Flyers’ online FIRC does not soar above the rest

 - February 1, 2007, 10:27 AM
A majority of professional pilots have earned a flight instructor rating as the first stepping stone on their aviation career path. However, keeping that hard-achieved rating means religiously renewing it every two years. And since most business aviation pilots aren’t active flight instructors (or active enough to meet the student pass rate requirements in FAR 61.197), that means either taking a checkride with an FAA examiner or completing a 16-hour CFI refresher course.

While one can take a checkride with an examiner to renew, most pilots opt for the less-painful route of taking a CFI refresher course. However, a 16-hour renewal program isn’t exactly a free ride, either.

Fortunately, CFI refresher courses come in several different forms. There’s the tried-and-true two-day CFI refresher course, some of which travel to various cities while others are conducted in a fixed location, usually in a place where a vacation can be combined with the course. But this option has some drawbacks–it consumes an entire weekend and can be expensive when considering travel expenses, hotel bill and food charges to the more than $200 seminar fee.

For those too busy to travel or too price conscious to attend a two-day course, there are distance-learning CFI refresher courses. And here again there are different varieties.

The traditional home-study course typically consists of a textbook and videotapes or DVDs. While this can arguably be done at the student’s own pace and schedule, the videotapes compromise portability and the DVDs can become broken, scratched or lost while in transit.

Internet-based CFI renewal courses have taken a firm hold in the pilot community–and with good reason. Pilots choosing this option can take the course wherever and whenever they want, provided they have access to a computer and Internet connection while they’re on the road, which is almost guaranteed considering that any FBO worth its salt offers this convenience. Gleim, the company well known for its red-covered aviation training books, was one of the first to offer an online CFI refresher course. Not long after, the AOPA Air Safety Foundation and Jeppesen Sanderson jointly offered an online CFI renewal program. And then flight-training specialist American Flyers joined the fray.

American Flyers’ online flight instructor renewal clinic costs $100, some $50 less than the most expensive competing online program. As if the lower price were not enough enticement, customers pay once for the FIRC but get free renewals for life.
To use the American Flyers online FIRC, the student must have access to a computer (PC or Mac) with a connection to the Internet and Netscape Navigator 4.0 (or later) or Microsoft Explorer; Macromedia Shockwave Player, Real Video G2 Player and Acrobat PDF Reader are optional, though they certainly enhance the learning environment. Each student is supplied with his own user name and password to log in.

This course consists of six stages, also referred to as chapters, each of which culminates in a test. Each stage is broken into topics that deal with a specific subject (role and responsibility of the flight instructor; aerodynamics and aircraft operations; weather and weather hazards; regulations, flight information publications and airspace; human factors; and teaching IFR flight operations) and also incorporates Web links, media files, Adobe PDFs and questions for additional correlated material. These resources supplement the information from the written text. An appendix contains FARs that can be referenced throughout the course.

To advance to the next stage the student must study the material to acquire the necessary knowledge, meet the minimum study-time requirement per stage and pass the test with a minimum grade of 70 percent.

Upon successful completion of American Flyers’ online FIRC, the student can print out a graduation certificate and affidavit. This document includes a graduation certificate number, the official American Flyers seal and signature of an American Flyers representative, as well as a telephone number where the certificate’s authenticity can be verified. The graduation certificate and affidavit form must be signed to attest the student’s personal and unassisted completion of this program.

Also upon course completion, the student fills out an electronic 8710 form (provided on the American Flyers Web site), which then needs to be printed. From here the student has two options to complete the CFI renewal process. The first is free–take the graduation certificate/affidavit, unexpired CFI ticket and filled-out 8710 form to the local FSDO to successfully renew.

Alternatively, for $40 American Flyers will do the legwork for you. Simply mail the graduation certificate/affidavit, unexpired CFI certificate, filled-out 8710 form and a “proof of identification” form (which needs to be notarized) to American Flyers, and it will do the rest. To renew your CFI certificate in this manner, the documents must reach the renewal department before your certificate expires.

I have to admit that I’m a big believer in online distance-learning courses. So far I’ve renewed my CFI certificate three times online–once each from Gleim, Jeppesen/ASF and, now, American Flyers–and I’ve taken several NBAA professional development Internet-based courses from Embry-Riddle.

As a former American Flyers flight student (I trained for my initial CFI ratings at the Chicago Du Page location), I was a bit disappointed in this online course, especially knowing how good a flight school American Flyers really is. Specifically, the lessons were not particularly well written and contained numerous grammatical errors. On a more positive note, the optional graphics and movie/audio clips yielded a true multimedia experience, and a search function made it easy to find more information on a topic.

Another mistake, in my opinion, is dividing the 16-hour course into only six segments, versus the usual 16 bite-size segments found in competing online and on-site courses. Each of the six chapters covered a lot of ground, making me quite apprehensive that I would forget some of the information before taking the section test. (I did, however, pass each of the six tests on my first attempt.)

Besides this apprehension, there was the “time jail.” The server keeps track of your 16 hours while you are studying, and you have to stay connected to the Internet while studying to keep the clock running. One of the chapters had a four-hour time requirement, though I ran out of material to review after only three hours and I spent the remaining hour online doing other things while waiting (hardly an efficient use of my time and certainly not what the FAA intended).

All in all, American Flyers’ online FIRC certainly does the job, though you do get what you pay for. Will I renew again using the American Flyers online FIRC in two years since I can now use it free for life? I’d have to see a real improvement in product quality before I renew using this online FIRC again. As a magazine editor I’m more sensitive to poor grammar and misspellings, though this still doesn’t excuse these shortcomings (would an aviation manager even consider a pilot applicant with a résumé littered with such errors?). As it stands now, in two years I’ll gladly pay the $150 to take the Jeppesen/ASF online refresher clinic.