Eye of Experience #17:
I Can't Believe They Did That!

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So, you think you pulled some dumb pilot tricks on your last checkride? You weren't even close. In his 17-year career as an examiner, AVweb's Howard Fried has seen it all. Here's just a few examples of the mistakes, goofs and stupid pilot tricks he's seen.

Eye Of ExperienceIn 17 years as a designated pilot examiner, I administered over 4,000 flight tests for a variety of certificates and ratings. During that time, I was witness to a great many unusual performances by all kinds of applicants. Some were humorous, some tragic, but all were interesting. I wanted to take this opportunity to share a few.

"I'll Take A Visual"

Loading for Not too many years ago, an applicant for an instrument rating was required to execute only one approach on his/her checkride, and the applicant could designate just what kind of approach he wanted to demonstrate. In other words, an applicant could bring the examiner a CE-150 with a single VOR receiver and take his flight test in that airplane. I had an applicant come in for an instrument checkride once with a well-equipped airplane full IFR with ILS/LOC/VOR, DME, ADF, and glide slope receivers. He gave me an excellent oral, and then I explained just what we would do in the airplane (climbs, descents, turns to a heading, holds, VOR tracking, etc.) and I told him, "When we come back we'll do an approach to a landing. You get to pick the approach. What kind of approach would you like to do for me?" He instantly shot back, "I'll take a visual!" I'm sure that's not what the FAA had in mind when they wrote the Flight Test Guide, and I told him I couldn't accept a visual approach on his checkride, but one certainly had to give the fellow credit for trying.

Make A Plan And Stick To It

The single-mindedness of some applicants is amazing to behold. I once had an applicant who did an excellent job of planning the cross-country portion of the private pilot flight test. Since we were going northwest, she followed the hemispheric rule and planned for 4,500 feet MSL. When we got to the airplane and started off on the cross-country TASK in the Practical Test Standards (PTS) for the Private Pilot, she established herself on course and started climbing, As we passed through 4,000 feet MSL (only about 1,000 feet AGL), she headed straight for a large, fair-weather cumulous cloud in front of us. She obviously intended to fly right through it. I asked her what on earth she was doing, and the reply was, "My instructor told me to make a plan and fly the plan as made."

I explained that while that was generally good advice, a pilot must be flexible and be prepared to change her plan as conditions dictate. I've seen many examples of applicants getting married to a plan and sticking to it even though conditions dictated that they should make an adjustment, but this one perhaps best illustrates the point.

Navigation The Easy Way

This one didn't happen to me, but a friend of mine (also an examiner) tells of the applicant for a private certificate who came in for his checkride and was given an assignment to plan a cross-country flight, per the PTS. The examiner was shocked when the applicant instantly said, "OK, I'm ready."

Plan your flight, fly your plan.The examiner asked the applicant, "Where's your trip plan?"

"I don't need one. I'll just punch in the destination in my GPS and follow what it gives me."
The examiner went ahead and let the applicant do it that way, although he knew that this method was unacceptable.

After completing the rest of the oral portion of the practical test, they went out to the airplane, and following the preflight inspection, started up and took off on the cross-country as programmed in the GPS. After travelling about 20 miles, the examiner reached over and turned off the GPS. The applicant instantly became hopelessly lost, and the ride was terminated with the issuance of a disapproval notice (pink slip).

Here again, I'm sure that this kind of planning is not what the FAA had in mind when the test was designed, but again we have to give the fellow credit for trying. This one is a good example of just why it is necessary to be prepared to back up your avionics with pilotage or dead reckoning.

Where Are You Now?

As an examiner, my policy was to schedule the checkrides with either the school from which the applicant was coming, or with the recommending instructor, but occasionally an applicant himself would call and schedule a checkride. On one such occasion, I got a call at home one evening from an applicant, and we scheduled his appointment for three days hence. The next day his instructor, who ran a one-man flight school, called and cancelled the appointment, explaining that the applicant had not yet met the night requirement for the private certificate. A few days later the instructor called and rescheduled the flight test. He told me that the previous evening, although the training had been accomplished at a non-towered field, he had flown with the applicant into and out of no less than seven airports with control towers, ending up back home, where they completed the 10 required night landings. The guy owned a Cessna 150, but since his airplane didn't have a working VOR, he would use the school's 150 for the checkride.

Where'd he go NOW?On the day and at the appointed time for the checkride, I got a call from the supervisor on duty at our local control tower advising me that my applicant was on the way up and would I please counsel him. The airport where I am located is so busy that there are two tower frequencies in use when the traffic becomes heavy. The airport is divided down the middle from east to west, and arrivals and departures from the north use one tower frequency and departures and arrivals from the south use the other. This procedure is announced on the Automatic Terminal Information Service (ATIS). It seems that my applicant, who was coming from an airport about 40 miles northeast of my field, called the south tower, announced his position as 10 northeast, and said he had the information on the ATIS.

He was advised to switch over to the other tower frequency and report on a right downwind north of the tower. He was next heard from, still on the south tower frequency, but now it was correct, on a left downwind, south of the tower. He was then cleared to land, and after landing he asked the ground controller how to find me.
When he arrived at my office, I used an airport diagram and a sectional chart to explain just what he had done wrong. I explained that he could have been violated, but that we have an understanding Tower Chief who likes to keep such things in-house and that I had been asked to counsel him.

We then went forward with the flight test. After he gave me a marginal oral, we went out to the airplane, and after a good preflight inspection he started up. He carefully tuned the ATIS and listened while he was told, "All IFR departures contact ground for your clearance." (We only use the clearance delivery frequency when the ground frequency is congested.) The guy promptly called clearance delivery for taxi instructions. After getting this little boo-boo straightened out, we taxied out and completed a satisfactory run-up and were cleared for takeoff.

I had called for a soft-field take off. Instead, he crammed on full power, rolled out on the runway and held the airplane on the ground until it was doing about 80 miles per hour. At that point he abruptly yanked it off the ground and started to climb. On reaching 1,200 feet AGL, he leveled off and turned on course for the cross-country. Still at 1,200 feet AGL and still with full power, he went charging along. Meanwhile, the tower was frantically calling traffic off our right, a call which he ignored. Keeping my eye on the traffic, after the third call from the tower, I nudged the applicant with my elbow and said, "Hey, they're calling you!" At this point, I took over control of the airplane and returned for a landing so I could issue him his pink slip.

The aftermath to this story is also quite interesting. His recommending instructor habitually issued his applicants a one-way ticket for their checkrides. He would endorse them for a cross-country to my airport for the checkride, but not for a return, on the theory that if they passed they wouldn't require an endorsement to return home, and if they failed, they could very well walk home. When I gave this fellow his Disapproval Notice, he asked if I could lend him money for cab fare back to his home airport (some 40-odd miles away). Instead, I did his planning for him, carefully explaining just what he must do and what radio calls he must make on what frequencies. In fact I wrote it all down for him, and then I signed him off to go home.

When he left my office to go out to the airplane, I called the tower on the telephone and said, "Look out! Here he comes." I then called his instructor and requested that he call me when the guy got safely back. The final page to this story is that the guy never came back for a recheck, and as far as I know he never did acquire the private certificate for which he had trained.

Still on the subject of "Where are you now?" I had another applicant who planned his cross-country to an airport some 60 miles southwest on a magnetic heading of 245 degrees. When we took off, this one climbed to the appropriate altitude and promptly established himself on a heading of 190 degrees and started off. I let him go, curious to see what he would do next, hoping that he would wake up, realize his mistake and make a self-correction. What he did was to simply keep going, fifty-five degrees off course. When we had traveled some 15 miles and were on the verge of entering the Terminal Control Area (now Class B airspace), I took over the airplane, terminating the flight test, and we returned for the issuance of the pinkie.

Where Are We Going?

Not a VOR, but where are you?When asked to tune a specific VOR and fly right to it, a surprising number of private applicants very carefully tune the station and tweak the OBS until the needle on the CDI is dead centered, but with a FROM indication. They possibly do this because they were taught that to identify a radial one always displays the FROM flag. These people then establish themselves on course to fly directly away from the station. Of course, with this configuration they get reverse sensing so that their corrections are toward the deflection of the needle, if any. This performance prompts me to make a remark to the effect that if we don't lose the signal in 50 miles or so, then we might get there after numerous fuel stops, but that we'd get mighty cold as we flew over the polar regions on our way around the world.

Along the same line, another problem I would see quite frequently was the inability of many private applicants to turn a sectional chart over and continue the course line on the other side. This happened despite the fact that the charts have printed instructions on them on how to accomplish this task.

How Not To Use The Checklist

As an examiner, I had a couple of techniques that I used to emphasize the importance of really paying attention to accurately following the checklist. The first of these would occur when the applicant and I boarded the airplane. I would carefully adjust my seat, leaving the seat belt hanging loose over my lap, unbuckled. I would just sit there and wait for the applicant to note on his checklist, item one, "Belts and harness: Adjust and secure." More than nine out of 10 (and not just private applicants, but those seeking advanced ratings as well), would simply brush by this item without checking to see that it was complied with.

After taxiing to the runway and completing the run-up the applicant would invariably reach for the microphone to call ready. At this point I would stop him/her and the following conversation would ensue:

Me: You ready?

Applicant: Yep.

Me: You sure?

Applicant: Yep.

Me: Cover everything on the checklist, did you?

Applicant: Yep.

Me: Recheck it, would you please?

Applicant: OK (Starts with the pre-takeoff part of the list)

Me: How about item one?

Short Final. Did you pass?Whereupon the applicant would look down and see my belt unfastened. A sheepish grin would appear on his/her face as I would be informed to fasten my belt. Although I certainly could have done so, I didn't bust applicants for this little oversight, but it did give me the opportunity to explain to private applicants that as a pilot I could be expected to fasten my belt, but if I was to issue them a certificate today, they can go right out and carry children in the airplane.

Then to emphasize the safety factor, when we returned from the flight, as we taxied in I would suggest that they let me out to start the paperwork while they secured the airplane. I would then disembark with the engine running if they permitted me to do so (and most did). This also provided the opportunity for counseling. I explained just how dangerous it is to let someone on or off an airplane with the prop going around. In an encounter with a propeller, people just don't win.

The foregoing are just a few of the more interesting things an examiner encounters as he or she goes about the business of administering practical tests. There are a great many more, but I'll save them for a future column.


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