The Devil is in the Details: Flight Review Documentation

Every 24 calendar months FAA-certificated pilots are required to complete a flight review, or satisfy the FAA currency requirements through another method, such as earning a new certificate/ rating or completing a phase of the FAA WINGS program. The concept makes sense because a pilot certificate is a document for life. Unless it is revoked, the certificate belongs to the recipient forever.

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Can you image if a pilot earned a pilot certificate in 1970 and was still exercising the privileges of that certificate today without having completed additional training along the way? Think about all of the changes that have happened over the years. Some big changes have occurred during the forty-seven years since 1970, as an example, the entire airspace system is different!

A loose parallel is the driver’s license. Think about all of the people out there that pass the initial test for a driver’s license and then drive and operate motor vehicles for 10, 20, 40 years and more in many cases. Sure, the meaning of a red light and a stop sign are pretty simple and not often lost over time. But what about the difference between a sign with a yellow background and a white background? Or, what about when a directional signal is required? Granted, where I come from they are known as “blinkahs” and no one uses them anyways, but you get my point…

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MassDOT encourages drivers in Boston to use their “blinkah!” Photo: The Boston Globe

While changes to traffic rules do occur, these are often far less impactful than changes to aviation safety related items and flying regulations. During a recent driving vacation from Florida to Georgia I noticed an electronic sign over the highway that displayed a message to drivers. The content of the sign that day was related to a new law in Georgia that if an emergency vehicle has their lights on, drivers must move over one lane. While this is an easy way to get messages out to drivers about new rules, there is no parallel for pilots. We don’t have electronic signs up in the air, instead we have local airport bulletin boards which often are tucked away and go unchecked by the majority of pilots. Thus, it is easy to see why pilot flight reviews are necessary and valuable for the safety of all! The flight review is the equivalent (in a way) to the electronic sign, a way that the FAA can get messages to pilots, on a regular basis.

The flight review is a pretty simple concept when you stop to think about it… The flight review, all-to-commonly, incorrectly, referred to as the “biennial flight review,” is a training event or learning activity. A flight review is not a test, rather it is demonstration of knowledge, skills and ability within the framework of the training environment. The concept works well, flight instructors can teach and coach while pointing pilots in the right direction and ensuring the pilots are aptly prepared to continue flying in a safe manner.

The FAA lays out the minimum requirements for the flight review in 14 CFR § 61.56, titled, “Flight review,” which begins:

(a) Except as provided in paragraphs (b) and (f) of this section, a flight review consists of a minimum of 1 hour of flight training and 1 hour of ground training. The review must include: 

(1) A review of the current general operating and flight rules of part 91 of this chapter; and 

(2) 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.

The flight review must be at least a minimum of one hour of flight training and one hour of ground training. Both portions are required, however the FAA does allow some substitutions, such as if the pilot who is completing the flight review is also a flight instructor and has renewed their flight instructor certificate within the preceding 24 calendar months, this renewal can be used in lieu of the ground portion of the flight review. Regardless, it is important to remember these are minimum requirements.

At the conclusion of a complete flight review activity, the flight instructor will sign the pilot’s logbook and the pilot is now “good to go” for another two years of exercising the privileges of their pilot certificate. Often that is the extent of the flight review, however there are some details worth paying attention to!

The detail issues I’m referring to aren’t related to the issue of the “good ole boys” slick stories we’ve all heard either. I can remember a friend of mine, a young flight instructor at the time, telling me that an older pilot that owned his own airplane offered my friend a good amount of cash to just “sign his logbook” so they both wouldn’t have to worry about wasting time. Stories like this are becoming less common and that’s a good thing as we look to improve the safety of the entire general aviation community. I’m sure you’ll be happy to hear that my friend turned down the aging aircraft owner’s offer too.

Now let’s get back to what is required for a flight review to be considered completed. In order for the flight review to be completed, the activity must be properly documented. This includes three components:

  1. Documentation of the flight portion of the flight review, which must be a minimum of one hour of flight time.
  2. Documentation of the ground portion of the flight review, which must also be a minimum of one hour of instruction time.
  3. The flight review endorsement, formatted as recommended by the FAA in Advisory Circular 61-65G.

We’re really going to take a deep look at each piece, including #2, which is often overlooked.

The flight portion of the flight review must be a minimum of one hour of flight time. What is included during the one hour is at the discretion of the flight instructor and any instructor worth their salt will tailor the training activity to the individual pilot. A flight review can be “canned” in that a flight instructor could use a similar format for their flight reviews but the contents of the flight plan should vary based on the pilot. The FAA offers an insightful document on their website titled, “Conducting an Effective Flight Review.” In the document the FAA describes tailoring flight reviews to the specific pilot. You can access the insightful document from the FAA website HERE.

While planning a flight review I will often reach out to the pilot to learn a little more about them and their flying if I am not already familiar. I almost always ask what the pilot enjoys doing in their flying and also what they don’t do very much during their normal flying. Particularly, is there anything the pilot does not enjoy or that scares them? I explain that it is okay to admit to me what makes the pilot uncomfortable as a flight review is a great opportunity to overcome or begin the process to overcome uneasiness. With the input from this type of conversation I will format a training activity to meet my duty as an instructor to ensure the pilot is safe and knowledgeable while also providing a fun flight training experience and a valuable opportunity for the pilot to leverage me as an instructor to overcome any challenges with fear they may have.

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A completed flight review is more than an hour of flight, hour of ground and an endorsement in the logbook…

Following the flight a simple logbook entry of the flight is required, as with any other flight that is required for the issuance of a certificate or to prove proficiency, which a flight review flight certainly does. The logbook comments for the flight do not need to include a complete list of all of the maneuvers completed, however the time of an hour or more must be shown and the flight must be marked as a successful flight review.

I prefer starting the comments for the flight with, “Flight Review Completed Satisfactorily.” This phrase is then followed with a list of the maneuvers completed, or as many as will fit, if space is limited I typically prioritize with special emphasis areas and items such as stalls with recoveries and I try to fit as much into the box as possible, occasionally, I spill into another line. Often times if there was a particular maneuver or flight condition that we focused on during the flight because the pilot expressed uneasiness during our preflight planning, I will be sure to include that item in the limited space available.

Now that that flight portion is out of the way, let’s look at the ground portion. For the record, I often complete the ground portion prior to the flight portion unless weather forecasts or scheduling dictates otherwise. I feel that the majority of pilots would rather get the ground portion over with first and then get on to the flying. The last thing I want while providing a flight review is a pilot being concerned about the “big, bad” ground inquisition and thus less focused during the flying portion. However, if the weather is going to turn south and we can get the flight portion out of the way, I will take the opportunity to “knock it out.”

Similar to the flight portion of the flight review I try to tailor the ground portion of the flight review to the individual pilot. Regardless of the applicant we will spend time on special emphasis areas, regulations, aeromedical factors and other hot topics, especially Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFRs). Again, the ground portion is a training event and learning opportunity, not an examination. A good flight review ground session will provide a productive learning opportunity for the pilot, while building their confidence.

Just as with the flight portion, the ground portion of the flight review must also be recorded in the pilot’s logbook. This is the component that many pilots and instructors miss. As a result, I believe this is a cause for many pilots exercising the privileges of their pilot certificates inappropriately without the proper documentation. The FAA specifically mentions the required items to be recorded to fully document a successful and complete flight view in Advisory Circular 61-98C, section 4-4, b., titled, “Satisfactory completion of the Flight Review.” The section reads as follows:

When the applicant has successfully completed the review, the CFI should endorse the pilot’s logbook to certify that the pilot has satisfactorily accomplished the flight review. The CFI should make the endorsement for a satisfactory review in accordance with AC 61-65. The flight and ground time must also be logged in the pilot’s logbook in accordance with § 61.51(a)(1).

While it is common for pilots to say, “Advisory Circulars aren’t mandatory.” In this case, the advisory circular is providing clarification and additional information with a pointer to the call out often overlooked in the regulations. The document specifically mentions that the flight and ground portions of the review must be documented in addition to the overall endorsement, the Advisory Circular also cites 14 CFR § 61.51(a)(1) Pilot logbooks, which specifically mentions:

(a) Training time and aeronautical experience. Each person must document and record the following time in a manner acceptable to the Administrator: 

(1) Training and aeronautical experience used to meet the requirements for a certificate, rating, or flight review of this part.

In black and white, the FAA clearly spells out that for a flight review to be properly documented there must be a recording in the pilot’s logbook of the ground training time in addition to the flight time. Looking back to 14 CFR § 61.56 Flight review, which I quoted earlier, one hour of flight training and one hour of ground training is required during the flight review activity. Therefore, the “training,” mentioned in 14 CFR § 61.51(a)(1) also includes the recording of the ground training time from the flight review.

In most cases I will enter the ground portion of the flight review in the ground training section of the pilot’s logbook. At the pilot’s request, I have entered this into the comments section of their logbook alongside the flight portion of the flight review as well. Alternatively, the ground training could be logged in a separate training log, as opposed to the pilot’s logbook. The time has to be recorded and the pilot may need to use the recording of the training to demonstrate proficiency, so it makes sense to keep the training log for the ground training in the pilot’s logbook, but that is not specified as a requirement by the FAA.

If you’re still not convinced that the ground portion of a flight review must be documented there is one more reference. 14 CFR § 61.189(a), titled, “Flight instructor records,” which reads:

(a) A flight instructor must sign the logbook of each person to whom that instructor has given flight training or ground training.

Again, as you can see the FAA specifically requires any flight instructor who provides flight or ground training to sign the logbook of the pilot that received that training. Sure, this could be done with one signature mentioning both the flight and ground training, or separately. But either way, the ground training associated with a flight review must be appropriately documented in the pilot’s logbook.

The documentation (or logbook entry) of the ground training should include the date, duration of the ground training lesson (at least one hour) and a comment to show the flight review was completed successfully. For consistency sake, I prefer to record the date, lesson time and then start the description with the familiar phrase, “Flight Review Completed Satisfactorily,” followed by a list of the items discussed during the training activity.

As you can likely imagine, the limiting factor for how many items are listed in the comments for the flight and ground portions is often dictated by the space available. The important component is that the phraseology indicating that the flight review was completed satisfactorily or successfully is present.

The final component of the flight review activity documentation is the flight review endorsement. The FAA provides Advisory Circular 61-65G specifically to show how endorsements should be formatted and when they should be used. Interestingly, the FAA just recently published an update to the 61-65x Advisory Circular during the time I have been working on the development of this pieve. On August, 25, 2017 the FAA released Advisory Circular 61-65G, cancelling AC 61-65F, which had been published in 2016 as an update to the long-standing AC 61-65E. You can access a copy of the current advisory circular on endorsements from the FAA, AC 61-65G HERE.

I prefer to hand write the endorsement. Some instructors will use preformatted endorsements in the back of pilot’s logbooks however the phraseology may have changed since the pilot purchased their logbook and if the FAA provides the language for us, why wouldn’t we use it? Note: That’s a trick question, if the FAA tells us how to do something, we do it that way.

The endorsement as shown in Advisory 61-51G for the successful completion of a flight review reads:

I certify that [First name, MI, Last name], [grade of pilot certificate], [certificate number], has satisfactorily completed a flight review of § 61.56(a) on [date].

/s/ [date] J. J. Jones 987654321CFI Exp. 12-31-19

There you have it, the proper documentation to illustrate the completion of a successful flight review. So, does every pilot out there exercising the privileges of their pilot certificate have each of the three portions of the full documentation in their logbook? My guess is no.

I’d hazard to guess there is a large number of pilots out their flying around safely without the proper documentation of a recent flight review in their logbook. I’m not saying that many of these pilots are out their flying around completely ignoring the FAA-required flight review. Rather, I believe a lot of pilots do not have the proper, complete documentation illustrating the successful completion of a flight review, in their possession, even though they have completed the requirements of the flight review aside from having received the proper documentation.

Who is responsible for this? The pilots? The instructors? The FAA?

I’d contend that this is a weak spot in the system, and I’m going to show you why I believe this is the case…

I feel confident saying that almost all pilots know they are required to complete a flight review every 24 calendar months. Of course, there are other options for pilots such as completing a phase of the FAA WINGS program or earning a new certificate/rating that will satisfy the requirements of the flight review.

Just because pilots know they must complete a flight review doesn’t mean they know how the flight instructor needs to document that activity in their logbook. To illustrate my point, I’ll direct you to the FAA’s new Private Pilot Airmen Certification Standards (ACS) which during 2016 replaced the Practical Test Standards (PTS). This was seen as a significant improvement in flight training, but that’s a topic for another day. Check out the Private Pilot Airplane ACS, page 3. In the Preflight Preparation section, you will find “Task A. Pilot Qualifications.” Within this are knowledge areas “PA.I.A.K1” described as “Certification requirements, currency, and record keeping,” and “PA.I.A.K4” described as “Documents required to exercise private pilot privileges.”

In relation to record keeping, endorsements are a significant point of conversation during each private pilot checkride. The pilot certificate applicant should know which endorsements they hold and when they are required. Typically, examiners touch on the flight review requirements as well, however, based on the pilots I’ve interviewed about their checkrides this conversation often doesn’t drill down too far beyond the flight review requirements of one hour flight, one hour ground, every 24 calendar months.

Let’s say this isn’t the case, and that all examiners hammer down and inquire about all three components necessary to document a flight review. This information will likely be lost due to the concept of disuse (flight instructors reading this should have flash backs to their Fundamentals of Instruction (FOI) training). These new pilots learn about the three portions of the flight review documentation, they answer a question or two about it during their checkride, then 24 calendar months passes. The pilot then completes their first flight review and at that point the pilot is supposed to birddog the flight instructor to ensure the documentation is completed correctly? This isn’t very practical…

The responsibility of properly documenting a flight review activity is shared, but it rests mainly on the shoulders of the competent flight instructor. While the pilot should know what is required in their logbook, I believe I’ve illustrated how this can be difficult to for us as an aviation community to expect. Thus, it is incumbent on the flight instructor to properly document the training that they provide, including for flight reviews administered. However, it is my belief that a larger percentage of flight instructors regularly “miss” on properly documenting flight reviews than many of us might suspect…

For the pilots out there, I recommend knowing what is required to properly document your currency, including the three portions of a properly documented flight review. Go back and check your most recent flight review and ensure it is properly documented. If you find something is missing, reach out to the instructor and ask them to correct the documentation.

For the instructors, make sure you are properly documenting training activities, often times the student or pilot you are working with will not know what is required to be logged, this is why we are needed as flight instructors, to continue our own learning, continue teaching and continue motivating our students!

-Fly Safe, @MTElia1B9

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