Three years ago, Flight School Business noted the growing difficulty fixed-wing commercial students faced in finding complex airplanes in which to gain the required 10 hours of experience. Thanks to the recent revisions of the eligibility criteria, a similar dilemma may confront pilots who aspire to the multiengine airline transport pilot certificate—at least for the next 22 months.
No doubt you’re aware that a new section of the FARs—specifically, 61.156—imposes burdensome new eligibility requirements that candidates for the airline transport pilot certificate for multiengine airplanes must satisfy before they’re allowed to take the written exam. Those requirements took effect on Aug. 1.
The FAA hasn’t announced how many people passed the ATP knowledge test between January and July of 2014, but anecdotal reports suggest that the last-minute rush was considerable. We’ve heard stories of test centers turning applicants away because all available slots had been filled.
Candidates who passed the written before Aug. 1 have 24 calendar months from the date they earned that passing score to successfully complete their checkrides. But now they face another bottleneck. Another new regulation, 61.159 (a) (3), adds an experience requirement of 50 hours in class. Half of that time can be logged in a full-motion simulator, but only as one component of an approved training program. Given the scarcity and expense of full flight simulators, pilots who aren’t part of a university program or already flying for a high-end commercial operator will be left scrambling for ways to accumulate that time in actual airplanes.
For someone who isn’t already getting paid to fly twins, this is a formidable obstacle in two ways. The first is the expense. In the vicinity of AOPA’s home base, rental rates start at $240 per hour and climb steeply from there. Add instructor time, and the would-be ATP will be lucky to escape for “only” $15,000. That’s a daunting burden for anyone who isn’t already pretty well-heeled, and nearly insurmountable on the typical instructor’s salary.
That may be one factor driving the second problem: The aircraft themselves aren’t widely available. According to the FAA’s annual activity survey, the number of piston twins in the fleet dropped 26 percent between 2007 and 2012. Some of the decline no doubt reflects the improved accuracy of the registration database thanks to triennial re-registration, but anyone who has taken a recent look at asking prices for these airplanes will realize the sector’s in a slump. As with the vanishing complex single, the training industry seems to reflect that trend.
Despite having two admirably busy flight schools on the field, AOPA’s home base in Frederick, Maryland, no longer has any twins available for rent. Neither do more than half of the other public-use airports within 30 nautical miles. Just to get to the airplane, then, ATP students based in Frederick have to choose between the expense of an additional flight—if another aircraft’s even available—or the nuisance of spending a couple of hours round-trip in the car; the roads don’t run anything like straight and traffic is frequently snarled.
It’s no secret why some schools have dropped their multiengine programs. The airplanes are disproportionately expensive to insure and maintain, and until recently they weren’t renting all that well. Even students who can realistically aspire to owning a Seneca or Baron typically do their primary and initial instrument training in a single to hold down the cost. The multiengine add-on to a private or commercial certificate can be done in just 10 to 15 hours, and prospective career pilots traditionally built their multiengine time after landing a job. However, the potential surge of pilots trying to qualify as multiengine ATPs may change the value equation—for a little while. Given the rock-bottom pricing on the current inventory, it might be worth picking up a pencil and roughing out some income-expense estimates—or at least looking into whether any owners on your field might be willing to discuss a leaseback.
The new regulations, of course, were written in response to legislation passed by Congress after the Colgan Flight 3407 accident. Not only was that law a complete non sequitur, changing things that didn’t contribute to the accident, but it’s had the usual pernicious effect: By trying to increase the number of ATPs in airline cockpits, it’s made it vastly more difficult to become an ATP.