By Jason Blair
Your CFI staff are really CFIs, right? Are you sure?
It’s gutsy to think someone who is not a CFI would walk into your business and take a job as a flight instructor without being certificated—but it has happened. Within even the last month AOPA and I have heard of cases of exactly this.
Scary, huh? But whose fault is it really if you employ this person?
Certainly it’s a fraudulent act on their behalf, but it is also something a vigilant flight training business can avoid with a little homework and record keeping. We will come back to the fraud CFI case later, but for now, let’s talk about the ramifications for your customers if your CFIs have provided invalid instruction.
In most cases, it means the training your customers received will not be eligible for use toward a rating or certificate. I know, that sounds confusing. In layman's terms, it means your CFIs may have provided training that a customer paid for that has to be re-flown to count toward a rating or certificate.
This gets expensive for either the customer, the business, or both. Which one is a matter of negotiation between the two parties in most cases.
How does this happen? It can happen by purposeful fraud, by accident, or through misunderstanding of regulations.
For the first article in this two-part series, let’s first address the most common reason and the most egregious: the purposeful conduct of invalid training.
Is your CFI’s certificate current?
Let’s start with the most common cause of “invalid instruction time” being given: an expired CFI certificate.
Unlike pilot certificates, CFI certificates need to be renewed at least every 24 calendar months. This can be done in a few ways, including by adding new CFI credentials, but if it isn’t completed, a CFI is no longer able to provide training.
Do you keep track of this for your staff? Many flight training providers don’t, and a few have found themselves in a situation where a customer has received training from a CFI who was no longer current.
Many times this happens if the CFI mixes up the “last date of issuance” with the “date of expiration” on the CFI certificate. One of these is on the front of the certificate and the other is on the back.
A simple oops, right?
Not so quick.
A pilot candidate who has received training from a CFI who was acting on an expired CFI certificate is technically not able to use any time obtained in the period of expiration toward a rating or certificate. Oh, and any solo experience gained under that CFI’s endorsement privileges doesn’t count, either. Ugh.
The frustrating part of this is sometimes it doesn’t get caught until the CFI tries to sign off the applicant in IACRA, when the system has locked out the CFI from signing applicants because of expiration. It can get even worse if the CFI does the paperwork in the old paper form and it doesn’t get caught until the FAA sends it back to the designated pilot examiner because the CFI was “not eligible to endorse an applicant” for a rating or certificate.
Read that carefully, and think about the consequences.
It means the applicant may have completed a practical test for which he or she was ineligible and may be required to not only re-fly pilot experience requirements but could also be asked to retake the practical test. Double ugh.
Make sure your CFIs are acting on current certificates to avoid this for your customers.
If you can’t fly it, you can’t instruct in it
A common confusion point is whether instructors can provide flight reviews in something for which they are not endorsed or is not on their pilot certificate.
For example, a CFI with “airplane single-engine land” credentials on their certificate gets asked to provide a flight review in a multi-engine land airplane. While he or she can provide “flight reviews” in general, his or her credentials are not authorized in the correct category and class. So, he or she would not be able to provide this flight review, even if the pilot of the multiengine aircraft could legally be PIC.
This gets some heated debate sometimes when people ask the same question of a CFI who wants to provide a flight review to an owner of a tailwheel, complex, or high-performance single-engine aircraft when the owner is current and qualified and the instructor is not endorsed.
The best way to think of this is to apply the answer to the question, “Can the CFI be PIC of the aircraft” if the customer (student) wasn’t there? If the answer is no, the answer to whether you can provide training should be no. With one caveat, technically the takeoff and landing currency need not be met if the instructor is providing training, since that person is acting as an instructor, not riding along as a passenger. Which bolsters the previous point: If you aren’t a passenger and are acting as a crewmember (instructor), you can’t do it unless you are qualified. Back to the “if you can’t be PIC, you can’t instruct in it” answer.
This doesn’t mean the instructor necessarily has to be experienced in the make and model of aircraft, just that they have to have the appropriate category, class, type ratings (if required) and endorsements to be able to act as an instructor. It makes sense if we ask if an airplane CFI could conduct a flight review in a helicopter to most people, but it gets a little muddier sometimes if we say an “airplane single-engine land tricycle gear” versus an “airplane single-engine land tailwheel” aircraft. One of these requires an additional endorsement. If the instructor doesn’t have it, don’t send them out to instruct in it.
One common hiccup in this realm is a CFI who is not high altitude endorsed providing training to a student, or a flight review, in an aircraft certificated to fly above 25,000 feet msl. FAR 61.31 requires that a pilot must have some training not just to fly at these levels, but to “act as pilot in command of a pressurized aircraft (an aircraft that has a service ceiling or maximum operating altitude, whichever is lower, above 25,000 feet MSL)” Note that this doesn’t say actually flying at that height, but in an aircraft capable of doing so, even if you fly it down at any lower altitude and don’t actually climb to that height.
Let’s move on to the most egregious, which has unfortunately actually happened: an employee who lies about being a CFI.
Verifying CFI credentials
A potential employee shows up and says he wants a job as a CFI. Sure. And many flight training providers are short-staffed when it comes to CFIs, so you probably take a good look at hiring him. Right? But do you verify his credentials?
The good news is that you can.
A large number of flight training providers don’t keep a copy of a current CFI and pilot certificate and medical certificate on file for their CFI staff members. This is a good starting point. It’s even better to keep a tracking system to make sure the certificates haven’t expired.
But you can take this one step further.
You can verify CFI credentials by referencing a public database—unless the CFI has gone through the effort of excluding themselves from this database—that the FAA offers online. Conduct an FAA airman registry inquiry on your staff to verify currency of certificates and the privileges that the FAA has on record for a current or potential CFI staff member by entering just a few data points at https://amsrvs.registry.faa.gov/airmeninquiry/Main.aspx.
Run into a discrepancy? This is a good way to determine if you need to ask more questions prior to employment or allowing the staff member to continue to work with your customers.
It’s rare, but there have been cases where “CFIs” have been providing training who were completely lying about even being CFIs or had fraudulent CFI credentials.
Allowing a “CFI” to conduct training at your operation who is not properly qualified opens up a business to serious liability. There is a duty in a legal sense to properly qualify your staff when offering these services to the public (customers). Imagine if a customer ends up in an accident or incident and it was determined that your business provided training with an unqualified instructor. I can only imagine how that lawsuit would go.
Why do we bring this question up? And why is it worth a two-part article series?
Because it happens. Too often. And customers end up in an awkward situation of having flown aircraft experience that won’t count.
Ramifications and remedies
When invalid flight training is provided, it typically cannot be used toward a rating or certificate’s aeronautical experience requirements. In some interpretations, the “total time” gained during any incorrectly provided or trained experience will be allowed to be “kept in the pilot’s logbook” since it was flown, but it cannot be utilized to qualify the applicant for any ratings or certificates.
In the rare case you run across intentional fraud, don’t be afraid to reach out to your local Flight Standards District Office and ask for help. In an environment when CFI staff is in high demand, avoid the shortcuts when trying to just keep the staff going that can lead to much larger issues and longer-term concerns.
In part two of this series, we will talk about some of the less purposeful and more common accidental ways a CFI (and the business for whom they are working) can end up providing training that is technically invalid.
Jason Blair is a National Association of Flight Instructors master flight instructor and a designated pilot examiner.