Thinking for Two Managing Instructional Risk

by Susan Parson, FAA Safety Briefing

In the final scenes of Casablanca, Rick Blaine tells Ilsa Lund that he has been doing the thinking for both of them. As he urges her to get on the plane to Lisbon, he promises that “someday you’ll understand.”

Flight instruction can be like that. In fact, I have sometimes thought that flight instruction is akin to compressed parenting. The instructor starts with complete responsibility for the very survival of another human being. The task is to transfer the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary for the helpless human to understand, think independently, and make sound choices to navigate the complexities the real world serves up every day.

The instructor’s task is to transfer the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary for the helpless human to understand, think independently, and make sound choices to navigate the complexities the real world serves up every day.

The nature of that task makes flight instruction a risky business. There’s always a lot going on, both inside and outside the aircraft. Since you, as the instructor, are the pilot in command, you have to do the thinking for both the trainee and yourself. Flight instruction inherently involves multitasking, so your attention is constantly shifting. There are lots of ways to get hurt if you are not paying attention to the right thing at the right time. The long-term stakes are high as well, since the things you teach will affect how the trainee flies in the future, both solo and with passengers on board.

Given those challenges, it’s not surprising that instructional flights were the second largest category of non-commercial fixed wing accidents in the AOPA Air Safety Institute’s most recent Joseph T. Nall Report (analyzing 2014 data). While the Nall report notes that instructional accidents “continue to be among the most survivable in both airplanes and helicopters,” there were still 17 fatal accidents with 32 fatalities in the non-commercial fixed wing category. An instructor was on board in 219 accidents, which is almost 23 percent of the total.

We can — and we must — do better.

Expanding the Toolbox

Since 2011, the FAA has been working with aviation training community experts to develop the Airman Certification Standards (ACS) format to replace the Practical Test Standards (PTS). As you have probably read, the ACS is an enhanced version of the PTS, because it adds task-specific knowledge and risk management elements to the skill task elements in each PTS Area of Operation and Task. The ACS thus becomes the single-source set of standards for both the knowledge (“written”) exam and the practical test.

In June 2016, the FAA replaced the PTS for the private pilot-airplane certificate and the instrument-airplane rating with the corresponding ACS. In June 2017, we revised the ACS for the private pilot-airplane certificate and the instrument rating, and replaced the commercial pilot-airplane PTS with the first ACS for this certificate level. By the time you read this article, the June 2018 editions of these documents will be in effect, and the team is continuing to develop the initial ACS for the Aircraft Mechanic certificate with Airframe and Powerplant ratings, the private pilot-helicopter certificate, the Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) certificate and — drum roll, please — the Instructor certificate.

To develop this document, the FAA rounded up an extraordinarily talented group of experts from the aviation training community. Those involved in the Instructor ACS are active flight instructors, and quite a few are also very experienced Designated Pilot Examiners (DPEs). Given the importance of the instructor’s role, the FAA/community members of the ACS team have devoted immense time and effort to getting it right. As of this writing, the team has just conducted initial “tabletop” workshops in Orlando and Scottsdale, in which we received feedback and suggestions from FAA aviation safety inspectors (ASIs) and DPEs authorized to administer the practical test for initial flight instructor applicants. It will take some time to incorporate (and validate) those improvements, but the draft ACS for the instructor certificate is now stable enough for me to offer a preview of its key features.

Format and Structure

Like other ACS documents, the Instructor ACS includes sections that define the acceptable standards for knowledge, risk management, and skills in the aeronautical proficiency tasks unique to a particular instructor certificate or rating. But there is a difference. The Instructor ACS is not a stand-alone document. Rather, it is to be used in conjunction with the appropriate “foundational” ACS for which the instructor-applicant seeks to provide instruction.

Because the Fundamentals of Instructing (FOI) Area of Operation is critical to each particular instructor certificate or rating, FOI Tasks are incorporated as a stand-alone Area of Operation at the beginning of the instructor ACS. To keep the emphasis on practical application of FOI concepts — not rote memorization — the team also intends to tie other Areas of Operation back to the FOI section wherever it is appropriate to do so.


The instructor ACS correctly places a lot of emphasis on “instructional knowledge.” That means that the instructor-applicant should effectively present the what, how, and why involved with the knowledge, risk management, and skill task elements. The concept of instructional knowledge also includes the ability to demonstrate and simultaneously explain the skills associated with each task from an instructional standpoint. Where appropriate, it also includes the ability to describe, analyze, and correct common errors associated with tasks in the “foundational” private and/or commercial ACS documents. The instructor-applicant will be required to demonstrate instructional competence in the elements associated with each task, regardless of whether that task is unique to the instructor ACS or incorporated by reference from the foundational ACS.

Risk Management

As discussed already, risk management is a critical component to aviation safety. The instructor is involved with risk management on multiple levels. The draft instructor ACS thus addresses not only teaching the risk management elements in the foundational ACS, but also managing the risk of a particular phase of flight or maneuver.

The Safety of Flight appendix (Appendix 6) in the instructor ACS outlines the scope of risk management that an instructor-applicant will need to demonstrate. In addition, the FOI section includes an Aeronautical Decision Making and Risk Management task that focuses on teaching risk management, and on highlighting those risks a flight instructor may encounter while providing in-flight instruction.


The skill task standards expect the instructor-applicant to fly maneuvers to commercial pilot standards. However, the skill task elements emphasize the instructional nature of the exercise.

To stay up to date on the status of this and other ACS documents, bookmark the webpage shown below or, better yet, subscribe.

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Susan Parson (susan.parson@faa.gov, or @avi8rix for Twitter fans) is editor of FAA Safety Briefing. She is an active general aviation pilot and flight instructor.

This article was originally published in the July/August 2018 issue of FAA Safety Briefing magazine.
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FAA Safety Team


Screenshots of “Casablanca” by Warner Bros.

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