Are We Just Creating “Co-Pilots?”

With the current rush to provide pilots for airline jobs, modern flight training facilities often miss essential piloting skills. Most academy-style flight training programs are not creating pilots, they are making “co-pilots” for the airlines. The current partial preparation reminds me of the Multi-Crew Pilot License (MPL) of years back (2006), when pilots were partially trained to just occupy the right seat (with no eventual upgrade to captain). This effort produced very mixed results. These “partial pilots,” with minimal skills, were trained specifically to fill the right seat in a two-person crew. The theory was that the airlines, and other future employers would provide continuing “Competency-Based Training” and regulatory support to fill the gaps and make safe two-person crews. In this case the pilots were never expected (or allowed) to upgrade to captains. The current FAA academy push is creating fully credentialed pilots (sometimes without the requisite skills) and turning them loose in the NAS. A future GA pilot with that same academy-style training is certainly unprepared for the more challenging flight environment they will encounter while solo. With new PDPIC regulations, most new CFI (even with added IFR and multi-engine privileges) only have 5 hours of real solo.

Being a solo pilot in any operation creates a 7x safety penalty. And the GA flight environment offers the added safety challenges of flying diverse terrain and equipment without regulatory restraint or system support (where is my dispatcher dude?) GA  flying demands greater personal skill and responsibility without providing any additional training and support personnel. Newly-graduated GA pilots have only their personal sense of caution to keep them safe; it is a largely unregulated system. If most recent academy graduates had to fly VFR solo and find an airport (especially without a GPS and pink line) they would probably need aerial refueling and a new seat cushion.

One primary reason the GA accident rate is so much higher than the airlines is probably because GA allows much greater flexibility, freedom and fun. Airline and corporate flying are designed to be intensely standardized, highly regulated and essentially boring; that is how we create safety (no surprises please!) But consider all the endless possibilities of GA flying and the lack of systemic support. GA pilots are largely on their own to create the plan and master the challenges. The most critical safety failure is managing the freedom; being able to say “no” and park it.  The brief VFR training delivered by most academy programs with limited solo does not prepare a GA pilot for these challenges (though the ACS risk management is a huge step forward). It is not uncommon on pilot applications to see only 5 hours even at the CFI level (the private pilot time under 141). Consequently, most modern pilots have a serious lack of VFR skills and PIC confidence.

This is again an example of the damage done by pursuing absolute minimums in flight training. A CFI-PRO™ solves this deficiency by adding some “real solo” strategically into a flight training course at various points and covering the essential skills not in the ACS. This builds the necessary skills and confidence to create a more complete pilot in command ready for the GA challenge. Injecting some VFR in the middle of IFR training is also a great change-up and provides a psychological break to motivate your learner. (IFR test candidates are often miserable at landing due to their lack of pattern practice).

Ironically, even for airline candidates, these extra hours will be required later for their magic 1500 hours anyway. Spending a few more hours before beginning instrument training to reinforce the VFR skills is also a worthwhile investment for any pilot in training. It is amazing in a two-person corporate crew, how many new pilots have no idea (or confidence) to fly VFR (or hand fly) even for small segments even where safety might be *enhanced.* Solo flight time, hand flying and VFR skills are an essential parts of the pilot toolkit. All airline programs are reporting excessive IOE times preparing candidates to actually hand fly in command at a professional leve. Learn these skills early and keep them sharp. Fly safely out there (and often)!

Join SAFE to support our safety mission of generating aviation excellence in teaching and flying. Our amazing member benefits pay back your contribution (like 1/3 off your annual ForeFlight subscription)! Our FREE SAFE Toolkit App puts required pilot endorsements and experience requirements right on your smartphone and facilitates CFI+DPE teamwork. Our CFI insurance was developed specifically for CFI professionals (and is the best value in the business).

Author: David St. George

SAFE Director, Master CFI (12X), FAA DPE, ATP (ME/SE) Currently jet charter captain.

14 thoughts on “Are We Just Creating “Co-Pilots?””

  1. Reminds me of a time when I was getting back up to speed on IFR ops after a few thousand hours of “bush” VFR. My very experienced CFI told me up front: “IFR is easy, all you have to do is memorize all the rules, and follow them. Now, VFR like you’ve been doing, that’s dangerous!”

    1. That is the truth; VFR flying is much less protected or regulated and the edges of life and death are sometimes razor-thin!

  2. Currently we are just creating co-pilots to fill the right seat without creating experience. We are moving in a wrong direction. Flight training academies looking to make the big in money in serial production of pilots. We see a huge lack of VFR skills and I don’t even want to talk about IFR skills. Experienced Captains are not willing to train or pass on their experience to freshly trained pilots due to fatigue and heavy workload. Most Captains are just waiting on their retirement and be done with it. That will cause a huge safety risk in aviation. These inexperienced pilots who will become Captains at one point have nothing to pass on to their co-pilots and pilots knowledge will go down. At one point, these pilots have to face a critical flight situation where 10 things have to be resolved in minutes. That’s when they will screw up which could lead to fatalities or massive problems. We need to pick up freshly trained pilots and show them what aviation is and pass on the experience we have. We need to have a program ready before it is too late. If we continue like this, incidents and accidents will dramatically increase in GA but also in the airline industry. It’s just a question of time.

    1. Our SAFE CFI-PRO™ initiative is designed as an intervention to improve new CFIs right at the point of their “hour-building.” So far we have received a warm reception at the locations we have been invited to. I will have the “New CFI Survival Guide” finished next week which combines a lot of the wisdom from the CFI-PRO blogs into one document. We will have on-line training courses to go along with that document; fingers crossed!

  3. I’m not sure I can agree with much of this article. First, how many pilots planning to fly their Tri Pacer to the Saturday Fly-In breakfast enroll in an academy that teaches airline-type procedures? Is this common?

    Then I think we are undermining the establishment of personal minimums that keep a pilot from intentionally putting themselves in dangerous situations. Judgement is ultimately what instructors teach and it may take a wide margin to give new pilots enough time to accrue the experience necessary to trust that judgement.

    If the thrust of the article is that all pilots should strive to improve their precision flying skills with every flight so that those skills are readily available when unexpectedly needed, then I agree wholeheartedly.

    I don’t fly with many pilots whose stick and rudder skills aren’t there, but those who do invariably suffer from the worst judgement.

    I tell my student that the checkride is in the middle of your training. As they mature they’ll see I was wrong and that it was much closer to the beginning.

    1. It is not that your Tri-Pacer pilot *chooses* to go to an academy, but in the modern aviation world, “academy training” is the only kind you can find. Most “old-school” part 61 operations are closed and the modern part 61 follows the “co-pilot training” method. (and the recent larceny of PSI closing testing centers will probably kill off the few small independent flight training facilities we have left!)

  4. Some say the future is in the “Multi Crew License concept. Lind university published an exhaustive study of this scheme to create permanent co-pilots. You can Google it. Even more fascinating is part two of the study where airline captains who have flown with graduates if this system are interviewed. Here is a link to part two.

      1. Thanks for these links Charlie; fascinating “attempt” but seems like not quite ready for execution. This reminds me of my early Cirrus CFI (CSIP) training. During the initial training, they emphasized, “teach them the automation.” After they kept wrecking the early planes the focus quickly changed to “teach them to land safely!” Flying is a “high-consequence activity.” Essential steps must be accomplished to proficiency and the price of “accelerated learning” is often a safety penalty (game over, no replay)!

  5. David – I just reread your article. It is amazing …. 5 hrs solo. And why is this?
    In the early 90s when I stopped playing guitar in a bar, and learned to fly, I’m pretty sure I needed 20 hrs solo, ten of those were cross country. The rest were maneuvering in the local area practicing – GASP – Stalls and slow flight solo, (out of KSAT)
    Not to mention steep turns, ground reference maneuvers, and plenty of landings on runway 14 at KSSF. After PP, we did 50 hours of XC time, SOLO prior to Instrument training (no GPS). Later when I was blessed with the job of chief instructor, and still later when I was designated, I had the bad manners to ask why the FAA was systematically neutering the experience and training requirements for PP and IFR. I was told; “to better harmonize with ICAO requirements ……”. I thought that was lame then, and I still do now. While by no means perfect, the ground and flight requirements of the mid 90’s did a good and relatively efficient job of turning ordinary musicians and the like into competent pilots. That’s why people from all over the world travelled here to do their pilot training. Apparently that data point was lost on upper FAA management, and the slippery slide into oblivion and obliviousness then began. What’s the answer? On a personal level; find a geezer with a J3 Cub. Institutionally, I’m not sure there is a way back to truth, more reliance on technology will have to suffice.
    ANECDOTE ALERT! My friend who’s been selling TBM airplanes for many years once told me, in frustration, that he had yet another proud new owner who he couldn’t get to land the airplane due to exceedingly poor basic aircraft control skills. Oh wow, I said – so what do you do, I asked? He said he tells them to go and get a minimum of 20 hours of tail wheel instruction. Works like a charm, he told me.

    Remember – it’s all about aircraft attitude – except for the part that’s about aircraft energy👀🤨, which is a product of attitude and thrust!
    The persistent optimism, David, that it takes to continue your role as statesman for sanity in flight training is marvelous to behold, and something for which we should all be grateful

    1. Hi Charlie,
      Thanks for the comments, and I agree there are dark days in every aviation educator’s life (testing at some of the academies is a challenge)! But there are still many wonderful people, and occasionally amazing applicants, that make it all worthwhile 👍 Be well my friend 🙏

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