While potentially uncomfortable for the applicant, the DPE is the one being observed by the Inspector, not the applicant. Less well-known is the fact that the FAA also regularly conducts observations of Certificated Flight Instructors.
“Surveillance of a Certificated Flight Instructor” as it’s called in FAA guidance is routinely done on a random basis, and surveillance of a specific CFI may also be initiated for several reasons. Among CFIs who call the Legal Services Plan with questions after receiving a request from the FAA to speak with or observe them, the most common reason for the request is applicants recommended by the CFI having over a 30% checkride failure rate over a two-year period. This tends to happen more often with part-time or less active CFIs, as if one has only recommended one, two, or three students over that two-year period, then a single failure is enough to cross the 30% threshold. Other potential surveillance triggers include if a CFI’s student is involved in an accident or an incident (for example, a runway excursion), or observations made during a pilot school inspection or FSDO visit.
There are several surveillance methods available to the Inspector. For example, the surveillance might take the form of a simple discussion between the Inspector and the CFI. It could also involve the Inspector playing the role of a student in a one-on-one lesson with the CFI. The Inspector might observe the CFI teaching a ground school session to a current student or class, or ride along on a flight lesson. Additionally, the Inspector can conduct a spot inspection of one of the instructor’s students. This could include a request to fly with the student without the CFI onboard to assess the student’s level of progress, although anecdotally this is rare. Sometimes a combination of methods may be used.
As with DPE observation, CFI surveillance is directed at the CFI, not the student if one is present. Any observations of a student are for the purpose of assessing the instructor. In the majority of recent cases of which we are aware, the surveillance took the form of a discussion with no further action taken. The feedback we’ve heard from instructors is that the conversations focused on keeping up with regulatory changes and best practices for instruction.
However, the importance of recordkeeping per FAR 61.189 cannot be overstated. CFIs should be diligent with such recordkeeping as contact with an FAA Inspector may lead to a request to examine the CFI’s instructional log. FAR 61.189 provides that the CFI must sign a student's logbook for ground or flight training given; and that the CFI must retain records of endorsements given for solo flight, as well as endorsements given for knowledge and practical tests (including results), for 3 years.