Buffering “FAA Minimums” Aim For Excellence!

The FAA only specifies the absolute minimums (limitations) in their regulations and these are not recommended operating specifications.  This might sound silly to many pilots, but some people have not gotten this memo.  As one example, “one mile visibility and clear of clouds” in Class G airspace is an absolute legal minimum. All of aviation safety involves building (and maintaining) a personal margin above these FAA bare minimums. Minimum weather, fuel requirements, and even hours for pilot certification should have a margin applied to be safe and build better pilots.

I have been giving a lot of private checkrides lately and obviously a private pilot applicant must know Class G airspace and the basic legal weather minimums. But if they tell me they would go flying in this scary weather, they are not adequately managing risk. Similarly, FAA minimum flight instrumentation (day and night) requires only an airpseed indicator, altimeter (not even adjustable) and a compass. Again, every pilot should know this legal minimum, but should also be aware such primitive guidance is not adequate for most flights (especially at night). Building a margin by requiring more complete instrumentation, equipment, preparation and suitable weather is the basis for managing risk and building safety.

This paradigm of “FAA minimums vs safety margin” is an excellent method to understand (and teach) as a risk management system (required in the FAA testing standards). Although a pilot applicant at any level must know the FAA minimums, they must also clearly define their personal “safety margin” for their  level of experience in a particular plane, environment and with unique external pressures of the situation. What examiners want to hear is “my thinking and safety margin here is…”

The ACS defines specific areas to be considered when managing risk. This was developed straight out of the military’s “man, machine and mission” formula and is expanded and elucidated in the FAA Risk Management Handbook. P-A-V-E identifies the Pilot, Aircraft, EnVironment, and External Pressures that dynamically interact to cause (or mitigate) risk factors. Unfortunately, this subject is still given prefuctory coverage by many CFIs as they initially educate pilots or prepare them to take flight tests. In my opinion, this paradigm should be the primary vehicle used right from “day one” to expose new pilots to aviation. (Instead of a rarely mentioned “nice to know” addition “don’t forget risk management”)  Much of our aviation education system is still mired in the 1940s military curriculum of lesson planning. We need a cultural change that puts risk management as more central in our aviation education. P-A-V-E is an amazing safety tool for your personal flying and instructional focus.

And speaking of minimums, the current “rush to ratings” clearly is eliminating any “extras” and fun in the flight training experience. The required 5 hours of solo X-C for the private pilots now seems to often only involve one long flight on a very nice day. When I see a pilot applications with absolute minimum hours all I can think is “don’t you like flying?” Can’t we add a little more than the absolute minimum experience and build a margin of safety here too? Exposing students to more than one X-C flight or working with  more crosswind allows them to experience and internalize different weather, expand personal capacities and enhance their skills for a greater safety margin. They are going to need these hours and experience in the future anyway.

The “minimum trap” seems to be increasingly common in pilot testing too, where applicants just just aim to pass with a minimum grade rather than striving for excellence. A 70% seems to make people happy and “mediocre” is too common in the current rush for ratings. But as proud safe pilots, our whole system of superior safety and professionalism is built on trying harder and striving for the best we can be. There is real safety value and satisfaction in exceeding the minimums and pursuing more comprehensive knowledge and skill when we aim for excellence. Fly safely out there (and often)!


Our SAFE CFI-PRO™ workshop covers the whole extended envelope catalog and application to both initial and recurrent training. We also cover “client-focused” flight training to combat the 80% drop out rate in initial flight training.

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About the author

David St. George

David St. George is an FAA DPE (Sport to Multi ATP) and a Part 135 charter pilot flying the Pilatus PC-12 in the NYC area. He recently renewed his Master Instructor for the tenth time and is a Charter member of SAFE. Formerly a 141 Chief Instructor for over 25 years, with a Gold Seal CFI. David started flying at 16 and has logged over 15,000 hours. He owns a 1946 7AC Aeronca Champ and wrote the SAFE Toolkit app.


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