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A Feather in Your Cap: Earning Your First Pair of WINGS

By Bryan Neville and Susan Parson

Reprinted with permission from FAA Safety Briefing

(Editor’s Note: The “feather in your cap” expression originated in the ancient hunter’s custom of placing a game bird’s feather in the cap or hat band as a mark of success, skill, and prowess. Today’s use is similar, denoting an achievement or success that can help the person in the future.)

Earning your wings as a pilot is the focus for this issue of FAA Safety Briefing and the process of flight training provides a number of exciting milestones. There’s the first flight as a student, when you get to take the controls and realize that you really can fly. There’s the first solo — truly an unforgettable occasion for every aviator. At some point comes the first trip outside the local practice area and the first solo cross country. Then, the day arrives for your check ride, which is also the first time you fly as pilot in command (PIC). For many pilots, the first passenger-carrying flight follows shortly thereafter.

Then…what? There are plenty more “firsts” to achieve in your life as an aviator, but here’s a suggestion that will not only help you maintain and enhance that hard-won proficiency, but also offer another milestone: Your first pair of official wings to wear, ideally on an aviator’s leather jacket.

Gathering the Feathers

Earning your first pilot certificate is a significant feather in your cap. But, it takes a few more feathers to earn WINGS credit in the FAA’s pilot proficiency program. First, the explanation: WINGS is the FAA’s free online pilot proficiency program available through The WINGS program’s objective is to mitigate the primary causal factors of accidents that continue to plague the general aviation (GA) community. WINGS is based on the premise that pilots who maintain currency and proficiency in the basics of flight will benefit from safer and more enjoyable flying experiences. Accordingly, it outlines requirements for each aircraft category and class and includes subjects and flight maneuvers appropriate to pilots operating those aircraft.

Participation is easy. Once you sign up on, you create your personal WINGS profile and select the category and class of aircraft you will fly in the program. The WINGS section will guide you to the education and training curriculum suitable for your individual flight requirements. The program outlines the subject areas you need to study through online courses, and it specifies the level of flight proficiency in the Practical Test Standards (PTS) Areas of Operation that correspond to the leading causal factors in accidents.

Accident causal factors fall into six major areas:

1) Aeronautical decision-making; 2) performance and limitations; 3) preflight planning, risk management, and fuel management; 4) takeoffs and landings; 5) positive aircraft control; and 6) basic flying skills. Conveniently, the first three are knowledge areas and the second three are flight skills.

how effective is wings

Most importantly, the WINGS Pilot Proficiency Program offers GA pilots a structured recurrent training program tailored to the individual’s specific needs. To further emphasize the value of the program, the FAA has for many years stated that achieving a phase in WINGS satisfies the regulatory requirement for a flight review. Ongoing training to maintain WINGS currency at the Basic level or higher means that you will always have a current flight review. Also, many aviation insurance companies offer a premium discount for participation in the program, so check with your provider.

Staying current with the program is easy. Your flight review information is documented in your WINGS profile on; in addition, the program reminds you when currency requirements are due.

Do the Feathers Really Fly?

For those who wonder if the WINGS program really works as a safety tool, here are a few interesting observations arising from a recent FAA analysis that sought to correlate WINGS participation with accidents that occurred under 14 CFR part 91. The study counted 3,654 accidents that occurred in a three-year period (2008-2010) during operations under 14 CFR parts 91. Of these, there were just 25 pilots, or 0.68 percent of the total number of accident pilots, who had earned a WINGS phase before the date of the accident. Of those 25 pilots, only 12 had a current phase of WINGS at the time of the accident. Those 12 represent just 0.33 percent of the total pilots who had an accident. Furthermore, only four of the pilots involved in 712 fatal accidents during this period had earned a phase of WINGS before their accidents, and only one had a current phase of WINGS when the accident occurred.

Full disclosure: There was no way for this analysis to determine whether WINGS participation truly influenced the accident rate observed in the study. In the classic chicken-and-egg debate, some might argue that WINGS participation reduces accidents by raising the pilot’s proficiency and awareness of risk management. Others might assert the “birds of a feather” argument that, since WINGS is a voluntary program, the pilots most likely to participate are those who already possess the right stuff in terms of knowledge, skills, and attitudes. Either way, you can’t go wrong by taking part in the WINGS Pilot Proficiency Program as a way to keep your aviator’s wings supple and strong and help ensure you return safely to the nest every night!

Learn More

WINGS Pilot Proficiency Program (AC 61-91J)

WINGS Pilot Proficiency Program User’s Guide - 2011

Bryan Neville is an FAA Operations Inspector presently assigned as the outreach program manager for the FAA Safety Team. He is a longtime flight instructor.

Susan Parson is a Special Assistant in the FAA’s Flight Standards Service and editor of FAA Safety Briefing. She is an active general aviation pilot and flight instructor.


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