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Updating Part 61

The times--and regs--are a changin'

Modifications to the federal aviation regulations usually are incremental: a change here, a tweak there. Pretty easy to keep up, even for instructors.

On February 7, though, the FAA proposed some significant technical changes to Part 61 that include changes to training and currency requirements, and to our CFI tickets. Surprisingly, many of the proposals are pretty sensible, and a significant number of them are likely to be finalized (or, as lawyers like to say, promulgated) substantially as written. It's worthwhile to note that the final rules might not be published for several months. But in the meantime, let's take a look at what has been proposed.

Expiration dates

When you first received your private pilot certificate, did it strike you as odd that there was no expiration date? Unlike your driver's license, it was good forever! Cool. Of course, while your certificate didn't expire, you couldn't actually fly unless you demonstrated your knowledge and ability every two years to a CFI, and passed a physical examination. As we all know, the same is true of any pilot certificate--if we stay current, pass a flight review (or satisfy an equivalent requirement, such as completing a phase of the FAA Wings safety program), and renew our medical, we're good to go. Proficiency, of course, also is a good idea, but that's a topic for another day.

Why, then, does your flight instructor certificate expire every two years? Why can't you renew it (by attending an AOPA Air Safety Foundation Flight Instructor Refresher Clinic, for example) without having to go through the rigmarole (an even better word than "promulgate") of obtaining an entirely new piece of plastic? It's a question that AOPA has been asking for a long time. In 1999, AOPA petitioned the FAA to issue flight instructor certificates without an expiration date.

The FAA has been listening. One of the changes now proposed would amend the FARs--see 61.19(d), 61.197(a), and 61.199--so that CFI certificates won't expire. Of course, you'll still need to renew your CFI privileges every 24 calendar months, but your certificate won't have to be reissued. The FAA envisions that you'll send a completed FAA Form 8710-1, Airman Certificate and/or Rating Application, to the FAA in Oklahoma City, and obtain a logbook endorsement by a FIRC provider or the FAA. Why the Form 8710? According to the FAA, "this procedure is important for maintaining order on flight instructor renewals and also for being able to retain statistical data on flight instructors."

Here's another eminently sensible change. Student pilot certificates are currently valid for two years, and they're issued by the designated medical examiner on the same piece of paper as the medical certificate. If your student is under 40, his/her medical is good for three years. So, what if your student is still a student after two years? How can the student renew a student certificate? Does the student have to go back to the medical examiner for a new exam? Not under the new proposed rule. The FAA would amend FAR 61.19(b) so that the duration of a student pilot certificate coincides with the duration of the medical.

Instrument currency

The present rules for maintaining instrument currency are pretty flexible: at least six approaches, holding procedures, and intercepting and tracking courses by using navigation systems within the preceding six months. There is no minimum flight time requirement, and the type of approaches and holding procedures that you perform are up to you. The FAA proposes to revise 61.57(c) to require both precision and nonprecision approaches, one complete holding pattern at a radio station, and one complete holding pattern at an intersection or waypoint.

In addition, there would be a time requirement for one hour of simulated cross-country practice. The cross-country practice would involve intercepting and tracking courses through the use of navigation systems while performing a takeoff phase, area departure phase, en route phase, area arrival phase, approach phase, and missed approach phase of flight. The bad news is that if these changes are implemented, it may be harder for you to stay instrument current. The good news is that, if you're a CFII, it will also be harder for your instrument-rated clients to stay current, and you'll be doing lots more instrument proficiency checks.

Military status

If you're a military pilot, there is a fairly straightforward abbreviated process under which you may obtain FAA certificates and ratings. But if you actually want to exercise those privileges, the present requirement is that you see an FAA-designated aviation medical examiner and obtain an FAA medical. It doesn't matter at all if you are a fighter jock who laughs at high G loads and can bench press 300 pounds--just before you bend the barbell into the shape of a pretzel. The proposed changes to 61.23(b)(9) would allow one on flight status as a military pilot to use a current military medical exam when exercising an FAA certificate (outside of Part 121, 125, or 135).

And speaking of certificates, if the military taught you how to teach flying, there is a proposal to provide you with a simple path to FAA instructor certificates and ratings. Under a proposed new 61.73(g), if you're a graduate of a U.S. military instructor pilot school, you will be able to obtain flight instructor certificates and ratings by passing the appropriate FAA knowledge tests. You'll also have to present yourself and documentation to the FAA or an authorized examiner for the issuance of the certificate or rating.

This brief discussion by no means covers all, or even nearly all, of the FAA's proposed changes. The proposed changes also include permitting cross-country time toward the commercial certificate to include not only solo time, but time spent performing the duties of a pilot in command with an instructor on board; expressing various time periods differently (from days to months, for example); rules relating to the ABCs of using and logging time in PCATDs, FTDs, and FSs for training and currency purposes; a standardized definition of cross-country time (more than 50 nautical miles); and many other topics. The changes are not even limited to Part 61; there also are proposed changes that would be applicable to Part 141 schools.

While we can't predict exactly which proposals will become regulations, or how they might be amended when they're finalized, it's pretty clear that significant changes are coming.

Steve Frahm is an attorney who learned to fly in the 1970s. He is a part-time CFII for Capitol Air Services at Tipton Airport in Fort Meade, Maryland.

By Steve Frahm

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