“Mind the (CFI) Gap!” Go “Good to GREAT!”

FAA pilot certification is a carefully monitored pass/fail process, but surprisingly, only minimal performance is required to earn a pilot certificate or rating.  The PTS/ACS standards only ensure that all elements are completed successfully and that applicants meet at least the lowest acceptable level of skill, knowledge, and judgment. And by regulation, if the standard is met, the DPE must issue a temporary pilot certificate, despite any personal misgivings. So it is entirely possible to get a 70% in every area of operation – achieve a “minimum viable product” – and achieve certification. Not only does this system permit mediocrity, but that low level could also theoretically persist since the flight review is only designed to restore the same low standard. (See the AOPA Focused Flight Review for better). Excellence in aviation is entirely voluntary and a function of good people trying harder. The old joke about the person at the bottom of their medical school class still being a “doctor” comes to mind.

Thankfully, most pilots do much better than the bare minimum standards on tests thanks to their CFI’s extra preparation and a motivated applicant pursuing a higher personal standard. The important point here is that the impulse and effort to do better is voluntary and must be supplied by a good aviation educator and a culture that promotes excellence. Also notable here is the conspicuous lack of any official testing mechanism that requires “correction to 100%” of weak areas discovered (as occurs with the knowledge test). Since the FAA requires neither real proficiency over time nor personal improvement, aviation safety depends entirely on a pilot’s personal integrity and an urge for excellence. And this is where professional organizations like SAFE are critical; inspiring and enabling this excellence. Our modern cultural obsession with minimal effort (and also minimal time, money, and hours) is directly at odds with our aviation safety system. We also all realize that know most well-intentioned safety seminars and excellence programs end up “preaching to the converted” and often do not reach those in need of improvement.

I have seen disparaging remarks on social media for anyone getting more than a 70% on the FAA knowledge test; “you left a lot of effort on the table dude!”  Anything more than “minimum” requires the inspiration and effort of a good aviation educator and willing client. To create a safe pilot it is essential to embed this personal standard of lifetime learning and continuous improvement; an urge for excellence.

Now let’s consider the new CFI applicant who has just passed their flight evaluation (and perhaps only marginally). They certainly worked hard and attained a minimum level of skill and knowledge, but are they truly equipped to go forth and teach flying without seasoning or supervision? The new CFI certificate is a dramatic example of a “license to learn”.  But surprisingly, it is not regarded this way by the flying public. I am continually amazed by the trust and confidence the public grants every new FAA instructor. Extending the medical analogy, they might be putting their lives in the hands of an intern. But since the FAA says they are “good to go” so we are off to the races.

The Canadian aviation system, by contrast, requires all new CFIs to initially teach under the supervision of a senior CFI (seasoning and supervision). I have a sarcastic helicopter buddy who takes my new CFIs down a notch with his cynical advice; “Now all you need are five new students to mess up as you can learn how to teach.” SAFE CFI-PRO™ is designed to eliminate that kind of “trial by fire” learning. We are providing the tools and resources to address that gap between minimal and excellent. Both our 80% drop out rate and the Loss of Control epidemic are implicated in our current system of minimal education. Thankfully, many thoughtful, diligent new CFIs join professional organizations – like SAFE – (thank-you!) but these are usually the already the superior performers. Our membership roles are a “who’s who” of aviation professionals. Now we intend to more actively leverage this CFI experience and excellence.

As a though experiment, mentally compare a newly certificated CFI to the best veteran aviation educator you know. The huge unaddressed gap between “good and great” is the target of our CFI-PRO™ initiative. (And we have had diligent new CFI members asking for this kind of program-thanks!) Our goal is a more efficient path to the master performer that psychologist Anders Ericsson says takes 10,000 hours to develop. We know, careful training by our senior educators, national instructors and pilot examiners, and deliberate practice can accelerate the new or rusty CFIs’ transition to mastery by providing the “missing manual” of teaching tools, knowledge and maneuvering capabilities. There is no longer a need to flounder seeking resources. Loss of Control in particular requires specific “Envelope Expansion Maneuvers” (in lieu of Upset Training) to build proficiency and confidence. These work in non-aerobatic planes so are scalable to your local field and pilot. Every senior CFI employs some version of these maneuvers but they are often unknown (and not taught) to “modern” CFIs.

In aviation, every educator is the “impingement point” of aviation safety where improvement can be exponentially spread to raise all boats. If we reach out and improve each aviation educator, we also touch most pilots in the process. Safety is a group effort and that is the plan. Support our CFI-PRO™ initiative  (announced in detail at Sun ‘N Fun). Fly often – and safely! And LMK your thoughts?


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Author: David St. George

SAFE Director, Master CFI, 141Chief Instructor, FAA DPE, ATP (ME/SE) Currently flying 135 charter (again)

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