Do the current FAA Practical Test Standards (PTS) measure what’s needed in today’s flight environment? I have a standing wager that no one has yet taken: If all pilots merely flew to the current private pilot PTS just as they are written today, the number of accidents would plummet—no need for further “tinkering.” See if you agree.
Let’s take an easy one first—takeoffs. The PTS, in summary, says the pilot has to position the flight controls for existing wind conditions, clear the area, and line up in the center of the runway. Next, lift off at the recommended airspeed and accelerate to VY holding plus-10/minus-5 knots at takeoff power until reaching a safe maneuvering altitude. Maintain directional control and proper wind drift correction throughout. None of this seems too difficult, and yet according to the 2010 Joseph T. Nall Report that tallies 2009 accidents, 153 light fixed-wing GA aircraft crashed in this phase of flight. Twenty-seven percent stalled or settled after takeoff, five percent didn’t understand the nuances of density altitude, and a whopping 44 percent lost control, usually directional.
Moving on to normal approaches and landings, the requirements are to consider wind, runway surface, and obstructions before becoming committed; establish the appropriate configuration, including pitch, power, and attitude; then maintain a stabilized approach at plus-10/minus-5 knots with gust corrections, and touch down within 400 feet of a specified point at approximately stalling speed, in the center of the runway, with no sideways drift.
Granted, all of that is a mouthful—but if you’re going to fly, this comes with the territory. The Nall Report’s count of 348 fixed-wing landing accidents (six of them fatal) shows that 5 percent landed long, 7 percent landed hard, 17 percent decided to drop in (stall), and about 56 percent just lost it. Wind was cited as a factor in 20 percent of those cases, but wind is part of the planet’s temperature-regulating mechanism and we haven’t figured out how to stop it yet, at least long enough to allow a landing. So, on almost any given day, one of us will be making an unhappy call to his/her insurance company.
Based on what the PTS requires us to be able to do as a brand-new sport pilot or private pilot, it would seem that if everyone flew just that well, and no better, a lot fewer replacement parts would be needed. The other task areas are suitably basic and not the least unreasonable. That accident pilots frequently don’t quite measure up to the level of the most basic certificate requirements reflects poorly on the individuals—not so much on the certification process. It seems to be more of a “maintenance” problem. We see much the same problem on the highways—in many accidents, drivers would not pass a driving test based on daily driving behavior. Should we have more rules? I think not. The rules are there, and it’s up to us to adhere to them.
The question of judgment or “critical” thinking always comes up. The lack-of-skill accidents usually don’t result in fatalities or even serious injuries. It’s poor judgment or decision making that causes the bad ones. FAR Part 61 discusses the need to recognize “critical weather situations on the ground and in flight” and there is a task in the PTS that requires the pilot to make a competent go/no-go decision based on the available information. This is artificial; how many sport, recreational, or private test applicants will recommend to the examiner that launching in marginal VFR or IMC is a good idea?
Pilots can often be very good at stick-and-rudder skills as measured by the PTS. They can be knowledgeable about the aircraft systems, performance, avionics, and navigation skills, yet make fatally flawed decisions despite years of success—or luck. Testing someone’s everyday judgment on a checkride just isn’t realistic.
GA could give up much freedom by emulating the airline model of mandatory training, eliminating the even slightly weak performers, requiring a dispatch system and IFR on every flight. It would improve the safety record quickly and GA flight activity would decline equally quickly—more than it already is. Or, we could continue to accept gradual improvement and tolerate individual lapses as a cost of doing business. This approach is used in every other personal transportation/recreation activity: cars, motorcycles, boats, et cetera, despite the fact that these modes kill many more innocent bystanders than GA.
It’s been noted that some of us who are attracted to flying also have a high risk tolerance—otherwise we might not have decided to become pilots in the first place. How to identify those individuals and, more important, how to “manage” someone who is already certificated and owns his or her own aircraft is a complex question. This is not to say that CFIs, schools, and training providers can’t do better, but the simple, obvious solutions aren’t that simple.
Teaching critical thinking so that it results in a consistent change in behavior without a lot of external oversight and expense is difficult. In spite of this, the Air Safety Institute has produced a number of programs on decision making. We offer a free DVD or online course to every new private pilot and instrument pilot, to help them learn the process. There is anecdotal evidence that it helps, but nothing in this business is 100 percent.
Bruce Landsberg was named president of the AOPA Foundation in 2010.