The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) makes an unsubstantiated claim on its homepage that the agency provides “the safest, most efficient aerospace system in the world.” If this claim is true — which is questionable, given the agency’s irresponsible and reprehensible decision to authorize the use of the dangerous COVID-19 mRNA “vaccines” by pilots — the FAA’s safety record is certainly not the result of government regulations. Flight safety begins and ends with pilots, not bureaucrats.
I recently was forced into conducting a deep-dive analysis of FAR 61.129, which details the aeronautical experience required for a commercial pilot certificate. This regulation is by far one of, if not the most, absurd of all the Federal Aviation Regulations. To truly appreciate this, consider that a commercial pilot certificate is merely a prerequisite to allow a pilot to “carry persons or property for compensation or hire.” Earning a commercial pilot certificate does not, on its face, qualify you to give instruction, tow banners, or fly jets. To gain any sort of meaningful employment as a pilot, a commercial pilot must then earn additional certificates and ratings, and possibly log lots of additional flight time.
My recent analysis of 61.129 was prompted by the increasing number of our students who are seeking a commercial pilot certificate. Most of them eventually want to fly for the airlines, because they heard on the news that there is a pilot shortage, but a select few have indicated that they have a passion for general aviation and would like to make a career out of instructing, as Dana and I have done. Regardless, each of these students must meet the following aeronautical experience requirements outlined in 61.129:
For an airplane single-engine rating. Except as provided in paragraph (i) of this section, a person who applies for a commercial pilot certificate with an airplane category and single-engine class rating must log at least 250 hours of flight time as a pilot that consists of at least:
(1) 100 hours in powered aircraft, of which 50 hours must be in airplanes.
(2) 100 hours of pilot-in-command flight time, which includes at least –
(i) 50 hours in airplanes; and
(ii) 50 hours in cross-country flight of which at least 10 hours must be in airplanes.
(3) 20 hours of training on the areas of operation listed in § 61.127(b)(1) of this part that includes at least –
(i) Ten hours of instrument training using a view-limiting device including attitude instrument flying, partial panel skills, recovery from unusual flight attitudes, and intercepting and tracking navigational systems. Five hours of the 10 hours required on instrument training must be in a single engine airplane;
(ii) 10 hours of training in a complex airplane, a turbine-powered airplane, or a technically advanced airplane (TAA) that meets the requirements of paragraph (j) of this section, or any combination thereof. The airplane must be appropriate to land or sea for the rating sought;
(iii) One 2-hour cross country flight in a single engine airplane in daytime conditions that consists of a total straight-line distance of more than 100 nautical miles from the original point of departure;
(iv) One 2-hour cross country flight in a single engine airplane in nighttime conditions that consists of a total straight-line distance of more than 100 nautical miles from the original point of departure; and
(v) Three hours in a single-engine airplane with an authorized instructor in preparation for the practical test within the preceding 2 calendar months from the month of the test.
(4) Ten hours of solo flight time in a single engine airplane or 10 hours of flight time performing the duties of pilot in command in a single engine airplane with an authorized instructor on board (either of which may be credited towards the flight time requirement under paragraph (a)(2) of this section), on the areas of operation listed under § 61.127(b)(1) that include –
(i) One cross-country flight of not less than 300 nautical miles total distance, with landings at a minimum of three points, one of which is a straight-line distance of at least 250 nautical miles from the original departure point. However, if this requirement is being met in Hawaii, the longest segment need only have a straight-line distance of at least 150 nautical miles; and
(ii) 5 hours in night VFR conditions with 10 takeoffs and 10 landings (with each landing involving a flight in the traffic pattern) at an airport with an operating control tower.
First, let’s analyze the 20 hours of required training as detailed in section (3). While it’s possible to earn a commercial pilot certificate without first earning an instrument rating — say, for example, you have your heart set on being a crop duster, which is a day VFR job — most pilots wishing to carry passengers or property for hire would need to earn an instrument rating to satisfy the demands of their employers. You know, because weather happens, and those fare-paying passengers and expensive property onboard can’t wait for the ceiling and visibility to improve. I’d also like to see the FAA data on how the safety of a crop dusting operation is enhanced by forcing prospective pilots to log an additional 10 hours of instrument time using a view limiting device. A search of the NTSB aviation accident database for “aerial application” operations revealed 4,537 crop dusting accidents over the last 40 years — that’s more than 100 crashes per year. When the search criteria, “basic weather condition” is “IMC” is applied, only 33 results appear.
The 10 hours of complex or TAA time required for the commercial is redundant and misguided, because the authority to act as pilot in command of a complex airplane is already addressed in 61.31(e), which does not specify any time requirement. If an employer wants to hire a commercial pilot to fly a complex airplane, it’s likely the employer’s insurance company will require the pilot to have at least 25 hours in make and model. I’d also like to know why the FAA doesn’t require commercial applicants to also log at least 10 hours in a high-performance airplane, which would make more sense since mishandling a fast, powerful aircraft is more likely to kill you than forgetting to put the gear down. I wonder what these two Learjet pilots would have to say about this requirement, if they were alive to talk about it.
Why require the 2-hour day and night cross country flights with an instructor? Talk about beating a dead horse. A private pilot must complete 5 hours of solo cross country flight time, plus an additional 3 hours of night flying with an instructor that includes a cross country. If that pilot has somehow forgotten how to complete a VFR cross country flight by the time he applies for a commercial pilot certificate, wouldn’t it make more sense to include a real world evaluation of the applicant’s cross-country flying abilities during the commercial pilot practical test? More on that in a minute. Also, while this requirement does not expressly state that these 2-hour, dual cross country flights must be conducted under VFR, it is loosely implied by the fact that the instrument training required by this same part must be conducted using a view limiting device, further implying this training cannot be conducted in actual IMC, under IFR. Makes one wonder, then, why most Part 135 and all Part 121 flights are conducted under IFR?
The flight time required in section (4) is a real head scratcher. The applicant must log “ten hours of solo flight time in a single engine airplane or 10 hours of flight time performing the duties of pilot in command in a single engine airplane with an authorized instructor on board.” Think about that for a minute. If the FAA wants the applicant to prove he or she can fly solo for another 10 hours (remember the 10 hours already logged as a student pilot), why is it alternatively acceptable to log those additional 10 hours with an instructor onboard who is just sitting there, pretending not to instruct? This requirement makes absolutely no sense and is just plain stupid. It would be a much more realistic scenario to require the applicant to log 10 hours of flight time with a screaming 5-year-old in the back seat, or a nervous non-pilot passenger in the right seat, then to make them fly solo or with a glorified safety-pilot-babysitter. The CFI loophole smells like a concession by the FAA to big-box flight schools who don’t have enough confidence in their own, poorly trained protegees to act as pilot in command. I don’t know about you, but if I were not a pilot, I’d want my pilot to have enough skill and sense to get the job done all by himself.
The other thing that’s odd about the section (4) requirement is the wording. Some genius with a master’s degree in something or other either intentionally or inadvertently used the word “or” in the wrong location in that sentence, forcing applicants to choose to fly all 10 hours solo, or all 10 hours with a babysitter. It’s so weird the FAA published a legal interpretation to clarify.
Finally, before we get to the circus side show that is the the commercial pilot practical test, there is the requirement to log 5 hours of night flight including 10 takeoffs and landings at an airport with an operating control tower. This is also to be done solo or with a babysitter. Recall that the authority to act as pilot in command at night is already addressed in FAR 61.57, Recent flight experience: Pilot in command.
The most recent update of the Commercial Pilot Airman Certification Standards was published on June 6, 2019. This document outlines the rules of engagement for the conduct and execution of the commercial pilot practical test. It is basically a redux of the Private Pilot Airman Certification Standards with a few dog and pony tricks added to the mix, including chandelles, lazy eights, and eights on pylons. None of the aforementioned maneuvers has any practical value whatsoever for the average commercial pilot whose job is, by definition, to transport people or property for compensation or hire. Now if you’re applying for a job that requires aggressive maneuvering — for example, an air show performer or a military fighter pilot — then maybe you might need to learn these tricks and more. But I challenge the FAA to provide one example of how a working knowledge of any of these maneuvers helped any pilot avert a commercial air disaster over the last 80 years.
The cross country navigation exercise on the commercial pilot checkride is redundant and out of touch with reality. The stated objective of the exercise is “to determine that the applicant exhibits satisfactory knowledge, risk management, and skills associated with pilotage and dead reckoning.” That means flying an airplane from one airport to another in VFR conditions without the use of a GPS or any navigational aids of any kind except for a chart — which is most often an electronic one, because you know, it’s almost 2023 and nobody uses paper charts anymore. Similar to the “let’s pretend the CFI isn’t instructing” nonsense, on the commercial (or private) checkride, the applicant has to turn location services off on his or her iPad or iPhone so that only the chart is visible. Yet, the FAA has mandated that nearly all aircraft flying nearly everywhere in the United States are equipped with GPS and a widget known as ADS-B so that they can know exactly where we are at all times. You know, for our benefit, not theirs. Right. But nevermind that, because as a commercial pilot you need to demonstrate that you are capable of flying passengers in your multi-million dollar turboprop or jet from New York to Los Angeles the way Charles Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic. Right.
It’s pointless to try to make sense of or justify nearly any government regulation, so I’m not going to waste another minute on it. My advice to any pilot seeking a commercial pilot certificate is to try to have fun with it, and spend your 250 hours of flight time really learning how to be pilot in command. Complete an Advanced Qualification Program flight review with an experienced instructor. Learn how a wing really flies. Learn how engines really work. Become an obsessive student of the weather. Find the courage to fly all by yourself. Work that airplane like your life depends on it, because it does. At the end of the day, the FAA doesn’t have your back — only you do.