BruceAir’s Guide to the PMA8000BT Audio Panel

I recently had a PS Engineering PMA8000BT audio panel/intercom installed in the A36. It’s a terrific unit with many features. To help me learn the key functions, I created my own Quick Reference Guide to the PMA8000BT. You can download the PDF version from the Pilot Goodies folder at my SkDrive.

PMA8000BT-overview

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Airport Advisory Service from Flight Service

A recent discussion at the BeechTalk forum led me to dig into a now obscure service once offered at airports that had a Flight Service Station located on the field. Airport Advisory Service (described in AIM 3-5-1. Airport Advisory/Information Services) provides pilots with updates on the local weather and information about known traffic operating on and around an airport. The service isn’t air traffic control; it’s just information for pilots to take into account as they plan to depart or land at an airport that offers AAS.

Today, Lockheed-Martin has consolidated the FSS network in the lower 48 to just six facilities:

The AFSS team is located in six locations around the country: Prescott, Ariz.; Fort Worth, Texas; Miami; Raleigh, N.C.; Ashburn, Va.; and Princeton, Minn.

A search of the Airport/Facility Directory for the lower 48 states reveals that only 15 airports in the lower 48 currently have AAS, albeit the remote version, provided by one of the FSS hubs or ancillary facilities. The FSS network in Alaska provides AAS at more airports.

RAA service is operated within 10 statute miles of specified high activity GA airports where a control tower is not operating. Airports offering this service are listed in the A/FD and the published service hours may be changed by NOTAM D.

I haven’t been able to find a comprehensive list of those “specified high activity GA airports,” but here’s the list I compiled:

    • Altoona-Blair Co (KAOO)
    • Anderson Rgnl (KAND)
    • Aniston Rgnl (KANB)
    • Columbia Rgnl (KCOU)
    • Gainesville Rgnl (KGNV)
    • Greenwood-LeFlore (KGWO)
    • Huron Rgnl (KHON)
    • Jonesboro Muni (KJBR)
    • Kendall-Tamiami Executive (KTMB)
    • Lawson AAF (Fort Benning) (KLSF)
    • Louisville Bowman Fld (KLOU)
    • Millville Muni (KMIV)
    • Middle Georgia Rgnl (KMCN)
    • Prescott (KPRC)
    • St. Petersburg-Clearwater Intl (KPIE)

(FSS monitors the tower frequency, but AAS isn’t specifically mentioned for KSPG)

The FAA published a notice in the Federal Register in 2006, seeking comments about AAS and its value to pilots. You can read the docket for that notice here. But I can find no evidence that FAA took any general action regarding AAS. However, that 2006 notice lists 20 airports in the lower 48 with the service, so the number has declined in the intervening years.

If you’re interested in the history of FSS facilities, see this website. It no longer seems up-to-date, however.

ADS-B Coverage Map Expands

Sporty’s Pilot Shop has published an updated ADS-B coverage map. The holes in the ADS-B ground network are filling in. You can read the background information at Sporty’s iPad Pilot News, here.

Air-to-Air Photo Shoot at Las Vegas

Here’s a short “making of” video from a photo shoot last month in Las Vegas. Jessica Ambats was the photographer. Paul “Sticky” Strickland, formerly a member of the USAF Thunderbirds, was the formation pilot in the Phenom 300 jet. Melissa Courtney flew the Bonanza photo ship; I was the safety pilot in the Bonanza. The owner of the jet (the guy in the blue shirt) invited John Payne,  singer for the band “Asia,” to ride along.

The flight required considerable coordination with Las Vegas ATC, but they made it work.

IACO Flight Plan Equipment Codes for Aircraft with IFR GPS

dFAA plans to require that all flight plans (VFR, IFR, domestic, and international) use the ICAO format sometime in the fall of 2017 (for the latest details, see this notice).

For more information about the switch to ICAO flight plans, see a news item from AOPA here.

A detailed explanation of the ICAO flight plan form is available here. Flight Service also has a handy tip card here and more details, including links to videos, here.

In November 2013, FAA updated and simplified some of the requirements for filing ICAO flight plans for domestic use. You can read about those changes here (PDF). Note that the instructions from FAA focus on the printed flight plan form, which few pilots use. Apps such as ForeFlight, Garmin Pilot, WingX, FltPlanGo, go FlyQ take care of many of the details for you. You should review the user guides and other instructions for the apps and web-based tools that you use to file flight plans. ForeFlight has detailed information about ICAO flight plans here.

Confusing Codes

Many pilots are confused by elements of the ICAO flight plan format, especially the multiple aircraft equipment codes that you must include to inform ATC of the gizmos and capability that are installed in your aircraft.

The following guide should help you sort out those ICAO codes if you fly a typical light GA aircraft equipped with at least one WAAS-capable, GPS navigator that is approved to fly RNAV (GPS) approaches. Examples of such avionics include:

Garmin has posted detailed information about the ICAO codes for its avionics, including a handy Microsoft Excel worksheet, here.

Overview

Here’s a look at the relevant parts of the ICAO flight plan form as shown on the Leidos FSS website. You can find a video that describes the ICAO flight plan form at Leidos FSS here.

I’ve filled in the information for my Beechcraft A36 Bonanza (ICAO identifier BE36), which is equipped with a GTN750, a Garmin GTX 327 transponder (not Mode S), and the GDL 88 ADS-B transmitter and receiver. This aircraft also has a Bendix/King DME receiver.

For more information about the ICAO identifiers to use for the makes and models of aircraft that you fly, see ICAO Aircraft Type Designators here at BruceAir.

The example is for an IFR trip from KBFI to KGEG in the Pacific Northwest. The route includes the ZOOMR1 STAR into KGEG.

ICAO-FlightPlan-Form-Example

Basic Information

The first few items are the same for all typical IFR general aviation flights:

  • Flight Rule: IFR
  • Flight Type: G (for general aviation)
  • Number of Aircraft: 1 (i.e., not a formation flight)
  • Wake Turbulence Category: L (for light)
  • Aircraft Type: The official ICAO designator for the make and model of aircraft you fly (e.g., BE36, C172, C210, M20P, PA28A, etc.)

Aircraft Equipment

On the familiar FAA domestic flight plan form, equipment suffixes for typical GA pilots are simple, and if you’re flying a GPS-equipped airplane with a Mode C transponder, the basic /G was all you needed.

But the ICAO form captures many more details about the equipment installed in your aircraft, and the fun typically begins with this item.

For a WAAS-equipped aircraft such as we’re discussing, you should enter the following codes in the Aircraft Equipment box:

  • SBDGR

ICAO-FlightPlan-Form-Example-A

As you can see in the illustration from the Leidos FSS web form, these letters represent the following equipment:

  • S: Standard communication and navigation receivers/transmitters (VOR, VHF communications radios, and ILS receiver). If you enter S in this box, you shouldn’t include the letters L (ILS), O (VOR), or V (VHF) here. S includes that equipment.
  • B: LPV approach capability. If you have a WAAS GPS, but your installation isn’t approved for LPV procedures (see the user’s guide and AFM supplement), omit this letter.
  • D: DME. If you don’t have DME, omit the D.
  • G: IFR-approved GPS (the preferred term is now GNSS, Global Navigation Satellite System)
  • R: PBN approved. This letter means that your aircraft meets basic RNP standards. All aircraft with an IFR-approved GPS are PBN approved (see AIM 1-2-1). You must include R, and associated information in the Other Information box, to ensure that the computer will accept a routing that includes RNAV routes, SIDs, STARs, or charted ODPs. See PBN and RNP Confusion, below.
  • Z: Indicates additional information to be added to the Other Information box, described below.
  • If you still have an ADF, include F.

PBN and RNP Confusion

The aviation world uses RNP (required navigation performance) for two related, but different purposes.

In general, RNP is an RNAV specification (e.g., RNAV 5, RNAV 2, and RNAV 1) that indicates that an aircraft is capable of maintaining a course (track) within designated limits 95 percent of the time. For example, RNAV 5 means the aircraft as equipped can reliably maintain a track with 5 nm; RNAV 2 limits are 2 nm, and so forth. If your aircraft is equipped with an IFR-approved GPS authorized to fly RNAV (GPS) approaches, it matches this sense of RNP and PBN.

The basic RNP (RNAV) specifications used in the U.S. (RNP 0.3, RNP 1.0, RNP 2.0, and RNP 1.0) are shown in the following illustration from the Instrument Flying Handbook (FAA H-8083-15B). For more information about RNP and RNAV specifications, see “Required Navigation Performance” on page 9-44 of the IFH.

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Current WAAS-approved GPS receivers for typical GA aircraft, such as those listed earlier, meet the U.S. RNP specifications, as described in AC 90-100A: U.S Terminal and En Route Area Navigation (RNAV) Operations and the associated AC 90-100 Compliance document (PDF). To confirm your GPS receiver’s capabilities, check the user guides and the AFM supplements for the equipment installed in your aircraft.

The term RNP is also applied as a descriptor for airspace, routes, and procedures (including departures, arrivals, and IAPs). RNP can apply to a unique approach procedure or to a large region of airspace. In this sense, RNP means something similar to Category II and Category III instrument approaches. For example, an approach with RNP in the title (e.g., RNAV (RNP) Z RWY 16R) requires special equipment and detailed crew training/qualification. Such RNAV (RNP) approaches include the note AUTHORIZATION REQUIRED on the chart.

For more information about RNP approaches, see RNP Procedures and Typical Part 91 Pilots and Garmin Radius to Fix Leg Project Report here at my blog.

Surveillance Equipment (Transponder and ADS-B)

This box on the ICAO form tells ATC what type of transponder and related equipment are installed in your aircraft.

  • For most GA pilots flying IFR, this box will include at least C, for a transponder with altitude-reporting capability.
  • If you have a Mode S transponder, you should select the appropriate letter, E, H, I, L, P, S, or X, based on the information in the user guide and AFM supplement for your transponder.
  • If you have ADS-B equipment installed (not a portable ADS-B receiver such as the Stratus or Dual XGPS170), include U1 or U2. The Garmin GDL 88 in my airplane both transmits and receives ADS-B signals, so I add U2 to this box.

ICAO-FlightPlan-Form-Example-B

Other Information

The final box for designating your RNAV capabilities and additional data is Other Information. You must use prefixes, followed by letters, to include different categories of information.

As described above here and here, it’s important to add a PBN/ group in this box to ensure that the ATC system understands the RNP/RNAV capabilities of your aircraft.

ICAO-FlightPlan-Form-Example-D

If you have a GPS approved for at least IFR en route and terminal operations, add the following letters:

  • C2, which designates RNAV 2 capability based on GPS (GNSS)
  • D2, which designates RNAV 1 capability based on GPS (GNSS)

If you have a Mode S transponder that complies with the ADS-B out requirements, add the following group to this box:

  • SUR/260B

If you have a UAT box such as the Garmin GDL 88 to meet the ADS-B requirements, add the following group to this box:

  • SUR/282B

You should also file the six-digit Mode S Code (base 16 / hex) assigned to your aircraft by inserting a CODE/ group. You can find the hexadecimal code for your aircraft by checking the FAA N-number registry:

  • CODE/xxxxxx

For example, the code for one of the aircraft at the flight school where I instruct is A66E8E. The entry for that aircraft is:

  • CODE/A66E8E

For more information about the filing the appropriate codes related to ADS-B capabilities, see Filing for Advanced Surveillance Broadcast Capability (PDF) at the FAA flight plan website.

You can also add a NAV/ group in this box to indicate your RNAV capability. This group isn’t necessary if you use the appropriate PBN codes described above. But you can use a NAV/ group such as D1E2A1to indicate that you have RNAV 1 capability for departure, RNAV 2 capability for the en route segment, and RNAV 1 capability for arrival.

  • NAV/RNVD1E2A1

These groups and letters mean that you can fly RNAV routes (e.g., T-routes), RNAV SIDs and STARs, and charted ODPs (charted ODPs are often RNAV procedures, usually based on GPS).

For more information about charted ODPs, see:

Don’t worry about the options in the RNP Specifications part of this box. Unless you are authorized to fly RNAV (RNP) procedures (see above), these items don’t apply to you.

Summary

Here’s a quick review of what to put in the equipment-related boxes of the ICAO flight plan form if, like me, you fly an aircraft with one of the common IFR-approved, WAAS-capable GPS receivers:

  • Aircraft Equipment: SBGR
  • Surveillance Equipment: C (for a Mode C transponder).
    (If you have ADS-B in/out capability, such as a Garmin GDL 88, add U2. If you have a Mode S transponder, include the appropriate letter for your model.)
  • Other Information: PBN/C2D2 SUR/260B or SUR/282B and CODE/xxxxxx
    (where xxxxxx is the six-digit hexadecimal code assigned to your aircraft as part of its registration record at the FAA).

ICAO-FlightPlan-Form-Example

October Updates to the AIM for IFR Pilots with GPS

FAA has released updates to the AIM, effective October 24, 2013, that may be of interest to IFR pilots who fly with an IFR-approved GPS. The key changes involve:

  • Equipment codes used on domestic flight plans
  • Requirements for radar monitoring on direct routes, especially for aircraft equipped with an IFR-approved GPS.

The changes include new terms—or clarifications of existing terms: impromptu RNAV routes and point-to-point routes.

You can read the revised AIM pages 5-1-13, 5-1-15, and 5-3-6 here (PDF). They will be included in the next scheduled update to the AIM.

Guidance concerning these changes for air traffic controllers is published in an update, “Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) Equipped Aircraft Operating on Random Routes,” to the ATC handbook, JO 7110.639. It’s available here (PDF).

Domestic Flight Plan Equipment Codes

The first change concerns equipment codes for domestic flight plans. Fortunately, for typical GA pilots flying with an IFR-approved GPS, the familiar /G suffix remains in effect. You should use the new /V or /S codes only if you have no transponder or a transponder without Mode C.

If you operate in the RVSM airspace and/or use other equipment (such as an INS or a DME/DME FMS) to meet RNAV requirements, FAA has published new equipment suffixes, which are described in the revised pages.

Note that these new equipment codes apply only when using the domestic FAA flight plan format. If you use the ICAO flight plan form, use the equipment codes designated for that format.

Off-Airway Routes with IFR-Approved GPS

The AIM update changes some considerations for filing and flying off-airway and direct routes if your aircraft is equipped with an IFR-approved GPS.

First, the new AIM 5-1-15 (d) Area Navigation (RNAV) formally introduces the term impromptu RNAV routes. In the update for air traffic controllers, a random impromptu route is defined as:

…[A] direct course initiated by ATC or requested by the pilot during flight. Aircraft are cleared from their present position to a NAVAID, waypoint, fix, or airport.

An impromptu RNAV route can be approved only in a radar environment, and ATC will monitor the flights on such routes, but navigation remains the responsibility of the pilot.

The updated AIM 5-3-4 (3) Area Navigation (RNAV) Routes describes unpublished RNAV routes (that is, routes other than T-routes and Q-routes):

Unpublished RNAV routes are direct routes, based on area navigation capability, between waypoints defined in terms of latitude/longitude coordinates, degree−distance fixes, or offsets from established routes/airways at a specified distance and direction.

Radar monitoring is still generally required for such unpublished RNAV routes.

But if you have an IFR-approved GPS, and you are cleared to fly a direct route based on published waypoints recalled from the GPS database, radar monitoring is no longer required. Such routes are also called point-to-point routes.

The maximum distance between the published waypoints is 500 nm, and the assigned altitude must be at or above the highest minimum instrument altitude (MIA) along the route, which provides obstacle clearance 4 miles either side of the route centerline.

For example, a point-to-point route from an airport in the Seattle area to Newport, OR (KONP) might use named RNAV fixes en route and end at a VOR: HAROB FEBOT ERAVE REDHK ONP. If you’re flying a GPS-equipped aircraft, radar monitoring wouldn’t be required along that route.

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Review of AOPA ASI eFIRC

I just completed the biennial bane of certified flight instructors, a flight instructor refresher clinic, or FIRC.

CFIs must renew their certificates every two years—the CFI is that rare airman certificate that comes with an expiration date. Although there are several ways to renew your credentials as a flight instructor (among them, recommending a number of students who pass practical tests or earning a new rating on a CFI certificate), most instructors get a new CFI certificate by completing a FIRC—either a two-day, in-person seminar; or, increasingly, an online, self-paced course.

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The FAA rightly argues that CFIs should refresh their knowledge and teaching skills, and the FIRC is the agency’s primary method of ensuring that instructors continue their education.

The specifications for a FIRC are described in AC 61-83G Nationally Scheduled FAA-Approved Industry-Conducted Flight Instructor Refresher Course. The AC sets laudable goals for the process:

The spirit of a FIRC should parallel that of the professional conference for attorneys or doctors. For all practical purposes, a live, in person FIRC is a professional conference in a very real sense since flight instructors are, by definition, professionals…As such, professional flight instructors, like professional attorneys or doctors, are assumed to possess certain basic skills. Thus, the FIRC is not intended to rehash those basics, but rather to expose the instructor to the latest in flight training techniques, the newest technology, and, most importantly, operational and safety procedures. Emphasis in the FIRC should always be on the blend of aviation safety and effective instruction—that is, it should be on developing and improving the instructor skills necessary to efficiently convey information to pilots in training and to build within them a foundational culture of safety.

Unfortunately, too often a FIRC is a slog through dull, well-worn material that seems rarely to reflect the latest changes in aviation technology, teaching methods, or how general aviation pilots operate in the real world. For many instructors of a certain age, FIRCs recall preachy educational films from an earlier era.

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How to Say No: Moral Maturity (1951)

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Unfortunately, because the FAA sets the requirements for the content of FIRCs and constrains how the material is presented (AC 61-83G even specifies how pages must be numbered), whether in-person or online, FIRC providers have little flexibility to develop engaging lessons of the type that are emerging in other arenas, such as the massive open online courses (MOOCs) that are disrupting—in a good way—traditional college education.

The AOPA ASI eFIRC

In the past, I’ve taken or reviewed online FIRCs offered by Gleim, American Flyers, King Schools, and other providers. All currently cost roughly $125, a price that includes submitting the application to the FAA for your new CFI certificate (a process that is a costly, inefficient waste of time with no benefit to the FAA or the flying public—see below).

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This year, I decided to try the new eFIRC developed by AOPA Air Safety Institute and announced in July 2013. According to AOPA ASI, the selling points of its offering include:

  • Tablet-friendly – you can take the course on any mobile device or smart phone
  • Training is open for two years – from the date you enroll until your CFI expiration date
  • Choice of electives – choose the electives that interest you most
  • Receive credit for certain completed Air Safety Institute courses – if you’ve completed within the two years prior to your CFI expiration date
  • Meets TSA Security Awareness Initial or Recurrent Training – receive your completion certificate when the module is complete
  • Temporary certificate and FAA paperwork for renewal is included and completely online
  • Free 6-month FlyQ Electronic Flight Bag subscription
  • 2Gig Flash Drive with all of part 14 CFR, the AIM, all relevant FAA handbooks, Advisory Circulars and more included

The required core topics, although not the specific content, of the courses are specified by the FAA in AC 61-83G. Each developer is free to include elective topics, and the FAA requires that the entire FIRC should require at least 16 hours of study and tests to complete.

Required Core Topics

The following ten core topics must be part of every FIRC:

  • Navigating in the 21st Century: Pilotage to GPS.
  • Security Related Special Use Airspace: What’s Going on Where, and How to Stay Clear.
  • Transportation Security Administration (TSA): What Flight Instructors Have to Know to Stay Out of Trouble.
  • How to Teach Effectively and Build a Culture of Safety in Your Students and Your Workplace.
  • Safety Trends in GA: How CFIs Can Directly Contribute to Aviation Safety.
  • Pilot Deviations: Their Causes and How to Teach Your Students to Plan Ahead to Avoid Them.
  • How to Make the Best Use of the FAASTeam and the WINGS—Pilot Proficiency Program in Your Program of Instruction.
  • Regulatory, Policy, and Publications Changes and Updates.
  • How to Give an Effective and Useful Flight Review.
  • Ethics and Professionalism in the Role of the Flight Instructor.

Elective Topics

The elective topics in the AOPA ASI eFIRC are essentially AOPA ASI online courses, which I have long recommended to my customers. These modules in the eFIRC include:

  • Customer Service and Student Retention
  • Decision Making
  • Human Factors
  • Loss of Control Accidents
  • Runway Safety
  • Survival
  • IFR Insights: Cockpit Weather
  • Public Benefit Flying: Balancing Safety and Compassion
  • Mountain Flying

Multimedia Experience

I didn’t try to run the eFIRC on my iPad—a note on the eFIRC website says the program probably won’t work well on iOS7. Instead, I used both laptop and home computers running Windows 7 and the latest version of the Mozilla Firefox browser, as recommended by AOPA ASI.

The course is essentially an automated PowerPoint presentation replete with animations and video—often segments from AOPA Live, the organization’s weekly video newsmagazine, which includes instructional tips and updates about new technology. This approach is typical of AOPA ASI, which wisely uses its high-quality multimedia resources and technical capabilities to produce an interactive experience that emphasizes the visual.

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Other FIRC providers, such as Gleim, offer more basic, text-intensive courses that appeal to the “just the facts” crowd.

You can’t zoom through the eFIRC lessons at Mach 1, however. Per FAA requirements to assure that you spend a minimum amount of time completing the lessons, each slide appears for the interval that a presumably average reader would require to scan the words. You may, however, skip most of the videos and animated segments if you don’t want extra details.

At the end of each lesson, you have two opportunities to get at least a 70 percent score on a 10-question quiz. Most questions are multiple-choice; some are true/false.

Questions

As we’ve seen, AC 61-83G puts tight constraints on the content of a FIRC, including the quizzes, but like many CFIs, I find the questions too often are silly—or, more importantly, just random tests of your ability to recall trivia, not assessments of the depth of your knowledge or ability to correlate information.

The questions in the AOPA eFIRC are typical of those in the courses I’ve taken over the years. For example, the quiz following “Navigating in the 21st Century: Pilotage to GPS” includes a question that ask how accurate WAAS is. Is it 10 ft.? Maybe 50 ft.? Who cares? As I note later, pilots and CFIs remain confused about far more pressing issues related to the use of GPS.

That emphasis on trivia is unfortunate, and at odds with the FAA’s own stated purpose for the quizzes:

The most effective practical method for assessing the retention of material presented during the FIRC is a knowledge test. This is most frequently in the form of multiple choice questions, although some sponsors employ essay questions or a mixture of both. All are acceptable methods of providing quantitative data reflecting the CFI’s current state of knowledge in specific areas. The expectation of a test at the conclusion of any course of study will motivate a student to increased levels of attention. It is no different at a FIRC. The mission of a FIRC is to ensure that the attendees take with them what the sponsors give them in terms of practical knowledge and a safe operational mindset. It is incumbent upon the FIRC sponsors to take this aspect of the FIRC very seriously and design their tests in light of this mission. Tests should be sufficiently demanding.

Now, creating meaningful questions that accurately assess a student’s understanding of the material at hand is no easy task, especially when the medium—in this case, an interactive online course—constrains the practical alternatives to multiple-choice and true/false. Keeping questions current is also difficult, given the FAA’s cumbersome rules for creating, updating, and earning approval of quizzes. But FIRC providers—and especially AOPA ASI—could do better.

Errors

Some of the eFIRC content is woefully out-of-date. For example, the module about using flight training devices still refers to PCATDs, which were supplanted by ATDs in 2008 with the issuance of AC 61-136 (a revision, AC 61-136A, was out for comment before the October 2013 government shutdown), and the material doesn’t accurately reflect the changes to the definitions of Full Flight Simulator (FFS) and Flight Training Device (FTD), which are described in 14 CFR Part 60. That’s an unfortunate oversight in a lesson that’s intended to bring instructors up-to-date on changes to regulations and policy.

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Clumsy Editing

In the lesson “Regulatory, Policy, and Publications Changes and Updates,” a couple of slides had a grammatical error (subject-verb agreement) in the first sentence (which also struggles to make its point):

The best source to review the most up-to-date regulations are on the internet.

Some concurrent slides in the “Do the Right Thing: Decision Making for Pilots” module were duplicates, again a sign of inadequate review and quality control, probably due to sloppy cutting-and-pasting; they’re not up to AOPA’s usual high editorial standards.

Technical Glitches

I also encountered several videos in different modules that wouldn’t launch. This problem seemed to be an issue with Adobe Flash or Java on specific slides. I verified that I had the current releases of both products on my systems, and, in general, the multimedia content worked fine.

The most annoying issue was a bug (confirmed by AOPA ASI) that prevented me from completing one of the elective topics, because the required quiz wouldn’t load.

The eFIRC technical staff reports via email that:

…We are that we are in the process of cleaning up some of the items that you have mentioned – specifically the grammatical errors and some of the content items that you bring up as being out of date.  Those should be updated in the course in the beginning of December.

Other Content Quibbles

GPS is the focus of an FAA-mandated core topic. But the lesson in the eFIRC rehashed basics. It included no discussion of or questions about issues that continue to cause confusion among pilots (and instructors) who use new GPS-based avionics, especially under IFR. For example:

  • Substituting GPS for ground-based navaids
  • Differences among types of RNAV (GPS) approaches (LNAV, LPV, LP)
  • Alternate airport requirements when using an IFR approved GPS (non-WAAS or WAAS)
  • T-routes
  • Approach clearances for RNAV-equipped aircraft
  • Filing IFR flight plans when flying RNAV-equipped aircraft

Of course, not all renewing CFIs are instrument flight instructors, but all CFIs are instrument-rated. Details about these topics should, at a minimum, be part of an elective lesson for instructors who provide instrument instruction.

The eFIRC also should include more information about technically advanced aircraft (glass cockpits). Many pilots are updating their panels, and there are (thankfully) no regulations that specifically require those aviators or their instructors to receive device-specific training or endorsements for Part 91 operations. But teaching in TAA is serious challenge for CFIs, and FIRCs could do more to help instructors get up to speed and maintain their currency in this area.

Note that I’m not calling for device-specific instruction—knobology. But there is a need for CFIs to learn about general best practices for configuring and using primary and multifunction flight displays, creating and using flight plans (routes), loading instrument approaches, managing the autopilot-navigator interface, and using GPS navigators to supplement ground-based approaches. These topics are addressed in the FAA’s own Advanced Avionics Handbook; including them in a FIRC wouldn’t be difficult.

Of course, tablets and other in-cockpit gizmos are rapidly replacing paper. The eFIRC says little about this trend other than finger-wagging about backups for essential information. Including lessons and questions about best practices for using PEDs and aviation apps would make the FIRC more relevant—and engaging.

FIRCs always include a tedious review of logbook endorsements, emphasizing such areas as pre-solo and cross-country endorsements for student pilots. I’m sure FAA insists on this review because examiners continue to find problems with logbooks. But much of that issue could be addressed with simple checklists for both CFIs and their customers. Rote recall of regulatory subparagraphs contradicts the stated purpose of a FIRC—promoting higher-order learning and teaching.

Unfortunately, FIRCs seem never to address and clarify that perennial topic of confusion—logging PIC time versus acting as PIC. It’s clear from endless posts in aviation forums and hangar flying sessions that many instructors still give their students and customers incorrect information about how to log flight time. A review of the guidance about logging simulated flight time is also clearly needed.

Renewal Process

This part of the eFIRC is relatively painless, but it involves IACRA, the FAA’s online Integrated Airman Certification and Rating Application website.

You fill in the information for the virtual Form 8710 and upload a copy of your government-issued photo ID to AOPA. AOPA validates your info and confirms that you’ve passed the course. They send a certificate of completion via email which you can print and use until your new plastic CFI certificate arrives from Oklahoma City. At least the requirement for notarized identify checks is gone.

To its credit, AOPA has long pushed for FAA to change the CFI renewal process to resemble that of a flight review. It originally offered a proposal in September 1999. FAA denied the petition on procedural grounds, and AOPA resubmitted the request in 2000, but to no avail. The organization has recently renewed its push for this common-sense approach:

AOPA proposes that the FAA eliminate the flight instructor certificate “expiration date” and replace it with an “expiration of privileges” after 24 calendar months. Besides making it more convenient for flight instructors, this action will eliminate thousands of hours of FAA administration work each year.

Bruce Landsberg, president of the AOPA Foundation, which includes the AOPA Air Safety Institute, noted in an October 2013 blog post that AOPA is still pushing for this change, if only to save money as the FAA’s budget is squeezed in critical areas:

Stop the re-issuance of flight instructor certificates. I’ve been confused for decades as to why the FAA felt it necessary to reissue flight instructor certificates every two years. There is no quibble with the requirement for a biennial CFI refresher but we don’t need a new certificate. It should be handled like pilot currency. You may not act as a CFI if you haven’t attended a flight instructor refresher course (FIRC) or otherwise renewed your certificate, but we don’t need a new piece of plastic to verify that someone is current. A decade ago we estimated that thousands of hours of FAA time went in to this with no measurable benefit to safety. Time for a change?

Your Choice for a FIRC?

The AOPA eFIRC wasn’t quite as snazzy as the advertisements for the new and improved version suggest. But that’s advertising. It doesn’t revolutionize the FIRC (FAA’s requirements make that practically impossible), but it worked well overall, and if you need more than text to stay engaged, the eFIRC is a good choice.

It’s certainly better, and more economical, than traveling to an in-person, two-day seminar in a darkened hotel conference room. You can take the course when and where you want, and you can work through the lessons at your own pace. The new renewal process makes applying for a new CFI certificate as easy as it can be—no trip to a notary or FSDO required. All-in-all, it’s a good value.