airline transport pilot

disclaimer: I wrote this entry entirely from my Blackberry while on a trip, so if there are gross gramatical errors, I apologize.

Seems like an eternity since I’ve started flight training, yet here I am years later still training. I guess a pilots life is defined by it, maybe one day I’ll get use to it.

Even after giving hundreds of checkrides I myself still get nervous. At no point in anyones career is it fun to be put under a microscope. Especially when it involves such a skill that you excersice with great pride in performing flawlessly. To have someone observe and ridicule or rejoice of your abilities, makes for a very stressfull day. I don’t think you will ever feel as truly exposed and vulnerable about your job than when on a check ride.

The stress to perform, the stress to impress or do a good job, or even to just pass, is immense. No matter where you go, or who you will be checked by, they will likely have years of experince in excess of ten fold your own. They will squint funny when you exclaim an incorrect detail, or smile when you are perplexed by a question they’ve asked hundred of applicants just the same as you. I know because I do it. It is this behind the scenes detail of repitition that I fear and loathe.

If this event was good for anything it was definitely a wonderful regaining and refreshing of a perspective I haven’t had in a while. If you knew the reputations and the rumors of my check rides you would understand as do I, the stress I create. Nothing of purpose or intent towards the applicant, I’m not malicious as I am thorough and strict.

On the morning of my checkride, I woke from an uneasy and uncomfortable sleep. The clock barely moved past 2 AM as I stared in bewilderment at it. I had the feeling of a young child on the morning of Christmas. I wanted it not to be 2 AM but rather closer to noon. Done with my check ride and hopefully newly printed certificate in hand. Yet no matter how strong my will power for time changing telekenisis, it was a fruitless labor.

The hours grinded by, marked by shifting in bed relentlessly and checking the time. It was like torture and my brain joined in the treatment. I envisioned my checkride, going over every detail I could possibly think of, yet my brain focused on the dismal outcome it pretended would occur. Apparently my mind had little faith in my abilities and decided to show me pictures of my pathetic failure. I envisioned not even get to the runway for takeoff, failing, and the ridicule I would receive. It had been on my mind for days, yet this early morning was an all out assault on my ego and conscious self image. How could I walk around doing my job so strict and composed if I had failed to even pass a check ride of my own? Oh how they would cackle with revenged pleasure. This torturous thought plagued me and stole a night of sleep.

When I finally ended the clock watching, it was 5 AM. My alarm wasn’t set to alert me for another hour, but I was done pretending I had any ability to sleep anymore. Almost automatically I prepared myself for the day. Completing my morning routine without so much a thought on what I was doing, yet almost entirely on what was about to be. It’s perhaps a miracle I didn’t arrive to the examiner with a half shaven beard, missing shirt buttons and my pants unzipped. Then again, maybe I did.

I got to the airport just over an hour ahead of the time I was to meet the examiner. I knew this examiner well, not in a personal friendship manner, but merely professionally. He had completed an earlier check for my muti engine instructor rating and countless checks for my students. I know what he likes, what he hates, and how to keep him relatively happy. In reality I don’t think he’s ever happy, just degrees of how unhappy he is, and you hope he isn’t when you are scheduled to meet him. He is the perfect example of old world aviators. His balding hair is mostly unkempt and ragged, in place of grey is wrinkled proof of experience and stress. His thick glasses rest heavily on his face and he frequently adjusts them as they must be uncomfortable. Everytime he moves them he squints his eyes as if he now can’t see the floor in front of him. His short stature is accented with his overweight belly. He walks with a slight limp from an injured knee. He carries a milk box crate, holding his headset and documents for todays flight. This primitive flight bag is also used as his step stool to board the aircraft.

His experience is only surpassed by his age. Regardless of truth, its commonly believed he has flown anything and everything that was ever created for the purpose of flight. His legacy stems from an in flight emergency in a fleet Seminole at our airport. Details are blurry but somewhere in flight a propeller seperates from the engine. As if giving up its responsibilities mid-flight, it left an engine shuddering like an earth quake. Without the balance of two blades the vibration will ultimately end the life of the still operating engine. Within moments the vibration is so fierce it removes the engine from almost all its mounts and half ejects the block from the underside of the nacelle. This is problematic for a flying airplane. If you think assymetrical drag is bad with a windmilling propeller, imagine if you can, the drag created from an entire engine dangling beneath the aircraft. As if a Cliffhanger cameo was happening right then, the engine lingered by what must have been a thread. The aircraft was under control but they struggled to ease it down for landing. Once in the traffic pattern to land, they extended the landing gear. This proved to be the near fatal decision of the day. Introducing even more drag to the situation, airspeed became a hot commodity they had little of to spare. In the base to final turn the airplane was no longer able to sustain flight and began to lose directional control. No matter what input for heading control was commanded, the aircraft lethargically declined to perform. This resulted in a predictable roll over towards the half ejected engine. Due either to extreme luck, precise decision making and aircraft control the aircraft struck trees in what is retold by many to be nearly an inverted attitude.

Examiner and applicant walked away.
reference: I was sent a link to the NTSB report for this incident. Something I very well should have done on my own! Thanks Charles.

Now you know the stigma and lore of one of the oldest and most experienced pilot examiners in my area. How could you not tremble with fear at the idea of trying to impress him? Before you even introduce his attitude and demeanor, this tale strikes fear in anyone set to spend time with him for an evaluation.

We sat down at the table after a short exchange of paperwork confirmations. The adrenaline is now flowing with intense vigor. My heart rate has at least doubled. After a few minutes it will subside, but I’ve just been amped by a Niagra sized rush of the best drug ever created. All this excitement and I haven’t even stepped foot in an airplane.

The actual oral consisted entirely of systems of the aircraft. A subject I regularly test of applicants and to be frank, if I didn’t get this one right I probably would have quit my job. As I should have. Luckily, I apparently know the systems of the Piper Seminole. Better than I should if I could brag.

This portion of the exam was much shorter than expected. Cruising through questions with ease, we progressed quickly to discussion of the flight. In a short while I was out preflighting the aircraft.

It was during my preflight that I gave myself a heart attack. One of the many preflight duties includes ensuring the aircraft will fly in the we’ll known ‘envelope’. I had calculated this days prior based on a typical aircraft and planned to adjust it as neccessary the day of the flight. In my haste of the morning, not only did I not update it, I didn’t even check the position of the center of gravity to ensure its position was kosher. Well. It wasn’t. Not by a little, but a lot.

I swore out loud.

How could I have made this stupid mistake? I have done this thousands of times. Just looking at the number that was calculated I could see it was clearly out of range. Yet in my blind thoughtless work, I missed it. Complacency. It could have hurt a lot had that gone unchecked. I was angry I let myself make such a blatent error, yet I was glad that I not only caught it, but had made a mistake prior to the flight. Perhaps superstition, but there will always be at least one thing wrong with evey flight. Its inevitable. I was happy to get it out of the way early and without my examiner privvy to it.

When he limped out to the aircraft he boarded without much of any words. We strapped in and I had a feeling wash over me that I hadn’t felt for a long while. A strange nervousness blended with confidence and stress. A focus ensues that reassures my body and brain of what I’m about to do. I have visualized over and over this moment and the moments to come. If I were ever prepared for anything, it was this event.

I began my work that I had so many times done before and instructed. Its always glorious when a flight instructor gets to do, and not watch. We spend 90% of our time watching, coaching, and teaching. Very few times do I get to demonstrate or even fly myself. So this check ride is fun because I’m in the hot seat making it happen. That alone fills me with a sense of purpose and ability. Quickly and efficiently getting the airplane ready for taxi, we leave the parking spot destined for a runway.

Performing the required checks and briefs of emergency actions, we move for the runway. This is it. The sun has risen halfway to high noon and the heat is following. Waiting for takeoff clearance is like watching someone eat a hearty meal while you druel and starve in wonderment of what it must taste like. Watching the previuos aircraft roar to a full speed gallop towards the sky. Anxious to take that leap as well, they make us wait, as if to punish my child like eagerness. This moment makes me know I chose the right profession. I am madly in love with my mistress, aviation.

“Seminole four three one six uniform, runway two-niner left, cleared for take-off”

“Runway two-niner left, cleared for takeoff, one six uniform, good morning”

My glee was surely felt through the radio and in the control tower. I expect no complementary return of politeness. I just feel like sharing that I’m excited to fly and everyone needs to know it.

Shortly after takeoff, the left engine grew quiet and showed signs of giving up. Controlling the airplane first, I started a sequence almost as memorized and easily recalled at a moments notice as the pledge of allegiance.

Mixtures, props, throttles, flaps up, gear up, identify failure, verify failure, feather dead engine prop, mixture cutoff dead engine, cowl flap closed, alternator off, magnetos off, fuel pump off, fuel selector off.

Before I could perform the feathering the engine awakens from its momentary slumber and I have finished the first of many simulated engine failures for the day. Before the end of this flight the engine will have been ‘failed’ in every conceivable scenario deemed critical. One will end in a complete shutdown and feathering to show my competence and lack of fear(I guess) of flying with only a single engine to keep us aloft.

Overall the flight was begnign. I struggled many times to hear and understand the commands of my examiner. He showed frustrations in having to repeat and clarify what he wanted me to perform. However I was relentless in seeking clarification. A miscommunication of expectations is never good, and the applicant is always the one to blame for lack of understanding the examiner. An excuse I have heard personally many times on check rides, and one I refuse to be subjected to myself.

With little to no commentary from my examiner, I knew he must be somewhat happy with my performance. He made no substantial comments, and just commanded items next to be completed. By the end of the flight I began feeling I had done what I should have, when I should have. Some mistakes had been made that were corrected quickly- none so much outside the boundaries of the requirements. All had gone as planned.

So now my certificate holds three levels of pilot capabilities. Private pilot for seaplanes, commercial pilot for single engine airplaned, and the fresh minted airline transport pilot for multi engine airplanes. It is unlikely that I will ever add another level or class to this. I have reached the top.

Now if only we could get this industry turned around, furloughed men and women back to work, and the natural flow to resume. I can’t wait for the opportunity to continue my never ending aviation education in the form of different airplanes, locales, and duties.