Saturday, May 02, 2009

Safety at Flight Schools

Recently, someone who read this blog wanted more details about what I apparently described as unsafe practices at a local flight school. The purpose of this blog is not to bash any particular business. Therefore, I won't mention the name of the company at this point. A few examples of the operational practices that I think should be eliminated or improved on are the following:

1. During a lesson, immediately after take off - when I was still less than 200 feet above the ground, my instructor pulled the aircraft's throttle to idle and said "you just lost power, now what do you do?" I immediately pushed the throttle back in (PA-28/161) and said, "Don't ever do that on take off." He wanted to teach me to keep my hand on the throttle until the plane was 1000 feet above the ground. I had removed my hand from the throttle to adjust the manual trim.

2. A friend who was taking a lesson flew to the Palatka airport with his instructor. While in the pattern, he pulled the power to idle and asked the student if he knew what a windmilling propeller looked like. When the student said no, the instructor pulled the mixture to idle cut off and killed the engine. He then attempted to restart the engine by diving to accelerate and adding mixture. Although the attempt to restart was successful, the fact that they did this in the patter of an airport that is usually busy with student traffic and the fact that killing the engine was totally unnecessary suggest to me that this was an unsafe risk.

3. On numerous occasions I have witnessed instructors from this school violate Visual Flight Rules by either flying directly through or too close to clouds while operating under VFR. The practice area for this and other flight schools in the area overlaps the approach for the ILS 32 at Craig as well as several approaches at NAS-Jacksonville. Flying through clouds could result in a collision with similar training flights or with legitimate aircraft on instrument approaches. It is simply foolish.

4. Also on numerous occasions I have witnessed (and confirmed via handheld radio) instructors taking students much too low over congested areas such as my own neighborhood. 700+ homes in my neighborhood, the golf course and the nearby mall would seem to make the a congested area and flying lower than 1000' AGL is simply foolish.

5. Frequently the aircraft used by this company have squawks that take weeks to repair. Often these are minor such as a burned out bulb on the anti-collision lights or a landing light. But other problems include aircraft that sit for days with their fuel tanks in need of fuel. Leaving empty tanks invites water into the fuel and although this is not mandatory, it is a good practice.

6. Instructors do not enforce the use of proper check lists. For example, the Cessnas never have their fuel valve set to one or the other tank as prescribed in the POH. During runup, instructors do not test the trim controls as the tests that are shown in the POH are not shown on the checklist. Instructors do not check behind their students after tie down. Aircraft are left unlocked. Pitot covers are often lost or left in the plane. Control locks are not installed. Tiedown ropes are generally in a state of disrepair.

7. When renting aircraft, frequently, the aircraft were not refueled and ready even though they had been parked overnight.

8. The aircraft are generally not very clean. Oil streaks are found on the fuselages and a peek under the hood shows dirt an oil. The cowlings rarely are reinstalled after their 100 hour inspections in a proper way. They are generally misaligned.

Any one of these issues by itself would be minor and correctable. However, taken holistically, they suggest a pattern of operation that is in dire need of improvement. This doesn't even begin to touch on the customer service problems that I have experienced. For the most part, the people who work at this place are very kind and easy to deal with. However, when they think it is OK to call me the morning of an evening trip and tell me that I cannot take the plane that I had reserved weeks in advance simply because they wanted to use it for training flights, that is not acceptable. I understand that their primary goal is to be a flight school. Fine. But that doesn't allow canceling a flight and forcing a seven year customer to do a check ride in a more expensive plane at his expense. That is unconscionable. And trying to make up for that by giving me a free chart is not adequate. If I had been given adequate notice, I might think a bit differently, but that act was the straw that broke the camel's back. It was that incident that caused me to look elsewhere. And what I found was a selection of top notch aircraft for the same price. The competitor's aircraft were clean and have always been ready for me each time I have needed them.

So that's all I'll say on this topic. It saddens me each time I think about it and I don't care to hash it out again.


  1. Anonymous3:28 PM EDT

    Hello, I was the one who left a comment before about the safety practices of before said flight school and I appreciate the time you took to explain your experiences. I deal with pilots from the controller side of aviation 40 + a week and have just recently taken up flying so I appreciate the time you took to explain your experiences. I have noticed by your writings that you seemed to be very safety orientated and I am glad to hear this from the controller point of view. I hate watching aircraft get into accidents when they are sometimes easily avoidable and simple missed tasked result in less than enjoyable outcomes. Thanks again for the time you spent explaining things. Have a great day and good luck in the future!

  2. You know who :-)1:20 PM EDT

    I feel your sorrow and share your accurate observations. As the student pilot involved in the engine out scenario over Palatka I want to assure you that there was absolutely no other traffic within 20 miles of us. That said, you are correct that it was a totally unnecessary manuever that could have had serious consequences.

  3. I appreciate both of your comments. I rely quite a bit on guidance from ATC when I fly and I am "in the system" almost 100 percent of my flying time. We depended on ATC on June 16th while trying to avoid +TSRA around CRG and I wish I could have thanked the controller personally.

    As for the engine out "lesson", Can you really be sure that there was no traffic within 20 miles? Even the TIS in the G1000 Cessnas will only pick up aircraft that have working transponders that are identified by the ATC radar. It relies on both the link from ATC and the other aircraft's transponder. Also, let's not forget the potential danger to people and property on the ground.