The requirement for periodic flight reviews is imposed by federal aviation regulation 61.56, which also lists alternative ways to satisfy this requirement. Only about one-eighth of the text is given to stating what a flight review actually entails, and that definition is remarkably broad: It must include no less than one hour of ground instruction and one hour of flight training covering “the general operating rules of Part 91” and “those maneuvers and procedures that, at the discretion of the person giving the review, are necessary for the pilot to demonstrate the safe exercise of the privileges of the pilot certificate.” In other words, pretty nearly anything an instructor might feel like going over will satisfy at least the letter of the regs.
There are a couple of exceptions for individual models. Special FARs 73 and 108 prescribe specific topics and maneuvers that a review must cover for a pilot to maintain currency to operate Robinson R22 and R44 helicopters and Mitsubishi MU-2B turboprops, respectively. Both SFARs also impose experience and currency requirements on the instructors administering those reviews.
Each had its origin in an alarming accident record that arose from lack of familiarity with designs that were fundamentally sound, but unusual. Both were embraced by the respective manufacturers, who saw the benefits of regulations requiring training specific to their aircraft—and both produced dramatic improvements in those models’ safety records.
Contrast this highly structured environment with the sweeping freedom allowed under the general formulation. The only qualification required to give a review is a current instructor’s certificate for that category and class of aircraft (plus a current medical if the aircraft requires one and the pilot under review can’t or won’t act as pilot in command). CFIs are asked to conduct flight reviews in aircraft in which they have zero time in type, and sometimes they agree. It’s hard to argue that this is optimal, but whether it’s a really bad idea depends on the extent of the instructor’s experience and how exotic the aircraft actually is. A master aerobatic instructor who has flown 87 different models and given 2,000 hours of upset recovery training can probably handle almost anything that is thrown her way. On the other hand, a 375-hour CFI whose 140 hours of dual given are all in Cessna 172s might want to think twice before agreeing to provide a flight review in a customer’s Lancair IV-P.
Especially in an unfamiliar model, it’s also worth thinking carefully about which maneuvers are really needed “to demonstrate the safe exercise of the privileges of the pilot certificate.” Sound aeronautical decision making in combination with mastery of the aircraft at the level of the relevant practical test standards is a sensible starting point. There’s reason for clients and instructors alike to be wary of the temptation to show off superlative airmanship or simply have too much fun. Aggressive control inputs at low altitude—even in a machine whose handling characteristics both know well—starts to push the risk/benefit ratio past the point of diminishing returns.
The Air Safety Institute’s analysis of Accidents During Flight Instruction found that recurrent and refresher training, including flight reviews and instrument proficiency checks, accounted for the largest single share of accidents during advanced instruction, narrowly edging out make-and-model transition training. It doesn’t seem likely that it accounts for a comparable fraction of instructional activity. This apparent excess risk suggests that the conduct of flight reviews merits closer attention from CFIs and their employers.
Some schools develop written checklists tailored not only to pilot certificate levels, but also to broad groups of aircraft (fixed-gear versus retractable, carbureted versus fuel injected) and even individual models. This is not a bad idea, especially in parts of the country that also have to cope with complex airspace restrictions (like AOPA’s home airport, for example). Policies governing crucial operational details, such as where not to attempt and when to break off power-off landing approaches, may leave particularly experienced or ambitious instructors resenting this limit to their discretion, but they also make clear just where the operator sees its own risk/benefit ratio begin to slip over the edge.
David Jack Kenny is manager of safety analysis for the AOPA Air Safety Institute.