Learning to fly is a great way to get a new perspective on the world around you. It's also an opportunity to challenge yourself, to focus, to escape your daily grind, visit places you'd otherwise not see, and to make new friends. If you want to be one of a select few, becoming a pilot will put you in a pretty special group: One of 600,000 or so out of a total U.S. population of about 300,000,000. Yet the U.S. pilot population is shrinking and AOPA wants to know why. That's why they are asking pilots to contribute their ideas through this on-line survey. It doesn't take long to complete the survey and offer your suggestions. I got on my soapbox and here are some of the topics I brought up.
Pick an area in aviation and you'll find needless complexity: Aircraft procedures, maintenance, air space, visibility/cloud clearances, regulations on currency, VFR charts. Busy, successful professionals who have the money to learn to fly are put off by the endless stream of details. We certificated pilots take for granted all the messed-up stuff we have to use because we've used it for so long: We've been indoctrinated and we've lost perspective. An overhaul of the regulations and products used by student pilots wouldn't hurt.
Take a look at 14 CFR parts 61 and 91, for example. Three different definitions of "night?" Give us a break. A multitude of cloud clearance and visibility requirements? Most airspace above 10,000 feet has consistent cloud clearance and visibility requirements (5 miles, 1000' above and below, and 1 mile laterally). So for all airspace below 10,000 feet, why not just make the rule 3 miles, 1000 above, 500 below, and 2000 feet horizontal clearance from clouds. Let the requirements for class B remain at 3 miles visibility and clear of clouds. You've just removed a bunch of special cases that most pilots don't remember anyway. If some pilots and operators want to fly VFR in class G in crummy conditions, let them get special training and a rating or logbook endorsement that would cover the reduced VFR visibility and cloud clearance requirements. Right now it seems like pilots need a degree in law to understand the regulations and I'd like to see AOPA lobby for simpler and easier-to-understand regulations.
Here's some more heresy for you: VFR charts and the Airport/Facility Directory are a mess. The AF/D relies on presenting information in a positional format that the user has to memorize. Sure there's a legend at the front, but it contains another level of indirection that requires a bunch of page turning. VFR charts use basically two colors and various types of shading to depict all possible airspace. And if you don't think pilots are confused, just sit in on one of the many flight reviews I give and you'll have more than enough evidence. Sure I complain, but here's just one constructive suggestion. For MOAs, Prohibited, Restricted, and Alert areas, NACO could just put the altitude depictions and the frequency of the controlling agency right next to the airspace depiction. That way, pilots won't have to remember an identifying number, unfold their sectional in flight, and look it up on another part of the chart. Who cares about the hours of operation for an area when you can just talk to the controlling agency and ask them if the area is hot?
The FAA's NOTAM system (notices to airmen) is a mess, as anyone who has waded through an on-line briefing can attest. I understand that an overhaul of this system is in progress and let's hope the end result is an improvement.
The official weather information available to pilots is an obscure system of abbreviations and contractions that owes its existence to the historic limitations of teletypes and mainframe computers. If you need any more evidence, consider how winds aloft are encoded. It's a credit to systems like DUAT, DUATS, and others that they offer plain-language versions of area forecasts, terminal forecasts, and surface observations.
Virtually all of the questions and answers for the various FAA knowledge test are available in advance of the test and you can purchase test preparation software to help you practices for a good score. The FAA, in their attempt to create discriminator-type questions, actually has created some stellar trick questions - the very thing they tell flight instructor candidates to not do when they create tests of their own! The instrument knowledge test has a bunch of question on the automatic direction finder, NDBs, and calculating relative bearing and distance from a station based on degrees of bearing change while NDBs are being phased out faster than you can say "peak oil." For crying out loud, I don't even have access to a plane with a functioning automatic direction finder. And where are the questions on GPS, WAAS, RNAV approach minima, RAIM, or FDE?
Add up all this and the knowledge tests are a game, pure and simple. I tell my students to buy some software, practice over and over, and they'll get a score in the 90% range. The real preparation is in getting them ready for the oral portion of the practical test, where hopefully they will be able to demonstrate their level of knowledge.
Some things the FAA has done well include the publication of the Instrument Procedures Handbook and the recent updates to the Instrument Flying Handbook. These are two excellent examples of what the good folks at the FAA are capable of. And the ability to access instrument procedures on-line was a huge step forward.
It's well known that FAA inspectors have an impressive 70 to 90% first time fail rate for initial flight instructor candidates. I've recommended many CFI candidates and all of them were well prepared. Most of the candidates who passed on their first try were either airline pilots, retired military, or both. So here's a news flash: The initial CFI check ride can often be more of a hazing ritual than a practical test. There's a tremendous emphasis on rote learning and a hodge-podge of learning theory when the stated goal of instruction is to teach pilots to the correlative level of knowledge. Again, the FAA's out-of-touch culture seems to be to blame and recommending instructors are afraid to call them on it, for obvious reasons. I'm all for setting the bar high for would-be flight instructors, but initial flight instructor candidates should pass or fail based on the merits of their knowledge and performance. If we don't have a steady influx of new flight instructors, make no mistake about it, GA will die.
I could go on, but I won't. Instead, I encourage you to visit AOPA's website, get on your soapbox, and let them know what you think will stop the shrinking GA pilot population.