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.
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.
How to Say No: Moral Maturity (1951)
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).
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.
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
- IFR Insights: Cockpit Weather
- Public Benefit Flying: Balancing Safety and Compassion
- Mountain Flying
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
- 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.
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.