The Nametag

As I sat down, I scanned the faces in the classroom. Some faces I recognized, most I didn’t. They were all captains from my airline.

I turned toward the man that was speaking. Les Bowle’s voice was even-toned and relaxed. Les would be one of my new bosses.

I glanced at my partner sitting in the chair next to me. Rick was a fellow international 767 captain, also based in New York. A faint smile across Rick’s lips was the only contrast to the intensity of his expression. The same intense expression was written on other faces. What the hell was I doing here, anyhow?

A few months prior during my recurrent training, I had gone out to lunch with my friend, Chuck Harman. Chuck is now the fleet captain for the 757/767, a management position. We had attended upgrade training together as brand-new 727 captains over 17 years ago. Due to the circumstances of life, our paths crossed infrequently. Lunch was a great opportunity to become reacquainted. In addition, I wanted to thank Chuck personally for being understanding with a noise abatement faux pas I had committed in Zurich.

Just as we were parting company, Chuck took me by surprise with an unexpected offer. He asked if I would consider becoming a check airman. A check airman? Was my friend suffering from a temporary lapse in judgment?

Surely, there had to be more expertise among the pilot ranks than myself. And why would I want to take the risk that my fellow pilots would hold a wary eye, not sure whether to consider me friend, foe or management? I’d have to wear a nametag — the ID badge of the “dark side.”

I recalled the first time that the opportunity had presented itself. My captain wings were barely dry after only six months in the left seat. One of the check airmen that had flown with me on my operating experience (OE) flights had asked the question. I had been flattered, but politely declined the offer. Despite my refusal, he had forwarded his recommendation to our base chief pilot. The base chief pilot politely ordered me to interview.

Immediately after shaking hands with the check airman supervisor at the interview, I proffered my only demand. With a dead-pan expression, I asked if I would have the authority to perform flight bag inspections. My face cracked into a grin and without hesitation, proceeded to explain all the reasons why I was wrong for the job.

My interviewer smiled. He paused for a moment and then said, “You’re hired.”

Beat at my own strategy, I accepted the offer, resigned to the fact that the job might actually be a valuable career experience. But it was not meant to be. The opportunity never materialized. In the early 1990s, the airline began to take steps backward. New check airman were no longer needed.

As time passed, I contemplated how my career path might have changed. Although my progression with the airline has been more than fortunate, in a way I regretted not having had the experience.

This would most likely be the last time that the door would open. As an added bonus, my direct boss would be a man I admired and respected.

As an insight to Chuck’s character, I’ll mention a handful of his achievements. He illustrated and wrote a series of children’s books with an aviation theme, called Artie the Airplane. (If you have kids, check out: artietheairplane.com). In his spare time, he developed a computer training review for the 767/757 systems. He did the same for the overhead of the 737. The airline endorsed his efforts by providing a link to the training through our pilot’s website. Chuck was also a check airman and a lead check airman. He was a 737 fleet captain. I could continue this discussion with mention of his community contributions and the time he dedicates to his job, but it would look as though I was describing an airline version of Dudley Do-Right.

Despite the positive aspects of the check airman opportunity, I still had trepidations. I asked Chuck for time to consider. He nodded. I stewed.

In the meantime, I got busy preparing an application and a résumé. After a few phone calls and a couple of e-mails, I coerced a handful of pilot manager types to write a recommendation. (No money exchanged hands.) This was all stuff that I hadn’t concerned myself with for over 25 years.

Two months later, I typed the computer code for my schedule onto the keyboard. Where I would have normally seen trips and flight numbers scattered throughout the screen, the month of December was blank except for an initial three days of training. What had I done?

So here I sat in a room full of new check airmen. The question was no longer whether I had made the right decision, but whether I could measure up to the standard. And it wasn’t the standard of the training department that I was most concerned about. My concern was with the standard that I would need to maintain among my fellow line pilots. My qualifications did not seem adequate when compared to the quality of professionalism that I’ve had the privilege to work with over the last several years. How could I possibly be the one to set an example for standards?

In that regard, I started with the only material references that I had. I wiped the film of dust and cobwebs from my flight manuals. I unwrapped a brand-new yellow highlighter and went to work. The only obstacle was the amount of available space in my factory-installed, biological hard drive. And without use, my hard drive has the tendency to dump data. Repetition was my friend.

With a head crammed full of procedures, rules, regulations and system knowledge, I began my first three days of Check Airman 101.

So… what exactly does a check airman do? The primary job description is to help maintain the FAA approved professional operating standards of the airline. The FAA can be in only so many places at one time. It has to delegate its supervisory role. In that regard, line pilots who have been selected by the airline are designated to fulfill that responsibility. Check airmen function on behalf of the FAA.

Part of the job involves flight training. Flight training, for all practical purposes, begins in our simulators. The simulator is the primary venue in learning new airplane systems and procedures. Although our airline utilizes instructor pilots for the initial portion of flight training, check airmen refine the student for the final stages.

In addition, although not technically considered flight training, check airmen are required to act as a crewmember in the actual airplane with the newly trained pilot for the initial required hours of OE — 25 hours for captains and 15 hours for first officers. And yes, the OE is accomplished on actual revenue flights.

On OE flights, the check airman is the pilot in command. In addition to being responsible for the safe operation of the flight, the check airman is responsible for providing guidance to the new pilot. If the new pilot’s performance is lacking, or has signs of placing passengers or the airplane in jeopardy, it may be time to take control. As good instructors know, sometimes there is a fine line between a learning experience and a bad experience.

As an example, I often fly with pilots transitioning from the Super 80. Although the simulator re-creates the operation of the actual airplane in most respects, “the box” never quite duplicates the art of landing the real McCoy. In addition, the majority focus of simulator training is on procedures rather than the last 100 feet to touchdown.

It is common for transitioning Super 80 pilots to begin the flare at altitudes more conducive to landing a go-cart than a 767 because that’s what they have been accustomed to flying. (No disrespect to my intrepid colleagues.) Do I interfere immediately with an assertive verbal command like, “Flare, damn it!” Or do I simply inhale while emitting a shrill sucking sound? Or do I just let the new pilot allow the airplane to mate rapidly with the runway and learn from their bone-crunching mistake; or worse, face the flight attendants and the passengers at the cockpit door?

Judgment calls require experience. Experience cannot be taught in a classroom. I am grateful that such circumstances are rare occurrences with professional pilots.

Another part of a check airman’s job description is that of observer. Captains with our airline require a “line check” every 24 months. A line check is an observation of crew interaction and procedures on a revenue flight. The check airman normally sits in the jumpseat.

Most people don’t enjoy someone looking over their shoulder, but airline pilots are resigned to the fact that the process is part of the job. They are on their best behavior, which typically means that the crew is as professional as always. In that regard, if I am acting in a line check capacity I find it important to be relaxed and unobtrusive.

My airline distinguishes between two different types of check airman. An X-type check airman has the responsibility to train pilots in the simulator. X-types conduct our recurrent check rides. Not only must they be familiar with all aspects of each training program, but they must be familiar in how to operate the simulator at our flight academy. X-types are also responsible for all of the roles described earlier. Some of our X-types are FAA-approved designated examiners. The initial training requirements for the X-types are more extensive. Their training takes at least two months to complete.

As the “X” implies, they are our “extreme” check airman. To maintain proficiency, these pilots are scheduled for monthly “line rotations,” where they are given the opportunity to fly the trips that their seniority would normally allow.

Yours truly has joined the ranks of L-type check airman. L-types are responsible for actual airplane experience only. No simulators. L-type training is normally completed in a month’s time. Our schedules are dictated by the training requirements of the flight standards department. The flight standards department tracks the qualifications needed for every pilot on the seniority list. How they juggle this feat is a mystery, but they are competent at their jobs. My quality of life is dependent upon flight standard activities, so I make it a point to grovel as much as possible. It’s a friendly two-way street.

My monthly flight activity can be classified as more of a gentleman’s reserve schedule rather than the set schedule of my previous life. L-types are given the opportunity to select the days off that they would prefer. Days off requests are granted the majority of time. Flexibility is the operative word.

As for check airman training, I attended three days of ground school that involved standardization philosophy, job requirements and paperwork procedures. The simulator training included two separate four-hour periods. One period was similar to my normal recurrent training only with more intensity added. The other period was performed from the right seat with my partner, Rick, occasionally being directed by our check airman instructor to make life difficult. It didn’t matter. I was doing an exemplary job of embarrassing myself without assistance. Apparently, I had forgotten how to fly from the right seat.

Once the simulator humbling was complete, the next event was to fly a revenue trip from the right seat with an X-type check airman for two landings. Except for some minor fumbling, mostly involving copilot duties, the trip had no issues.

The subsequent mission was for Rick and I to each perform a line check with the FAA observing. We were scheduled to fly a revenue turnaround to St. Louis from DFW. Two separate captains were involved for the two legs. The line check was unusual in that Rick and I flew as copilots rather than sitting in the jumpseat. It was fortunate that the first captain had a relaxed disposition. He was triple-teamed, having to be scrutinized by two new check airmen and the FAA. Nobody deserves that kind of attention.

Despite the over-population of eyes in the cockpit, the line checks were performed without problems. The FAA inspector was satisfied. Rick and I were given a verbal blessing. Only one more step remained. In order to be considered internationally qualified, I was required to have a line check with an X-type on an international trip. This final phase is affectionately called a super check.

Although a trip to Paris was the original plan, I convinced flight standards that my logbook had plenty of entries with CDG (Charles DeGualle). Why not England where I had never been? With X-type check airman Craig Scott in the right seat, we departed JFK for Stansted Airport in the UK. I played the role of instructor. As predicted, I had more to learn than my pretend student. And the learning was not so much book knowledge as it was the knowledge to convey the book. That skill takes practice. Craig was invaluable in teaching me that lesson.

Craig was also invaluable on the layover. He introduced me to the legendary World War II Eagle Pub in Cambridge. His father had been a pilot based at a nearby airfield that staged bombers into enemy territory. The names of airmen, airplanes and aviation paraphernalia were scattered on the walls and ceilings of the quaint old establishment.

With the layover complete, my arrival back at JFK concluded the training. I shook Craig’s hand and thanked him for his patience and expertise. I was now an official check airman.

Although I couldn’t quite put my feelings into words, I knew something had changed. Perhaps it was an attitude. Perhaps it was pride in the accomplishment. Perhaps it was the acceptance of a new responsibility.

My new job will no longer begin and end with the cycle of the parking brakes. My new job has new requirements. Preparation. Review. Updating. Computer entries. Forms. Briefings. Meetings. And, of course, a nametag.

So far, it has been an enjoyable experience. Stay tuned.


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