Thursday, March 25, 2010

Trippin' the Light (Sport) Fantastic

My medical recertification is palpably closer; I've already started the preparation (which mostly means no caffeine, so I ate some chocolate with breakfast) for tomorrow's treadmill test. Then comes the angiogram, the bundling of the reports, and off it all goes to Oklahoma City for the FAA docs to consider. I can't run anymore due to rheumatoid arthritis, but I have been walking and biking, so I'm pretty confident.

But being confident won't remove one hole in my certification: I need a 14CFR61.56 Flight Review, usually called a BFR. We're supposed to get the review very two years, but, as one of my instructors used to say, "there are a lot of ways to skin that cat," and for the past fifteen years or so I have either added a rating or passed a 14CFR135.293 pilot proficiency check.

(Another method is to do something with the FAA's WINGS program, but there are two problems with this. First, the redesign of the WINGS program has made it awkward and confusing, to say the least. The other problem is that WINGS, at least in its previous form, demanded experience but no proficiency. I have seen pilots complete the WINGS program whom I would not have signed off for a BFR.)

After all of the "automatic" BFRs it was hard to remember what to do, but I had a plan. Richard Neves, a local instructor, has a 1946 Ercoupe, and has been flying its wheel pants off giving Light Sport instructions. It's a pretty airplane, and I have been looking for an excuse to fly it. What better excuse than a BFR?

So I called Richard and told him I needed a BFR. There was a little serendipity: he needed one, too. So we could trade.

Another exception to the BFR regulation is that current Flight Instructors are not required to have any ground instruction during the flight review. The idea is that instructor recertification, required every two years, makes the review superfluous. I don't agree: bad habits can form pretty quickly. In our case, I needed instruction on Ercoupe systems, so I got an hour's ground while observing Richard's teaching style and knowledge of systems and regulations. Sounds like a pair of good BFRs to me.

The 'coupe has no flaps and giant ailerons, about 3/4 of the span. And, originally, the ailerons and rudder were connected, so it is always coordinated. Some owners have added rudder pedals, but Richard's still has the single brake pedal on an otherwise smooth cockpit floor.

Then we flew. Having no rudder pedals is a big adjustment. It took a while to get the hang of steering with my hands while taxiing, but that was minor compared to my big error: when Richard pulled the engine on me (right after doing lots of stalls, such a classic flight instructor move), I picked a nice field right below us, tried to restart, and approached high, thinking that I could slip it in! Oops! You can't slip without rudder pedals!

We did a ton of landings, trading off on the controls. He showed me how to do a steep power off approach; the 'coupe is brick with the engine idling, so those work out well.

After two hours of stalls, steep turns, engine failures, crosswind landings, and chit-chat about the state of aviation we signed each other off and called it a day.

I was surprised and disappointed to hear Richard say that I was the only local instructor who was embracing light sport flying. Perhaps my medical woes have made me more open-minded, but my interest in LSA is more than selfish. I want to jam my family into the Cherokee Six and fly off on vacation, night and IFR if necessary, and that's not possible with light sport privileges. But I also want to take my friends and families for hops in the Ercoupe. It is easy to fly, it has an intriguing funky air about it, and it has a big glass canopy, meaning almost as much sight-seeing as in a glider or fighter. It's both the past and future of flying. Thinking back most of my private pilot students were really interested in light sport privileges: day VFR, two seats, going-to-visit-your-cousin-in-Twin Falls flying. This is a way to get more people into flying, and it has to be good for all of us.

When the medical comes, and with it light sport privileges, the Ercoupe gives me a new recruiting tool. No, that's incorrect, that's corporate language, so I take it back. The Ercoupe gives me a new way to help people have fun "messing about in small planes," to quote Richard Collins paraphrasing The Wind in the Willows. And fun is what it's all about.

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Sunday, March 14, 2010

A Modest Proposal

I'm approaching the end of my six month wait for recertification after last September's angioplasty; my testing is scheduled for days n+2 and n+4, where n is the FAA requirement.

Getting ready to fly again has got me thinking about what I did not, or, better, could not do as an instructor without a medical certificate. In particular, the combination of 14CFR 61.23(a)(3)(v), "Medical Certificates: Requirement and Duration," and 14CFR91.107(b)(1), "...Simulated Instrument Flight..." require that an instrument instructor (CFII) have a third-class medical certificate; the latter makes the instructor a required crewmember, and the former says that an instructor who acts as a required crew member must have the medical.

Generally, the reason that medical certificates are required is the concern that a crewmember suffer from "sudden incapacitation." That means things like heart attack, seizure, stroke, or kidney stone. I imagine that it is a truth universally acknowledged that sudden incapacitation in an aircraft is a Bad Thing.

The secondary reasons that medical certificates are required is the concern about vision and hearing. You can't see and avoid other aircraft if you can't see. (You can fly well if you are deaf, but the FAA makes you prove it and limits your privileges with regard to radio use.)

The justification for 14CFR 61.23(a)(3)(v) is based on the secondary reasons. A CFII having a heart attack while a student is under the hood is no different from any other passenger's incapacitation, and we have no medical requirements for passengers. Sudden incapacitation of a passenger is a Bad Thing, and pilots need to be prepared to deal with it, but it is not a threat to the public at large.

No, the reason a CFII needs a medical is to make sure that he or she can "see and avoid" other aircraft and the ground. That's why we have 14CFR91.107(b)(1).

Now, in the past few years the FAA has decided to accept the judgment of another agency about pilot vision: your state's Department of Motor Vehicles. If you have a driver's license and your most recent medical was not revoked then you may exercise "Light Sport" privileges. Light Sport privileges are restrictive (day VFR, ground contact, altitude and speed limitations, and, most importantly, number of passengers). But it is my experience that a large amount of instrument instruction more-or-less fits the Light Sport model. The airplanes are heavier and faster, of course, but the back seat is empty and it's day VFR.

So here is my proposal: allow a CFII who has Light Sport privileges to fly with a student under the hood. I see no downside; if you do, I would like to hear it. The upside is that this would allow a bunch of older, experienced instrument instructors to continue to pass their wisdom along to the next generation without worrying about a medical certificate.

There is one big difficulty here. 14CFR61.65(d)(2) requires a training flight that is conducted under instrument flight rules. I like this regulation; it makes sure that students get out into the system. And I do not think that someone with only Sport Pilot privileges should be PIC under IFR; if the CFII became incapacitated in instrument conditions while approaching a busy terminal, there would be a lot of trouble. But a CFII without a medical could send a student to someone with a medical for this flight, which would make a very comprehensive stage check.

So, what do you think? I plan to contact the FAA to see what they think. Let's keep all that knowledge and experience around for the next generation.

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