The FAA Medical Mess

We have all seen pilot friends suffer through denials and endless expensive testing to retain or regain their flying privileges. Others have avoided doctors at their personal peril to maintain their flying status. On the other hand, some have just "passed" their FAA medical only to die suddenly from a heart attack.
Many pilots avoid medical procedures, therapy or necessary counseling just to maintain a "clean medical history" and suffer daily. Our FAA medical system needs a full re-examination and overhaul. This article was written by a long-time FAA insider who has personally suffered through these issues and wishes to remain annonymous.

The stated goal of the FAA’s medical certification system is to support safety by ensuring that those operating in the NAS are physically and mentally capable of performing their duties as pilots or controllers. However, the aeromedical system presently operates in a way that does not support this goal. On the contrary, it undermines safety because it strongly incentivizes “don’t tell/don’t treat” behavior among airmen.

In the words of one long-time aviator, pilots quickly learn never to conflate managing their FAA medical certificate with managing their actual health. The FAA medical system is widely perceived as capricious and punitive. Suggesting the existence of a medical condition to an AME or, worse, revealing anything requiring referral to Oklahoma City practically guarantees a deferral of unknown duration. Engagement with the FAA medical bureaucracy generally leads to a series of “because-we-said-so” demands for tests and procedures that are often expensive and almost never covered by insurance. In some cases, these tests are deemed irrelevant, unnecessary, or even harmful by the physician or specialist who knows most about both the condition and the airman.

The FAA justifies these demands in terms of “aerospace medicine.” These assertions are the subject of eye-rolling ridicule in the aviation community. Pilots at every level (private to ATP) and in every city can easily name at least one “go-to” AME for the expeditious handling of FAA medical certification paperwork. The flying public would be shocked to learn that five-minute FAA medical “exams” are the norm, whether for private pilots, active air carrier pilots with first-class medical certificates, and even special issuance.

As the safety record demonstrates, though, cases of pilot incapacitation at the controls are exceedingly rare. Those unfamiliar with the reality described above might attribute this result to the “effectiveness” of the FAA’s medical certification system. The truth is that those who cannot use BasicMed – an alternative Congress mandated because of the known vagaries in the FAA system – engage in some form of “don’t tell/don’t treat” behavior. In the best cases, pilots work with a trusted personal physician to treat conditions they dare not reveal to the FAA. In the worst cases, pilots fearful of entangling with the agency’s medical bureaucracy simply avoid treating health conditions that could indeed lead to an accident or incident.

In terms of both process and the outcome, the FAA’s traditional medical certification system is clearly inconsistent with the agency’s Compliance Program, its focus on the use of Safety Management Systems (SMS), and its initiative for risk-based decision making (RBDM).

The Compliance Program seeks to find problems and use the most effective means to fix them before they cause an accident or incident. It recognizes that in order to find and fix safety problems, there has to be an open and transparent exchange of information and data between the FAA and those who operate in the system. It recognizes that safety is not served by a system that incentivizes hiding problems to avoid punishment. In the case of medical certification, pilots currently have no incentive to do otherwise because they fear the punishment of costly and seemingly endless entanglement with a broken bureaucracy.

Open and transparent exchange of information, which is essential to achieving real safety, requires mutual cooperation and trust and “just culture” – a system in which self-disclosure is not punished.

Such trust is notably absent in the case of FAA medical certification, which is viewed as a punitive “gotcha” culture. The FAA medical staff, along with designated Aviation Medical Examiners who stand to lose substantial income, despise and openly disparage the BasicMed option as “unsafe.” In fact, however, the non-jeopardy nature of the BasicMed certification process is consistent with both the Compliance Program’s “find and fix” approach as well as with the concept of a just culture. As one BasicMed pilot puts it, “Now I can have an honest conversation with my doctor without worrying how the FAA will punish me.”

The operation of the FAA’s medical certification system is also inconsistent with the agency’s much-touted “risk-based decision making” strategic initiative (RBDM). RBDM holds that in order to truly improve safety, the agency needs to make smarter, system-level decisions that are based on data and risk analysis. The FAA medical certification system, by contrast, uses a one-size-fits-all approach. It seems to regard virtually any medical condition at any certificate level as a risk that requires significant time, energy, and resources by both the agency and the airman who has been foolish enough to report it. Meanwhile, actual risk increases because airmen whose work requires something beyond BasicMed patronize the five-minute “go-to” AMEs and/or practice some form of the “don’t tell/don’t treat” behavior described above.

As it currently operates, the FAA’s medical certification system also creates a substantial barrier to entry into the aviation workforce. For those considering an aviation career, a substantial investment of time and money is required to accumulate the 1,500 hours of flight time and the ATP certification level needed for employment in the industry. Those pondering whether to make such investments quickly become aware that even if they can qualify for issuance of an initial first- or second-class FAA medical certificate, they risk losing that certificate – along with the time and money already invested in training and logging flight time – every six months.

Medicine as a whole is currently "under the microscope" for it's pervasive profit motive. New procedures are marketed directly to consumers: "Ask your doctor..." Critics advocate for Gentle Medicine

"spurious disease categories are being invented, and existing disease categories expanded, for the aim of profit...the benefits of most new drugs are minimal and typically exaggerated by clinical research, and the harms of these drugs are extensive and typically underestimated by clinical research."

Join SAFE and support our advocacy for CFI-PROfessionalism, DPE reform, and fixing the FAA medical mess. You also get great benefits. You get 1/3 off ForeFlight and new CFI-Flipbooks for primary training. 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 by SAFE specifically for CFIs (and is the best value in the business).

Suppress “Urgent,” Focus on “Important!”

One of the major causes of cockpit chaos, and ultimately accidents, is simply a failure of time management. We often create our own problems as pilots by attempting too much – to the point of system failure. The essence of pilot-in-command is the process of continuously defining and accomplishing the most important tasks – e.g. aircraft control and immediate flight path – while shutting out other “urgent” requests of all kinds that interfere with this mission. (“Mere Urgency Effect“) The essence of command authority is “psychological triage,” filtering, defining, and accomplishing what is critical and saying “no” to the rest. Learning this skill in aviation starts in VFR, but is even more critical in the less flexible IFR environment. Savvy time management makes smooth, safer pilots and allows the mind to function in the reflective rather than reactive mode.

The urge to accomplish everything and do it well gets some energy from the pilot ego; “I can hack it!” Managing workload is what we do. Unfortunately, we often bite off too much and fail to set limits. It is hard to recognize and admit to our incrementally degraded margin of safety as we load up our plate. Another pressure on the pilot is the negative connotation of “saying no” or slowing down because saving time is the essence of “aviation magic.” It is critical to remember that time pressure is usually the “grim reaper” present at every accident wreck.

To put a more positive spin on “psychological triage” consider the positive time-management philosophy which is “essentialism.” This viewpoint argues that high-quality professionalism comes from very intentional filtering and focus to prevent confusion and chaos.

The way of the Essentialist means living by design, not by default. Instead of making choices reactively, the Essentialist deliberately distinguishes the vital few from the trivial many, eliminates the nonessentials, and then removes obstacles so the essential things have clear, smooth passage. In other words, Essentialism is a disciplined, systematic approach for determining where our highest point of contribution lies, then making execution of those things almost effortless.” Greg McKeown “Essentialism

If a request from ATC, your dispatch, or an important potentate in the back interferes with the primary mission of aircraft safety and control, the correct (but psychologically difficult) answer from the pilot must be “no” or “stand-by.” Shedding load or negotiating more time (physically and psychologically) creates focus and eliminates chaos. Too often the person in charge of the mission, the PIC, is hijacked by workload and driven to distraction by too many tasks and requests. Remember, it really is impossible to “multitask,” we only “timeshare” important tasks (and usually do them badly). So the first essential task is deciding what is truly important, triaging the rest and accomplishing the essential in the proper order; eliminate the chaos. The word “triage” (to sort) came from war-time medical emergencies. Trying to save *every* life led to a greater total loss of life. On the battlefield, some cases just have to be written off as “not going to happen” for the greater good of all. Similarly, in flight, saying “no” to urgent but unnecessary tasks keeps the plane on track and at the proper altitude (and the pilot calmer).

Triage in various forms is obviously good advice in life too. The primary difference in flying is the airplane continuously in motion and the clock does not stop. Additionally, aviation is primarily sold as a “time saver” so there is pressure on every pilot to get there faster and more efficiently. The critical switch to throw is mental though: say “too much” and start to ‘load shed” just like a good computer program. Too many processes trying to run at once will cause even the best machine to fail.

So slow down the process using your command authority to prioritize and triage tasks. If necessary, ask for a reroute to create more time. Ignore and offload the “urgent” and accomplish what is truly “important;” aircraft control and direction. The sage advice, often repeated, comes to the rescue here; aviate first – fly the plane accurately, legally, and safely. Get on the correct course at the proper altitude (navigate) and then take care of the requests from ATC (communicate). It is so easy to lose touch with this time-honored order of priorities. Read this month’s NASA Callback and you will see how even the most experienced pilots fall prey to “the urgent” and lose touch with the truly “important;” fly the plane and be SAFE out there!

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Risk Hides in the “Familiar!”

No pilot *intends* to crash; “blindsided!”

“What were they thinking?” (In most senses of the word, they weren’t!) If you read accident reports, you have often encountered seemingly smart pilots facing an obvious threat they “never saw.”  How does this happen? There is a simple explanation and it is a process common to all of us – and totally “natural” (beware)!

Risk hides in the familiar because our human perception defaults to “autopilot” by necessity to save mental effort in daily life. Our incoming data flow is filtered by our senses and again at the cognitive level to be manageable and useful. Our primary filter scans the environment (very rapidly) for “threats” and once that is satisfied, we largely “stereotype our world” and automatically transform it into patterns we have learned from experience. This is a sad commentary on appreciation and “living to the fullest” but a surprising 90% of our daily activities are only barely at the level of awareness. Common daily activities are largely relegated to automatic processing. These stone-age systems often miss subtle “technological threats” – it was designed for more obvious saber-tooth tigers ready to eat us!

“We construct an expected world because we can’t handle the complexity of the present one, and then process information that fits the expected world, and find reasons to exclude the information that might contradict it. Unexpected and unlikely interactions are ignored when we make our construction.” Charles Perrow; Normal Accidents

As an example of the world’s complexity and our amazing automatic processor, watch how many discrete pieces of information are presented in this film just to drive. As humans, our amazing human brains handle all these activities rapidly and automatically below the level of consciousness. Think of how many processes we employ in a “normal” day.

We all know that some people have a continuously higher level of awareness and we ourselves vary in awareness based on distraction and fatigue. The key to success in efficiently handling life and its challenges is twofold. First, we need to apply the correct level of awareness appropriate to every situation – and also consciously turn up awareness during potentially threatening or demanding situations. The second coping mechanism is embedding accurate, automatic scripts for common high-danger situations so they deploy automatically (reflexively) in cases of surprise or startle. The first skill is “situational awareness” and the second requires “skill and emergency training.” In flying, this “reserve capacity” requires lots of accurate and repetitive “overtraining” until reactions become easily accessible and “totally natural.” Without this essential “reserve skill capacity” we have no margin of safety when “Plan A” goes to pieces.

Take the example of driving in “automatic mode” when a child runs out into traffic and surprises us. Hopefully, our reactions are available appropriate, and immediate (trained/embedded/reflexive). We apply the brakes or swerve before we even know what happened. Immediate action like this is too quick for our thoughtful/critical mind to engage and react. In retrospect, you are often surprised at the accuracy and speed of the reaction. Most sports and high-stakes activities operate almost entirely at this level of “over-training.”

In these “surprise situations,” the heart rate also picks up and we are suddenly aware and alive, critically processing. Too much excitement in this direction brings us to the “startle” (a common failure mode). Continuous awareness at the higher level is exhausting (and inappropriate) so our awareness soon degrades back into “automatic.”If however, the thoughtful brain overrides this saying “we are in a schoolyard, we better stay alert” (situational awareness) we maintain the higher level of threat processing. This parallel processing has been on board since we were hunting sabertooth lions on the savannah, but the unique threats of technology can be subtle and overwhelm this amazing system – it is just a needle above the redline?

Psychologists call these two united brain modes a “dual-processor system.” The workhorse, automatically running everything from breathing to digestion and driving, is called “System One” by Nobel scientist Daniel Kahneman (Thinking Fast and Slow) and handles all routine daily activities. And yes, we do pilot a lot in this mode, it is faster and energy-efficient. During critical, time-challenged events the automatic scripts we embed during training enable immediate and appropriate pilot action.” System two” (Kahneman) is the aware and analytical mode of thought, actively scanning for threats and also projecting possible outcomes (and potentially changing the plan). “System two” is slower and deliberate and requires more time and energy so we continuously default to less expensive “system one.” The essence of safety is consciously engaging “system two” during critical phases of flight and maintaining “situational awareness.” (A similar formulation of X and C systems: Daniel Lieberman: “What Zomies Can’t Do“)

Teaching situational awareness requires providing “continuous surprises” to shake up the “comfortable world.” As soon as a “pilot-in-training” is comfortable with an operation, a good educator is “changing the world” and preventing complacency. Hide a plastic snake in the “lightening holes” of the wing before pre-flight; are they “really looking?” By nature, we all miss “really seeing” because we think we know what is there; the human condition!

During cruise flight (on a good day) events are often non-threatening and it is easy to lapse into complacency and fatigue. It is absolutely essential for safety to consciously power-up “system two” and scan for threats periodically (see “Code Yellow“). If both the plane and the brain are on autopilot, we are “cruising on luck.” I personally try to run through all the gauges and indicators and review the flight progress – expectations vs. actual – after every radio check-in. A SA scan every 5-10 minutes helps avoid being blindsided by slow or subtle changes that can ruin your day. As the night or the flight get longer, more active interventions are necessary to combat fatigue.

But it would be wrong to paint the slower, analytical, “system two” mode as always the hero. The reflexive “heuristics” of “system one” are the heart of all excellent athletic (and aviation) performance. This is how the batter hits the fastball or the aerobatic pilot performs their unlimited freestyle. This appropriate/automatic “reflexive” mode is required for the fluid and immediate actions in time-critical situations. This is why we train so hard to embed “muscle memory” into the implicit memory of “reflexive system one.” (And this is what you are testing when you pull the throttle on your student).

The thoughtful and analytical “system two” is not always the desired mode of operation. We all have had situations where we “over-think” an operation and ruin the fluid/automatic flow of a procedure. “Inappropriate analytical intervention” is also the root cause of the common phenomenon we call “choking” in any performance activity. Though exclusive dominance of either system at the wrong time can ruin effectiveness, the “90% automatic” statistic almost ensures that the most common failure mode is when the “threat radar” of “system two” is not engaged. We do not perceive and are “asleep” at the switch!

I am currently doing FAA-required retraining for a very current 20K hour pilot who landed without clearance at a Charlie-level airport. How does this happen? What was he thinking? (he wasn’t). This guy was way “too comfortable” (complacent) during this critical phase of flight. What if an airliner was cleared onto the runway while he was floating down final (in “auto-mode”)? Risk hides in the familiar and it takes a disciplined pilot to switch modes correctly and force proper vigilance.

It is the job of a good CFI to provide appropriate “surprises” once their pilot-in-training is getting “comfortable,” both to “sell” the idea of vigilance and also test the embedded emergency scripts. Remember, both creativity and restraint are essential here or your student will become like a dog with a shock collar – always on the edge of panic. As an example of creativity, consider a partial power loss (not on the test but more realistic). This failure mode engages both the requirement for immediate action items but also requires thoughtful/analytical brain functions. “Creative surprises” are even more essential for rusty rated pilots.

Technology and high-workload environments provide unique threats and surprises that our stone age brain circuits were never optimized to handle. Get a good CFI and surprise yourself regularly (until you “expect” the surprises) In charter flying, we go suffer (train) every six months. Fly safely out there (and often)!

Join SAFE and get great benefits. You get 1/3 off ForeFlight and your membership supports our mission of increasing aviation safety by promoting excellence in education.  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 by SAFE specifically for CFIs (and is the best value in the business).

Keep it Simple; Angle of Attack!

In recent blogs, we emphasized a “perfect picture” for each new student and also how and why it is critical to break the driving habit immediately. A good educator is eliminating obstacles and building solid habits while embedding actionable mental concepts. And now it is finally time to go flying.

Though the physics of lift thankfully works, it is unsettling for pilots at all levels that the best minds in science are still arguing about what actually makes it work. Most books present 2-3 conflicting theories with associated passion – and mathematical smoke and mirrors. It can all feel like childhood church stories – and even has the same Greek letters. We create even more confusion by over-emphasizing terms like “stall speed.” This concept is in all the books and even painted on the airspeed indicator. Imagine the confusion when we subsequently reveal “a wing can stall at any speed!” It is no wonder that pilots at all levels very quickly demonstrate this mental muddle on checkrides if you start to press this issue. Pilots need basic, actionable information when discussing what enables wing lift or even creates a basic turn.

To this end, I think the best starting point for discussing lift is “angle of attack” (AOA). The basics are deceptively simple; AOA is the angle of the chord line to the “relative wind.”  If you take the complicated lift equation (with the Greek letters) and remove all the constants, what you have left is the relationship between the speed and AOA. And as we know, we control AOA with elevator inputs.

Purists may chafe at this simplification but if flying requires calculus to be safe, we have bigger problems. Every airplane with a yoke (or stick) has a pretty good angle of attack indicator already installed – you don’t have to spend extra money or stare inside at LEDs. The more chrome you see showing on the yoke, the higher the angle of attack. If the yoke (or stick) is held all the way to the backstop, your plane is either stalled or at the highest (positive) angle of attack the manufacturer allowed by design.

“The position of the stick merely fixes the Angle of Attack and the airspeed at which the airplane flies as it descends.” Wolfgang Langewiesche Stick and Rudder , An Explanation of the Art of Flying.

“Relative wind” and AOA are invisible to the pilot, so a major misconception that must be actively purged and continuously discouraged is equating flight attitude with the angle of attack. This misconception seems almost intuitive in our minds and is subconsciously reinforced by diagrams like the one above. As educators and pilots, we must continuously emphasize (and remember) that a higher nose is not necessarily a higher angle of attack, and the nose does not have to be up high to stall a wing. One creative way to demonstrate this on the ground with diagrams is to present the same angle of attack in different flight attitudes:

That is exactly what the classic Aerodynamics for Naval Aviators does in a less colorful diagram. And though pictures have great value on a cognitive level, it is essential to fly to the edges of the flight envelope and experience these configurations. These do not have to be terrifying and are easily accomplished in a standard trainer.

In early training CFIs emphasize a concept called “stall speed.” This number is in all the POHs and even marked on the airspeed indicator. Then in the next breath, we explain a wing can stall at “any speed and any flight attitude.” If we do not carefully and fully explain all this, it is no wonder most pilots are confused (as are the instructors). Questions on a flight-test, at any level regarding stalls or AOA can quickly go sideways with poor preparation and understanding. It can help to play a few revealing YouTubes (I call this one the “perfect stall.” How did an F-16 stall while pointed down at the earth?

Carefully chosen YouTubes (I call this one “the perfect stall”) can be very helpful in creating a better understanding for your pilot-in-training. First comes “cognitive dissonance: “How is it possible to stall an F-16 while pointed straight down at the earth?” Then comes understanding (hopefully). Damn physics!

Another way to empower understanding is by demonstrating different pitch attitudes with the same AOA, and then different AOA with the same pitch attitude. This kind of practice disconnects these two concepts and creates more complete understanding. Both airplanes depicted below are at the SAME AOA (and same yoke position) but very different flight attitudes and configurations.  This nose-high flight attitude (scary for many pilots) and also the nose-low (incorrectly assume  “safe/comfortable”) have the same AOA. Safety is achieved by understanding that both are just as close to a stall – which could occur with any more pull/backpressure/AOA in either case.

“A wing is an odd thing, strangely behaved, hard to understand, tricky to handle. In many important respects, a wing’s behavior is exactly contrary to common sense.”  Wolfgang Langewiesche Stick and Rudder , An Explanation of the Art of Flying.

Once your training with different pitch attitudes progresses into stall demonstration and practice, students will assume that to stall the nose has to be UP and that the wing has to be flying slow (both serious errors). During initial training, we create benign 1G stalls and this reinforces the dangerous misconception that the nose has to be high to stall and that stalls only happen when the wing gets slow. We need to fix this huge (mostly intuitive) misunderstanding, to get to increase aviation safety.

The best method to teach stalls is to select a “too high” nose attitude (hopefully with a cloud reference). At this point, your pilot-in-training should know the Vy/Vx pitch references, so have them set and maintain a “too high” pitch attitude precisely and maintain this as the airplane deaccelerates. This maneuver will demonstrate the yoke continually moving aft (increasing AOA) to maintain the picture and more usefully achieve a stall. This is much more effective than the usual (and less helpful) “pull to the sky technique.” (BTW, an airplane that has leveled off in ground effect for landing is elegantly transiting this exact same range of AOA – except while “low and level.” Notice the yoke continuously moving backward while “flaring” creating this same ever-increasing AOA for a soft touchdown).

As students become more comfortable with stalls and recovery, demonstrate a full stall and maintain the excessive AOA while the nose drops though the horizon. Throughout this maneuver, the yoke is held all the way back (same AOA/wing stalled) as the nose falls and the flight attitude changes. Recover only when the nose has fallen through the horizon. Secondary stalls are also a great way to kinesthetically reinforce the larger flight envelope and demonstrate the danger of “nose low” stalls (and possibly experience stalls at some higher G load). After these demonstrations, AOA will become more apparent. These essential demonstrations are not part of the normal flight training syllabus or required in any FAA ACS, but they are critical to creating a safe and confident pilot.

It takes some time and a caring relationship to introduce stalls correctly and not scare a pilot-in-training. If your student has not yet mastered coordinated flight (especially during climbs) it is too early to introduce stalls. The result will be predictable (and your fully scared student will probably drop out). A much better use of early flight time is demonstrating stability in the aircraft due to the clever aerodynamic design. Trim for an airspeed and raise the nose demonstrating how the plane will return to the trimmed speed/AOA. Trim a speed and add/reduce power demonstrating how the plane will seek that same speed/AOA. At least half of private pilot applicants are not aware the tail “lifts down” (and some CFIs do not know this either) providing dynamic stability for an aircraft in flight. Once pilots understand the nose is the “heavy end” and that recovery will take care of itself they have a greater sense of confidence and understanding of the physics involved. Planes don’t stall capriciously, *pilots* stall planes! Just because a plane *can* stall in any flight attitude does not mean that it *will.*

All of these concepts are a huge load to assimilate during early flight training, so patience and meaningful repetition is essential to successfully navigate this rush of information and new experiences. I would guess of the 80% of pilots who drop out during flight training, more than half would identify being scared of stalls (introduced inappropriately and too early) as the primary cause. Fly safely out there (and often)!

Join SAFE and immediately get great benefits. 1/3 off ForeFlight. This savings more than pays for your membership and simultaneously supports our SAFE mission of increasing aviation safety.  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 by SAFE specifically for CFIs (and is the best value in the business).


How to “Sell” Safety to Pilots!

For GA, the FAA is permissive with “regulatory minimums.” Flight in Class G airspace only requires “1 SM, clear of clouds” – way low but “legal.” And for creating pilots, the FAA mandates only 40 hours to obtain a pilot certificate, another potentially scary number. This is only dangerous if it becomes a target for every “budget shopper” looking to be a pilot – and creates unrealistic expectations. If this person manages a 70% on their knowledge test and “lucks out” with a 70% effort on their flight test (mediocre on everything), they will “pass their private,” (and the FAA rules require the DPE to write a temporary). But their future safety is usually seriously in question. (see Dr. Bill Rhodes “Scary Pilot” Slideshare.) They are essentially jumping out of a plane at altitude with the “budget parachute!” They bought the cheapest, crappiest rig off the shelf (with no reserve) and are trusting their life to it. When you frame their choice in this manner, it clearly is not a wise buying decision – if you value your life and also your friends and family.

Obviously on a movie theme today…

Though this “budget shopper” received the same paper temporary as the person who worked much harder (and paid more), our “minimum pilot” is not receiving the same value as a properly prepared pilot. They numerically lack about 1/3 of the FAA recommended skill and knowledge and they are literally gambling with their life. I have been lucky enough to create a few amazing pilots with only 35 total hours in a 141 school. These are exceptionally rare people (3 in 25 years) and all the circumstances of weather and equipment worked out (lucky). The important point is regulatory minimums are not a goal to pursue in flight training, they are a bare regulatory minimum. If you are a pilot seeking training or an educator providing it, quality and safety are the goals to aim at. If a pilot persists in seeking faster/cheaper/easier, they may not be suited for this business of flying?

I was recently at Boca Raton with five corporate jets waiting to go due to the Christmas rush. All were holding for IFR releases into the saturated airspace. A locally-based pilot in a fancy piston twin was approved for a VFR take-off and entering the runway at an intersection behind the jets. He was instructed to “back taxi full length for take-off due to wake turbulence.” This guy needed five increasingly careful instructions to fully understand and execute this clearance. Quite possibly this pilot started out as our 70% pilot and never got any better. And this pilot was not a beginner but probably had been frustrating controllers and embarrassing his fellow pilots for at least 25 years…

There seem to be these two schools of thought throughout all of aviation: a passionate pursuit of excellence and the baser impulse of acquiring all the certificates and ratings as fast as possible for the least money. I know from comments that the readers of this blog are in the quality camp (as is SAFE) but “selling safety” is a huge challenge in our modern culture and we all face this challenge every day. Every FaceBook forum seems to be full of advice encouraging short-term thinking that powers this “race for minimums.” Framing this choice as an “investment in personal safety” (and the safety of your family) makes “selling safety” a lot more comprehensible to most reasonable “budget shoppers.”

Anyway, this leads up to a problem related to this “minimum training mindset” that is encountered increasingly during flight tests. How little can a pilot fly and legally comply with the “long student pilot cross-country” required in 61.109. If you “Google this” (as everyone these days does…) and interpret this regulation verbatim without proper background (the “budget CFI rating ?”) I guarantee you will get it wrong! The reg. from the CFR reads the same.

“Long” X-C for private in 14 CFR 61.109(a)5(ii)

If our student pilot took off and flew 40nm straight north and landed; then 80nm straight south over the starting point (and landed); then finally back home all with 3 full-stop landings  (a neglected detail) would this flight qualify for 14 CFR 61.109(a)5(iii)? And the answer is NO. The hidden problem is in the definition of “cross-country.” For a student pilot, 14 CFR 61.1(b)3 requires a landing >50nm from the starting airport or this flight is *not* a “cross-country” (for a student pilot). As soon as a reg says “cross-country” in the training world, >50nm is required. Read the Keller Letter of Interpretation for a full explanation. This requirement seems to be increasingly fuzzy throughout the industry (three DPEs I called got it wrong). The bottom line though is “why cut corners in training? Pursuing “flight training minimums is a “race to the bottom.”

When I see the absolute minimum time on an application, I want to ask “do you really like to fly?” I might be “pissing into the wind” here but what about making really fully competent pilots, prepared even beyond the minimums on the ACS test – people who can really fly? In an amazing seminar I once attended, Greg Brown (yes that one, the first Master CFI) called this approach “fantasy flight training” but not in a pejorative way. He “sold” this idea as a reasonable approach for some people. For others, some level of “better” is the best sales pitch because these people want to be better and safer! Don’t you think this approach would improve our GA accident rate and the quality of our whole industry? Please share the “budget parachute” analogy with your next “budget shopper” and LMK if that helps? Maybe a large Terminator poster with a big gun advising “buy quality training if you wish to live?” We’ll get back to “Lesson #3” next week and talk about the AOA indicator that *every* plane has. Fly SAFE out there (and often)!

Join SAFE and get great benefits. 1/3 off ForeFlight more than pays for your membership and supports the SAFE mission of increasing aviation safety by promoting excellence in education.  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 by SAFE specifically for CFIs (and is the best value in the business).

CFI-PRO™ Conquer the “Driving” Habit!

Every subtle movement of a pilot (or missed action), if watched carefully without intervention, tells a huge story to an alert CFI (or DPE). The most revealing is probably the first take-off; game on! Going beyond all the (very important) checklists and line-up prep, watch the initial power application very carefully. Many new pilots, and even some experienced ones, apply yoke and aileron to the right as the plane pulls left with initial power application. Call this out and reduce power immediately – start over and do this correctly. This pilot is still “driving!” This simple action reveals a multitude of sins (mostly deficient flight instruction). And this seems “perfectly natural” since we all drive much more than we fly. This mistake is so basic and so wrong that this pilot’s flying in every other area usually reveals similar serious problems. (Allowing two hands on the yoke can easily engender this negative transfer). BTW, DPEs on a flight test, do not/cannot intervene here; this is not a violation of standards. (They just watch and take notes; never teach). The CFI is the source of all future excellence and great flying technique (or not).

Another place where”driving” is obvious is while making a simple level turn at altitude. Hopefully, we all visually clear in the direction of turn (and I teach a verbal “clear left/right” to stay honest). But if your pilot continues to look over their shoulder in the direction of the turn as they add aileron (turning into Walmart?) the nose will usually be swinging one way or the other with too much or too little rudder. It is essential to initiate a turn, with your eyes directly forward over the nose to perfectly cancel the adverse yaw of the aileron application. This is super simple and very basic but requires correcting the “driving habit.” A level turn is even worse when people are “playing soccer” and watching the inclinometer. Try this visual trick immediately if you haven’t and you will see your flying improve immediately. Rod Machado has a great YouTube here to illustrate the correct way to bank with eyes straight out over the nose:

The beauty of this correct visual cue out front (established on lesson #1) is that every pilot will get perfect turns, in every plane they fly, the first time! This includes gliders, big hairy-chested tailwheels or even jets; it works! And your poor pilot in the left seat never learned this because unfortunately, no one taught them correctly. They are looking in the direction of the turn (where they already cleared) like they are turning into the MacDonald’s drive through. It is certainly fine to take a glance to clear again after the turn is established, but please watch the nose for the roll so coordination is perfect.

Why their CFI did not demonstrate and fix the “driving habit” on lesson one, or detect and fix this problem later is unforgivable. This poor pilot is still laboring under a completely wrong control paradigm. On take-off, not only is this control input not going to move the plane to the right with yoke right, this error is going to introduce multiple adverse effects on the rotation that are going to make the whole job of piloting harder. Many loss of control accidents happen right on the runway for this very simple reason.

A perfect take-off is much harder than most people think (and remember >24% of fatal accidents happen on take-off and initial climb). Watching a take-off from the right seat is a very large “tell.” First, there should be a smooth application of power (tracking perfectly straight with rudder) and all the cross-checks complete (while maintaining control). Then a smooth rotation straight up to a known outside sight picture with no wiggle/waggle and over-control (how many times do you see this go well?) But take-off can be fully taught and mastered by lesson #3 if it is introduced correctly. A fully mastered take-off is a great opportunity to motivate your student by turning this operation completely over to your student; “you got this!” (incremental mastery) Unfortunately in many cases, I see even “experienced pilots” that cannot make this happen consistently. This is a failure of instruction.

Early “drive-in-the-sky” ads didn’t help!

Here are a couple important exercises to break the “driving habit” and make your “aircraft operator” into a pilot. First, ensure the correct seating and fit in the plane to ensure a “perfect picture” as described in last week’s blog.  As you taxi, add and remove the power to make sure your client is correcting right and left with the rudders only (have them sit on their hands the first few times – new pilots often feel “out of control” without their “hands on the wheel”). It is important to speak directly to this “driving problem” immediately to defeat it and make it cognitively obvious to them. Every pilot will have to self-correct in the future. We all will drive to and from the airport; they must be aware so *they* can suppress this urge in the future.

On the runway, ready for take-off (after all the pre-checks and ready for power application), demonstrate the effect of power application: “your plane pulls left every time (physics!)” Also strongly emphasize the need to simultaneously apply right rudder *with* power application. Many pilots *react* with rudder and see-saw their “yaw and correction.” An ideal smooth application of BOTH power and rudder holds the centerline nicely.

As the nose is rotated, MORE rudder is required (and actually a little left aileron to correct proverse roll). Emphasize the control pressures necessary to hold wings level and nose straight (eyes outside initially then perhaps “tuning” with the ball). Pretty soon your client’s take-offs will be smooth and straight; under control every time. There are lots of forces at work here and they should be dissected and explained thoroughly during a ground discussion. This training is ideally presented on lesson one and two and pretty well mastered by three and four. But I have had to perform this “deconstruction” with very experienced pilots to break bad habits (and that takes a lot longer). Fly safe out there (and often)!

Join SAFE and get great benefits. You get 1/3 off ForeFlight and your membership supports our mission of increasing aviation safety by promoting excellence in education.  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 by SAFE specifically for CFIs (and is the best value in the business).

CFI-PRO: “Perfect Picture” from Lesson One!

Pilot positioning is critical to aircraft control!

When I get into a plane to perform a flight test and I look at the applicant in the other seat, I sometimes see their sightline is significantly lower than mine. From this simple cue, I am almost sure of two things immediately. First, they were not blessed with an experienced flight instructor and second, they are probably still struggling to achieve a consistent, confident landing. They basically can’t see enough to fly well. A “perfect picture” leads to accurate and confident aircraft control. If you can’t see, it is pretty tough to fly and land. All this could have been prevented by getting the pilot initially “fitted” correctly to the airplane, eliminating a huge amount of frustration and wasted money training.  This might seem like a “little problem” but in fact the effects are HUGE – like hand mike to headsets – it effects everything!

Many large aircraft have pilot positioning devices; “perfect picture” every time!

The Air Force faced an overwhelming exposure to exactly this issue in the 1940s and fixed it with extensive human engineering studies and cockpit modifications. Unfortunately, awareness (and equipment) have lagged way behind in GA flying.

“In the late 1940s, the United States air force had a serious problem: its pilots could not keep control of their planes… After multiple inquiries ended with no answers, officials turned their attention to the design of the cockpit itself…the size and shape of the seat, the distance to the pedals and stick, the height of the windshield, even the shape of the flight helmets were all built to conform to the average dimensions of a 1926 pilot.

[After testing] 4,063 pilots, not a single airman fit within the average range. There was no such thing as an average pilot. If you’ve designed a cockpit to fit the average pilot, you’ve actually designed it to fit no one…Once these and other design solutions were put into place, pilot performance soared.”

So the US Air Force spent a huge amount of research and design money to fix the “pilot fitting” problem but through this investment, solved their aircraft control problem. They designed seats to be finely adjustable in every direction. Modern jets also have a parallax sight device to precisely locate the pilot laterally and vertically perfectly in the cockpit. The Air Force realized proper visual cues and cockpit fit are the basis for all aircraft control. It is essential for every pilot you fly with to know what their proper position in the plane should look and feel like (and later also how all the controls and power applications change this outside picture – future blog).

PIlot sightline set with parallax gauge

Experienced instructors usually detect any “fitting problems” immediately, and quite frankly sometimes this makes us seem like magicians. I have had airplane *owners* come to me intensely frustrated that their landings are inconsistent or borderline scary. They are usually embarrassed and in the quiet “confessional” mode. Remarkably, we can often fix their landings in a lesson or two by just adjusting their seat and their view picture (just like the Air Force) Aircraft seating is *that* important. These poor pilots never were taught what cues the *must* see to control their aircraft.

So step one for every new pilot “meeting” a new airplane is “fitting.” You should ensure they know what they should be seeing since they have no idea what is correct. Start with the seat all the way up and lower it gradually so they have a view over the glare shield. Ideally, they should see some of the cowling for pitch reference. Secondarily, make sure they can move the rudders to their stops and still have some flexion in their knees. Otherwise, they are stretching to use the rudders and using the hip muscles rather than the finer control of the calf muscles (also painful and tiring). Sometimes the seats don’t adjust enough and you need cushions. I recommend your pilot buy their own so their fit is exactly the same every time.

This simple, but critical, seating guidance makes all the difference for faster, consistent student progress. Some additional human factors advice for “fitting” a pilot to the controls should also be considered. Have your pilot move all the controls and demonstrate the use of fine muscle usage (wrist and fingers) for operating the controls. Gross motor control from the large muscles of the hip and shoulder makes pilots fly like gorillas (no PC police please).  Demonstrate the trim (a mystery to every new pilot) and emphasize avoiding excessive control pressures with proper trim. How many times do we see even experienced pilots “fighting” with the plane instead of operating it smoothly and instinctively (see this earlier blog). For the throttle in a Cessna, using the palm of the hand, calibrated  with the index finger, allows precise power application.  Again, pilots operating from the shoulder fly poorly with coarse motor control.

One last tip on the fitting and introduction to the cockpit. This is a great opportunity (without the pressure of an engine running) to practice with all the switches – especially getting the feel for how the mag switch works. This will help with their next challenge of performing a run-up. How many times have you had a student turn off *both* mags creating that dreaded backfire? This can be eliminated with some simple “switch practice” while sitting calm and quiet (master off). With no psychological pressure of a running engine (noise and confusion) learning the movement of the key is much easier. It is also a great time to teach thoroughly the danger of a hot mag. Solve these simple problems and save hours of frustration by getting your student correctly situated and comfortable in their new “office.” Fly safely out there (and often).

Join SAFE and get great benefits. You get 1/3 off ForeFlight and your membership supports our mission of increasing aviation safety by promoting excellence in education.  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 by SAFE specifically for CFIs (and is the best value in the business).

Have a Wonderful Holiday; Grateful and Present!

One thing that has kept me in aviation all these years is hanging out with such an amazing group of talented people. Pilots are less than 1% of our population and as you progressively raise the bar to Commercial, ATP, CFI and master levels, you get into some rarified air of outstanding performance. Pilots are resilient and motivated; definitely hard-chargers – and certainly the “movers and shakers” of the world. But there is also an unfortunate tendency to live for the next achievement and miss out on the glory of everyday life. For the holidays, I wish you all some rest and gratitude during this holiday season. I hope you escape the 24-hour news cycle that makes us all crazy and enjoy some calm family time. Though it has been a challenging year, we all experience wonderful gifts in our lives to be grateful for. Piloting itself is an incredibly rare skill we too often take for granted.

I was particularly struck by the driven nature of pilots watching a video about, Cpt. Lindsey Danilack. What an amazing person. Her ascent to SOAR Mission Commander in five years was nothing less than breathtaking.

She was chosen Cadet First Captain at West Point (in addition to being captain of her track team),  attended Ft. Rucker and successfully bid for Apaches on her first deployment (and served as platoon leader). She then assessed with the 160th S.O.A R and became the first female mission commander in AH-6 “Little Birds.” Talk about full-speed ahead achievement! And though I appreciate her service to country and stand in awe of her drive, it certainly makes me hyperventilate watching her speed through life. As pilots, we all share this genetic make-up. So wishing you all some time to stand down and relax so you enjoy and appreciate this holiday. Fly SAFE (and often!)

Join SAFE and get great benefits. You get 1/3 off ForeFlight and Jeppesen plates FREE if you step up to Performance Pro (offer ends 12/25)! This supports our mission of increasing aviation safety by promoting excellence in education.  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 by SAFE specifically for CFIs (and is the best value in the business).


“Fired” By the FAA!

At a time when we expect our institutions to operate with transparency and act in a just manner when dealing with their stakeholders, we should demand the same accountability from the FAA FSDOs. Although the majority of the Aviation Safety Inspectors are hard-working, honest and dedicated employees, there continue to be egregious examples of unfair DPE terminations, cronyism, and corruption because there is almost no accountability and certainly no unbiased appeal process. Basically, if an FAA Inspector can get concurrence from the Manager, he or she can act with impunity, knowing there is almost nothing to fear from within the Agency. The only actions which hold any possibility of forcing proper behavior are legal proceedings or political pressure. This is simply and fundamentally wrong. 

The Designated Pilot Examiners are the FAA’s direct connection to the General Aviation community. These are the gatekeepers who make sure that aspiring pilots have the essential skills, knowledge, and judgment to operate safely in the National Airspace System. The DPEs also serve as mentors to aviation educators who are training pilots, many of whom go on to become the airline officers and captains of the future. When questions arise, the DPE is usually one of the subject matter experts that the community depends on for advice and answers. They are truly the “face” of the local FAA office. Many DPEs are also active in presenting safety programs for the FAA, appearing at fly-ins, seminars, and events where they are role models for the community. When pilots run afoul of a regulation or have an accident, the FAA often requires remedial training from a trusted DPE. The entire FAA training and testing process rests on a foundation of trust in the professionalism and integrity of the examiner cadre.

The unintended consequences of arbitrary and capricious sanctions and terminations of DPEs have a serious and chilling effect on this outreach. Many DPEs, seeing such firings taking place are increasingly unwilling to risk their appointment by participating in seminars and training activities for fear of inadvertently saying something that upsets their Managing Specialist or another FAA employee. Leaders in the aviation community are reluctant to serve as DPEs for the same reasons. Many DPEs are unwilling to condemn unprofessional conduct or unfair practices by their local FSDO for fear of jeopardizing their ability to make a living.

So, when the local FSDO chooses to sanction or terminate one of these people “for cause,” it should only do so for significant and proper justification, and it should be required to substantiate this decision. There needs to be an independent appeals board, made up by both qualified FAA personnel from outside the local FAA office and by selected senior members of the examiner community who would review the evidence and make a final determination. Establishing such a mechanism is simple, inexpensive, and urgent.

If we hope to restore and maintain trust in the regulators and managers who are charged with the critical responsibilities of promoting and maintaining aviation safety, this should happen now.”

Ken is a charter member of SAFE and served on the board of directors. His integrity and professionalism are highly respected in our industry and beyond question. The reasons cited for his "termination with cause" relate to his participation in a voluntary FAASTeam seminar, and have nothing to do with his DPE service (see the linked YouTube for details). This case clearly illustrates the need for systemic change in the DPE program. 
SAFE, as a CFI professional organization representing almost 3500 members (and 100 DPEs), advocates for a more fair and transparent system for managing perceived DPE infractions or violations to insure a more secure and professional DPE system. (There is no "Bill of Rights" for DPEs, they "serve at the pleasure" and can be summarily terminated). We support Ken's DPE reinstatement and refer this larger issue to the currently empanneled DPE Reforms Working Group for careful consideration in their report.