Design your own licence


Photo by Marcus Zymmer on Unsplash

YESTERDAY I had emails from a couple of very interesting potential students. One is a licensed private pilot who holds FAA, Australian and Canadian PPL but has never actually flown in Canada. Hopefully he and I can go and do some interesting flying together when the current restrictions are eased.

The other is a gentleman who tells me he’s been interested in flying “forever” and I guess his circumstances are such that now he’s decided is the right time to do something about it. Not unreasonably he’s shopping around flight schools and comparing headline prices. He asked how long it takes to get a Pilot Permit – Recreational (PP-R) and I told him that as a process it isn’t usually much shorter than the time taken to get a PPL (at least, not if your PPL training is done correctly.)

I think I understand the motive behind the PP-R, which is a national permit, not internationally recognized, and not valid for flight outside Canada. I think the reasoning goes something like this: PPL training has got longer and more expensive – too expensive. And therefore people are being discouraged from flight training. Let’s reduce the number of exercises in the PPL flight test, make some of the ones we keep a bit easier, and mandate a much lower minimum number of mandatory hours of training. That will make a much cheaper training syllabus which will prove popular. To differentiate this new permit from the long-standing PPL we’ll restrict the number of passengers (to one) and aircraft (four seats maximum) that this new permit allows the holder to fly. And of course it will be daylight VFR flying only, with no option to add on a night rating, or anything else.

Two students that I’ve taught have received recreational pilot permits. The first was sixteen years old, so not eligible for a PPL. The second hadn’t quite finished the requirements for the PPL but was leaving for a year-long contract to go and work in a resort in Mexico, where Canadian flight training wasn’t available. So I put him up for the PP-R test, which he passed. At least then he then had a tangible positive result to take with him and could continue with PPL training when circumstances allowed. (I flew a couple of hours’ refresher training with him when he came back, and even after a year’s hiatus he actually flew better than most recently qualified PPLs, so we must have been doing something right.)

But other than those two, every student who started out with the intention of getting a recreational pilot permit changed his or her mind and decided part-way through training that actually the full, internationally recognized, extendable Private Pilot Licence suited them better, and switched track to attain that instead. It seems to me that the PP-R as a concept isn’t a huge success – and it might be worthwhile to look at why.

My belief is that, while well-intentioned, the PP-R captures most of the worst aspects of flight training, and not many of the best.

Let’s talk about the downstream disadvantages first: I don’t think insurance companies and operations renting airplanes to pilots are very impressed with it: once you have a PP-R it’s going to be difficult to own your own plane or to rent one with any ease. There’s a nagging question about why, if you’re a safe pilot, you don’t have at least a PPL, and therefore as a “rec” holder are you really someone who should be flying solo?

Then there are the restrictions. Only one passenger: that’s a big red flag to me, because it reeks of damage limitation. It shouts that we fully expect you to kill yourself so we’ll make sure you don’t take more than one person with you when you go. While there are restrictions on the type of airplane you can captain with a PPL (single pilot only), behind that restriction are operational issues – the human interaction in flying two crew aircraft is complicated. There’s no specific limit on how many passengers you can carry.

Now lets’s look at the upstream issues.

What’s actually included in a PP-R training syllabus, and what’s not? All we have to go on is its flight test guide. Nobody thinks that “teaching to the test” is a good idea but it’s a fact that if you’re looking for a permit to get you in the air quickly and cheaply it’s counterintuitive to do a lot of training on things that are absent from the test you’ll have to pass to get that permit.

Not required for the PP-R flight test are: any consideration of obtaining or giving a weather briefing prior to the test flight, any manoeuvre beyond 30° of bank or any stall recovery other than one at “low power”. No cross-country flight (except for a watered-down pilot navigation exercise) is required, nor is any instrument flight.

As far as experience requirements go, you can get a rec permit with only five hours of solo flight time, zero instrument time, and only two hours of cross country – both hours with an instructor. That means one single flight to an airport a hundred miles away and back, accompanied by an instructor to demystify the whole experience, could be the only time a rec permit holder has visited another airport.

With the best will in the world, there is no way I would consider a pilot competent to borrow, hire, or, for that matter fly his or own airplane without close supervision with that minimum amount of experience and having trained to competence only in those manoeuvres in the flight test for the recreational pilot permit.

So having said all that, is it possible to shorten PPL training and still create a pilot with a big enough set of core skills to be cut free to fly (and learn) without an instructor breathing over their shoulder? I believe it is. I think there should exist a permit that tests (and therefore for which we teach) in the following categories:

Documents and airworthiness, airplane performance: Let’s keep those, from the PPL.

Weight and balance: this is one thing the PP-R has right, only a single weight and balance calculation is required (vs. 3 for the PPL test.)

Flight planning: this should sit midway between CPL and the current PP-R tests. Students should plan a single leg flight to another airport. But they should be allowed (and encouraged) to use Foreflight, or online flight planning software. The candidate should give a proper weather briefing to the examiner for the proposed trip, and for the flight test.

Pre-flight inspection, engine starting and run-up and use of checklists: although I could write for a hundred years on the use of checklists, we’ll keep these parts of the test (and the training).

Systems/Ancillary controls, taxiing: We’ll keep these too. Let’s get on to the meat and potatoes.

Steep turns: These are omitted from the rec permit flight test, but we should definitely include them in our new permit, to PPL standards.

Slow flight: The PPL standard for this exercise was watered down in 2019; I think it should be restored, and the more difficult standard should be met by successful candidates for our new permit.

Stalls: This should match the PPL standard – two stalls should be demonstrated, in two different configurations. The ability to recognize and recover from a stall under a variety of circumstances is an important safety issue for a pilot.

Spirals, slips: these are in both the PP-R test and PPL test; we should keep them.

Takeoff: Let’s abandon the fetish for and distinction between “performance” takeoffs – short field, and soft field, and “regular” takeoffs. All pilots should have a good handle on takeoff performance and procedures, but new pilots have no business departing from runways that need special “short field” techniques to make a safe departure. Similarly, “soft field” techniques, even for PPL students, have become a meaningless pantomime of trying to pretend a quality tarmac runway is actually mud, or turf or gravel. If you are training at a grass runway, then, good for you, and you should learn how to protect your airplane from damage there, but so few pilots of small airplanes use or are allowed (by whoever rents them the airplane) to use unprepared fields we are wasting the majority’s time training for it. After a pilot has a licence they can do an hour or two with a competent instructor before they fly off or onto grass, if necessary.

Circuit, approach and landing: for goodness sakes, remove the ridiculous restriction that “all landings will be executed with full flap” – so important, apparently that it, almost alone, appears in the PPL flight test guide in bold print. At least the PP-R flight test guide doesn’t have this requirement, although it might gain it, if the guide ever gets updated. For the same reasoning given when discussing takeoffs, remove short field and soft field landings. Teaching them is a waste of time for 99% of small aircraft pilots, and the rest can make their own arrangements for extra training.

Precuautionary landing: this feels like a holdover from the days when pilots wore sheepskin jackets and flying goggles, and regularly had to land in a field to find out where they were. That is, the days before GPS, enclosed cockpits, and a million radio masts with invisible wires ready to kill pilots trying to land in the unprepared field next door. This exercise should be removed, or at least rewritten entirely from the point of view of arriving at a regular but unfamiliar airport and have rolled into it circuit joining procedures. I’m not the only person who thinks so: I’ve even witnessed a TC inspector hopping up and down and nearly shouting at a seminar room full of flight instructors daring anyone to maintain the pretence we should equip new pilots to go and land in farmer’s fields in the twenty first century.

Forced landing: We’ll keep this; but I’d do more to encourage different methods of manoeuvring and judgment than trying to railroad students to use the preferred “overhead-360” method. I’ve seen the evidence that candidates who use it are more likely to pass the flight test; but I believe that’s a classic example of passing a test but failing an opportunity to gain a skill. If one needs to carry out a forced approach for real I guarantee a new pilot is not at that time going to get out his or her chart out and commence mental arithmetic involving ground elevations, rates of descent and one minute turns.

Pilot navigation: I don’t share the enthusiasm for teaching students as if they were to navigate across the Pacific Ocean using nothing but a 2 inch stub pencil and an astrocompass from the 1950’s that still haunts PPL training. Outside of flight training nobody has drawn a 10 degree drift line on a chart since 1977. On the other hand the current PP-R syllabus has a very light navigation portion. So light, in fact, that I wouldn’t trust a pilot who can just pass that portion of the test not to get lost within 10 minutes of setting off an unfamiliar route. Since every pilot now has an iPad, or a tablet of some kind, or flies and airplane with a VFR or IFR gps installed, candidates should be expected to demonstrate that they can plan and deliver a flight to a destination using that equipment. Then, as a backup, they should demonstrate that they can recover themselves while en-route to a safe airport using a paper chart.

Instrument flying: The PPL syllabus has a requirement for students to be able to execute a 180° turn under instrument conditions, and I think that should be included in our new test too. However, I have no idea why the PPL experience requirements include 5 hours of instrument flight, which is more than 10% of the total required hours for the licence. Why must more than one tenth of your required flight training be simulating conditions in which it would be illegal for you to fly? In practice these hours of training are done in an airplane that is only lightly equipped, and the student learns what they need (both to save their skins in an inadvertent IMC entry and to pass the test) within one to two hours. Completing the balance of the five required hours taxes the committed instructor to come up with something interesting to do in them, and bores to death the students of the less committed who do nothing other than hours of straight-and-level flight. In neither case does the student learn anything of value or relevance to the type of flying they are being licensed to do.

Required hours: I think it’s silly to have a permit that specifies a minimum of 20 hours of flight training. I think newcomers get an unrealistic expectation, which is going to be shattered, anyway, when the student realizes that three quarters of those 20 hours are used up in getting to a faltering, unconfident (but safe) first solo flight of all of six minutes duration. The prospect of only another five hours being all that is necessary for a newly qualified PP-R holder to safely set off on a transcontinental trip, with their one allowed passenger, is simply ridiculous.

So having set out a manifesto for a new minimal training and licence (or permit) syllabus – what minimum hours would I put on it? I’m going to say 35. Twenty dual, and fifteen solo hours. Will it take longer in practice? Yes, probably. I would also require a candidate to have flown to another airport on their own. That’s a big psychological barrier for most new pilots and one they should cross while still under instructor supervision.

So that’s it – that’s my rainy day manifesto for a test syllabus for a sub-PPL permit, the training for and passing of which would allow me to believe that the student had enough skill safely to take to the skies in good weather, solo and without instructor supervision.

Now that I’ve reached the end of this essay, I realize what I’ve done is answer the question left hanging in the air yesterday in my conversation with the potential student: why does obtaining a recreational pilot permit take nearly as long as getting a PPL, and why do most candidates for the rec permit change to work towards a PPL midway through their training? It’s because it quickly becomes clear during training that teaching the bare skills for the rec permit, and trying to do so in as close to the minimum time required, simply isn’t adequate to make a safe pilot. If you were a student of mine set on getting a recreational pilot permit I wouldn’t be comfortable with you in an airplane until you had the extra skills that I described above, so that’s what I’d want to teach you. I think all instructors would feel the same, if asked. And I think you as the student would find you weren’t comfortable on your own in an airplane without those extra skills either.

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