Like many newly minted instructor pilots, my first “dual given” was a flight review. I didn’t know how to put together a review. At the time, the regulations gave almost no guidance and didn’t require a minimum amount of time on the ground or in the air (this has since changed). My “reviewee” and I talked for a few minutes, climbed into the Cessna 152, went out and did a couple of stalls and three takeoffs and landings, and I signed him off for another two years of pilot privileges. I got my first “professional pilot” pay and he got a logbook endorsement. Despite the potential for challenge and enhanced safety, however, the flight was a formality with little lasting benefit for either of us.
This kind of casual flight review might cause a pilot to think: “I fly a lot. Why should I have to train every two years?”
Under FAR 61.56, pilots must log at least one hour each of ground and flight training within 24 calendar months—this is the origin of the term “Biennial Flight Review” (although the “B” was dropped in the late 1980s). There are several methods of meeting the requirement, but most pilots get the standard flight review.
FAR 61.56 arose to reduce accidents. Possibly as a result, the rate of mishaps has gone down phenomenally. But too often, a flight review is done (like my first dual given) as a mere formality. To make even greater strides in safety and to make this biennial check enjoyable, you can design your own flight review to meet your goals.
Experience & Training
Experience is what you learn from having things happen to you. Training is the process of learning from the experiences of others. You wouldn’t want the first time you think about an electrical failure, a rough-running engine or a partial-panel flight to be when it happens to you for real. That’s why we train—to retain skills and experience things we wouldn’t necessarily experience in our day-to-day flying. The flight review may be among the only formal training you get after earning your pilot certificate.
The challenge for you and the instructor is to create a meaningful flight review experience—to make you a safer, smoother and more efficient pilot. Instead of merely satisfying a requirement, pilots and instructors should design flight reviews together to meet one or more of three goals: retention, customization and enhancement of piloting skills.
Retention: To pass your checkrides, you performed required tasks to exacting standards. Many of those skills begin to atrophy the minute you get your temporary certificate. A common approach to the flight review is to perform maneuvers required for the pilot certificate and ratings you hold. Reaffirming that you can still recover from a stall with minimal altitude loss, land within a designated distance of a particular spot or accurately fly a chandelle shows you have what it takes to escape wind shear, land on a short runway or maintain rudder coordination—skills that improve safety and may save your life in an emergency. You might emphasize the retention of checkride skills (and brush up on those you’ve let slip) as the primary goal of your next flight review.
“We worked on performance charts, weight and balance…stuff I haven’t had training on in about 20 years. We did a lot of basic airmanship—stalls, turns about a point—and takeoff from a short field with high obstacles, which aptly describes my home airport. We flew the autopilot and flight director and instrument approaches with and without the autopilot. We flew about six hours, working over and over until we got it right. It was exhausting and fun. It was some of the best money I have spent in general aviation.”—Ed Livermore, commercial/IFR
Customization: Perhaps you fly cross-country and aren’t very familiar with your avionics. Maybe you want to learn aerobatics or only do local sightseeing flights. Ask your CFI to put together a flight review that explores the intricacies of your panel, introduces aerobatics (in appropriate aircraft) or concentrates on precise ground reference maneuver. Focus on whatever makes you better at the type of flying you want to do.
“I conducted a review for an older gentleman. I discovered he wanted to use an airplane to see his grandkids more often. They lived about 200 miles away, near a Class C airport. As we talked, it became clear his confidence in Class C airspace and night flying was low. I decided to tailor the review to build confidence in these two areas. We planned a flight to do air work first, then fly to a nearby Class C airport during the high-traffic ‘push.’ We would wait for it to get dark before heading home. He was a very good pilot and handled the radio well—he just needed to confirm what he was doing was correct and get the practice. I think it helped a fellow aviator regain his confidence and remain active in flying—and how cool is it when those grandkids see their grandfather taxiing in for a visit!”—Dr. Paul Craig, Middle Tennessee State University, two-time FAA district Flight Instructor of the Year
Enhancement: Enhancement of your skills includes anything that makes you a more well-rounded pilot. Get a tailwheel checkout to improve your rudder work for better coordination in the plane you usually fly or for improved single-engine performance in a twin. Log a couple hours in a sailplane to better judge glide performance should your engine quit, and to get better at spot landings and energy management. Add a certificate or rating (which satisfies 61.56) to increase your options. Identify an area where you can add to your existing skills, and devise a flight-review that will help you reach that goal.
“At the end of the day, it improved my knowledge of my airplane. I also built some needed confidence.”—Steve Oxman, private/IFR
The greatest enhancement you can make, however, is to improve judgment through realistic decision-making exercises. Here’s where you find the difference between a run-of-the-mill flight instructor and a true aerial educator. You don’t have to spend thousands of dollars attending simulator-based training to learn aeronautical decision-making (ADM). A well-employed simulation of any sort can sharpen your skills.
I’ve had it happen twice in just the last year—once in California and once in Oregon. I conducted a flight review with pilots flying retractable-gear airplanes. One of the items I include in my syllabus is a simulated in-flight electrical failure, including a discussion of its effect on landing-gear extension. It’s not in any of the handbooks, but battery power alone may not extend the landing gear fully into the downlocks, although it may get down far enough to illuminate the “down and locked” panel lights. An electrical failure, then, should be followed by reducing electrical load as much as possible, then diverting to a safe altitude long enough to complete the emergency gear extension checklist to get the wheels the rest of the way down.
In both cases, within a month of completing my flight review, the students e-mailed me that they’d experienced electrical failure in instrument conditions and, as a result of decision-making skills learned in the review, declined ATC’s offer of immediate landing and instead requested a vector and an altitude to complete gear extension, landing safely soon afterward. Realistic scenarios presented in a flight review can make decision-making easy when faced with the scenario “for real.”
Brief your instructor to present realistic scenarios. Have him/her turn off the GPS unannounced in flight and, when it “dies,” navigate the old-fashioned way. Ask your instructor to present an in-flight fuel-management problem—leave it to him/her, as a professional, to develop a realistic and safe scenario. Come with a list of emergencies to review, leaving it up to the instructor to spring one of them on you. Download some challenging weather data and flight-plan to avoid hazards, discussing and refining your go/no-go criteria. A couple hours later, look for the weather that actually developed, including any PIREPs for the route, and discuss whether you might have made different choices.
“Most pilots need only a little brushing up on their stick-and-rudder skills, but it’s decision-making skills that kill many of our fellow pilots every year. Being able to make difficult decisions, not repetitive stalls, will make aviation safer—so that should be the primary emphasis of the flight review.”—Dr. Paul Craig
The best reviews are those that improve decision-making skills in realistic scenario-based training. These are the tools you need to stay alive. Discussing regulations for an hour and flying the same maneuvers you always do may satisfy the regulations, but to be effective, a flight review needs to help you actually learn something. Chances are, a flight review done right will be fun, too.
Piston Flight Reviews For Turbine Pilots
In addition to the highly structured emergency and line-oriented flight training (LOFT) that are staples of most turbine-recurrent training, there’s a lot to be learned by a return to the basics. For instance, it’s become commonplace for large corporate flight departments and ab initio programs—who recognize the value of experience beyond type-specific training—to train pilots on upset maneuvers in aerobatic airplanes.
Recurrent work is especially important for the jet pilot who also flies piston planes. The only student I taught in a piston twin simulator who couldn’t pass even a VFR-only check was a current Air Force KC-135 commander—he couldn’t handle single-pilot workload or engine-out scenarios without a crew and the power of three remaining turbofans. I also flew with a B-52 pilot who, on short final in a C172, pushed hard on the controls to get the sight picture he expected from the Boeing, while at the same time, ramming the throttle forward to prevent altitude loss.
While both these examples are extremes, they highlight two truths for all pilots: (1) fly the plane you’re flying, not the one you have the most time in; and (2) training is as important moving down in aircraft performance as it is in type or moving up.
What We Can All Learn About Flight Reviews
“My best flight reviews were the tough ones—those that took me to the edge of my comfort and skill zone and I learned something. The ones that made the checkride look easy. I want to reinforce the basics and grow the skill sets. The worst ones were where we went through the motions and all I heard was I did a good job and here’s the sign off.”—Stephen Blythe, private/IFR
There’s a prevalent attitude that we take flight instruction in large doses to pass a checkride, then as little as possible every two years. Just as we should repair maintenance discrepancies immediately and leave annual inspections to detect the unknowns, however, we should continuously correct pilot performance issues through practice or instruction and use the opportunity of the flight review to retain skills, customize technique and enhance our capabilities. Sport pilot to ATP, ultralight to jet, it’s up to you to design your next flight review.