Minimum Hours = “Budget Parachute;” Sell Safety!

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” huge challenge in our culture we all face it 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 these “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 and for others some level of “better” is the best sales pitch; these people want to be better and safer! Don’t you think that would improve our GA accident rate and improve 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)!

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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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