Flying to Standard

August 3, 2011 by Bruce Landsberg

Earlier this summer I wrote in AOPA Pilot that if all pilots consistently flew to the practical test standards the accident rate would plummet faster than a piano in a Laurel and Hardy movie. The problem, as I see it, is not the standard on the practical test, but more with maintenance of pilot skills and abilities. Decades ago the Biennial Flight Review was put into the regs to address this issue. Nobody could spell “Biennial” so it has since become just the Flight Review (FR) even though still required every two years.

Over the last several decades of flying, I’ve fallen into the habit of an Instrument Proficiency Check every 6 months and a flight review about every 18 months depending on how much flying I’ve been doing. This week, it was time to take the Foundation’s well-loved Piper Archer aloft to see whether I was able to walk the walk.  It also got me to thinking, in light of the article, what should be on a typical FR.

A situational approach seems to work best in the reviews that I’ve given.  Knowing the pilot in advance often helped the decision on whether to double down on the life insurance or breathe a little easier knowing that this aviator was a good stick. Most importantly, the review could be more effectively tailored to the needs of the individual.

My review, given by the Air Safety Institute’s Chief Flight Instructor, JJ Greenway was appropriately thorough. We did stalls, slow flight, some basic VFR navigation, two simulated forced landings (one of which was a spot landing). There was a light crosswind that necessitated a little bit of footwork and some towered airport procedures. If the pilot is really used to the airport where the review starts – go someplace else. There should be no home court advantage! It was sufficient to demonstrate that, had this been an FAA VFR practical test, I would have passed.

But what should be included? Here are my thoughts and we’d welcome yours.

  • Stall series and slow flight
  • At least one or two forced landing scenarios
  • A cross wind landing or two – if you can arrange it
  • A go-around
  • Plan and start a cross country flight – or actually take one if the pilot doesn’t do much of that
  • For VFR only pilots, a reasonable review of extracting yourself from IMC by reference to instruments.
  • Some ATC procedures, if that’s convenient.

For ground discussion, a review of airspace and runway  signage and markings is a good starting point. Pilots can take the programs in advance and bring the completion certificates to the CFI to show they’ve completed the program and are prepped. A sampling of accident case studies will help to facilitate the discussion on things not to do. Check out ASI’s Cross-Country Crisis, VFR into IMC and Airframe Icing courses.

Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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  • Michael McIntosh

    I also tailor my FR to the pilot I am reviewing. Your list is nearly a carbon copy of my minimum tasks. I like to take the pilot to the regional airport in our area, as well as to a smaller municipal airport, to emphasize the different sight picture one gets at different sized runways, and to practice ATC procedures. I try to do SEF’s to a airport other than the “home” airport to let the pilot test his judgement as to how he will land the aircraft. I am surprised how many pilots do not know simple things like the glide profile of their own aircraft, or some of its other performance limitations. I’ve found that many aircraft owners that use their aircraft routinely, do just that, and do NOT practice any type of emergency procedures. Many who were excellent stick and rudder pilots for common tasks were abysmal in unexpected situations, and had no plan for the least glitch in their flight plan. I blame complacency for this, or a lack of ADM training.

  • Jon Moore

    Recently, a pilot who asked me to give him a flight review told me he was going to find another instructor when I mentioned he would be expected to fly to PTS. It was his prerogative to turn me down. I mention this only as an illustration of the mindset of many pilots out there.

    When I took my CFI oral, the inspector asked me a pointed question: “Which tasks in the PTS are not important enough for you to test a pilot on in a flight review?” The correct answer was “none.” The inspector went on to tell me the PTS should not only be used for practical tests, but it is the standards by which we should all try to fly.

    I think of the PTS as “best practices” for pilots. Take traffic patterns, for example. There is no regulation requiring you to enter on a 45, but if you strive to enter the pattern correctly every flight, all of us will have a little bit lower risk of collision.

  • Mark Jones Jr

    I can’t agree less.

    The PTL are just a baseline, a foundation. We should expect more and BETTER out of all pilots. We should challenge them to fly better. We should see what they have learned since then. And we should be prepared to give them instruction that is commensurate with the experience and maturity and judgment that they ought to have.

    I have instructed and evaluated a very, very wide range of pilots in the last five years (and I’ve been a student myself in two separate formal flight training courses, as a highly experienced pilot). I NEVER expect to see a pilot fly as good as they did on their last checkride!

    Why not take them out and help them learn some advanced judgment and techniques, like practicing the impossible turn (as presented by AOPA)?

    What I am saying is this: “good enough…isn’t.” And as pilots, we need to do more growing than just growing old.

  • Bruce Landsberg


    We may be closer to agreement than you think. If you’ve got somebody who’s reasonably sharp – by all means challenge them – stretch them so they get benefit out of the experience and grow.

    However, some of the really poor skills we see in too many accidents could be alleviated by just flying to PTS. The perfect is too often the enemy of the good. If I’ve flown with a weak pilot, my goal is to get him or her to PTS standard and safe. Then we can look at moving to the next step.

    When starving, basic food will keep one alive and after stabilized you can go for something fancier. We really do need to get everybody up standard then work them up to excel.

  • Jack Straw

    Who are Laurel and Hardy?

  • http://AOPA Robert Carlson

    Don’t you just wish that instructors would use proper judgment?

  • Mark Jones Jr

    Thanks for replying–it is an uncommon courtesy these days. I appreciate your openness to dialogue. Keep pushing the whole community to higher standards.