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Career Pilot: CFI responsibility

Where does it end?

Instructors flying with students are obviously responsible for what takes place in flight—but where does an instructor’s responsibility end?
Advanced Pilot January
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Illustration by John Ueland

Are CFIs off the hook once their students pass the checkrides for which they’re training? Or does CFI responsibility extend indefinitely into each students’ flying future?

This isn’t a purely theoretical question.

One of my former aerobatic students was caught rolling a rented Cessna 152 with his nonpilot wife aboard. An IFR student was discovered to have flown at least one ILS approach in actual conditions in a rented Cessna 172 before getting his instrument ticket. Another of my aces inadvertently spun a rented Light Sport aircraft with his then 4-year-old daughter onboard while (inexplicably) practicing power-on stalls. Thankfully, he recovered without damaging the airplane or hurting his little girl.

I was enraged, embarrassed, and deeply disappointed each time I learned of these transgressions—and much of that anger was self-directed. How had I failed to spot these dangerous tendencies in my students and address them before they endangered others? Had I not made clear when teaching aerobatics that these maneuvers weren’t for showing off in Standard-category airplanes (especially a hard-flown trainer)? When teaching instrument approaches, had I somehow not mentioned that VFR pilots aren’t allowed to file IFR flight plans or fly solo in the clouds? Why had I endorsed the sport pilot only days before he displayed such awful judgment?

I half-expected to be questioned by FAA investigators following each of these events. That never happened, even though my signature was present in all their logbooks.

My primary flight instructor’s voice still accompanies me decades after we spent so many hours flying shoulder to shoulder, and I think that’s common. Yet at some point his responsibility for my actions ended, even though the black ink from his scribbled signatures remains in my logbook.

I’ve always taken a long view of CFI responsibility. I tend to keep in touch and cheer for my former students long after we’ve stopped flying together. I’ll offer advice, encouragement, and even an unsolicited admonishment on those rare occasions when I think it’s justified and might do some good.

Recently, I took up this topic with a veteran FAA pilot examiner, and I was surprised that his conclusion was the exact opposite of mine.

“CFIs are obligated to give students their full attention during the time they’re together—and that’s it,” he said. “Give them the full benefit of your experience during the time you’re on the clock, and then stop when the lesson is over. Teaching someone to fly is a commercial transaction—not an open-ended relationship.”

I pointed out that his position was conveniently self-serving since, by the same logic, he absolved himself for any future misdeeds of the many pilots he granted certificates. His response: “That’s exactly my point.”

An examiner administering a checkride only determines whether the applicant meets the FAA standard. Examiners aren’t guessing how pilots will behave after they get their certificates. That judgment call is beyond their purview, and impossible for any non-clairvoyant mortal to know.

I hadn’t considered CFI/examiner responsibility in such limited terms. Yet I’m now convinced the examiner is right.

Our students are (mostly) grownups with fully formed personalities. We give them our best effort—but we can’t know what they’ll do once they become pilots any better than we can predict the rise or fall of the stock market. These forces are beyond our ability to control, and we give ourselves too much credit if we believe otherwise.

The aerobatic student seemed like a reasonable guy, and he showed no sign that he would risk his (or his wife’s) life. His foolish behavior was a total surprise.

The instrument student who flew the illegal ILS approach had a real aptitude for that type of flying. He went on to finish his rating with another instructor (I declined to fly with him anymore), and he’s now an accomplished and highly experienced general aviation pilot.

The impulsive sport pilot’s story has a tragic ending. He developed deep psychological and substance abuse problems that ended in a violent crime and his long-term incarceration. At least aviation played no role in his terribly destructive future actions. As his instructor, I recognized that he was moody and erratic at times. But he also was talented, enthusiastic, coachable, brave, determined, and a fun person to fly with.

So if a CFI’s responsibility ends at the conclusion of each lesson, and an examiner’s responsibility ends with the checkride, who—if anyone—is responsible for our fellow pilots? The pilot in command, of course, is responsible for himself and his passengers—and the buck almost always stops in the left seat.

But the aviation community plays an important role here, too. Through proximity, observation, and shared interests, we get to know our fellow pilots pretty well, and we can’t help but become aware of each other’s strengths and weaknesses. A timely word of advice, encouragement, a cautionary tale, or an expression of concern can do a great deal of good.

Pilots comprise a very small community, and being part of it, at times, can feel like living in a tiny town. Everyone knows what the neighbors are up to, whether they want to or not.

It’s here, among peers, that pilots can and must help, support, and be truthful with each other. There are no contractual obligations—but we owe each other no less.

Dave Hirschman
Dave Hirschman
AOPA Pilot Editor at Large
AOPA Pilot Editor at Large Dave Hirschman joined AOPA in 2008. He has an airline transport pilot certificate and instrument and multiengine flight instructor certificates. Dave flies vintage, historical, and Experimental airplanes and specializes in tailwheel and aerobatic instruction.

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