The Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) basic requirements for flight currency are actually pretty simple: three take-offs and three landings within the past 90 days for daytime flight. Night currency is the same – three take-offs and landings during night hours in the same 90-day period. When you think about the average corporate pilot flying the average corporate aircraft- they will meet these two basic requirements in the course of their ...

Dave Higdon  |  01st October 2009
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Dave Higdon
Dave Higdon

Dave Higdon is a highly respected, NBAA Gold Wing award-winning aviation journalist who has covered all...

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Training To Live
Staying sharp during slower times.

The Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) basic requirements for flight currency are actually pretty simple: three take-offs and three landings within the past 90 days for daytime flight. Night currency is the same – three take-offs and landings during night hours in the same 90-day period.

When you think about the average corporate pilot flying the average corporate aircraft- they will meet these two basic requirements in the course of their jobs- without any special effort. But for the typical business aircraft pilot- the basics fall short of actual need. Instrument Currency is an additional issue. The requirements under FAR 61.57- ‘Recent flight experience: Pilot in command’- read as such:

(c) Instrument experience. Except as provided in paragraph (e) of this section- no person may act as pilot in command under IFR or in weather conditions less than the minimums prescribed for VFR- unless within the preceding six calendar months- that person has:

For the purpose of obtaining instrument experience in an aircraft (other than a glider)- performed and logged under actual or simulated instrument conditions- either in flight in the appropriate category of aircraft for the instrument privileges sought or in a flight simulator or flight training device that is representative of the aircraft category for the instrument privileges sought:

(i) At least six instrument approaches;
(ii) Holding procedures; and
(iii) Intercepting and tracking courses through the use of navigation systems.

It all sounds somewhat rudimentary- and indeed it is; compared to flying the system on real-world missions- the requirements are actually ripe for rote completion with little to throw off the pilot- whereas in the real-world of visiting busy airspace sectors- clearance amendments seem to alternate fairly evenly with adherence to standard terminal arrivals and departures – SIDs and STARs.

The pilot flying the company’s airplane anywhere from 150 to 500 hours annually can generally fulfill these requirements in the course of routine work.

First- consider the operating environment of the turbine-powered aircraft: virtually always above Flight Level 180 (18-000 feet above sea level) where the FAA requires all aircraft to fly on an instrument flight plan. And if an active business aircraft pilot flies even half the average flight hours of the typical corporate aircraft – say between 175 and 250 hours per year – the odds are high for finding approach-level weather at enough destinations to get those six approaches.

In-between satisfies the intercepting and tracking requirements – and a thinking pilot can usually get a hold for the asking… Currency solved.

Yet for a myriad of reasons- pilots and corporate aircraft owners often go much further with their training commitments. For pilots flying business aircraft under many corporate and insurance requirements- twice-annual trips to a flight-training facility for recurrent training can take pilot training far beyond the basics needed to satisfy the FARs- while also meeting the requirements of employer and insurer- alike.

These opportunities to spend time in classrooms and cockpit simulators provide an opportunity to expose aviators to conditions and risks of in-flight anomalies and failures along with adverse weather- without the risk of pursuing such training in an actual aircraft.

The realism of full-motion Level C- and now Level D sims – particularly the newer electric-drive platforms – has developed to a point that challenges even the most-savvy veteran to finish a session without developing sweaty palms and a tensed brow. But what happens when the company operating the aircraft starts to feel the financial pinch of today’s economic malaise? How does a pilot – particularly that common company pilot with other duties – maintain the necessary edge in training and meeting the FARs when the company plane sits for weeks? How so for the increasingly common and unfortunate flyer on furlough or layoff?

Contract flying may offer a bit of revenue to help pay the bills – but the contracting companies generally expect time-and-type currency to put an aviator into the rotation. Pilots who’ve shared the stories of their plight seem to embrace a variety of creative methods to stay legal and sharp.

Without going into the deadly details- it’s worth remembering that the most common cause of aviation accidents is actually a collection of causes – a series of mistakes- judgment errors and bad decisions that culminate in an accident otherwise avoidable had the chain been broken somewhere before impact.

Current statistics point to a decline in accidents and fatalities – not surprising considering the decline in flight hours across general aviation. But going by talks with a variety of aviators and instructors- training is the last area to get cut by operators – and the top focus of pilots laid-off or furloughed.

Pilots know that flying high-performance turbine aircraft at high altitude and high speeds typically is more a matter of head work than demanding- physical flying skills. Judgment- as you’ve read within these pages before- underpins the safety and effectiveness of the professional pilot; judgment - good and bad - develops through experience.

In fact- one of the goals of professional-level training is to let pilots learn good judgment from the bad judgment of others. Otherwise- pilots will only learn from the mistakes they survive – as long as they do survive their mistakes.

A large majority of corporate aviation accidents grow out of that stereotypical chain of mistakes – mistakes made by pilots with excellent machine training but possibly deficient judgment training. Events like Bombardier’s Safety Standdown focus tightly on imparting thinking skills and exposing professional-grade aviators to how our own biases and personality quirks can manifest themselves by building a poor-judgment chain.

Alternatively- the judgment problem might stem from the simple failure to listen to that little voice in our heads that warns- “If it doesn’t feel right it probably isn’t right.” Maybe ill judgment could be attributed to that Homesick Angel Syndrome my wife warns me against before- during and on return-home day- every trip- every time. An extra overnight costs far less than a bad mistake in judgment.

As many an experienced pilot likes to say- “It’s better to be down here wishing you were up there- than to be up there wishing you were down here.”

The best hedge against lapses in judgment - the failure to recognize our locking into a decision loop - are practice and training. If maintaining practice and recurrent training are SOP for the employed-and-active business pilot- imagine the challenge of the once-employed business pilot or- the ‘flying-less’ owner/pilot sitting in the left seat in the company business turbine. Access and costs challenge many a corporate pilot to stay sharp these days.

At least one training company has stepped up to offer help welcomed by professional aviators from across the spectrum. But there are also ways to achieve that goal for the creative and willing unemployed pilot- as well as some savvy employers who are investing in preserving their access to proven pilot talent.


One of the world’s pre-eminent training companies stepped into the training void earlier this year in an effort to aid aviators ejected from their cockpit posts by the economic downturn.

Starting in June and running until the end of 2009- FlightSafety International (FSI) has been offering what it calls the Proficiency Protection Program- which offers no-cost recurrent training courses to business aircraft pilots who were training under a full-service contract when their jobs were lost due to staff reduction or job elimination. The program also applies to laid-off maintenance technicians who were receiving their training under the same type of contract.

FSI made the program available to pilots and technicians laid off since January 1 of this year and the training offered will be in aircraft on which the pilot trained under the contract. The training company offers the training scheduled on an as-available basis and the eligible pilot must start the training while unemployed.

Best of all- accepting FSI’s training offer imposes no repayment new-contract obligation on the pilot once re-hired. Given the good will the company’s effort seems to be generating among pilots- though- it’s not difficult to imagine the preference these aviators will express if asked about future training by their employers.

More information from

A pilot of my acquaintance told me recently that he’d received a training session in a light jet model he was flying for a large fractional program and- on the same trip- invested some of his savings in getting back up to speed on flying a mid-cabin jet of another brand – a make and model for which he already held a type rating.

“A contract-pilot outfit contacted me because of a ‘friend-of-a-friend’ referral and when it turned out they needed someone for the mid-cabin jet I used to fly- it just seemed smart to spend the money. One contract gig in either of the planes will cover much of my out-of-pocket cost for the second airplane.

“I consider it an investment in my future. In the meantime- I’m getting an occasional right-seat trip in a turboprop that’s letting me keep my skills sharp and flying my little (Cessna) Skyhawk every week to keep the cobwebs clear.”

Another corporate pilot friend wonders every day why he’s still employed full time by his boss- who operates a flight charter company that mainly supports his real estate endeavors. Flying hours are down by 60 percent- he confided- but his boss hasn’t let go of any of his five pilots; instead- he let go of an airplane on a long-term lease.

“He is covering the payments with the lease- and he has the right to bring it back on 45-days’ notice-” the pilot explained. “In the meantime- about half the time we’re flying is basically proficiency flying. The boss wants us all logging five hours a month (Pilot-in-Command time) and we’re rotating through the two remaining airplanes and five pilots to let everybody get some exercise.

“We’re actually running closer to 10 hours a month – and that’s making the boss happy- since he know we won’t have any currency issues when things pick up.”

Two other pilots told World Aircraft Sales Magazine that they’re floundering around- working night freight- or standing by to fly for one outfit or another. “These jobs don’t really come close to letting us meet our monthly expenses-” the senior aviator of the two explained. “But the time is good- hardworking flying time that helps us stay sharp- maintain our currency requirements- and keep our head in the aviation game.

“For us- staying sharp is the important thing- and you don’t stay sharp sitting around the pilot lounge or hanging in a hangar- or out on a ramp.”

The junior of the two volunteered that he’s taken to doing delivery work during the day- a little flight instruction as he can find it- and then renting time in a Beech Baron every month. “The Baron time helps keep me arguably current in multi-engine aircraft- and that’s important when the phone rings and someone wants me to fly – tonight- or tomorrow… it’s always on short notice.

“Not having Instrument currency or night currency would end the conversation. My safety and my family’s well-being depend on my ability to re-use the airplane after every trip – so I do what I need to do to polish off any rust.”

A good friend of this writer works full-time as a simulator and flying instructor for a large multi-location training company- and he’s seeing the decline in traffic brought on by the decline in flight hours and companies’ pullback from business aviation.

“I’m also getting some ‘students’ who used to pass through on their bosses tab – and now they’re pulling some bucks out of their own pockets to get as much recurrent training as they can afford-” he explained. “They know that their feel for the airplane- for flying and their command of the mechanics comes back really quickly once you’re back in the cockpit.

“What they complain about is how hard it is to stay mentally sharp when you’ve been away for a while – they know their thinking skills go first. It’s not hard to understand.” He explained it thus: When routine exposure to the mental challenges decline or end- the mental exercise that keeps you mentally muscular goes away; your thinking processes atrophy.

“You can get slow – not completely forgetting what you knew how to do- but behind the curve in putting together your mental steps. And hurdling through a dark-and-stormy sky at eight knots a minute is no place to be behind the mental curve; behind the mental curve leads to falling behind the airplane – and falling behind the airplane can hurt you.”

His advice for the “underutilized” corporate pilot: Work- beg- borrow- rent a complex single- split time in a twin- sell plasma…

“Whatever it takes to keep your brain ‘aired out’ and in the flying game. You’ll be far less likely to be a challenge when you come through my simulator - you’ll get work quicker and you’ll be a smarter- safer pilot.”

And that’s the goal: safer flying!


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