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Private to Professional Pilot: Recurrent Training

It is important to maintain pilot proficiency in all phases of flying.

The Boeing 737 MAX 8 features a slightly redesigned flight deck compared to past 737 variants (Photo: William Derrickson)

My brother asked me a while back how airline pilots can be safe and proficient in emergencies. His idea was that, considering how safe commercial aviation is, pilots’ ability to enact emergency procedures will atrophy, making emergencies that much riskier for everyone involved.

Luckily, the FAA has already thought of this. Aviation professionals and enthusiasts alike are aware of the concept of “recurrent training,” when crewmembers are sent to the simulators every 6 months to practice emergencies and make sure their abilities are still sharp.

Airline Recurrent Training

What non-pilots and non-crew-managers might not realize is that this recurrent training is regulatory. 14 CFR 121.427 outlines the requirements for regular pilot retraining in the air carrier world. The very first paragraph outlines that this training “must ensure that each crewmember or aircraft dispatcher is adequately trained and currently proficient with respect to the type airplane and crewmember position involved.”

The regulation also outlined the required components of this recurrent training. Some critical elements include a quiz or review to determine the crewmember’s knowledge in relation to the airplane and position involved; crew resource management training; a minimum amount of simulator training; and additional recurrent ground training for pilots serving as pilot in command of an aircraft.

The regulation also outlines the specific minimum training that the aforementioned training items must include. This must include information on the differences between each aircraft type a pilot flies if they presently fly more than one aircraft for the carrier.

The Flight Review Requirement

General aviation has a similar requirement, known as a “flight review.” 14 CFR 61.56 dictates that a flight review, which must be completed no less than every 24 calendar months, must include at least 1 hour of ground instruction and 1 hour of flight instruction from an authorized flight instructor.

However, the rules for what a flight review are a bit more vague. The flight review must include “a review of the current general operating and flight rules of part 91 of the federal aviation regulations” and “a review of those maneuvers and procedures that, at the discretion of the person giving the review, are necessary for the pilot to demonstrate the safe exercise of the privileges of the pilot certificate.”

This means that the basic requirement for pilots who do not fly professionally for a major air carrier are vague and infrequent. Simply following what the FAA outlines might leave a pilot unprepared for critical mid-flight possibilities, not to mention that the procedures the pilot practices are, in some sense, at the mercy of the instructor giving the proficiency check. Some items may be routinely left out, leaving their practice even more absent than it is in a recreational pilot’s limited flying experience.

For the record, this is not to imply that non-professional pilots are underprepared or undertrained across the board, nor that flight instructors are constantly failing to provide high-quality instruction. On the contrary, American flight instructors are some of the best trained in the world, and they too are required to go through regular recurrent training to keep their flight instructor qualifications from expiring.

Gaps in the Mandated Flight Review

However, compared to the regulations for air carriers, general aviation pilots see gaps between the type of flying they do (and therefore the types of situations they must be proficient in and prepared for) and what they are required to regularly practice, at least on paper.

This gap is surely in large part due to the wide variety of experiences that general aviation pilots have. Some are regulars in the skies, whether that be because they are training to pursue professional flight, they fly for business, or they have the time and means to fly regularly. Meanwhile, some pilots fly more sparingly, might rarely fly alone, and tend not to leave the local area where they are based.

Admittedly, it is difficult to mandate specific minimum required training for people who, relatively speaking, don’t fly all that often. After all, airline pilots fly much bigger, faster, heavier jets that are more complex and require incredibly quick thinking. It makes logical sense that those pilots require more recurrent training, and more specific types of recurrent training, than a pilot who takes a flying club’s Cessna 150 for an hour-local flight once a month.

Cirrus SR-20 aircraft at the United Aviate Academy (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Ryan Ewing)

Growing WINGS

The question becomes, then, how private pilots themselves can learn from professional regulations to make their own flying safer. Maybe a full flight review every 6 months isn’t the most practical thing in the world. There must, then, be other ways to maintain high levels of proficiency so a pilot can be prepared for any situation that comes their way.

A major resource a pilot can utilize is none other than the FAA WINGS program. The WINGS program is a computer-based program that allows pilots to receive training on a wide variety of topics from the comfort of their own home. Whether it be on an area of operation they’re already familiar with, such as emergency descents in single-engine airplanes, or a new topic to expand their knowledge, such as high-performance operations, the WINGS program is one of the lowest-effort ways for a pilot to maintain their proficiency without needing to pay a flight instructor or go all the way to the airport for a flight review.

Many pilots have likely already heard of the WINGS program. It is commonly mentioned in private pilot training as a resource that can be used for credit towards an FAA flight review, and many pilots use it just for that purpose. But it is also a tremendous resource for refresher training in between flight reviews. The wide variety of topics allows pilots to delve into aeronautical knowledge topics they may not have accessed in some time, thus, brushing them up on critical knowledge essential to being a safe pilot.

WINGS training has even in the past been accepted as appropriate remedial action after a pilot deviation to such an extent that pilots have avoided certificate action because they were proactive about completing training through WINGS to address their deviation. WINGS isn’t just some resource, it’s one of the best programs pilots can use to maintain their proficiency, and the FAA widely accepts it as a top-tier training program.

So, you’ve done your WINGS training. But that might not bring your stick-and-rudder skills to standards after some time out of the cockpit. While a flight review might not be needed or practical more than every 2 years, that does not, and should not, preclude a pilot from seeking occasional training with a CFI.

This WINGS training, in some sense, completes the high-level training that airline pilots go through on a regular basis. Of course the type of training in both instances isn’t a perfect one-to-one match, but the idea remains: pilots are their safest when they receive continual in-depth training in the types of flying that are most applicable to them. Just like recurrent training does that for airline pilots – practicing critical procedures on the aircraft they fly day in and day out – the WINGS training can provide private pilots with one of the best training programs they can have access to.

Get a Semi-Flight Review

In order to make that occasional training more efficient, pilots might consider coming in to a lesson with a couple tasks to practice to ensure their proficiency. Someone who has been lucky to have months of smooth flying might practice an emergency procedure or two as well as some crosswind landings. Someone who feels secure in their skills might consider receiving training in a more advanced aircraft, such as a complex or high-performance aircraft.

The whole point of this exercise is to keep the most critical flying skills sharp. Just like professional pilots are tested on critical emergency procedures during recurrent training, a private pilot can receive training in similar emergencies or in aircraft that are faster and more complex, where they might be reminded of the importance of procedures, planning, and smooth control inputs in a plane where more is happening a little faster than they are used to.

All of this training – airline pilots doing emergencies in the sim and GA pilots flying new aircraft – primarily serves to keep pilots from getting complacent. Instead of just falling into a routine over years and years of the same type of flying in the same airplane, pilots must be challenged and put in new situations to make sure they continue to use, apply, and grow their aeronautical knowledge to be the safest pilot possible.

Train With the Top Guys

Private pilots can also consider flying with a senior pilot, instructor, or examiner. A chief pilot who has been teaching pilots for years have incredible perspectives to offer and knowledge and skills to impart on every pilot. They have also had plenty of experience fine-tuning their explanations of difficult tasks that tend to stump pilots, so if you find yourself in a roadblock on a particular maneuver or procedure, spending time with a senior pilot may help you gain insights that improve you knowledge, your skills, and your experience as a pilot.

This is a practice similar to airline pilots flying with senior check airmen, an occasional practice used to further their training in real-world situations outside of the simulator. A private pilot could even consider flying a cross-country with a senior pilot or instructor to have someone to help fine-tune their standard day-to-day flying to a higher degree, once again helping to combat complacency at all points in flying.

How About Another Checkride?

A pilot could even consider pursuing a new certificate or add an additional rating to their existing certificate to gain more experience and proficiency. Even if they have no aspirations of flying professionally, getting a commercial pilot certificate challenges a private pilot not only to make their own flying more precise (thanks to the more precise certification standards at the commercial pilot level), but it also invites them to train new maneuvers that expand their abilities to apply basic airmanship skills to their flying.

There is high value, for example, in not only knowing how to fly an emergency approach to a landing in a field but also in demonstrating your proficiency at doing so during a power off 180 accuracy approach. The same can be then said for making a power-off steep spiral from 5,000’ to join an airport traffic pattern and use precise control and judgment to glide to a power-off landing on a specific spot on that runway.

The view out the front of our Tailwind Air Cessna 208B. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Katie Bailey)

The same thing can be said about getting an instrument rating. A pilot may never plan to step foot in IMC conditions – heck their airplane of choice might not even be IFR capable – but doing instrument training teaches a pilot a completely different type of flying that demands a unique type of precision and control that is not practiced in private pilot training. (As a sidenote, you don’t even receive instrument instruction during private pilot training…it’s a tricky distinction, but you receive “training on aircraft control by reference to the flight instruments;” on paper, the FAA considers “instrument training” a whole nother beast.)

By training for that new certification, the private pilot has performed a new level of “recurrent training” that challenges them to think outside the bounds of the certification they already have. They learn to think more critically, fly more smoothly, and use more options when they encounter an emergency situation. They get experience in a wider array of situations that can guide them through the flying they do at home.

Nobody is Exempt from Safety

I’ve been referring to non-professional pilots as “private” pilots a lot throughout this article so far, but make no mistake: this type of GA “recurrent training” must not be limited to private pilots. Commercial pilots and CFIs who primarily fly small piston planes can benefit equally from this type of recurrent training. If anything, as role models in the aviation community, they should be expected to take their training one step further, even if they don’t exercise the privileges of a commercial pilot or flight instructor.

Just like airline captains have a special air about them even when they’re out of the flight deck, a pilot with the words “commercial pilot” on their certificate have an incredible incentive to maintain a high level of proficiency and professionalism to set a high standard of safety and proficiency for all around them.

What can a CFI do to think outside the box and maintain proficiency? Every instructor knows that there are certain ways they must renew their flight instructor certification every two years, but if you sign off enough students for checkrides and they do well enough on those tests, CFIs aren’t required to do any recurrent training outside of the standard flight review to act as PIC.

CFIs can work recurrent training into their regimen by doing a flight instructor refresher course every two years when their certificate comes up for renewal, even if they satisfy another renewal requirement. They can also – and I know I might not make friends by saying this – go and take a checkride every two years. Consider doing a checkride to instruct another category or class of aircraft.

And before you ask how you’ll get a CFI add-on without the additional category and class: use a checkride to add the new category and class to your pilot certificate to satisfy your flight review one year, then take the CFI checkride in that category or class the next year to renew your instructor certificate.

Proficiency is Always Important

All this to say: safety is more important in an airplane at 5,000’ and 120 miles per hour than in most other situations in a pilot’s life. Whether someone regularly flies at a mach number in the flight levels or fights to achieve 100 knots at the lowest VFR cruising altitude, maintaining proficiency and skill is the best thing a pilot can do to keep themselves, their passengers, and bypassers on the ground as safe as possible.

While more thorough recurrent training might not eliminate all GA accidents, it will give GA pilots a constant method by which to keep themselves safe, proficient, and current; it might even inspire them to pursue training in a higher certification or explore a new area of flying they haven’t considered before.

When one pilot is safer and more proficient, the American skies are safer for everyone. Building high-level recurrent training into your schedule will ensure smoother flying and safer travels for you and those around you…and you might just be able to impress a friend or two with the latest add-on to your pilot certificate.

Editor’s Note: Welcome back to the Private to Professional series. Each week, we will take time to break down a new regulation written for professional pilots in Part 121 and Part 135 flying, and we will consider different ways to apply those regulations to general aviation. Some regulations have straightforward applications to general aviation, but there is usually more that meets the eye. Thus, we will take time to explore a wide variety of ways general aviation pilots can apply even simple things, like minimum rest requirements, to their own flying. Check back in next week for the next installment of the series.

John McDermott


  • John McDermott

    John McDermott is a student at Northwestern University. He is also a student pilot with hopes of flying for the airlines. A self-proclaimed "avgeek," John will rave about aviation at length to whoever will listen, and he is keen to call out any airplane he sees, whether or not anyone around him cares about flying at all. John previously worked as a Journalist and Editor-In-Chief at Aeronautics Online Aviation News and Media. In his spare time, John enjoys running, photography, and watching planes approach Chicago O'Hare from over Lake Michigan.

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