Unusual Attitudes: Flight Testing Has Its Ups and Downs

Last chances after a big mistake.

Unusual Attitudes Piper J-4 Illustration

Unusual Attitudes Piper J-4 Illustration

** Illustration by Matthew Laznicka**

A student pilot called recently about scheduling a private practical test and mentioned that he had logged several hundred hours over a number of years. He then explained he’d surrendered his private pilot certificate after an accident — well, actually, after two accidents. Somehow he’d avoided any FAA action on the first one, a sort of a variation of CFIT — CFAM, controlled flight into the side of a mountain, while trying to stay VFR in low ceilings and poor visibilities. But when he got into trouble again — this time with a passenger — the FAA decided a re-examination was in order. He was trying to take off in an unfamiliar airplane from a short, grass runway way over max gross weight with a high-density altitude and no wind. He said he’d “pulled it off” (in more ways than one) several times before, but the Beech Musketeer he was flying during his second accident was different from his familiar Cessna 172.

His only good decision that day was to abort the takeoff — a tough call when you’re passing the point of no return. With things going very wrong very quickly, it means very decisively “giving up” and pulling the power. And you may veer off the side or the end of the runway and careen through weeds, ditches and maybe into trees, consciously choosing to “bend tin” but with good chances of walking away. The alternative, desperately “making it fly,” often means stalling in an impossible climb or climbing turn. You rarely walk away from a burning, shattered composite or twisted metal mess of junk that used to be an airplane. In accidents I saw in almost three decades with the FAA, I was amazed at the integrity of the cockpits and cabins in general aviation airplanes that had been “flown through the crash” (thank you, Bob Hoover).

I’m not sure it’s possible to teach this — make it a gut reaction to that rare but worst-case scenario — but I’ve sure tried. I’m convinced it requires reinforcement and that single-engine pilots should use a spoken takeoff briefing like the ones used in multi-engine operations. Before taking the runway, arm yourself thoughtfully with a mantra like: “Anything catastrophic before liftoff or with runway or overrun left, chop the power and put it on the ground. Past the end of the runway up to ____ feet (msl), pitch to best glide, keep the wings level, get the flaps out and pop the doors open. Keep it flying, and land as slowly as possible into whatever’s ahead.”

Notice the altitude is missing because that depends on your skill level, recent experience and the airplane you’re flying. I don’t subscribe to the traditional 500 feet before turning back to a runway. For me — and I’m in the air more days than not — it’s more like 800 to 1,000 feet. Think about the precious seconds it takes to accept the fact that the engine has quit and to execute the unpleasant, counterintuitive action required to shove the nose down to maintain flying speed. Think about the number of fatal accidents that have occurred since airplanes were invented because pilots tried turning back from low altitudes and found themselves flying the aeronautical equivalent of a refrigerator.

So my applicant had made an incredibly dumb decision in attempting that takeoff but made the difficult and wise decision to abort — a decision that probably saved his life and that of his passenger. The FAA accepted his private certificate for temporary deposit at the FSDO in exchange for one with student privileges only (dual instruction and solo practice). Evidently, there was damn little of either because he wasn’t able to work a weight and balance calculation on the retest. The feds gave him another try, but this time he got only as far as the preflight inspection — he’d never used checklists and couldn’t identify things like static ports and pitot tubes. Two failed attempts, neither getting as far as an engine start, meant the temporary deposit of his certificate became permanent. He could agree to a voluntary surrender or the FAA would issue an emergency revocation, and that precious document in his wallet that said Pilot Certificate would be scrap paper.

If you’re serious about getting your certificate back quickly, voluntary surrender is a better option because you can start immediately, while the revocation usually requires waiting a year. But either way, you start from scratch — applying for a new student pilot certificate and medical, studying and being recommended to take the written, passing it, logging the minimum dual instruction Part 61 requires in preparation for the practical test, getting a CFI’s final recommendation and passing the practical test. Fortunately, all your previously logged time counts toward the total required time.

I was impressed that this man — no youngster — had persevered, and I wasn’t too concerned about the 70 he scored on the private written. Think about your score if you had to take that sucker over again. But as we launched into the oral, things began to look ugly, and I got a really, really bad feeling. And I really, really didn’t want this guy to hit another roadblock. So before we got to the “I’ll-have-to-issue-a-pink-slip-on-this-oral” point, I asked him what he thought about the weather. Well, he thought the ceilings were getting pretty low and that we probably wouldn’t be able to fly. Before he could ask about continuing with the oral portion, I was issuing a Letter of Discontinuance. And then I issued a lecture.

He probably wasn’t a “bad stick;” after all, he’d flown successfully — well, usually — for many years. But it had been in rural areas with no knowledge or concern about density altitude, performance charts, weight and balance, checklists, interpreting weather reports and forecasts, airspace restrictions, notams, radio navigation, and communications. I know a lady named Sophie Gilgean — a gracious, patient, knowledgeable, beautiful, fiercely demanding and kick-ass flight instructor — who teaches at a nearby airport. I told the applicant he could schedule with another examiner but that I wouldn’t fly with him again until he worked with Sophie and she told me he was ready. He agreed that an hour or so of ground school probably wouldn’t hurt. After considerably more than an hour or so, Sophie signaled he was ready, and he rescheduled the test. I was right; he was a pretty good stick, but now he knew a lot more. He had an idea of what he didn’t know, and he walked away with a new private pilot certificate.

One more 709 story, and then I promise to quit. A local pilot ground looped and bent his Aeronca Chief while landing at a rural airport in southern Ohio when I was an inspector in the Cincinnati FSDO. It was a fender bender, but a freaked-out neighbor called highway patrol, and that always means the feds get involved.

A sourpuss avionics inspector, who didn’t like airplanes or pilots, was working the file, which would involve a 709 re-examination of the pilot. I don’t know if he was unhappy about the paperwork or his marital life, but he treated the pilot like public enemy No. 1, and another EAA chapter member, Steve Brightwell, called me about this unpleasant, harsh attitude. His friend was upset enough about the bent Chief, but he was now almost catatonic at the thought of taking a flight test from an FAA inspector. The avionics guy happily handed over the file to me when I suggested I finish up the paperwork since I’d be doing the re-exam anyway.

Steve and I had devised a plan. When Steve was sure his friend was comfortable flying Steve’s J-4, the two of them went joy riding on a Saturday morning. Steve said he had to “drain his sumps,” so they landed at Lunken Airport and taxied to the terminal building. With his friend at the controls of the idling J-4, Steve jumped out and ran inside, and I ran out and leapt into the right seat before the pilot could react.

“C’mon, let’s go shoot a few landings at Blue Ash,” I said. “Then drop me back here and pick up Steve.”

He did a fine job, and I told him to go in peace, sin no more and promise not to give Steve any grief about our trick.

Some 20 years later, I put the left wingtip of a Cub into a pickup truck while taxiing to a barn from the front seat with no forward visibility on a steeply uphill, unlit sod strip in the dark. (Yes, it was more about sanity than competency.) The FAA wasn’t much interested, but the insurance adjustor who investigated — a knowledgeable, friendly, helpful guy — looked vaguely familiar. Only after he left and I read his card did I realize he was the Aeronca driver I’d flown with all those years before.

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