Part one: dealing with the Feds
8/14/1953 – Piper PA-12, N3389M, 1:00, Recommended for Flight Instructor Rating – Albert Meyer, CAA 2-12
That was when it all started. I last renewed my CFI in 2016 and will let it lapse today (2/28/2018). There is no log entry for that because there was no flight. I’ll tell you why I let it lapse in a bit. For now, I’ll just say that it has to do with the FAA at its petty and officious best.
Private aviation was in turmoil in 1953. So was the CAA, which later became the FAA. The World War Two GI Bill flight training benefit had been a boon for our industry. About 35,000 airplanes were cranked out in 1947 to support that activity. The flight school business went crazy and the CAA had to develop a means to test and license all those pilots.
Then it all ended. There was a Korean War GI Bill but there were far fewer veterans to take advantage of it and the benefits were not as liberal. Most all the infrastructure that had been developed was suddenly surplus, as was the CAA’s oversight of all that activity.
What did this have to do with a 19-year old guy getting a flight instructor rating? A lot, but first I’ll tell you that it was a rating at that time, added on to my existing commercial certificate, and it granted instructor privileges in whatever was there, airplane single and multiengine land in my case on that date.
Our relationship with the CAA was far different then than it is now with the FAA. The team from the district office would actually visit our FBO on a periodic basis in the form of at least one operations and one maintenance inspector. They were actually there to help, too.
The Feds knew that small FBOs were struggling to stay in business and that some of the rules were being bent pretty far in the name of economy. For example, we had no mechanic on the field and did most of the maintenance on our airplanes. It did not take a rocket scientist to keep Cubs and Aeroncas and Cessna 140s flying. The CAA man wanted to make sure we did have an A&E (later to become an A&P) on call to look at and sign off the big stuff.
Our CAA maintenance man’s name was Quay Lyle and one thing he always did was check the strength of the fabric covering on our airplanes. At the time, the N-numbers were big on the top of the right wing and the bottom of the left wing and small on the tail. The numbers were usually black. Black intensifies heat and while our airplanes were hangared at night, they were on the ramp, in the sun, for most of the day and all that bright light would work on the fabric that was beneath the black numbers.
I can still see Quay, who was not tall, up on a ladder that was placed behind the wing, making a fist with his right hand and with the knuckle of the middle finger extended, delivering a sharp rap to one of the N-numbers. What usually happened next was an order for pre-sewn wing covers of Grade A fabric and a lot of butyrate dope. He would let us patch the spot and keep flying the airplane after extracting a promise that the fabric would be replaced as soon as possible. He knew that we could cover the wings ourselves and that was okay with him.
For the flying part, the CAA had developed a large network of designated pilot examiners to give check rides but most were no longer necessary. The CAA inspectors wanted to give a lot of the check rides. They never said it out loud but they needed to do that to justify their government jobs. They would usually conduct check rides on their routine visits and while designated examiners were still used for some check rides, all instructor rides were by a full-time CAA inspector.
So I flew with Albert Meyer, CAA 2-12 who was the main man at the district office. I never knew anything about his background but his age suggested that he likely worked as a civilian in one of the many military flight training programs during World War Two. He had quite a reputation as a stickler but also for being fair. He rolled his own cigarettes, too.
The oral and flight test had exactly nothing to do with instructing. The written test had covered something like the fundamentals of instruction but the flying was to be about how well I could fly. The oral was a briefing on what we would be doing.
I had tried to get Al to let me take the flight test about six months earlier, but he said I was too young and inexperienced and that I needed to fly and prepare some more. That was apparently his way of saying that he would give me the flight test and that I would fail. So I waited until he was ready.
That was one intense hour of precision flying, if such was possible in a PA-12, and the things that I remember most clearly are the precision, two-turn spins from straight ahead as well as over the top of a turn and out of the bottom of a turn, plus the precision power-off spot landings.
I had practiced all this long and hard and that apparently paid off. Al didn’t make a speech about what came next or what I would have to do to become a journeyman flight instructor. Instead, he said it was a good ride and that I could now sign off the dual that he knew I had been giving for quite a while.
Nothing really qualified me as a teacher and I think that rating was something that allowed me to lead students through basic maneuvers and determine that they were competent at performing those maneuvers. The two climaxes were the first solo and the private pilot check ride. Compared with today, both were as simple as the airplanes we were flying.
I had yet to become anal about keeping records, and none were required at the time, so I can’t tell you who my first-timers were. I do remember agonizing over deciding that the first solo was indeed ready to fly by himself.
Connecting that beginning with the present day, as far as the Feds have been concerned, is a trip through an ever-changing and expanding bureaucracy.
My instructor rating, as first issued, had no expiration date. The by-then FAA decided that there were too many valid instructor ratings held by inactive pilots who could again instruct if it struck their nature, and that something had to be done. This was born the certified flight instructor certificate that expired two years after issuance.
To blunt resistance to change, the FAA was always good at grandfathering everything. Thus my first CFI certificate was good for airplane single and multiengine and instrument-airplane. Can you find a loophole in that?
I’ll digress and share that loophole with you through an anecdote.
I talked a friend and FBO into buying a Lake Amphibian because I liked airplanes and boats and it is an excellent combination of the two.
He called me to come go flying when the Lake came in. I had flown the airplanes for pilot reports so it was familiar but I had never gotten a seaplane rating. We flew the new Lake for a while and, being a designated examiner, he bestowed a seaplane rating on me.
The next day he called and asked me to come out and give some dual in the Lake. I asked if that would be legal and he said certainly, my CFI covered airplane single and multiengine and said nothing about land or sea. So I could now instruct in single and multiengine seaplanes as well as landplanes. My CFI reads the same way to this very day. Did those spot landings and precision spins I did in 1963 qualify me to later instruct in seaplanes?
I couldn’t find a date for the conversion from instructor rating to certificate but in the beginning most of us renewed with a flight check. My first that I could find a log entry for came on 01/19/1964 with an FAA inspector. My next one was in 1966 with the same inspector and after that ride he added single engine to my ATP certificate.
While that was going on, one of the really good guys at the FAA, Pete Campbell, was working on flight instructor refresher courses that would do the renewal deed in a classroom. It was at Pete’s urging that I teamed with Dan Todd, later to become chairman of the NTSB, Dave Ellis of Princeton University and John Doster of the FAA to conduct the first flight instructor revalidation course. Princeton University let us use a hall at The Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and it was a grand place to meet. I doubt if any future CFI renewals were done in such elegance.
The FAA closely monitored our course and at the completion they issued new CFIs to all who participated. Then they said yes but and it was a big but. Our 16-hour course was not long enough and the content was short on FAA dogma. They would approve all content of future courses and the courses would last for 24 classroom hours.
I taught at some of those subsequent refreshers and while some of the participants liked them, it always seemed to me that the objective was attendance for a certain number of hours during which we made every effort to turn minds into mush and butts into stone.
Then came the online refresher courses which are probably used by the majority of folks today. I took my last renewal flight check on 02/08/1990 and used online courses after that. For the record, the last real use of my CFI came in 1998 when I trained Mike Rosing of Sporty’s for his instrument-airplane instructor certificate. He took and passed the check ride on November 13th of that year, flying with a designated pilot examiner.
So, my CFI has been lying fallow for about 20 years.
I bought a course to renew in 2018 but did not finish. The course I had been using had no time requirement but the FAA caught on to that and this year you had to spend at least 45 minutes going through each outline before the computer would let you continue. The test at the end of the outlines should ensure that you know what you need to know but the FAA seems to care more about how much time you spend with the course than what you get out of it. That’s what I meant about the FAA being at its petty and officious best on this matter.
I did finish the first section of the course because it addressed the technically advanced airplanes that have been around for a long time now. I was particularly interested in this because these airplanes have autopilots and over the years I, and many others, have found that autopilots are the most misunderstood gadgets in airplanes. A lot of words have been written on this subject but a lot of folks are still in the dark.
My CFI is still valid as this is being prepared so I’ll say I am going to use it to give a little dual to the FIRC writers and to the FAA folks who approve the courses.
The specific area of common misunderstanding is about the interaction between the autopilot and the electric trim system as well as malfunctions of the electric trim system.
The statement in the FIRC that I took issue with said that, as a last resort, pilots can use the yoke (archaic, for control wheel) to overpower the autopilot and trim system.
That is terrible advice that can actually be hazardous to your health.
The servos in an autopilot are not particularly strong. This is no problem in roll and if an autopilot malfunctions in roll it is relatively easy to overpower. Pitch, where required forces vary widely as balance and configuration change during a flight, is a different matter. Here the autopilot uses the electric trim to keep pitch forces well within what can be handled by the autopilot.
If the autopilot is on and the pilot tries to overpower what it is doing in pitch, bad things can happen. An example might be during a descent to an assigned altitude with the autopilot flying and set to capture the altitude.
If a pilot feels the autopilot is not leveling at the desired altitude, some might try to help it level off by putting back pressure on the control wheel with the pitch function of the autopilot engaged. Guess what? The autopilot will read this force as an out of trim condition and trim against it. If you are pulling back on the wheel, the autopilot will run the electric trim in a nose down direction. If you keep pulling it will keep trimming until it reaches full nose-down trim, which might well be a condition you can’t control. At the very least, it is a substantial distraction.
That happens and I have read transcripts of communications during loss-of-control events that clearly illustrate this. The real pilot was fighting the autopilot and had become totally confused.
An autopilot manufacturer once told me that the main thing to stress is that only one pilot can fly the airplane at a time. If you don’t like what an autopilot is doing, disengage it. The flight manual tells all the ways this can be done. Some of the newer autopilots have a wings level mode that does what it says. If the alligators are getting deep, that mode can disable all autopilot functions but that one and put the airplane in a safe bank attitude while you sort things out.
The biggest FAA/FIRC mistake is telling the pilot that the control wheel can be used to manage things if there is an electric trim malfunction, commonly called runaway trim.
The elevator control is attached to the elevator and has exactly nothing to do with the trim which is usually controlled electrically or with a trim wheel. As mentioned, full trim in either direction drives the elevator to the point where pitch forces might become unmanageable. The trim wheel is connected to the trim system and moves when the system is trimming. The only way to manually overpower the trim system is to grab and stop the motion of the trim wheel itself.
The best way to handle a runaway trim is to take power away from the system. The most common way to do this is to pull the electric trim circuit breaker. Real pilots can reach and pull that breaker without looking at it. After the electric trim is out of the loop, the pilot can manually put the airplane back in trim.
One other item of confusion came up in my discussions of this. A FIRC person said the autopilot disconnect switch on the wheel can be used to disconnect power to the trim. That is only partly true. Most all of these switches are labeled autopilot disconnect/trim interrupt. That means that while it will turn the autopilot off it will only interrupt the trim for as long as the switch is depressed. Release it and a runaway trim will continue.
When it comes to technically advanced airplanes the CFI’s role becomes ever more important and challenging and that autopilot business is just a small slice of it.
I remember that first student I soloed. The only question I had to answer was about his ability to take off, fly a pattern and land safely. In retrospect, that was dirt simple.
There is infinitely more to telling a new Cirrus owner that he is ready to use all that electronic finery on IFR flights in instrument meteorological conditions. It usually took eight hours to solo a good student in a Cub. I couldn’t even start to estimate how many hours it would take to ensure that a pilot of a technically advanced airplane knows all there is to know about blowing all the whistles and ringing all the bells. In some cases, though, it is probably safe to say that it takes a lot more good instruction than folks are currently getting.
To me, that pretty well defines the job of a CFI-I in 2018 as compared with a 19-year old instructor in 1953. Do be careful out there.