A question of currency

January 1, 1999

"Tasks" on my electronic scheduler turn from black to red when the item's due date passes. In case Bill Gates is reading, I don't really like the term task. Being tasked with something makes me feel like an indentured servant; if I don't get it done before it turns red, am I going to be sent to solitary confinement? Why not "Job," "Duty," "Chore," or "Obligation"?

Anyhow, the due date for my "Flight Review Due" task had turned red so long ago that I couldn't remember its ever being black. The red reminder stared back at me day after day as seemingly more important tasks moved further up the list and managed to get done. I had built a couple of months of slack into the schedule, so my currency had not lapsed, but the time for my flight review had come and nearly gone.

Finally, with the deadline marching near, I looked ahead to the weekend and decided that Saturday would have to be the day. I cornered the nearest flight instructor — in this case, Editor at Large Tom Horne, whose office is only two doors away. I'm sure that he had no better way to spend half of his Saturday than droning around in a Cessna 172. On the other hand, Horne doesn't often pass up the chance to go flying, so a date was set. After he agreed, I tossed him another grenade: Oh, while we're at it, we might as well do an instrument proficiency check (IPC); I'm still current, but it's good practice. At that point, I'm sure he wadded up his own Saturday task list and tossed it into the garbage can. He'd get none of it done.

Meanwhile, I debated about which airplane to use for the flight. I fly a well-equipped Beech Bonanza on most business flights. I have several hundred hours in it and feel pretty comfortable there. Often my flights are with another pilot on board — someone who could help out in an emergency. I wanted to be challenged, but I wanted a realistic challenge. FlightSafety International, SimCom, Professional Instrument Courses, and other professional training organizations don't like to pile unrelated and unlikely emergency scenarios onto their students. Instead, they prefer to concentrate on more realistic emergency situations. Dual vacuum pumps, standby instruments galore, and an external antenna for a handheld transceiver obviate many usual inflight failures in this particular Bonanza. So it seems unlikely that you'd find yourself flying partial panel or incommunicado, for example.

My Cessna 172, on the other hand, has no backup systems at all save the usual dual navcoms. I fly it mostly for personal use — often with my family on board and usually without another pilot. So it seemed a good aircraft in which to test my proficiency.

Horne and I have flown together for years on business, and he hears my hangar tales after weekend family flights, so he knows the type of flying that I do. Before launching on a flight review or IPC, it's a good idea to discuss with the instructor the type of flying you do. The flight review and IPC should be tailored to you. Remember, neither is a test. You can't fail. The instructor may elect to not endorse your logbook if he or she feels you are deficient in some skill. But once you know your area of weakness, it's just a matter of brushing up and flying again until you get it right.

A pilot I know fretted for two weeks before her flight review. She studied as though she were facing an FAA examiner, watched videotapes, perused all of her flight manuals, and generally dreaded the whole event. She's a good pilot and did well on the flight and during the question-and-answer session with the instructor. He signed her off and offered some encouraging words about her abilities. She still grumbled good-naturedly about the process, but she felt more confident in her abilities and proficiency after the experience — just what a flight review is supposed to do.

The idea of an FAA-mandated flight review has been controversial since its inception in 1974. Back then, pilots didn't like the idea of the FAA's telling them that they must spend the time and money to fly with an instructor every two years — many still don't. The FAA appropriately, I think, put little guidance in the regulations about what must be covered on a flight review. Instead, it tasked the flight instructor with making the experience relevant for the pilot. It's difficult to say whether flight reviews have been effective in decreasing the number of accidents. The accident rate has declined steadily since 1974, but it was also declining before flight reviews were required. And there have been some interesting statistical analyses done that suggest a spike in accidents among pilots who have recently taken a flight review. Could it be that the flight review gives marginally proficient pilots a burst of overconfidence that leads to accidents? Maybe flight instructors are a little too willing to sign off pilots who really aren't very proficient. The data is not at all conclusive, and, as with all data, interpretation is in eye of the beholder.

A little over a year ago, the FAA revised the regulations slightly, to require that the flight review include at least one hour of ground instruction and one hour of flight instruction. Previously there was no such guideline. On the ground, the instructor must review the ground and flight rules outlined in FAR Part 91. In the airplane, the flight instructor has the discretion of selecting the maneuvers and procedures that are most appropriate for the pilot and his type of flying.

Shortly after the changes were announced, an AOPA member called me to complain that AOPA hadn't been effective in keeping the FAA from mandating an hour each of ground and flight instruction in the flight review. He was an experienced pilot who flew regularly. Why did he need to pay some young flight instructor for two hours of time just to get a sign-off? Previously he had completed the whole review in just a few minutes of flying. I quizzed him on a couple of recent changes to some airspace regulations; he didn't know the answers. I reminded him that there was little guidance about what the ground instruction must include. There's nothing to say it can't be done at the local coffee shop after the flight while the instructor signs the logbook. I suggested that perhaps he might look into finding a more experienced flight instructor who could challenge him. Still, he just didn't like the idea of having to pay for two hours of instruction every two years. I wanted to ask him how much he spent on golf lessons last year, but I resisted.

Like the flight review guidelines, the regulations for an instrument proficiency check have recently changed — even the name has changed. The FAA used to call them instrument competency checks. Now, proficiency has been substituted for competency. At first I thought it was just the FAA wordsmithing the regulations. But, the difference between competency and proficiency isn't as subtle as it might first seem. Competency implies that you meet the regulatory guidelines. The regulations themselves are simply minimum guidelines below which we must not stray. Proficiency, on the other hand, suggests that not only must you meet the regulatory minimums, but you must also be able to do it with a certain finesse. A pilot who zigzags his way through six ILS approaches with the CDI swinging nearly full scale is technically current, but would he be considered proficient? I don't think so.

Besides changing the name of the IPC, the FAA also changed the instrument currency requirements. The requirement to log six hours of instrument time every six months has been dropped. You still must log six approaches, but you must also log at least one holding pattern and the interception and tracking of a course, using a navigation system. Now here I think that the FAA was indeed wordsmithing. How do you fly an approach or holding pattern without intercepting and tracking a course, using a navigation system? Since issuing the revised regulations, the FAA has stated that flying an approach is the same as intercepting and tracking a course.

In the end, after carefully dissecting all of the regulations, Horne and I launched in the Skyhawk for some maneuvers and a few approaches. We debated whether it was appropriate to use the GPS moving map when flying partial-panel approaches. I argued that it was unlikely that I would lose both the electric power to the GPS and the vacuum system that drives the flight instruments. I did use the GPS during the partial-panel approach but turned it off while flying partial panel en route — just for old time's sake, if nothing else.

We had invested part of a morning in flying, and I came away with a renewed sense of proficiency. Horne went home to a bunch of unfinished Saturday chores, and I went to my computer to enter new start dates for my flight review and IPC tasks. Despite giving myself a couple of months of advance notice, the items will probably long be red — the deadline staring me in the face — before I get around to scheduling the next ones.