Gear Up: Back to School

Dick Karl goes for his commercial certificate.

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(February 2011) — Forty-three years after obtaining a private certificate for single-engine land airplane operations, I have gotten it into my head to fly airplanes for real. By that I mean to fly passengers in somebody else's expensive airplane. I have visions of epaulets, exotic layover destinations and, naturally, extraordinarily fast, ridiculously expensive and new airplanes, most likely jets. I will have lively and interesting conversations with my captain, our clients and their guests. I have been having maximum fun with this fantasy.

An aliquot of reality has presented itself, though. It seems that three requirements need to be met if I am really serious about this: First, I must obtain a commercial license. Second, I must pass the second-class medical exam. Third, I must find a job. In this economy.

This is not the first time these thoughts have invaded my otherwise satisfactory life. I went through all this about two years ago. I got hung up in the free fall of the economy and the fact that I couldn't answer most of the sample questions on the written exam for a commercial certificate. What in the world were they talking about?

In many ways my aspirations might mimic those of many young aviators out there who desire to fly for a living. Perhaps this journey will resonate with them on some level. On another level, though, my experience may be quite different. I am much older (65), have 4,500 hours of experience and have a hard time getting enough time together to pursue this goal. Also, I don't need to do this to pay the rent. So husbanding time is more difficult for me than coming up with the cash for training. In fact, I sometimes wonder if it is even fair for me to tilt at this windmill. What if I were to take a seat that should go to a younger, hungrier pilot — one with a family to feed?

Well, too bad. I want to do this. Here's what's happened so far. I started with the written. Last time around I was so eager to do the flying, I let the written thing go. Only then did I realize that I could do all the steep turns in the world, without varying an inch of altitude, but still no license would ever be awarded without my satisfactorily passing the $%^&%$#@! written.

Where to go but to John and Martha King? With their videos and sample questions I got started. Advection fog and Coriolis forces elbowed their puzzling explanations into my brain. I swear I could hear John and Martha's voices in my sleep. None of it made any intuitive sense. I was going to have to memorize, even if I did not understand. It was painless, but over time I began to realize one more thing: Not much of what was going to be tested on the exam had anything to do with the flying I do in our Cheyenne turboprop. I decided to cross-reference the Kings with the Gleim online course. Another great asset, but the same conclusion.

"If the relative bearing changes from 090 degrees to 100 degrees in 2.5 minutes, the time en route to the station would be:

A.12 minutes B. 15 minutes C. 18 minutes."

What does this question have to do with flying today? Nowhere in either course are there questions and answers about GPS, RNAV, DUATS, DUAT, ADDS, WAAS, fltplan.com or airnav.com. This is not because the course directors don't know about these things; it is because the FAA exam for a commercial pilot doesn't test for these things. The services provided by the Kings and Gleims are designed for one objective: to pass the test. It isn't their fault that the questions have the look of 1973, redolent of shag carpeting and lava lamps, not to mention the aroma of weed.

Nonetheless, I held my nose, took a deep breath, pledged not to dull the mindlessness with alcohol and finally just made myself do it. I found a great bunch at ATP (Airline Transport Professionals) in St. Petersburg, Florida, where I could practice if I wanted and where I could take the test for a $150 fee. Due to time constraints, I did the studying at home. My goal was to get a 71 on the test for a simple reason: 70 is passing.

I was surprised on the day I selected for the exam because I was told that ATP must sign me off to take it. This involved taking a practice exam, making the time commitment twice as long as I had anticipated. Chris Tyson, a delightful 28-year-old ex-mechanical engineer who had decided that aviation, not Boston Scientific, was for him, was gentle about this added detail, but I was still surprised. I had already decided to cede the FAA several questions. No matter how much I tried, the questions about heading changes and remote magnetic compasses were too much for me. They made my head hurt and I never got them right. There were other involved computations that I just didn't have the patience for. When the question was not relevant in today's world, I had a hard time going through the motions. If I want to see how long it is to the station, the destination, the next waypoint or anywhere else, I look at one of the GPS navigators decorating our panel.

As I kicked and screamed about the test, I thought about questions I might write, were I in charge around here. I might ask what RAIM is, or maybe what the "hourly method" of fuel calculations used on fltplan.com means. I might ask if information about visibility or ceiling is more important in mountainous terrain without radar coverage. This last question popped into my mind as I leveled off at the decision height on just such an approach. The tower was calling for 300 overcast with good visibility underneath, but the decision height was 388 feet above the ground. (At the last minute I saw the runway end identifier lights and made an uneventful landing, even though I can't answer the question about the relative bearing changes during 2.5 minutes as noted above.)

Grading is immediate now. My last written exam for an FAA certificate was in 1972, when I got an instrument ticket. The questions haven't changed much but the results are available instantaneously. To my chagrin I got a 93. The unavoidable explanation for this grade was that I had wasted time studying by some 22 points. Who knows how many minutes that was, or what I could have done with that time?

In some ways this exam mirrored my experience with the American Board of Surgery recertification written exam. In this case the information was new, not moldy, but the need to memorize was still a prominent feature of the exercise. In many of the case scenarios presented in the exam, I never would have treated a patient with the index condition without looking up the relevant information in medical literature. Powerful search engines are available in medicine now, and I'd rather be tested on my ability to use them than to memorize a lot of material that has little relevance to my clinical practice as an oncology surgeon.

One obvious difference between aviation and surgery is that it is hard to pull over to the side of the road and consult the Blackberry for decision support when you are hurtling down the ILS at 120 knots. Nonetheless, I think it would be in our collective best interest to have the commercial written reflect what's going on now in the sky.

Aviation safety lessons are an iterative process. Some things are tried, and some things don't work. The unhappy result is carefully studied and the lessons learned, and the word goes out. Les Abend said just this in his December Jumpseat column. While talking about entering navigational data on a transatlantic trip, he wrote, "My airline has systematic procedures for reviewing, entering, verifying and flying the route. Although the procedures reek of busy work, they do reflect a method developed from bad experiences."

It seems the written part of the commercial certificate process has not included much of what has happened in the past several decades. I know that rewriting the exam is a prodigious undertaking, but I can't help but wonder if it might be a good idea. When it comes to flawlessness, we still have some ways to go in general and commercial aviation, and a program designed to test what has been learned might be a good idea. I would gladly repurchase those preparatory courses, and I might find some valuable tools to make my flying safer. I'm sure those wealthy future passengers would be grateful. That is, of course, if I could pass the practical test and the medical exam and find a job.