Never Again

More than a flight review

August 1, 2003

I have waited a few years before writing this, but I think there are some good lessons to be gained from the true account that follows. It began about eight years ago when I walked into the FBO from which I fly at Florida's North Perry Airport underneath the north side of the large Miami International Class B ring. I needed to arrange for a flight review. I was told to come back in three days for a one-and-a-half-hour ground review and then for the flight itself with the CFI.

"Mike," the name we shall give him, was a handsome CFI who had been born and raised in England, and he was friendly, courteous, and competent, as were all the company's CFIs. Of course, he was a good twenty-five years younger than me, but that did not matter. Here he was the professor and I the student.

We spent the first hour and a half in a small room, walled with flight maps and charts, and the flight review was, as usual, a good experience. Mike not only refreshed my flying knowledge, but he also added to it and sharpened it. I admired him, and liked him, and it was already obvious that he had at least moderate confidence in me. I knew the flight regulations and procedures well enough to be a safe pilot. Hopefully, I would fly sufficiently well to be signed off for the flight review. "OK, Gary, you seem to know your flying regulations and all of that; let's go flying!"

Within minutes I was out on the ramp preflighting one of the white Diamond Katanas, which I loved, and soon Mike and I were lowering that big canopy. I had been in the Army Reserves and National Guard for years, and traveled in helicopters for a few hundred hours, but that big Katana canopy made me feel like I was in an Air Force fighter. The tower cleared us and we were off to the practice area over the Everglades.

When you look down from 2,000 feet, it looks like a smooth, grassy world where you could land anywhere if the engine quit. When you get lower, however, the Everglades reveal themselves as a gigantic marsh with real alligators floating and swimming around, perhaps dreaming that this will be the day that a tasty treat falls out of the sky. No worry, however, at least there are no sharks here, and besides the engines are reliable. I was concentrating on my performance, keeping a steady heading and altitude so as to look like a sharp pilot.

We did some steep turns, a few stalls, slow flight, and an emergency engine-out procedure, but when I headed the plane east along the highway between Fort Lauderdale and Naples, which is affectionately known as "Alligator Alley" (now Interstate 75). We did some landings at Opa Locka West, a now-abandoned nontowered airport with two runways perpendicular to each other. I always enjoyed landing there as it made me feel I was flying in the Amazon, or because of the short runways, like I was landing on an aircraft carrier.

"Everything looks good, Gary," Mike said over the intercom, signaling that this flight review was over except for the final landing at North Perry. Then he added, "But have you ever done a loop?" I shook my head and said, "No, not actually. Chandelles for my commercial ticket, but no loops." Mike then asked, "Would you like to try a loop right now, here?"

Aha, I thought to myself, I've really completed a nice flight review and here this young, friendly, and innocent-looking guy is luring me into a trap. I instantly imagined some poor pilot saying, "Yeah, great! Let's do a loop!" with the instructor glaring back, saying, "This aircraft is placarded against aerobatic maneuvers; people like you kill others by disregarding the regulations! I'm not signing you off on a flight review until you've done some heavy safety reading!"

Wait, that's not me; I'm Mr. Safety. I would never dream of doing aerobatic maneuvers in a plane not certified for them. So with some inner pride I said, "No, we can't do a loop in this airplane; it isn't certified for aerobatics, and besides, I see the placard that says 'no aerobatic maneuvers.'" I could not hold back my smile; I was so pleased at what I considered a perfect answer to the trap set before me. I went back to holding course and altitude, as we were heading due north at 2,500 feet.

I could not believe my ears when Mike said, "Let's do it anyway; nobody will see us; after all we're out over the Everglades, and the alligators will never tell." I smiled again, knowing that he just wanted to push the trap one more time, so in righteous FAA examiner tones I condemned even the thought of doing a loop out here. I fully expected next to feel his hand patting my arm or back, with him saying, "Good going, Gary; you are the type of safe pilot we are trying to develop. It will be a pleasure to sign you off on your flight review!" That, however, is not what I heard. Mike said, "If you do it right, it will not put a strain on the wings. You are not afraid, are you?"

Then it happened. He began to explain, as a (good?) instructor, the entry speed for the loop, and opened the throttle all the way, slightly nose down to gain the proper speed...and then I felt us lifting vertically, and then up and over; he looped the plane! I couldn't believe it. He just said, "OK, Gary, now you've experienced your first loop. Now take us back to North Perry!"

I trust that after eight years no one will write me a long letter telling me how I should have turned him in. As an older pilot, I did warn him that doing such things was risking lives. He smiled and said, "No risk at all; I did the maneuver perfectly."

Some lessons are obvious. First, Murphy's Law is dangerous to defy, and looping a plane prohibited from such maneuvers might have resulted in an awful accident with an expensive aircraft ruined and two pilots, if still alive, fighting off alligators with a piece of broken propeller. Second, the instructor in this case might have taught the pilot obtaining the flight review a fatally flawed lesson — that prohibited maneuvers are all right if you do them well. This could lead to a foolish pilot showing off with a friend or two, with the result being a fatal accident. There are a lot more subtle lessons that also could be drawn from this. Since then, I have had four additional flight reviews — all given by instructors who would never dream of performing such an unsafe act. Have I ever looped since? No, and never again will I allow someone to perform such a maneuver in an airplane not certified for it, instructor or not.

Gary Cohen, AOPA 420938, of Pembroke Pines, Florida, is a retired military reserve officer and a part-time professor at Trinity International University's Miami Campus. He holds a commercial certificate with an instrument rating.

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