Bruce Landsberg has served as executive director of the AOPA Air Safety Foundation since 1995.
The musician and songwriter Frank Zappa once said, "The United States is a nation of laws: badly written and randomly enforced."
The cynical Zappa obviously had no encounter with the FAA — or perhaps he did. Some of the regulations are elegant in their simplicity and logic and others provide a significant opportunity for improvement. It's been about a decade since FAR Part 61 was reworked, and the FAA is in the process of giving this section of the regulations a touch-up.
Part 61 defines what pilots should know to qualify for a certificate and what they must do to remain current. Regulations are a product of their times and are typically based on history, statistics, and sometimes on whim. It takes balance to write a good regulation, since it must be stringent enough to provide appropriate guidance without being so onerous, complicated, or overbearing that it unreasonably stifles the activity. It should be written in eighth-grade English and not require an attorney to interpret. I'll apologize in advance, however, as you'll see complexity creep in as I suggest ways to close a few loopholes in the current rulebook. If only we weren't such devious creatures!
Rules change after technology changes or after accidents identify a systemic flaw. Originally, pilot certificates were a one-size-fits-all document because aircraft were pretty simple. But as more complex aircraft entered the market, accident experience showed that ratings and endorsements were needed to better prepare pilots. Category, class, and type were three of the earliest distinctions. For example, rulemakers noted that twins were quite different from singles, so multiengine ratings were added. Later, instrument privileges were separated by class after a series of accidents showed that instrument-rated Piper Cherokee pilots didn't always have the skills needed to handle a Cessna 310 in instrument conditions.
One of the more confusing sections of the current Part 61 is the distinction between high-performance and complex aircraft. A "high performance" aircraft is defined, arbitrarily, as one with an engine having more than 200 horsepower. To be "complex," an aircraft must include all of the following: controllable-pitch prop, flaps, and retractable landing gear (there is an exception for seaplanes). Some aircraft fit both categories, such as the Beechcraft Bonanza, and some qualify in only one, such as the Cessna Cutlass RG (complex only).
Is it time for a change? Yes. The Diamond Twin Star, the new diesel-powered twin, meets neither endorsement requirement exactly as written, and yet it clearly falls into both categories. It has flaps and retractable gear, but the props are automatically controlled by a FADEC (full authority digital engine control), so the pilot has little to do with that system other than to start the engine and verify that the props are working. The engines are rated at a modest 135 horsepower each, so the aircraft doesn't qualify as high performance, yet it is much faster than a Cessna 182 or Cherokee PA-28-235, both of which do qualify by having 230- and 235-horsepower engines, respectively.
The FAA recently interpreted this rule to allow the Twin Star to meet the complex requirement. Thus, flight schools may use it for twin training leading to a commercial or CFI certificate, but this is an interim step prior to the rewrite of the regulation. The Columbia 400 and the Cirrus SR22, under current rules, are considered high-performance aircraft but not complex, so they can't be used for training CFIs or commercial pilots. That seems a bit outdated.
How about rewriting this requirement based on speed? Arbitrarily, any aircraft faster than 140 or 150 knots maximum cruise speed or having retractable landing gear would qualify as a high-performance aircraft, and any pilot moving up or getting a CFI or commercial certificate would need a high-performance endorsement. Let's drop the complex endorsement, and forget about flaps and controllable-pitch props. Flaps are on almost every aircraft these days, and mismanaging the prop seldom results in a catastrophic outcome.
I'm still in favor of requiring an endorsement to fly aircraft with retractable landing gear, because of the accident history, but not as a requirement for CFI or commercial pilot certification. The FARs should treat retractables just like tailwheel aircraft — demonstrated retractable competence would not be required for any certificate or rating, but if you want to fly one, you'll need a sign-off. Grandfathering and allowing a transition period for those who either met the requirement under the old rule or were in training would be allowed.
Now let's move on to a more controversial area. Should an endorsement be required for technically advanced aircraft (TAA), like the one now required for operating a tailwheel aircraft? The path for a TAA sign-off isn't so clearly defined, starting with the definition of exactly what qualifies as TAA. What about different avionics suites? Should an old aircraft updated with a moving map, an IFR GPS navigator, and an autopilot be treated differently than a new aircraft with a full glass cockpit? The slope gets slippery very quickly.
Is there a safety problem specific to TAA that could be remedied with a new rule? Not that anyone has been able to discern yet. In 2004 the AOPA Air Safety Foundation did a preliminary study on the TAA safety picture, and found no particular differences between classic aircraft and TAA. We've been carefully watching for TAA accidents that could be tied to technology and will publish an update on TAA safety soon.
The concern with TAA safety was that some pilots would mis-program advanced avionics while in instrument conditions, resulting in accidents, but that just hasn't materialized. Almost all TAA accidents to date relate to the same old causes as in traditionally equipped aircraft — VFR into instrument meteorological conditions, other weather encounters, takeoff and landing incidents, and maneuvering flight, i.e., nothing to do with technology.
Pilots, at least up to this point, seem to understand that complex new avionics require considerable time in transition before wandering into the very precise and unforgiving world of IFR. If a trend develops to the contrary, then it makes sense to consider a rule. Insurance companies understand that one size does not fit all and have been reasonable in bearing down on those who needed extra training and providing some leniency to those who didn't. There is an economic incentive to make the right call.
Another pet peeve of mine is the paper chase that surrounds flight instructor renewal. FAR 61.197 requires all CFIs to renew their certificates every 24 months. Good idea! What is not so good is that the paper, or now plastic, certificate also is replaced, which requires filing FAA Form 8710, and a complex time-consuming process that may involve the local flight standards district office, the FAA inspector, designated pilot examiner, or Flight Instructor Refresher Clinic (FIRC) provider, and, of course, the CFI.
Depending on the form of renewal, the aforementioned parties must process the 8710 in letter-perfect form, and then the Airman Records Branch in Oklahoma City must reissue the certificate. The only thing that changes between the old certificate and the new one is the expiration date — and possibly the applicant's weight, if he or she is brutally honest.
ASF estimated that approximately 50,000 FAA person-hours are expended annually on something that adds nothing to safety. Therefore, we suggest allowing CFIs to keep their certificates and handle it exactly like a flight review. You're still a CFI but cannot exercise the privilege of an instructor unless you've been renewed within the preceding 24 months. A logbook entry/sticker would be provided and there would be records retained both by the FAA Airman Records Branch and the FIRC provider on who renewed and when, should there be any need to verify authenticity.
Rulemaking is easy and fun for those who aren't affected by it. We see this constantly in both state and national legislature...but I digress.
Former U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren noted, "It is the spirit and not the form of law that keeps justice alive." Let's get the right spirit that allows appropriate freedoms while providing adequate but not overreaching protection. There's much more to consider in the rewrite of Part 61, and the Air Safety Foundation will be looking at ways to streamline and simplify this important section of the FARs — while maintaining common-sense safeguards. Maybe you have some thoughts too; let us know. Send us an e-mail or write to AOPA Air Safety Foundation, 421 Aviation Way, Frederick, Maryland 21701.