Saturday, November 6, 2010

In Review

For those that don't know, every pilot has to have at least one hour of ground instruction and one hour of flight instruction every two years. It doesn't matter how often or little someone flys, or if it has been many years since they were last in an aircraft - they need a review within the last 24 months. Of course, we say that a flight review is not a test, and, the closer to expiring somebody's last review is, the more it seems like a test. I have had the opportunity to give a few flight reviews lately, and want to describe the process.

The review begins with a plan of action. This can be a plan the flight instructor prepares, or it can be something the CFI and the pilot create together. The only required material is a review of the regulations, and any recent regulatory changes. The rest of the ground and flight content is to be tailored to the specific pilot. I tend to try and set up my reviews as a scenario the pilot is likely to have in their day to day flying. This could be something like a flight to South Carolina for a weekend at the beach, or a flight to Parkersburg, WV or Portsmouth, OH for lunch. Of course, we don't actually fly that far, but the planning process is a great opportunity to learn about airspace, demonstrate a practical understanding of the regulations, and maybe learn a little bit about airplane performance.

For example; last week I was planning a flight from Huntington, WV to Dayton, OH, with a private pilot. There is a large military training area on a direct line between the two cities, and we would have had to stay at 5,500 feet to fly in a straight line from departure do destination. For what is roughly a 125 nautical mile flight, 5,500 is not terribly high in the Cherokee 180 the gentleman was flying. Many pilots these days want to fly the shortest distance possible, and going "GPS direct" has become quite common.

The problem is that the details of flight planning sometimes fall by the wayside. After all, if you get in, fire up the GPS, it tells you your destination is 1:30 away, and you have 5:00 hours of fuel, there is no problem, right? Well, what we discovered by diving into the performance tables for the airplane was that by going around this airspace (which meant going almost all the way to Columbus), we would only add 10 miles to the trip. On the map, it looked like a major detour until we measured it. Whats more is that by staying out from under the military space, we could climb to a higher altitude where the airplane is more efficient. By going to 8,500 feet, the plane was 10% more efficient, and the winds were slightly more favorable. Once we ran the numbers, we could go higher, further, in less time, on less gas, and take 200 more pounds of people/bags/fuel by NOT going direct. That was an effective flight review.

One issue I have run into is that many of the pilots I am reviewing have more flight experience than I do, both in terms of flight hours and years. At first, I was a little intimidated. One guy brought an airplane that I didn't have any previous experience in - though I have experience in similar models. I told him up front about the situation, and said that I would probably learn a thing or two about the airplane from him. When we were done with the review, he told me that it had not only been fun, but he had learn a lot from the flight. That made me feel great, because the entire flight I had been pulling out all the stops to share my best pieces of advice and experience. He hasn't been the only one of my clients to tell me this. As far as I can tell, the trick is being prepared, helping them identify a weak area of knowledge or skill, and then learn something about it.

I flew with one guy who had gotten his license a decade ago, but hadn't flown for several years. He has been training with another CFI lately, and wanted me to perform his flight review. I made the review a little more test-like than normal by performing all of the tasks required on a private pilot flight test. He prepared and brought a flight plan that we discussed, and then we flew the first leg to see if the plan was accurate. We diverted to a strange airport where he had never been, simulated IFR conditions on the way, and then made a short field approach and landing on the 3000 foot strip. On the way home, we did some maneuvers under the guise of trying to position a photographer to get the right shot, had a simulated engine failure all the way to touchdown on a well maintained but deserted grass strip, and then contacted ATC for the return to our home field. All of that in 1.5 hours, and he did very well.

While we were debriefing, he said the flight was very enjoyable but challenging as well. That made me feel good - it means I did my job right. The trick is to get someone to teach themselves something. Put them in a situation where they can spot the connections, and then gently point them out along the way. This can apply to keeping turns coordinated without looking at the slip/skid indicator, judging that engine out approach, or just managing the engine. To do this, you have to walk in the door with some kind of plan, but it has to be flexible enough to be meaningful for each individual.

Reading back over what I have written, it sounds more like a textbook or how-to guide than I meant. I'll share one more in-flight story, and call it a night.

This afternoon, I flew to Charleston with one of my students, Dustin. We went up there to practice dealing with their air traffic control and to meet the examiner who is going to test Dustin this coming week for his private pilot license. The day was overcast, grey, and cold. At our cruising altitude of 3,500 feet, it was -5 Celsius outside of the airplane, and my feet didn't think it was a whole lot warmer inside. I usually stay fairly involved in the cockpit, trying to help people polish their radio work, plan ahead, etc. Today I just sat back, stayed quiet, kept an eye out the window for other air traffic, and watched Dustin fly.

We took off, turned on course, were vectored into the flow of traffic, and arrived on schedule, safely. I didn't demand to see any special technique, didn't prod him into flying perfectly, didn't hint at what items were still undone. What I saw was a pilot - a good one.

After he and Bill had flown around for an hour, debriefed their flight, and scheduled the flight test, Dustin and I got back in the plane and headed home. The sun was just slipping over the horizon as we were taking off. Cloud cover in the western sky had broken up somewhat, and the colors in the sky ranged from bright flourescent orange to deep purples and blues, and it all faded to grey and then black as twilight settled in. As I watched the pilot beside me work the controls, I was proud of him, and of me. He flew efficiently, managed all the details, sounded professional on the radio, and kept us right on course, all the way to our after-dark touchdown. The first hour of instruction I ever flew was with Dustin, back before he had flown solo. They say that the performance of a student pilot is not really a reflection of the student, but of their instructor. If this is true, then I must be doing something right. Bill said that he flew very well and only had one or two technical things to brush up on. Had we been able to complete the paperwork, I have no doubt that he would have been licensed by now. He certainly deserves it.

Sometimes, the hardest thing for a flight instructor to do is just sit back and shut up; whether teaching, giving a review, or simply flying with other pilots. This evening, I'm glad that I did.


  1. Great post - I really enjoyed reading how you go about preparing for the BFR from the CFI side of things!

  2. Keep the stories coming

  3. How old are you? I really look up to you. I mean it. It's awesome to know how much you love your profession.

    I'm a freshman in college, work at an airport and fly off to the side, and am DYING to get my CFI-I once I get out of school.

  4. Thank you for the comments guys, I really appreciate the feedback!

    Look forward to another post in the next day or two.