Gear Up: Flunked

I had seen exactly this scenario many times while flying Part 135. What happened? Flying

“Richard, you have failed this portion of the check ride. You will not be getting a type rating today.” My first thought was the designated examiner had made a mistake.

“You have had full needle deflection twice on this approach,” he explained. I was dumbfounded. I had not seen full needle deflection — not once and certainly not twice. It was a coupled approach. The autopilot had remained on task. The airplane had performed as I would have expected. I had seen exactly this scenario many times while flying Part 135.

What happened?

If you look back at any adverse event critically enough, you will see that the events that led up to the failure are easy to trace — in hindsight. So it was with this, my first test failure. It began with my decision to get a type rating in a Premier 1 in the airplane rather than in a simulator. As chronicled previously in these pages, my wife, Cathy, and I had recently decided to go all in and buy a jet for the last years of my flying career. It had been a dream and hope of mine for as long as I have had memory.

The “in-airplane” type rating had appeal: I would learn in my airplane, hear the actual sounds and feel the actual seat-of-pants forces. I had learned to fly a previously owned Cessna 340 and a Piper Cheyenne this way. The cost was $15,000 for the training and check ride. This sounded like a bargain compared to simulator training, which costs almost twice as much for a complete course and check ride. I brushed by the fact that in-airplane training in a Premier costs about $2,000 per flight hour. When all was said and done, I would have been better off going to FlightSafety.

Two days of ground school were tutored one-on-one by a highly knowledgeable instructor, an employee of the training company. After that, the company arranged for the instructor to fly commercially to Wichita, Kansas, to pick up the newly purchased dream airplane and fly it with me to my home base in Lebanon, New Hampshire. My in-airplane instruction would start with real-world experience.

We took off one splendid September morning, bound for KPPO (La Porte, Indiana), where I knew the people to be friendly and the jet-A cheap. We climbed only to Flight Level 280 because the letter of authorization for RVSM had not yet been processed by the FAA.

As we took off from KPPO we got a resolution advisory that advised us of traffic right off the end of the runway. I pitched up to meet the suggested rate of climb while the instructor scoured the sky for traffic. He didn’t see anybody, and neither did I. Whew.

As we flew along, I took a moment to bask in the airplane. She’s beautiful, fast and sublimely equipped. The air was smooth. The Collins Pro Line 21 avionics system was familiar, given the 1,200 hours of intimacy I had earned while flying Part 135. This was going to be great. Then the master caution light illuminated and the “roll trim” and “speedbrake fail” lights illuminated.

Assuming this to be the beginning of my training, I fished out the checklist and calmly followed the instructions to slow to below Mach 0.64. I read that this would be a no-flaps landing at ref-plus-20 speeds and would require an impressive length of runway. I said to the instructor, “I would divert to Manchester, New Hampshire, with its longer runway, if this were an actual event. But once you replace that circuit breaker, let’s continue on to Lebanon.”

“I didn’t pull a breaker,” he said. And so we did a no-flaps landing at KMHT, where the fault immediately cleared.

The next two days were spent flying. Airwork included three types of stalls, unusual attitudes and multiple approaches, some coupled, some hand-flown, with engine failures. After the second day, the instructor signed me off for the check ride, which was to occur the following day.

But at 5 p.m. the night before the check ride, the designated examiner (and owner of the training company) told us by phone he had not yet received permission to administer the check ride away from his home FSDO. The flight described above didn’t happen for another 10 days.

The day finally arrived, and started off amiably enough. The examiner stated that sometimes people tried to intimidate him and asked me if he looked like a guy who could be intimidated. What to say? I chose to say no. When I admired his Apple Watch, he told me he had several watches, some worth $75,000, but this was his favorite. This seemed to be unusual pre-test banter, but cooperate to graduate, I kept thinking. The oral exam seemed to go well. We took a break.

The examiner said to file for a flight to Portsmouth, New Hampshire (KPSM) for our approaches. I was pleased with this choice because the remnants of Hurricane Jose were lashing the coastline. This would give me a chance to see the airplane fly in real weather. The forecast for KPSM was 700 broken, 1,300 overcast, winds 050 at 12 gusting to 21. We’d be doing the ILS 34.

After some airwork, we started for the ILS. Our first approach would be coupled to the autopilot. The approach controller turned us to a 30-degree intercept for the localizer, but I could see a 38-knot crosswind blowing us sideways. I decided to cheat by turning right another few degrees to intercept. At the same time, the controller realized we were getting blown enough to make the intercept difficult and gave us a heading farther right. Somewhere in here, the examiner failed the right engine. Just then, the airplane caught the localizer, the needles “turned green” and the airplane, which had originally flown slightly through the final approach course, started to correct back to the left. Once it took up the inbound heading, it “realized” the crosswind and started to turn right again to stay on course. As the oscillations began to dampen down, all this looked to me like other approaches on other days in the Cessna CJ3 when crosswinds on an ILS buffeted us. The airplane began to settle down. Then the dreaded words.

Things went downhill from there. I sat like a truant as the examiner filled out my notice of disapproval. More training and retesting would be required at additional expense. I ultimately felt that the examiner had not given me a fair shake, but he was the man with the badge. I was hurt, embarrassed and ashamed. I have never been a big fan of failure. How could this be?

Because I had been very public about getting a new airplane and about the upcoming check ride, everybody at the airport and all my flying friends knew about the check ride. Now they knew I had failed. I was heartened, but only slightly, by the generous comments many made. Among others were: “An examiner can always find something to bust you on.” “This examiner is famous for this — it is all about the money.” “I failed an oral once.” And, my favorite, “So, when did you reschedule?”

Ultimately, I decided to try my luck with a different outfit and contacted the Jetstream Group in California. They had a different vibe, and I felt welcomed. After a day of remedial training, where I learned more than in the previous five days of training (the airplane has an electronic checklist — who knew?), I did the check ride in San Bernardino, California, with an experienced airline captain examiner. Sadly, it was not my best day. This failure had taken a bite out of my confidence. But, I passed and flew home “typed.” My failure had cost me an additional $12,000. And I had been bruised.

Dick Karl
Dick KarlAuthor
Dick Karl is a cancer surgeon who appreciates the beauty and science involved in both surgery and flying. Dick’s monthly Gear Up celebrates the human side of flying. He writes about his enthusiasm for both the machines and the people who fly and maintain them.

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