Forget about flight reviews and instrument competency checks. Part 135 operations are conducted in a thicket of regulations. Among them are the requirements of Section 299:
a)** “No certificate holder may use a pilot, nor may any person serve as a pilot in command of a flight, unless, since the beginning of the 12th calendar month before that service, that pilot has passed a flight check in one of the types of aircraft which that pilot is to fly. The flight check shall:
1) Be given by an approved check pilot or by the administrator.
2) Consist of at least one flight over one route segment.
3) Include takeoffs and landings at one or more representative airports. In addition to the requirements of this paragraph, for a pilot authorized to conduct IFR operations, at least one flight shall be flown over a civil airway, an approved off airway route, or a portion of either of them.
b) The pilot who conducts the check shall determine whether the pilot being checked satisfactorily performs the duties and responsibilities of a pilot in command in operations under this part, and shall so certify in the pilot training record.”
So when Kara of Elite Air phoned and asked if I could fly as first officer for Jason Hepner’s 299 ride, I said, “You bet.” You see, there have been some changes at Elite Air. My captain, Mike Bronisz, is moving up to the Legacy 600, and Jason, who is typed in the Lear 31A and sometimes flies as captain and sometimes as FO, is moving up to be the full-time captain. A full-time Lear FO has just been hired, and I am the spare guy in the rotation.
I had trepidations, though. It had been two months since I’d been in the airplane, and I knew I had forgotten a lot, if not everything. I also knew that Jason would have some understandable anxiety about being under FAA scrutiny with such an inexperienced first officer. For that matter, so would I. Airline pilot friends told me that, though this was Jason’s check ride, my own license and privileges were at risk. If the examiner saw something he or she didn’t like, I could end up hurt.
Though I had never met Jason, I called him and arranged to meet him the week before the check ride. He graciously got the Lear hooked up to a power cart and was patient with me. If he was anxious about putting his own livelihood on the line with this rookie FO, he didn’t show it, at least not yet.
We started with the walk-around. This did not go well. There are 55 items on the exterior preflight checklist. I got the wings, pitot tubes and stall vanes correctly, but I couldn’t properly name the pitot static drains, the oxygen discharge disc and the fire discharge discs. In the hell hole, I had a hard time reading the hydraulic accumulator pressures, not to mention the pressures on the fire bottles. Jason remained calm.
Once in the cockpit and nestled (I do mean nestled) into the FO’s seat, we ran the “before start” checklist. Again Jason the docent led the blind FO. Slowly it started coming back to me. “I’ve got to fly more, a lot more,” I thought. We simulated engine start and I played fumble-fingers with the flight management system. The FMS is not a big part of initial Lear 31A training; these duties are discharged by the FO. The only trouble was that now I was the FO and these obligations were mine. Jason and I had a cup of coffee and reviewed what we could about the check ride. “We’ll be very careful with the checklists and we’ll be doubly sure we have the right Jeppesen charts with us,” said Jason. “You will keep them displayed as appropriate.”
“You’ll do fine,” said the reassuring captain as we parted ways. Our next meeting would be in the company of the FAA examiner. In fact, our check ride was to be administered by Elite Air’s FAA-designated “principal operating inspector.” It occurred to me that I could maybe even screw the pooch for the entire company. “We are scheduled to fly at 9 a.m., so let’s meet at 8.”
That Tuesday dawned clear and brisk. A cold front had swept through the day before, leaving me grateful that this exercise was not going to take place in low instrument conditions. I picked up a couple of Starbucks. Jason was already there when I arrived at 7:45. Two other Elite Air pilots were at the round table in the hangar. They were Beechjet pilots, and they were getting checked today as well. They were in uniform, four stripes apiece. Jason and I were in civvies, a good thing as I am the only three-striper in the group. Let’s not rub it in.
Robert Donahue, the POI and FAA check airman, arrived on the dot at 9. He asked for each of our licenses and medical certificates. Even though I was not getting a check ride, Bob inspected my paperwork with rigor. Then a surprise: The Beechjet captain asked to see Bob’s documents. He produced a wallet with “Federal Aviation Administration” emblazoned on it. Given Bob’s FAA hat and shirt, that would have been enough for me, but the examinee persisted. Bob opened the wallet to reveal a sheet of what looked like velvet. When he peeled it back, there was a gold badge. It looked to be the size of a hubcap, as you might expect for a man who had flown just about everything from seaplanes to Gulf Coast helicopters.
Bob nodded with pleasure when we asked him if he had any guns or weapons of destruction on him. It became evident that this event was going to be played by the book by all concerned. The Beechjet guys would fly first, and that would give me a little more time in the cockpit to prepare and work out weights and speeds.
When our time arrived, Bob agreed to the short flight from St. Petersburg (KPIE) to Sarasota (KSRQ), Florida.
The short trip would save fuel, but things happen quickly in a Lear on short segments. We’d fly the ILS to Runway 14 at KSRQ. Bob watched us do the preflight without saying much, but when Jason briefed him on the emergency procedures, Bob asked him how to tell if the life jackets were current and approved. Good thing Jason knew.
As I called for the clearance, Jason closed the door, always a thrill on the Lear 31A. Sure enough, the door light would not extinguish on the glareshield annunciator light panel, so we recycled. Still no joy. We called maintenance, which came out and concluded that it was a switch issue, MEL’d the door annunciator light and affixed a placard to the glareshield. Then Jason closed the door one more time, and the light went out. Natch.
Off we went, taxi diagram on the yoke, reading checklists and, finally, lining up for takeoff. It all went well. When our heading to intercept the ILS at KSRQ looked like it might not get us lined up, Jason said, “Ask for an additional 10 left.”
I did, and then jumped off our common radio frequency to get the ATIS. Jason acknowledged and briefed me when I got back that the only change had been the heading. I checked the audio for the ILS and copied the appropriate dots and dashes. I computed the landing and go-around speeds. I briefed Jason on the approach, including the date of publication of the Jeppesen chart. He briefed the go-around procedure.
We landed softly and turned off the active at midfield. Bob said little. We just stayed there on the taxiway while I got the flaps reconfigured, recomputed our takeoff weight and got the route back to PIE in the box. There was no rush. Finally we taxied back and took off. Seconds later, it seemed, I was picking up the PIE ATIS. Jason brought us onto the downwind and then the runway with a surety of experience in flagrant display.
By 11:30 we were back at the round table in the hangar. I asked Bob about when pilots are most dangerous. “The first 1,500 hours and between 5,000 to 7,000. In the first instance, they are just learning. By 1,500 hours they start to listen to the airplane. Between five and seven thousand it is complacency,” he said. He also knew I was trying to hide my concern about his verdict.
Not to worry. Jason had nailed it. My favorite part? “As a crew,” Bob said, “I put you two in the top 10 percent. You were well structured, had exceptional checklist use and worked very well together. You are obviously very used to your roles.”
It was only fair that I told him that, before that clear morning in January, we had never flown together. Jason remained calm throughout.