Unusual Attitudes: Re-Exam Reminiscences

** 709 Re-examination Letter (edited)**

It is very likely — I hope — that this slightly edited version of a 709 re-examination letter is the only one you’ll ever see. The FAA can legally demand a retest of your qualifications any time it chooses, but in practice, this happens only on the heels of some event — an accident or incident, an ATC report of a deviation, an inspector observing an unsafe or illegal operation or a credible report of some dastardly deed from a “reliable source” (like a competitor or pissed-off ex-wife).

After 28-plus years of investigating mishaps and screw-ups, “pushing” the re-exam option, sending that form letter to errant aviators, conducting the rides and even taking one after an excursion through the weeds in a Champ, I guess I know as much as anybody on the planet about the process. And although I often come down on the FAA for being heavy-handed, I think the 709 (formerly 609) is a valuable tool that, when properly conducted, can effectively head off potentially unsafe or ugly situations. But it goes without saying that the checks should be conducted by somebody who knows what the hell they’re doing and is familiar with the kind of operation under scrutiny.

Since, alas, the FAA doesn’t always get high marks for common sense, that’s not always the way it works.

Strangely, I was assigned to re-examine an air carrier pilot who’d had a tail strike on takeoff in a Boeing 727. The pilot lived in our district, but the re-exam request came from the Louisville, Kentucky, office that managed that carrier’s certificate. Since the object was to evaluate the pilot’s competency so he could hang onto his Boeing 727 type rating, one would assume it would be conducted in a Boeing 727 or a simulator by somebody experienced in big airplanes. That should have excluded me, whose experience with tail strikes was pretty much limited to flattened tie-down rings on the back ends of Cessna 152s. But the company had terminated the pilot, and he couldn’t afford to “rent” a 727 or buy time in a simulator; Louisville told me to use whatever kind of flying machine the pilot chose. So I dutifully watched him take off, land and go around without mashing the tail of an old Cessna 172 he’d borrowed from a friend for the test.

Although I didn’t have the slightest idea if he could fly a 727, I did come away with some opinions about his basic flying skills. We were flying a right-hand traffic pattern with a pretty brisk right crosswind on the runway. The turn from right base to final was high — like maybe Boeing 727 high — and when I suggested a slip, things got pretty strange. He badly overshot the runway and then crabbed to the right to realign himself (still high). He rolled wings level and then cranked the ailerons and rudder into something halfway between a left sideslip and forward slip. This was necessary, he informed me in the post-flight discussion, because “you can’t slip an airplane to the right.” Well, I didn’t want to ruin his career; he hadn’t struck the tail, and I doubted he’d be cranking many 727s into slips on base-to-final turns (if he found another job), so I passed him — but not without telling Captain Tail Strike he didn’t know jack about basic airmanship and the “art” of flying.

Those “freight dogs” who flew Beech 18s and DC-3s in all kinds of weather would occasionally end up short on an approach or run off the end after landing long and hot. These shenanigans — if they were seen and reported — would call for a 709, and I often got to do the honors.

Since he’s written a biography about his adventures and misadventures, I can tell a story about my friend Richard Zerbe, one of my all-time favorite people — a gutsy, handsome, hugely experienced and talented man with a great personality and pages of type ratings. I always loved flying with Dick (even when the equipment left something to be desired) and was amused at the endless supply of lady copilots who occupied the right seats of Goons he flew over the years for various freight companies.

Carrying a load of auto parts into Anderson, Indiana, one night with the current “lady of the evening” making the approach and landing, Dick must have been distracted by who knows what. Maybe the copilot was also distracted by who knows what because she got low enough on final to roll the wheels of the DC-3 on top of a tractor trailer driving down a road at the approach end of the runway. I guess it was hard to deny when they were confronted at the ramp by an irate semi driver with funny-looking tire marks on the roof of his rig.

Since he was the pilot in command, Dick was on the hook, and he brought the airplane to Cincinnati for the 709 ordered by the Detroit FSDO. I have no idea why we decided to land at Clinton Field in Wilmington, Ohio — not the nearby, humongous Airborne Airpark with 11,000-foot runways but instead the county airport with a single 3,500 strip. But the approaches were good and we were light, so I told him if he could make the runway without hitting any of the cows grazing in a field on short final, it would be a “pass.” We managed to miss the cows, which were totally oblivious to the imminent danger, and then borrowed the airport car to run into town for lunch. To the delight of the operator, Dick ordered fuel, but the 100 octane hose was so small, they were still fueling when we got back to the airport. Townspeople had gathered; kids were hanging over the fence, and a reporter and photographer from the Wilmington News Journal were there covering the story of the “biggest airplane ever” at Clinton Field!

Then there was Harry, who, I believe, had been flying since shortly after Wilbur and Orville showed us how. In Harry’s world, the copilot’s role was to load and unload freight, sit on his hands in the right seat, monitor the vacuum gauge and keep his mouth shut.

He and a very new, very young copilot had picked up a ton of ice westbound over the Alleghenies while carrying a load of freight from Philadelphia to South Bend, Indiana. When they couldn’t maintain altitude even with the boots and deice going full speed, they got vectors for an ILS into Cleveland Hopkins International Airport.

Harry called for gear down (a two-hand operation in the ’3), but even though the copilot pulled all the right handles, they couldn’t get a green light. Instead of turning the controls over to the copilot, Harry allowed the airplane to descend while he leaned down between the seats and tried to troubleshoot the problem. The gear was probably down and locked, but you won’t get a light if the switch in the wheel well is iced over.

Meanwhile, they’d broken out of the overcast, but nobody was “minding the store,” and the airplane was sinking dangerously below the glide slope. The copilot was catatonic, and when Harry finally added power, it wasn’t enough. The airplane stalled and started to roll so that one wheel hit short in the approach lights and then, incredibly, bounced the Goon onto the runway. Even more incredibly, they taxied to the freight ramp without saying anything to the tower or ground control, grabbed a cab and went to a motel. I guess nobody realized anything was amiss until airplanes on approach asked what had happened to the approach lights and a freight loader on the ramp noticed some light posts embedded in the underside of the wing.

It took two 709s and almost a sledgehammer to convince Harry he had a copilot for a reason and he damned well better start using him. Actually, I rather doubt he ever really bought the “CRM” concept and retired instead to a beach in Florida.

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Martha Lunken is a lifelong pilot, former FAA inspector and defrocked pilot examiner. She flies a Cessna 180 and anything with a tailwheel, from Cubs to DC-3s.

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