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Monday, November 1, 2010

Who is Teaching the Teacher?

By Keith Cianfrani

There are many new and rotary wing pilots emerging into the aviation community who are looking for that perfect flying job. The current training and experience level of many of these rotary wing pilots, especially flight instructors, could be much better. What kind of experience do our flight instructors have prior to taking on this huge responsibility? Are we really producing well-rounded pilots and instructor pilots? We all know there is extensive flight training for military flight students to achieve their aviation rating. The process of becoming a military instructor pilot is also much more involved than it is in the civilian profession.

At Rotor & Wing’s recent Safety & Training Summit in Denver, Colo., the opening remarks were given by FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt. His remarks were right on target relating to rotary wing safety and the efforts for present and future safety initiatives. He discussed the challenges that face the rotary wing industry, especially in the medical evacuation field.

These challenges included the lack of weather reporting, landing in remote areas, and how the public relies on helicopters when all other options are gone. He discussed how low-level VFR flight does not offer altitude and airspeed in the event of an engine failure. Finally, he mentioned the industry’s and FAA’s desire to reduce the accident rate by 80 percent by the year 2017. In order to accomplish this goal, our pilots must be highly trained and proficient in all areas of rotary wing aviation.

As the summit progressed, helicopter flight training was discussed during one of the panel sessions. Several operators conducted presentations regarding their programs. As I sat in the rear of the room and listened to each flight instructional program operator describe their flight training programs, I could not ignore what I was listening to regarding the process of developing pilots and flight instructors. They are called “turn around IPs or instructor pilots”. This is not a new topic but one worth talking about. A civilian pilot with just over 250 hours, no turbine time, limited flight experience, and very limited aeronautical knowledge becomes a flight instructor upon graduation of flight training, a written test and completion of a “check ride”. How bizarre is that? In today’s economy, I know aviation training is dollar-driven. Some operators stated that some students, who have the ability to pay, make it through their flight training program even if they should not. Let’s not fool anyone, a CFI “ check ride” with a check airman who deals with this every day is not really conducted to the standards of a military evaluation. The result is a new certified flight instructor with 250 hours and no turbine time.

These new flight instructors will continue to build time teaching, primarily in a limited flight environment, to 1,000 or 1,500 hours and hope to find a job flying for an operator. These pilots have no turbine time, limited aviation experience and limited decision-making experience. Yet operators are willing to hire them for such jobs as sightseeing, on-demand charter (Part 135), electronic news gathering, and medical evacuation.

When we look at military instructor training, most services prefer their pilots to have a minimum of 500 hours before they can actually apply to the instructor pilot program. Most pilots selected have more than 1,000 hours of flight time. In today’s environment, many military pilots have extensive combat time prior to admission to the program. Not everyone is selected. It is a privilege to be chosen. The whole person concept is looked at during this process to include the maturity of the pilot. If you are one of the candidates selected, the next phase is anywhere from 6–8 weeks of intensive training in all areas of aviation to include instructional methods.

In order to be a safe pilot, one must be a well-rounded pilot. I spent a half of my military career at Ft. Rucker, Ala., the home of U.S. Army Aviation. Prior to attending an instructor pilot course, I had flown in many parts of the country to include New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. I was even flying Part 91 and 135 in those areas during my reserve days.

What about IFR flying? As I stated in earlier articles, rotary wing pilots, even military pilots, do not fly IFR enough to be proficient. So what about the new civilian CFI or CFII, who probably has not one hour of actual instrument (AI) time, teaching instrument flying. Is this advisable?

So what does this mean for the rotary wing profession? We are producing pilots with little aviation knowledge and aeronautical decision-making experience and flooding the market with them. We need the balance of good, experienced military and civilian pilots who provide the cornerstone of the commercial aviation pilot positions. Who is teaching the teacher? Will the helicopter industry be able to reduce the helicopter accident rate by 80 percent by the year 2017 without the foundation of a good flight training program producing high caliber pilots? Maybe.

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