US or EASA – which ‘biennial’ is best?
PUBLISHED: 19:12 21 October 2020
Tim Cooper 2020
Under the FAA BFR scheme, US pilots must pass a test every other year. Over here, you can stay current simply by flying the minumum number of hours, one with an instructor. As the CAA prepares to leave EASA, can it learn something from the FAA?
Words & Photos: Tim Cooper
Late last year we bought a wonderfully restored, bright yellow Swiss Fuji FA-200-180. Our intention was to use the machine in a new, African, joint venture. We registered the Fuji G-MDAM. She was due to have a little work done and an export C of A issued, and then to be shipped out to Africa ready to start work.
The project will eventually go ahead−it’s a compliance business−but right now the venture is at a juddering standstill and we find ourselves with a Fuji in an expensive hangar, sulking like an annoyed teenager. So, how to keep MDAM and Madam occupied, aloft and happy, and perhaps earning enough to cover MDAM’s fixed costs? That’s when I had a light bulb moment−let’s do some training in MDAM while she’s stuck in UK, and not just any old training, let’s do something for which there might be some new demand. I love a silver lining.
Madam, or Emma, is an American pilot through and through, although really she is Anglo-Irish (all flashing eyes, blarney and fighting temper). An unrivalled appetite for both barbecued chicken wings and the eponymous cartoon strip prove this beyond doubt. She lived in Florida where she learned to fly and became an Airframe and Powerplant mechanic, before fetching up in Uganda where for a decade she was a bush pilot and instructor. When we came home from Uganda she converted all her FAA privileges to an Irish EASA licence, but still retains her FAA certificate and ratings.
One of the things Madam could do in our post-Covid world was to offer her services to FAA certified British pilots for their Biennial Flight Review (BFR). There was a hitch though here−her own BFR was overdue, and without that she was unable to exercise any American privileges.
Lewis Kennington, a pilot at Eastern Airways in Humberside, was furloughed, and was more than happy to do Madam’s BFR. Like Madam, Lewis learned his flying in the States and he, too is secretly an American pilot (though apparently Yorkshire born and bred). How do I know this? Well, listen to the both of them, post-BFR, sitting on the grass outside the Church Fenton/Leeds East control tower under the blazing sun. We might have been in Alabama. Two redneck pilots chewing the cud, country music wafting over the scene.
I realise many British pilots believe that American standards are less demanding and less precise than our own exceptionally high standards, but having both employed, and flown with pilots from over the pond I can report that while our cousins very often sound casual about aviation (and are certainly dismissive of some of our arcane practises) this is a calumny. Indeed, it is perhaps worth asking whether there are aspects of the American system from which we could learn. Flight reviews, in my view, are a case in point.
A real workout (when done properly)
I spent an age on the ground while Lewis put Emma through her paces. There’s nothing slipshod or casual about a BFR−not when it’s done properly. It is a real pilot workout. Eventually, the yellow Fuji appeared overhead, and with no other traffic the little four-seater whizzed around and around, demonstrating pretty much every way to land an aeroplane. Practice forced landing, short field landing, long flapless landing, elegant gliding circuits, soft field landing, and finally with Lewis trying out MDAM, a surprisingly standard landing.
The FAA system is similar to the EASA system in that a licence or airman’s certificate can only be exercised if its privileges are valid. The simple way of keeping an EASA rating valid in a single engine piston aeroplane (SEP) is to fly twelve hours, of which six must be PIC, and including twelve take offs and landings within the twelve months before the rating expires, with one of these hours flown with an instructor−this is set out in EASA regulation FCL.740.A(b)(ii). If more than two years have passed then it’s a renewal, not a revalidation
Less about paperwork, more about flying
An FAA pilot doesn’t have this option−there is no need for a set number of hours to be flown. Instead, a revalidation takes the form of a flight review (at least one hour of ground training and one hour of flight training) with an instructor, every two years. In FAA language this is officially a Flight Review, though since it is required every two years to keep valid it is almost always called a BFR by pilots. This is nearly the same as renewing an EASA SEP under FCL.740.A(b)(ii)−a proficiency check, but in the case of EASA that has to be done with an examiner, not just an instructor.
The flight review is entered in the pilot’s logbook and no forms are required to be sent to the FAA. Yes, it’s as simple as that−the FAA has the same process for revalidation and renewal and it doesn’t want to see the paperwork−America treats its pilots as responsible adults.
“What did you guys cover in your BFR?” I asked Emma, innocently. “Well, for a start it’s not a BFR−it’s a plain Flight Review,” she corrected me, rather sternly. I cowered. “It’s called a Flight Review because the FAA encourages pilots to keep improving their flying, and biennial would imply you only need to do it every two years, but the FAA wants you to do it more often−if that helps make you a better, safer pilot. That’s why the FAA dropped the word biennial.” Well, that told me!
The FAA has two key pieces of guidance, and, it being America, they are written in a plain English that puts the UK CAA to shame. There is a PDF entitled Conducting A Flight Review, and AC 61-98D, Currency Requirements and Guidance for the Flight Review and Instrument Proficiency Check. Although American pilots will swear that the FAA’s motto is ‘we’re not happy until you’re not happy’, you will see from the chattier document, Conducting A Flight Review, that there is a genuine attempt to use the flight review process as a positive teaching event tailored to the individual pilot.
However, there is a sting in the tail...
Unlike the EASA SEP revalidation by experience, the FAA Flight Review is, in fact, a jeopardy test: you either satisfy the instructor that you are proficient or you don’t. If you don’t you will have to make more instructional flights until you are proficient in your instructor’s opinion, and if you get outside the two year window since your last flight review then you can’t fly until your instructor is satisfied with your proficiency.
Indeed, Emma told me (to my retrospective horror, for the man in question was an important commercial client of our AOC) that she once refused to sign a Flight Review until she had given the victim eight hours additional training. Why? Because she didn’t think he was safe or proficient, and it would be her derrière on the line if our rich friend piled in.
As the FAA Advisory Circular puts it, ‘[the regulation] requires the instructor to conduct a review of those manoeuvres and procedures that… are necessary for the pilot to demonstrate the safe exercise of the privileges of the pilot certificate. If the pilot does not demonstrate the proficiency to conduct safe flight, then more training is required. For this reason, the FAA reminds flight instructors that a flight review may require more than one hour of ground training and one hour of flight training. Since satisfactory completion of a flight review is based on pilot proficiency… it is the flight instructor that ultimately determines the total training time required for a flight review’.
What this long quote says is that the instructor is responsible for checking whether the pilot is safe, and if in any doubt the FAA will back the instructor when she says to the pilot “you need more training, buddy, and the FAA’s got my six”−Madam would not put it like that, but that’s the idea.
No EASA guidance on what to check
The bare skeleton of an FAA flight review is straightforward. ‘Regardless of the pilot’s experience, the flight instructor should review at least those manoeuvres considered critical to safe flight, such as: takeoffs; stabilised approaches to landings; slow flight; stall recognition, stalls, and stall recovery; spin recognition and avoidance; recovery from unusual attitudes; and operating the aircraft by sole reference to instruments under actual or simulated conditions’. There is no similar official UK or EASA guidance to accompany SRG 1157’s revalidation by experience requirements.
Perhaps the reason why there is no guidance may be that there is a conflict at the heart of this issue: some pilots of long standing might see their private flying licence in the same way they see their driving licences. They have passed their test, and they don’t see why they should go to the trouble or expense of having to take a new test every two years. Privately flying a small aeroplane is less risky than riding a motorcycle and only a little more risky than driving a car, and the chance of an accident killing or maiming bystanders or destroying their property is vanishingly slim, so the only danger is to themselves, they might argue, pointing out that drivers don’t need to be tested periodically.
So, is there a problem or not? Do the Americans go too far with their revalidation pass/fail flight review, or is EASA negligent in being mealy-mouthed about the one hour of ‘refresher training’ with an instructor?
The CAA’s newsletter for instructors and examiners, TrainingCom regularly addresses SEP revalidation issues. The Autumn 2019 Update newsletter, for instance, states ‘Currently there are no guidelines issued by EASA or the CAA for the content of a refresher training flight except that the exercises to be covered should be decided and agreed between the instructor and the pilot’.
The same newsletter also states: ‘The correct EASA term for such flights is refresher training’, adding that, if the pilot is willing, ‘a refresher flight is the ideal opportunity for further training both on the ground and in the air’. Finally, the same document clearly states that such refresher training ‘is not a test with a pass/fail requirement and the instructor cannot refuse to sign the pilot’s logbook’.
These quotes are an official CAA communication. Legally speaking, the instructor is therefore effectively just along for the ride. The instructor has no duty, and no right to do anything other than to sit beside the applicant.
This approach to the monitoring of the ongoing competency of SEP pilots appals some flight instructors. What happens if an instructor flies for the mandatory hour with an applicant whom he assesses as not being proficient−or even dangerous? This means that, outside flying groups and clubs (where internal checking may take place), owner-pilots are effectively unmonitored−if they choose so.
I decided to ask a few instructors what they think about this, and quite clearly the consensus was that the current state of things in the UK, with regard to SEP revalidation, is a problem.
What if the pilot is not proficient?
Chris Applegarth, an airline pilot, ex-RAF Grade A2 instructor, and an EASA unrestricted Flight Instructor with Part 945 privileges, says that “it is simply mad that I should have to sign a pilot’s licence if I don’t think he’s proficient. As an instructor I have a duty of care to the licence holder, and his or her health and safety concern me, regardless of the level of danger to those on the ground.”
Chris’s approach to revalidation by experience is that he would refuse to sign both the form SRG 1157 and the applicant’s licence if he had serious concerns about the pilot’s proficiency−forcing the applicant to find another instructor for a one hour flight or do a SEP renewal with an examiner. Nevertheless, he would have to sign the pilot’s logbook which confirms the pilot had complied with the refresher training requirement.
Would he prefer the American Flight Review process or to stick with the current EASA revalidation by experience procedure? Chris is pellucid “The FAA system is much better in my view. It’s cut and dried, and it is clear what has to be done by the pilot and the instructor.”
Ultimate High’s boss, Mark Greenfield, also thinks there is an issue here. “Flight schools across the UK attempt to generate business through the revalidation flight through a variety of attractive offers. Fly aerobatics, look at short field landings, start a tailwheel conversion. The bottom line is that any flight with an FI will cover off the official requirement. How does this confirm an individual’s ability to fly for another twenty-four months safely? My perspective is that [the refresher training] may well be the only check of quality of a pilot’s ability to fly. We know what the rules say. Technically we aren’t supposed to be able to refuse to sign off a pilot’s flight with an FI. But what about Duty of Care? What about insurance liability? And what about the old-fashioned desire to ensure that a pilot is simply fit to fly?”
Dorothy Saul-Pooley, a lawyer and flight examiner, offers this advice to instructors: “As an aviation lawyer I’d say that if you [the instructor] have any doubt as to the competence of the applicant then make a contemporaneous record and get the pilot to sign it. Then enter something in your own logbook to show the AAIB!” She adds, “I’d also advise you to take out liability insurance for when the deceased’s estate comes after you.”
I ask Dorothy why the revalidation is so loosey-goosey, as an FAA instructor might say. Her answer is curt: “it’s because it was written by Europe”.
Talking to instructors, it is clear however that most of them during refresher training flights don’t just sit on their hands and keep schtum. Indeed the LAA leads the way with its ‘pilot coaching scheme’, which is available to its members and is run by experienced flight instructors.
The LAA website explains that ‘The Pilot Coaching Scheme courses have been designed to fulfil the needs of most of our members: Type Conversion, Tail-wheel Conversion, Differences Training, Strip Flying, General Flying, and Biennial Reviews. However experienced you are, you may benefit from refresher training such as Practice Forced Landings, stalling and crosswinds.’
Those who don’t train...
Mark Greenfield thinks highly of the LAA’s approach: “It’s a truism that pilots who choose to enhance their skills through additional training, or attend the AOPA Safety Evenings, are far less likely to be involved in an incident. Through their approach to flying, their attitude if you like, they are demonstrating some degree of focus on flight safety−which can only be a good thing.”
Mark underlines a caveat, however. “The people who choose to expand their personal envelopes are, almost by definition, the people who least need it. In many ways it is the people who don’t recognise their own limitations, especially those who, perhaps arrogantly, feel that they don’t need any additional training, that are most likely to be involved in accidents”.
Is it right, safe or wise, then, that CAA regulations allow revalidating pilots to sidestep meaningful refresher training if they choose? Since it looks very likely that UK will leave EASA very soon, maybe this is the time to re-evaluate the whole topic. For instance: What is the purpose of the hour with the instructor (it is not made clear in regulation)? Would it be better simply to drop the refresher training element and go back to straightforward currency? Or would it be better if it were beefed up, and British pilots undertook a review of their proficiency every two years? If yes, then, what do we mean by proficiency? Should official, clear, guidance material be produced?
And finally, if the Americans have a better system for revalidating SEP ratings, should we look at other areas of regulation too? Madam will soon be offering FAA Flight Reviews, but don’t book her if you are expecting a box to be ticked. She adjusts her Stetson, and tells me “that just ain’t gonna happen, honey!”
A brief history of UK revalidations
Dorothy Saul-Pooley, an aviation lawyer and vastly experienced instructor and examiner, takes up the story of FCL.740.A(b)(ii) and explains where we are.
A situation which, in Dorothy’s words, “is scandalously bad”.
“Before JAR came into being in 1998, an SEP, or Class A as it was then called, was valid if the pilot had flown five hours in the previous thirteen months, and had an instructor sign the logbook to confirm that. JAR wanted better than that, and in June 2001 the UK became the first national authority to require a training flight with an instructor before a revalidation of an SEP. The CAA issued an AIC [Aeronautical Information Circular] that gave guidance to the instructor, and this document said that if the candidate wasn’t satisfactory then the instructor shouldn’t sign the applicant’s logbook.’
That is just like the current FAA requirement. So what happened here in UK? Dorothy explains: ‘Well, people complained and said there shouldn’t be a test, just a training flight. After seven years the CAA caved in and withdrew the AIC. Then, in 2008, EASA came into being, and from 17 September 2012 British pilots had to follow Part FCL. But there was no guidance material, and no acceptable means of compliance for a revalidation by experience.’ It might seem odd that in our highly regulated activity there is no guidance on revalidation by experience – almost as though EASA was reluctant to do so.