The Human Factor: The Value of Recurrent Training

Why pilots should go well above and beyond the recurrent training standards set by the FAA.

Recurrent Training

Recurrent Training

(January 2012) Last month I reported the exciting news that the training required by the FAA SFAR issued in 2006 succeeded in turning the MU-2, an airplane that had been at the bottom of the accident statistics, into one of the safest turboprops in the air and, beyond that, into one of the safest airplanes of any type. One of the keys to the success of the SFAR is that it requires every pilot who flies an MU-2 to complete the approved recurrent training program every year. The FAA had considered requiring a type rating for the MU-2 but realized that "this alternative would not fully accomplish our safety objective and would not meet the FAA's goal of ensuring that all MU-2B pilots receive continued training in the accepted procedures for normal, abnormal and emergency operations."

As I was researching the accident statistics for that article, I was struck by what seemed like a glaring inconsistency. If people were horrified by the MU-2 accident rate of 3.78 per 100,000 flight hours, why were they not twice as horrified by the noncommercial fixed-wing accident rate of 6.60 in 2009, or the noncommercial helicopter rate of 7.40? And that led me to wonder if requiring completion of an approved annual training program can reduce the MU-2 accident rate from 3.78 to 0.75, what would the result be of requiring completion of an approved annual recurrent training course for all noncommercial pilots?

When you think about it, the requirements to maintain legal currency are almost laughable. For example, let’s take a typical private pilot who finally earned his certificate after struggling to find the time and money for flying lessons over several years. I know this is typical, because many of my primary students would be able to fly only once or twice a month, with the result that the first part of every lesson was dedicated to trying to get them back to their level of competency at the end of the last lesson. They may have had 60 or 70 hours when they got their certificates, but a lot of that time was spent relearning what had already been learned rather than polishing those skills or learning new skills.

Once the pilot gets his certificate, he takes his family and friends for rides, but within a month or so he runs out of excuses to fly, as well as the money to pay for it. Many months can go by without a flight, and our inexperienced pilot’s skills are rapidly deteriorating. Finally, 23 months after earning his private pilot certificate, he is planning a family vacation to a distant location and realizes this is a great opportunity to use his pilot’s license. All that pilot needs to do to be considered legally current and competent to fly his family on an extended cross-country is to go out to the airport on a clear, calm day and complete three takeoffs and landings. The odds of that pilot being challenged even in good weather would be high. Throw in the pressure to get to the destination, along with the usual crosswinds, unfamiliar airports and bad weather, and it is little wonder that the noncommercial accident rate is so high.

The situation for instrument rated pilots is not much better. When I was instructing pilots working on their instrument instructor ratings at FlightSafety in Vero Beach, I discovered that many commercial, instrument-rated instructors had never been in the clouds before. All their instrument experience had been either in the simulator or under the hood. So this time let's take a newly minted instrument pilot who got no actual experience in the clouds during training. This pilot also discovers that there just aren't many opportunities to fly, let alone on instruments. As it is getting close to six months since he got his instrument rating, he grabs a pilot friend to serve as a safety pilot and goes up on a clear, calm day to fly six ILS approaches at his home field.

Five months after his quick flight to maintain instrument currency, he too has an opportunity to take his family on a vacation to a distant location. He also is really excited that he will finally get to fly again and perhaps even use his instrument rating. There is a very good chance that this pilot will encounter conditions that he is legally considered to be capable of handling, but which are in reality far beyond his rusty, basic instrument skills.

Think these are unrealistic scenarios? Let’s look at one recent accident in southern Alabama. An instrument-rated private pilot realized his night currency had expired and headed out to get his three night takeoffs and landings in the Beech A36 he co-owned. The NTSB reported that this pilot’s instrument rating had been issued two months earlier. That flight also had served as his biennial flight review. He had a total of 164 hours, with 28 hours in the A36. He had logged four hours of night flight time, with the last night flight occurring more than a year previously. He had not flown at night in the A36 before. He had only 4.5 hours of actual instrument time, and only 0.3 hours of this was as PIC in the A36.

There is no record of the pilot receiving a weather briefing prior to this local flight. There was a warm front extending over southern Alabama with an extensive area of IFR conditions over southern and central Alabama. The closest airport with weather reporting was experiencing winds from 150 degrees at 10 knots, gusting to 18 knots, with visibility of 10 miles, a broken ceiling at 1,000 feet and an overcast ceiling at 1,300 feet. There was only a one- to two-degree temperature/dew point spread in the area.

The pilot took off into the marginal VFR weather and then contacted Approach Control a few minutes later, saying that the weather was lower than anticipated and requesting an IFR clearance with an RNAV approach back to the airport. The pilot acknowledged the clearance to climb to 2,000 feet and then proceed direct to the initial approach fix. It was the last communication from the pilot. The radar tape showed a right climbing turn followed by a left climbing turn, then back to a right climbing turn. This was followed by a right descending turn until the target was lost about three minutes after the initial contact.

Many of the MU-2 accidents were amazingly similar to this accident — inexperienced pilots taking off into conditions that were beyond their ability and level of experience. One common skeptical response about the MU-2 SFAR during the comment period was that the required ground and flight training would not teach judgment. While there is no way to determine if the training required by the SFAR has “taught judgment,” the required training has resulted in MU-2 pilots operating in a more professional manner and thus making fewer mistakes.

Because the MU-2 is a very high-performance airplane with complicated systems, MU-2 pilots are required to get eight hours of ground school and either four hours’ instruction in the airplane or six hours’ instruction in an MU-2 simulator each year. That amount of training would be excessive for most general aviation pilots. However, a flight review consisting of one hour of ground school and one hour of flight instruction every other year is simply not enough for the average general aviation pilot who is not flying regularly, and six approaches every six months is not nearly enough for an instrument pilot who has little or no actual IFR experience and is not flying on the gauges regularly to stay sharp on instruments and IFR procedures.

Since there is no recurrent training requirement for noncommercial pilots, it is up to each pilot who values his life and the lives of his passengers to establish a realistic but challenging recurrent training schedule and stick with it. A pilot who is flying every month and has experience in challenging weather and wind conditions may do very well with one recurrent training session each year. Someone who flies only a few times a year in good weather should consider a flight with an instructor every three or four months. Try to make each flight a challenge. Look for days with gusty crosswinds, or if you are instrument rated, do a variety of approaches in actual IFR conditions. If you are not flying regularly and are not able to keep up a challenging recurrent training schedule, don’t be naïve and think you can hop in an airplane and fly your family across the country. Accident statistics show that the odds are definitely not in your favor.

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