It's Time to Overhaul the Private Pilot License

J. Mac looks at the private and decides that it?s broken beyond repair. Here?s his bold, new plan.

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The private pilot license has outlived its usefulness, and it's time to create a new pilot certification system that addresses more specifically the way people choose to fly today. The one-size-fits-all training progression through the private, commercial and instrument rating certificates just doesn't serve today's needs for safety and airplane utility.

There are really two broad categories of flying activity that the private pilot training and testing system attempts to address-recreational and sport flying and traveling in personal airplanes. Both types of flying are equally valid, and each should be encouraged. But the demands on a pilot trying to use the national airspace system to go places on a reasonably reliable schedule are far different from those placed on the pilot who flies almost entirely for personal pleasure. Yet the current training system-which exists to meet the FAA requirements for a private license-attempts to emphasize and teach the same pilot skills to both groups. It isn't working.

Let me be absolutely clear that I am not suggesting that one type of pilot needs to be more skillful, more talented or more highly trained than the other. The fact is that flight cannot be achieved and sustained until the aircraft reaches a lethal speed, so every pilot needs to be competent in airplane control and in pilot decision making. But beyond basic aircraft control what you need to know as a pilot largely depends on what you plan to do with your airplane.

For example, the sport pilot often chooses to fly a more demanding airplane in terms of control and performance, such as a tailwheel airplane or an antique or an aerobatic airplane. The pilot training that type of flying requires should emphasize stick and rudder skills, not great detail on integration into the airspace system. In contrast, the pilot who uses an airplane primarily for travel must be totally competent in navigating the national airspace system with its controllers, regulated airspace and the variability of weather over distance. For that type of flying, knowing how to use the autopilot and navigation system is more important than being able to land a taildragger on a breezy day.

We already have the makings of a dual track pilot training program with the proposed sport pilot license. If the sport pilot rule is adopted, people will be able to fly basic single-engine airplanes after learning how to control the airplane but not all of the skills necessary to travel in the system. The sport pilot rule would simplify the task of earning a license, but, much more important, it would put the training emphasis where it belongs, which is on basic aircraft control. By subtracting the pilot tasks that don't apply to the sport pilot mission, the training focus addresses the actual risks more realistically.

On the other hand, the pilot who intends to travel in a general aviation airplane needs to be trained to use the airspace system from day one. Instead of drawing lines on a sectional and working wind triangle problems, this pilot should be learning how to function in regulated airspace, talk with controllers and operate the advanced equipment in his airplane on the first lesson. But with the current private license curriculum that attempts to address all kinds of personal flying, the pilot in a new Cirrus SR22, for example, must spend hours memorizing the vagaries of the whiskey compass while he flies behind a big electronic primary flight display, equally large multifunction display, all driven by dual GPS, solid state gyros and an air data computer. There is no FAA requirement that this pilot learn to use his advanced equipment in anything like the detail he needs to know about the compass.

I know, I know, old-timers are all thinking, "When those fancy electronics quit he'll need to know how to use his compass." But it is exactly that kind of thinking that is holding general aviation back and preventing true progress in basic pilot training. The FAA and airplane manufacturers learned long ago that airplane systems knowledge is the most important skill in safe operation of complex airplanes such as airliners and business jets. Initial type rating course times have grown from a minimum of two weeks for a light jet, to five or more weeks for larger business jets, and virtually all of that time is spent learning to operate airplane systems.

Much of the capability found in a new business jet is also installed in the well equipped light airplane. A Garmin GNS 530, for example, can perform nearly all of the functions of the flight management systems typically found in jets. The autopilots and flight directors in a piston airplane designed for travel can fly an ILS down to 200 feet, capture assigned altitudes, hold vertical rates and, in other words, do nearly all of the same things the systems do in jets. But the private pilot isn't being specifically taught to use the equipment, or even being forced to use it as jet pilots are, and I think that is one of many reasons the safety record is so different between jets and high-performance piston airplanes.

A positive step to resolve this dilemma would be to combine the private and instrument rating training into a single course of instruction and FAA testing. What I would like to see is a new private certificate that includes an instrument rating that is good for flight in visual meteorological conditions (VMC). After a pilot gains experience and has more training under the hood, the certificate could be upgraded for flight in instrument meteorological conditions (IMC).

Flying IFR in VMC provides positive separation from other IFR traffic, makes peace with all of the regulated airspace springing up around the country and, perhaps most important, helps resolve some of the government's security concerns. This isn't a new idea, as some other countries have a VMC-only instrument rating. Such a license provides the benefits of putting a pilot into the ATC system full time on a clearance but avoids the added risk of flying in IMC with the necessarily high level of training and currency that requires. With such a certificate, a relatively new pilot would learn to use an airplane and all of its equipment to travel in the system, while the sport pilot license would be available for those who want to do their flying outside the congested space near major airline airports.

A number of programs intended to train pilots for a career in the cockpit follow a similar path, as much as the rules allow, so that new pilots are accustomed to flying in the system from the beginning. Some of the major university and aviation academy training programs integrate instrument flying instruction into their basic training, too. It's not a radical idea, but it needs to be expanded to the private pilot who wants to travel in a complex personal airplane.

If such a dual track private pilot replacement were created, it would serve safety only if recurrent training were part of the program. As it stands now, the traveling IFR pilot can take his biennial flight review in any airplane that he is rated for and be signed off to fly any other airplane that he is rated for. For example, some steep turns, stalls and short field landings in a Skyhawk qualifies a pilot to fly a complex high-performance single full of the latest avionics for another two years. An IFR proficiency check does not require a pilot to fly the most complex airplane he will operate, or necessarily demonstrate a complete knowledge of how to use all equipment installed in the airplane. In fact, most of the review is spent with simulated equipment failures, not with a review of how to actually use the autopilot and avionics.

The situation needs to change, but I'm not sure how to accomplish it without a change of attitude in the general aviation community, particularly the flight instructor core. In jets, the requirement for a type rating to fly each individual type, and the requirement for annual refresher training in each type, has worked well to build a superior safety record. But in piston airplanes the variety of models bogs down the type rating training concept, and the unlimited variation in avionics and other equipment in individual airplanes would make it almost impossible to define which "type" a piston airplane belongs in. But with a change in attitude, CFIs could apply what is really important by learning, and then teaching, use of the equipment. If a flight review involved instruction and demonstration of the avionics and autopilot under real-world conditions, safety would be better served than if the pilot got the more likely review that involves flying NDB approaches on a partial panel.

I really don't know how we get to a two-track private pilot replacement. The FAA's rule-making process is so slow that avionics and other system technology will move faster than rules can address. And if rules are made, a training system will be created to meet the bare minimum of the rules, so nothing will really change. An even more difficult problem is finding CFIs to teach the new avionics, because most new instructors come out of a system that teaches them in the cheapest-to-fly, thus least-well- equipped, airplanes, so they don't have a chance to learn to use complex avionics, much less teach others.

If there is a starting point I believe it is adoption of the sport pilot certificate. When that option exists for people who want to fly basic or sport airplanes in good weather away from congested and regulated airspace, resources will become available for others who want to learn to travel in the system. A dual track private pilot certificate replacement won't restrict movement of pilots between the two tracks, but it will emphasize what you need to know for maximum safety in each type of flying. It's a tall order to ask the FAA and the aviation industry to be flexible, but that's the only way we can impose the fewest restrictions on the sport pilot while maximizing the potential of complex new avionics that are in so many general aviation airplanes.