We're all in this together
About 20 years ago the manager of the flight standards district office for the area in which I then lived invited local flight instructors to a "mandatory" meeting. There, he proudly announced that the FSDO had a 75-percent failure rate for initial CFI applicants, and we should not expect our applicants to pass the first time--or maybe even the second time.
He said there would be dire consequences if we didn't toe the line in our future student training, and he promised to visit our airports regularly to watch us. If we weren't performing up to his standards, he warned, we could expect a tough flight re-examination, then known as the dreaded 609 ride for the FAR that establishes it. (Because the regulation was renumbered, it's now termed a 709 ride.) He explained that the examiners would be reporting our training deficiencies directly to him. And that was the end of the meeting.
We didn't hear one word about any FSDO help for improving our performance. We all left the meeting determined to do our best professionally, but also resolute to have as little as possible to do with this manager and his FSDO.
Fortunately, the FAA's approach to CFIs has become more positive and enlightened since then. The FAA now generally treats CFIs as valuable members of the instructional team, rather than outsiders who must be punished for the slightest infraction. However, being a team member is a two-way street, and we CFIs must uphold our part of the bargain.
A good example of this teamwork is the CFI Special Emphasis Program (CFI-SEP) conducted since 1998 by the Orlando, Florida, FSDO. This program helps to establish a positive partnership between the FSDO and the local CFIs with a stated goal of "eliminating or drastically reducing the number of accidents and incidents occurring during flight training activities," and improving the success rate of all applicants. The program includes regular CFI seminars both at the FSDO and on the road.
As part of the CFI-SEP, the FSDO conducts special seminars for CFI candidates before they report for the practical test. FAA inspectors carefully analyze practical test failures, particularly those of initial CFI candidates, and include these data in their seminars. In short, CFIs under the jurisdiction of the Orlando FSDO are treated as members of the instructional team and are current in all of the new FAA policies, procedures, and identified problem areas.
In part because of these team-building efforts, the Orlando FSDO reports an 80 percent reduction in instructional mishaps since 1998. This reduction is phenomenal, especially considering the large number of flight schools in the Orlando district.
Other FSDOs have similar programs that encourage this kind of partnership. If you're still shying away from your local FSDO, take note of these programs' success. Remember, we can always achieve more when we're on the inside than on the outside.
CFIs can become more proficient by volunteering for some of the FSDO programs such as Wings Weekends or pilot safety seminars. Volunteer to conduct or set up equipment for safety seminars, become an aviation safety counselor, or offer to provide remedial training for offenders. Most FSDOs are short-handed and will welcome the help. Plus, FSDO personnel will get to know you as a member of the instructional team. Operations inspectors will recognize your professionalism, and you'll learn of new FSDO issues and priorities.
It's not productive for the FSDO and the CFIs to see each other as the enemy. I spoke with several FSDO inspectors and other FAA personnel to dispel some urban legends about how FSDOs monitor CFI performance. Despite rumors to the contrary, it's not a cookie-cutter system, and each FSDO exercises discretion in its approach to individual cases.
Some CFIs believe there is a magic number of checkride failures that, if exceeded, will trigger a re-examination. Some think that an automatic reexamination will occur if their student busts a practical test (as some do, despite our best efforts) and--after additional training--the student fails it a second time. These instructors often hand off their students to another CFI for the retest.
Some instructors think that if they are involved in a training incident, such as a student's running out of fuel on a cross-country flight, it will automatically result in a re-examination. In fact, the FSDO will look at each case individually and consider the instructor's performance as a whole over a period of time. One or two checkride failures out of many practical tests will not result in any adverse action. However, if a CFI continues to recommend applicants who fail the practical test or are reported to be negligent, that instructor will be called in for an interview and perhaps a re-examination, depending on the findings.
A few years ago an instructor at our local airport delayed a go-around, putting himself and his student in the trees at the end of the runway. Fortunately they suffered only minor injuries. The FSDO interviewed the instructor and, by his own admission, he was found at fault. The FSDO assigned me to provide remedial ground and flight instruction in preparation for his re-examination. He passed and is instructing again, no doubt wiser because of his experience. Throughout the process he was cooperative and receptive to additional training. The FSDO inspector treated him as a valuable asset who, with some additional training, could return to the instructor ranks--not as someone who needed to be punished for his mistake. This is how the system is supposed to work. A CFI's attitude will often determine how a FSDO approaches remedies for his or her deficiencies. A CFI with a positive attitude will undoubtedly have a more positive experience than one who is defensive and obstinate.
The FAA holds that the flight instructor certificate is the most important authorization that it issues, because flight instructors are the gatekeepers for the quality of newly minted pilots as well as the continuing proficiency of seasoned airmen. The diligence of CFIs is particularly important today considering the increased security, air defense identification zones, temporary flight restrictions, and other restricted airspace that when violated could lead to tragic consequences. CFI practical tests are rigorous because pilot safety solely depends on the quality of the instruction provided.
We're all in this together.
Richard Hiner retired from the AOPA Air Safety Foundation as vice president of training. He can be contacted by e-mail.
By Richard Hiner