Eye of Experience #58:
I Still Can’t Believe They Did That!

What do you get during 17 years as a Designated Pilot Examiner? A lot more stories than can be told in just one column! In this month's


Eye Of ExperienceSeveral years ago here on AVweb I wrote an Eye of Experience column entitled “Eye of Experience #17: I Can’t Believe They Did That,” dealing with unusual events I witnessed over a 17-year career as a Designated Pilot Examiner (DPE). At that time, I promised more of these reflections of a DPE. Now it is time to keep my promise. What follows will be more of these extraordinary things that applicants do when taking checkrides: some humorous, some tragic, and some simply unusual.

Track the VOR

Lots of applicants show up for the private pilot practical test without a view-limiting device of any kind, but I once had an instrument applicant come in for his checkride who had neglected to bring a hood or foggles. I don’t know whether he thought he could get away with flying the entire flight test “open hood” or with his eyes closed. In any event, we taxied back and got a hood for him.

Quite a few private applicants seem to have a problem tracking a VOR radial. When asked to tune a VOR and fly right to it, I have observed several private applicants tune the station, identify it, and establish themselves flying a solid FROM. When asked why they were flying away from the station, they invariably explained, “My instructor told me a radial is always from.” Then there was the one who, when asked to tune a VOR and fly right to it, tuned the station, identified it, centered the needle, and then rotated the knob on the heading indicator (directional gyro, gyro compass, or whatever they’re calling it this week) to the same number that was on the OBS with the needle centered. When asked what he was doing and why, the applicant replied, “My instructor told me to always make sure the numbers on the OBS and the Heading Indicator are the same.”

Where Am I?

I had a private applicant several years ago, a really nice 46-year-old man who was so nervous that, despite my best effort to calm him down, he suffered a total brain fade and I had to turn him down on the oral portion of the practical test without ever getting to the airplane. He was so uptight he barely remembered his own name. This nice man owned, in partnership with another, a four-place low-wing airplane, but had done all his training in a two-place high-wing trainer belonging to the flight school where he trained. (When he and his partner, both students at the time, acquired the four-place airplane, he had attempted to check out in it, but two flight instructors had refused to sign him off for solo in that airplane.)

After failing the first attempt at certification on the oral, this applicant returned about a week later for another try. This time, with great difficulty and much probing and prodding, I managed to nurse him through the oral, and we accomplished the flight portion of the practical test. His performance was low average, but passable, and I issued him a certificate. Please understand, the very best thing he did on the flight test was the cross-country work. We proceeded some 20 miles on the course he had planned, and I diverted him to an alternate some 15 miles off to the side of our course. He flew right to the alternate, after giving me an accurate estimate of the time it would take to get there. Remember, this was the best performance of the entire flight test. This was on a Saturday.

Monday morning, when I arrived at my office at the airport, the telephone was ringing, and when I answered it, I found myself talking with an FAA Inspector from a nearby Flight Standards District Office (FSDO). (Our local FSDO had jurisdiction over a 17-county area; the rest of the state was covered by the other FSDO.) The nice inspector started out by asking, “You issued a Private Pilot Certificate to ____ on Saturday?”

I admitted that, “Yes, indeed I did.”

“Well let me tell you what he did.”

He then proceeded to explain that, on Sunday, the day after his checkride, my applicant, the brand-new private pilot, without any checkout whatsoever, loaded his family in the four-place airplane of which he owned a share, and departed for a destination some 250 miles away. This destination is a non-towered airport, but is a fairly large airport, with two long runways served by two commuter airlines. After our newly minted pilot had flown about as long as he thought he should, he looked around and saw a big airport. Although the runway layout was entirely different, thinking it was his destination, he entered the pattern and landed without ever talking to anybody. He then taxied up to the terminal, and looked up to see a sign saying “Welcome to ____ City,” a large, busy airport with an operating control tower. Realizing he didn’t belong there, he turned around, taxied back, and took off, again without ever talking to anybody. The airport at which he landed was about 40 miles distant from his original intended destination. He was not only in what was then an Airport Traffic Area (now Class D airspace) without being in contact with the tower, but he had both landed and taken off without clearance to do so.

For this little episode, the poor guy received no sanction from the FAA in the form of a suspension or revocation, but he was required to take a “609 Ride” to confirm that he was really capable of acting responsibly as a private pilot. He had the option of doing this at the local FSDO, or the one where the violations occurred. His instructor, fearing the folks at the local FSDO, insisted that he travel to the distant FSDO for his 609 Ride. He did, and it took two tries to get his privileges back.

I Got Lost

One time I had an applicant show up an hour and a half late for his checkride. I had long since given up on him, and was on the verge of calling the flight school where he had trained (at an airport some 40-odd miles away) in an effort to find out why he hadn’t kept his appointment, when he came waltzing in. I asked why he was so late, and he replied, “I got lost on my way over here!” One of our instructors, on hearing this excuse for his tardiness, commented, “I wouldn’t tell the examiner that I got lost. I’d make up some excuse, such as, ‘I stopped off to see my girlfriend on the way,’ or some such.” It was by then much too late to start the flight test, so, after carefully checking his planning, I sent him home to try another day. I also called his instructor with a request to let me know when he arrived safely back home.

I Give Up!

On more than one occasion I had an applicant voluntarily surrender in the middle of a checkride, but only once have I had one who made himself airsick. It happened on an instrument flight test, and as we proceeded down an airway toward an airport where we planned to execute a couple of approaches, I assigned a hold at an intersection along the airway. It was a clear day with very light chop at our altitude. The applicant slowed the airplane down as he prepared to enter the holding pattern. He successfully entered the hold, by the book (a concept I really don’t understand: On a checkride, an applicant is required to use the recommended holding pattern entries, but in the real world, nobody cares how he gets into a hold, just so he doesn’t violate his assigned airspace). In any event, by the second time around the racecourse, my applicant ripped off the hood and reached for the sick sack. After he deposited his lunch in the container, he suggested that we return to base and try another day. This happened before the FAA permitted the use of the “interrupted ride,” and I had to disapprove his application for the instrument rating. A few days later, he flew the flight test again, and he did an excellent job. This gentleman, in his mid-50s, had been flying for many years, and he owned a nice Bonanza, which, so far as I know, he is still flying, both VFR and IFR.

Then there was the lady student pilot, a tall blonde with a bouffant hairdo. Her hair rose about eight inches above her head and was fixed with a hairspray that acted like glue, making it as stiff as wire. She gave up and dropped out of flight training about halfway through her private pilot course when she found out she’d have to wear a hood for the instrument portion of the training, because she didn’t want to mess up her hairdo. Of course, this was prior to the advent of foggles and other view-limiting devices that wouldn’t have messed up her hair.

Which Way to the Destination?

It was my policy to have my private applicants plan a trip using the sectional chart, on a route that would require them to turn the chart over and extend their course line on the other side of the chart. Thus I could determine that they had the ability to get from one side of the chart to the other. The airport from which we departed was about one-third of the way up from the bottom of the north side of the chart on which it is depicted. On one occasion, I assigned an applicant to plan a trip to a destination about 120 miles to the southeast. This would require that he draw his course line down to the bottom edge of the north side of the chart, turn the chart over, and complete his course line to the destination on the top of the south side of the chart.. Imagine my surprise, even shock, when we sat down to review his planning and I saw that he had drawn his course line north up over the top of the chart, and up from the south edge of the reverse side of the chart to the destination airport. I explained that we might eventually get there, but his way would require a 25,000-mile trip, we would get pretty cold as we passed over the north and south poles, and there would be several legs along the way where we would no doubt have insufficient fuel to make the next fuel stop.

The Stars Aren’t Lined Up Right

Personally, I like to think I’m not superstitious, I’m a reasonably practical person, and I certainly have nothing against anyone’s beliefs, but I had an applicant for a private pilot certificate once who really came up with a strange one. This lady had completed her training and been recommended for certification by her instructor. She and her instructor had set the appointment for her checkride, and she showed up at the scheduled time. However, she said she couldn’t take her flight test that day because her biorhythms weren’t right and the stars weren’t lined up correctly for an important project at that time! She refused to reschedule, explaining that she’d contact me later when things were right for her test.

There may be more to this one, though. Both she and her husband were undertaking flight training, and I suspect that she wanted to hold back so as not to acquire her certificate before her husband, and thus embarrass him, who believed that he was competing with her. I had seen this happen before, where one spouse deliberately holds back so as not to embarrass the other by finishing first. In this case, as it turned out, her husband dropped out of flight training and she never took her checkride, even though she had completed her training and been recommended.

Extreme Checkitis

Almost all applicants show up for the practical test with some degree of “checkitis,” or exam jitters, and this is one of the greatest problems for the examiner. The examiner wants to see the applicant’s best effort, and the applicant certainly can’t show that if he is all tied up in knots with a huge case of nerves. Some applicants are so uptight that they are literally incapable of expressing themselves, to the point that they hardly know their own names.

In one extreme case, a private applicant, a young medical doctor, came in with such a state of nerves that he had to excuse himself and adjourn to the gentlemen’s lounge to toss his cookies prior to the start of the oral portion of the exam. Once he got that over with, he settled down and gave me a very good performance on his checkride. In this case, what got that applicant to settle down and show me just how well he could fly was a series of questions I put to him.

Me: Let’s see now, you went through four years of undergraduate school, four years of medical school, and God knows how much more training, and then took your state boards to practice medicine. Is that correct?

Applicant: Yes.

Me: Were you this nervous when you went for your state boards?

Applicant: No.

Me: Then why are you so uptight about a piddlin’ little thing like a private checkride? Today is May 14, 1991. On May 14, 1999, will it make any difference whether you got your Private Pilot Certificate on May 14, 1991, or May 16th, 1991?

Applicant: No.

Me: OK, then, let’s do it!

I’m sure most examiners make every possible attempt to get their applicants to relax, but if the examiner kids around with the applicant in an effort to loosen him up, the examiner is exposed to an accusation of unprofessionalism. It is indeed a narrow line to walk.

Extreme Gratification

Although the FAA maintains that there’s no such thing as a marginal flight test, we all know that this is just not so. The FAA maintains the posture that an applicant either meets the standard or doesn’t, and although that is certainly true, some applicants do an outstanding job, and others just barely squeak through. From my viewpoint, it was a joy to issue a certificate or rating to an applicant who gave me a letter-perfect practical test.

Not all the unusual things an examiner sees are as negative as the examples I’ve been citing here. Some are extremely heartening. I had an instrument applicant once who was referred to me by another examiner, with whom he had taken his checkride and failed. He had called the same examiner for his recheck, but the examiner’s schedule was such that he was unable to accommodate the applicant before his written (knowledge) test result was to expire. This fine 83-year-old gentleman had to get his flight test that very day, for at midnight, his test result would run out. I was able to accommodate him, so we undertook to get it done. The first think I noticed was that his logbook showed 800 hours of instrument instruction! His oral was perfectly satisfactory, but when we went out to fly, he failed to hear and acknowledge most of the controllers’ instructions. He got his clearance all right, but after that, it was all downhill. He missed so many calls that I had no choice but to turn him down.

When I debriefed him back at the office, I told him that I knew it couldn’t be a physical hearing problem – after all, he had a Class III medical certificate and had passed the whisper test if not the audiometer to determine his hearing acuity. I reasoned that he had been concentrating so intently on flying the airplane on the gages that he literally shut off his hearing. He responded with grim determination that he was going the next day to take a week-end cram course for the instrument written test, which was being offered some 200 miles away, and that he’d be back in 30 days to try the flight test again.

I loaned him an air-band radio receiver and told him to go home and tune approach control, listen to an airplane check in, and follow all the calls to and from that airplane until it was handed off, and then pick up another and repeat the process, and another, and another, until he was confident that he could get all the calls to and from each of them. He did as I suggested. He retook the written, and he came back for his recheck in 30 days and passed with flying colors. I cannot describe the pleasure I got from issuing that fine gentleman his instrument rating. The very next day, he flew a Comanche from Michigan to Florida in hard IFR conditions. By the bye, I was so concerned about submitting his paperwork to the FAA showing the 800 hours of instrument instruction that I photocopied the appropriate pages from his logbook and sent them along with the flight-test file.

This is merely one of the gratifying experiences that I enjoyed as a Designated Pilot Examiner. It’s not all fun by any means, but it does have its moments.

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