Brenda Tibbs doesn’t scare easily. Nor does she give up. AOPA’s 2016 Flight Instructor of the Year earned her CFI while waiting tables at the airport restaurant, routinely worked seven-day weeks to keep teaching during the couple of years she held a desk job, and ultimately left the position of chief instructor at an established flight school to start a school of her own. In a year, it has grown from herself and one Cessna 150 to five instructors and six airplanes, with a seventh ship in the pipeline. She has given more than 3,000 hours of dual in just more than seven years—how much more, she didn’t have time to look up.
New students don’t faze Tibbs, though children bear some watching—she’s seen them slam the controls around at inopportune times during introductory flights. Commercial and CFI students are sometimes too reluctant to break off maneuvers that aren’t going well, but it usually doesn’t take long to work into a comfortable rhythm.
Unfamiliar pilots who book flight reviews, on the other hand, present a level of risk and degree of challenge that can’t readily be estimated beforehand, she said.
Tibbs has learned to spot some warning signs. Any airplane owner she has never seen before merits extra scrutiny. She’s in the air almost every day, so a tail number based at her home field that she hasn’t heard on the frequency is a definite warning sign. The level of vigilance ratchets up if the owner thinks he’s entitled to a signoff as soon as he’s finished the first hour in the cockpit, especially if he doesn’t want to do or pay for the required hour of ground instruction. (In her experience, the vast majority of offenders are men.)
She’s fairly adventurous about going out in aircraft in which she’s not experienced—“I’ll pretty much fly anything,” she said—provided there are functional dual controls. Throw-over yokes are not inviting, exemption notwithstanding. But she takes pains to calibrate the expectations of unfamiliar clients by reminding them that there’s no passing or failing a flight review. If they don’t complete it during the first session they can come back, and the longer they’ve been out of circulation, the more time they should expect to devote. One extra hour per year of layoff isn’t a bad rule of thumb, Tibbs said.
Signs of trouble usually begin during the ground portion. “Start with the paperwork. Go over the airplane logbooks if it’s not a school plane.” Owners have shown up with expired aircraft registrations, annual inspections, ELT batteries—or even all three. Sensibly, she won’t fly with those owners until everything has been fixed, and not always then, either. The extent of the neglect says a lot about how the client views aircraft ownership, pilot-in-command responsibility, and the life-or-death topics in between, she said.
Owners with up-to-date logbooks and complete airworthiness directive schedules aren’t necessarily as scrupulous with their own paperwork. “I’ve had them show up without their pilot certificates, photo IDs, or medicals [before BasicMed]. Some didn’t even know these were required.” Those also result in postponement of at least the flight portion of the review. Other deficiencies also show up during ground instruction. Asked for his airplane’s best-glide speed, one owner answered, “I don’t know, I’ve never had to use it.” He was also “terrible” on the radio, to the point that Tibbs said she had to interpret between him and the tower controllers. He did eventually complete his flight review—but not that first day.
Once in the air, the client’s competence is usually established within minutes. Steep turns at bank angles between 30 and 60 degrees with altitude excursions from minus 350 feet to plus 250 feet and rollout 30 degrees off heading? “Yeah, that happens,” she said. Power-on stalls merit wariness because of their propensity to trigger spins, and there’s far too much “bizarre behavior in the pattern.” Some fly the downwind leg over the runway, others three counties away. Excessively steep banks are of particular concern, since “anyone who does 45-degree banks in the pattern usually isn’t well coordinated, either.” Tibbs also said she’s learned to guard the red knob on climbout after more than one client flying a complex airplane has pulled the mixture back instead of the prop—over the quarry that lies just off the departure end of Frederick Municipal Airport’s Runway 23.
Tibbs’ experience raises the question of whether a school has to accommodate every customer who requests a flight review, with or without a prior history with the institution and regardless of relevant experience among the instructor staff. While every pilot needs a flight review, are you obliged to provide it? How do you balance a customer’s need for additional training with a reluctance to commit the necessary time and money? And do you really want to put your instructors into situations that make them truly uncomfortable?