To support these efforts, the association operates a small fleet of piston singles—recently, it has ranged from two to four aircraft—that are also used for short-haul business travel and, when scheduling allows, personal flights. At any given time, about two dozen members of the staff are actively training toward a certificate or rating. Typically, at least half are primary students, but in recent years we’ve also applauded colleagues who passed instrument, commercial, ATP, and helicopter add-on checkrides.
Sound familiar? It might. The overall scope of our training operations isn’t too different from that of a small commercial flight school, except of course that most of our instructors have other responsibilities and teach part-time. That’s an advantage, since instead of risking burnout juggling a heavy student load, a couple of flights a week come as a pleasant break from office duties. It’s also easier to keep track of each student’s progress and the attendant difficulties.
The staff who take advantage of this opportunity also gain. Because a working knowledge of aviation improves everyone’s ability to serve our members, regardless of professional specialty, AOPA pays for primary training as an employee benefit, and also provides financial support to help current pilots to maintain or improve their proficiency.
This policy provides benefits beyond the obvious—or, more accurately, the obvious benefit of saving thousands of dollars spins off additional advantages. Among the most significant is that freedom from financial pressure also provides freedom from the tension between goals that don’t automatically align: that of learning what’s needed to pass the practical test, and that of teaching what the student will need to know to function safely and effectively as pilot in command.
We’ve known clients of for-profit schools who are happy to pay for extra dual instruction in order to cement mastery and understanding beyond what’s specified in the Airman Certification Standards. But it’s no secret that despite being an intrinsically expensive pursuit, aviation attracts its fair share of those who can’t bear to part with an extra dime. When it’s because of financial necessity—flight training is the last discretionary item squeezed under an already stretched budget—the shrewd instructor will exercise all possible creativity to make the process as efficient as possible. But often it’s just reflexive distaste for making any expenditure that might be viewed as optional. If you haven’t dealt with the kind of customer who drives to the airport in a late-model Mercedes but balks at the cost of replacing a four-year-old sectional chart, count yourself lucky.
These clients routinely place their instructors in an awkward position, especially when they mistake the letter of the federal aviation regulations for the substance of their intent. CFIs retain some leverage over those who will need an instructor endorsement to schedule a checkride, and we recommend a vigorous and comprehensive adjustment of expectations at the first sign of confusion between regulatory thresholds and actual achievement. FAR 61.109 does not mean this customer can become a private pilot after just 40 hours of training, but merely that a Part 61 student can’t possibly do it in less. And the point isn’t to log three hours of flight by instrument references; it’s to gain and demonstrate the ability to climb, descend, maintain altitude, and turn to headings—lifesaving skills in an encounter with IMC, or even flight over a remote area at night. If a student feels that still not having been signed off after 45 hours means he’s being played for a sucker and leaves you for the competition, it’s just possible you’re better off without that responsibility for how he conducts the rest of his flying career.
Flight reviews and instrument proficiency checks are potentially more contentious. There, too, it helps to clarify expectations at the outset. The objective hasn’t been met once the customer has logged one hour of ground instruction and one in the air, or six approach procedures plus holds and unusual attitude recoveries. It is met when the instructor is satisfied that customer has demonstrated the skill and judgment to operate safely. Those who balk at paying for anything extra may not benefit from a reminder that the cost of an accident shows short-changing training time to be a false economy—but should probably receive one nevertheless.