Pilotage:

Checkride: three tries and counting

April 1, 2010

It’s a gorgeous winter day, ideal for flying, even if the flying involves a checkride. Sweating through a checkride is what I’m supposed to be doing right now. Instead, I’m waiting to find out how my fourth attempt at completing the FAA’s singular rite of passage to a new certificate, rating, or flying privilege will shake out.

My objective is to qualify for a new privilege, which is to fly a Piper Navajo for a local operator, Aeronautical Charters, Inc. (ACI). To do that I first have to comply with Federal Aviation Regulation 135.293, Initial and Recurrent Pilot Testing Requirements. Those requirements call for me to satisfactorily complete an oral or written test on the Navajo, on flying in the system and in weather, on regulations, and on ACI’s policies and procedures. I also have to satisfactorily complete a competency check—a flight check—to demonstrate that I can indeed fly the Navajo competently. I have to demonstrate that I meet the instrument proficiency requirements of FAR 135.297, and the line-check requirements of 135.299, by planning and flying a route segment.

I’m done with the first part of 135.293. It’s the competency and proficiency checks that are taking so long.

Important clarification: The three attempts thus far at completing the competency and proficiency checks have not ended with an “Unsat” (Unsatisfactory) finding. The first two were cut short by some unpredictable and extreme winter weather. Attempt three, set for today, was aborted when the airplane was grounded because of an oil leak.

The make-up day is two weeks away, which means two more weeks to think about it. Fortunately, I’ve worked through the preliminary stages of checkride angst—fear, loathing, nausea, worry, obsession, anger, and, finally, resignation. All that’s left is determination to get the thing over and done with.

Parts 135.293, 136.297, and 135.299 say that, like most checkrides, the oral or written and the competency and proficiency checks are to be given by the FAA administrator or an authorized check pilot. Over the years I’ve had seven checkrides for various certificates and ratings, plus at least a half-dozen more for required annual proficiency checks in turbojets. They’ve all been alike in one important way: Each has been with a designated pilot examiner (DPE), someone other than the FAA itself. In every case, my DPE has been an active commercial pilot—a moonlighting airline pilot, the owner or an employee of the school where I trained for the certificate or rating, or a full-time DPE. My charter pilot checkride, the one that refuses to go away, is my first with no DPE. This time I ride with The Man, the FAA, “the Administrator” himself.

Well, not exactly. Since J. Randolph “Randy” Babbitt, the FAA administrator since June 1, 2009, did not show on my first couple of attempts, I doubt he’ll be waiting for me next time. No, I’m quite certain my FAA overseer will be the same inspector who has suffered alongside me thus far.

The fact that the checkride is conducted by an FAA inspector adds a degree of difficulty simply because it is the FAA rather than a designee, who is a step or two removed from headquarters.

Fortunately, I’ve drawn a personable inspector who is making the checkride more tolerable. More important, he possesses what I believe is the most important quality the regulated can expect from the regulator: He’s fair. No “Gotcha!” trick questions. The focus has been on knowledge, competency, and safety. You can’t ask for more, or less, than that.

I’ve obsessed over this checkride more than is necessary. That’s partly because I’m, shall we say, more mature in terms of years than your average commercial pilot going for an initial checkride with an FAA inspector to fly on-demand charter in a single-pilot, piston-powered, multiengine airplane. Learning stuff like this takes more effort as you grow older, especially if you have lived most of your aviation life in a Part 91 world.

Flying for sport, recreation, and personal business is a different animal than flying for hire, especially on-demand charter. The training and checking for charter pilots is more extensive, frequent, and rigorous, and there are many more regulations and regulators with which to comply and contend.

Two of us are transitioning into ACI’s Navajo. The other pilot, Brandon Lefever, is a young guy who flew Pilatus PC-12s for Alpha Flying, Inc. before joining ACI. He’s sharp on instruments, on procedures, on the regs. It seems to come naturally to him, and boy, am I envious.

On the other hand, I believe I’ve been prepared well for the checking. ACI Director of Operations Max Modica has a background in flying for regional carriers. He’s a straight-and-level, transportation kind of pilot who gets satisfaction from flying the airplane and its paying passengers from here to there safely and efficiently, and all that entails. He’s passed to Brandon and me many of the lessons he’s learned.

If there is anything I bring to the table, it is that gray hair above my ears, those decades of cross-country flying in all kinds of weather and in a variety of airplanes. It teaches you something about decision-making and judgment. Let’s just hope Mr. Babbitt sees that and agrees.

Mark Twombly is a commercial pilot who lives in Southwest Florida. E-mail the author at mrtwombly@gmail.com.