.

"Not so fast," said one of the most dreaded offices within the bureaucracy. The FAA's general counsel (the lawyers) agreed with our concept, and some even thought that 16 hours was a good idea, but there was just one problem. The FAA doesn't like to make exemptions that will theoretically apply to everyone because then it becomes, by default, a new regulation. Rulemaking by exemption, it was explained, is a bad thing because it circumvents the safeguards of checks and balances that go into the normal regulatory process.

The good news was that the FAA was looking for a test case to concoct a new way of making, regulation, and the 16-hour FIRC was a perfect program to put into the process. Everyone agreed that it was needed, that an onerous burden would be lifted, that there was economic justification, and that the FIRCs would become better programs as a result.

We started in February 1993 with the original petition for exemption and got the mid-course correction from the FAA's general counsel in July. Fast-tracking using the new regulatory process was estimated to take about four to five months, start to finish. As this was written, the notice of proposed rulemaking was published, and we're moving through the system. How fast is the fast track? We'll let you know. If this new regulatory process works, it will be a most welcome change in what is currently a grueling, numbing, and unresponsive system.

The payoff is a better program for all CFIs, not just the ones who attend the foundation's course, with an estimated annual time savings of about 184,000 hours and several million dollars that can be reinvested more productively into our industry. What does this have to do with safety? Everything, because the quality of your training is directly tied to the quality and enthusiasm of your flight instructor. Less time and money will be spent belaboring points and more on quality flight education.

See also the index of "Safety Pilot" articles, organized by subject. Bruce Landsberg is executive director of the AOPA Air Safety Foundation.