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VFR Flight Assist -- The Student Pilot's Secret Safety Net

Every now and then a Student Pilot gets lost and never tells their Flight Instructor about it...Every now and then a Student Pilot gets lost and never tells their Flight Instructor about it. The student really needed additional navigation training or practice, but the instructor missed the problem. The student continues on with gaps in their understanding and that can lead to big problems in the future. To make sure this does not happen, the VFR Flight Assist procedure is in place.

How it works: When a pilot calls for help, all possible assistance is given at that time -- that includes air traffic controllers, Flight Service Stations, etc. After the problem (or crisis) has been solved, the ATC or FSS people make a judgement call; they decide whether or not the pilot had difficulty due to a lack of training or understanding. If they believe that additional instruction will prevent future problems for the pilot...

  • They contact their area's Safety Program Manager (SPM). The Safety Program Manager is an employee of the FAA and even has an office at the Flight Standards District Office, but this person is different. The Safety Program Manager has no enforcement responsibilities -- that is why he or she is referred to as the FAA employee with the 'white hat.' The FAA figured that there better be a 'good guy' in every FAA office that pilots could turn to without worrying about getting into trouble. When the FSS or ATC people contact the Safety Program Manager rather than an FAA inspector, they are not looking to get the pilot in trouble, but to help the pilot get better.
  • The Safety Program Manager will look into the event. If the pilot who needed help was a Student Pilot, the SPM will quietly find that student's instructor and let them know what happened. The SPM informs the instructor that there was a problem.
  • The SPM then forgets about it. The instructor can then tailor additional instruction with hopes of improving the student's skills and avoiding another problem in the future.
Case closed.

All pilots, but especially student pilots, should never be afraid to ask for help -- if you get lost on a flight, you should know how to call for assistance. If you're a student pilot and you ever get lost or temporarily misplaced in the air you should know that you can not get into trouble by asking for help. Everyone on the ground (air traffic controllers, your instructor back home... even the FAA) would much prefer that you get down safely and will be happy, not angry, when you do.

Think of the controllers, and weather experts on the ground as part of your crew. If you had a person on board the airplane who had information on your airplane's position or surrounding weather, you would not hesitate to ask them... right? Do the same using the radio.

THE BOTTOM LINE: If you're a student in trouble, ask for help. The FAA has a system in place to let your instructor know if you need assistance... but go ahead and tell your instructor yourself. Then go back out with the instructor and correct whatever problem exists. Become a better pilot -- never hesitate to get on the radio and ask for help.

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About This Author:
Paul A. Craig is a Gold Seal Multiengine and Instrument Flight Instructor. He currently holds a total of 11 Flight Certificates including his ATP. Craig is a previous winner of the North Carolina and Tennessee Flight Instructor of the Year award, the NCVT Outstanding Teacher award and has served as the regional representative of the National Air and Space Museum. Craig is an FAA Aviation Safety Counselor and the author of eight books, including Pilot In Command, The Killing Zone: How and Why Pilots Die, and Controlling Pilot Error: Situational Awareness (all from McGraw Hill).
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