Our last issue (“Safety Under Review,” June 16, 2015) touched on the matter of flight reviews, taking particular note of the broad discretion the regulations allow instructors in conducting them. Except for a handful of models covered by Special Federal Aviation Regulations, there are no requirements to demonstrate specific maneuvers or for the CFI to hold any minimum time in type—in fact, there’s no requirement for any time in type.
Feel free to cite this as yet another example of what’s legal not necessarily being safe. How safe it is depends chiefly on the breadth of the instructor’s experience and whether the aircraft should be considered unusual. We’ve heard one veteran CFI with deep roots in the homebuilding community express the opinion that all certified airplanes behave about the same. Faced with a request for a flight review in the owner’s Malibu, an instructor who has only taught in Cessna 152s might see things differently.
Deep make-and-model experience on the part of the pilot under review can help make up for its lack in the instructor giving it, but that’s not guaranteed. It can also create unhealthy ambiguities in the teacher-student relationship and the shared understanding of pilot-in-command responsibility, particularly when the “student” is older, wealthier, and has more aviation experience. Taking time at the end of the ground lesson to establish who’ll be acting as PIC is highly recommended. (If the student is as unfamiliar as the aircraft, so is saying, “Don’t try anything you wouldn’t do on a checkride.”)
Another option would be to refer the client to someone with a stronger background in the same or similar aircraft, assuming someone can be found. This can be a tough call. Instructors need to broaden their experience where they can, and they have few prospects for getting formal checkouts in any equipment their school doesn’t operate. Since they need to earn a living, riding along in the back seat to watch another instructor perform the review is only an option if the time is free anyway (and weight, balance, and the client all permit this). The allure of flying something newer, faster, or just quirkier is undeniable—but all that must be balanced against the obligation to bring aircraft and occupants back in one piece.
There’s also the question of conducting a legitimate review. Can you really tell whether someone has “demonstrate[d] the safe exercises of the privileges of the pilot certificate” in a machine whose characteristics and performance are completely unfamiliar?
Of course, passing up an opportunity creates one for someone else, and this can work to mutual advantage. When individual instructors develop reputations for their expertise in specific models, this can bolster a school’s overall reputation, especially if word gets around through the relevant type clubs and owners’ groups. If the Aztec owner enjoys flying with the CFI who logged 800 hours in them hauling freight, you’re likely to see his partner in the airplane, too. There’s no harm in asking them both to post favorable comments on the owners’ society’s bulletin board and help your instructor become known as the go-to person for Piper twins. Mooney pilots should feel more at ease and expect to learn more from the instructor who still flies with her father in his M20C. It’s worth watching for chances to play up any specialized experience among your staff—radial engines, bush flying, whatever—to pilots with those interests.
Client expectations occasionally also need some adjustment. Most people who make it through pilot training are reminded along the way how much fun it is to learn. Those who regard the review as a regulatory obligation to get out of the way should be reminded that it’s actually a chance to sharpen their airmanship, gain new insights into the aircraft they fly and the way they fly them, and have some fun with someone who enjoys aviation as much as they do. Operators of specialized aircraft should have no trouble understanding that the process will be more rewarding as well as more efficient with an instructor whose knowledge of that model rivals or exceeds their own.
Doctors are required to choose a specialty early in their careers—and even what used to be called “general practice” is actually a specialty. Flight instructors need competence as generalists: A flight with a CFI-airplane on board should never be less safe than one without. But many naturally gravitate toward specialties as well, whether aerobatics or instrument training or tailwheel instruction. Make-and-model expertise likewise helps a flight school provide service calibrated to the customer’s needs. When a specialist is needed, it’s essential to have the right one. Podiatrists generally shouldn’t attempt brain surgery—but if you’re tormented by bunions, you don’t want a neurosurgeon.