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Evaluating Unknown Pilots

Control your risks

Ask a group of flight instructors to name the riskiest aspects of their work and you will typically get these responses: soloing student pilots; teaching crosswind landings; stall/spin work; and answering for mishaps or violations involving pilots with whom they have instructed in the past.

In each of these cases, it's worth taking careful preventive measures. But there is another operating area in which CFIs may not recognize a unique risk: evaluating unknown pilots. Usually these professional encounters consist of brief periods after which we must make judgments about pilots whom we have never met before. We must grant-or not grant-operating privileges to these pilots on the basis of our short time together. Mostly, these decisions are based not on carefully prescribed programs of training but on discretionary techniques selected by the evaluating instructor. Rest assured it is this evaluation process that will be most strongly questioned if you turn out to be wrong.

Years ago when I was a full-time flight instructor, I was enjoying a lunch break one fine summer day in the classroom on the second floor of the hangar. Footsteps sounded heavily on the wooden stairs. A man appeared in the doorway and asked if I would ride with him "for three crash and goes" so that he could update his rental currency under the company's rules. He did not look familiar to me, but the name rang a bell: He was an airline pilot who sometimes rented our company's light aircraft. Soon thereafter, he rang my bell as his prediction of "crash and goes" turned out to be nearly correct.

Fortunately, I had learned to be wary of airline pilots in the left seat of a training single, especially when they were seeking a hasty checkout before taking a date on an aerial tour of the region's natural wonders. I made my displeasure known. The rest of the checkout was more businesslike, and while I was ultimately comfortable renewing the man's rental agreement, I was not particularly impressed with his piloting skills.

This flight had a happy ending, but a CFI is wise to take a serious approach to such short-term professional engagements. Rental checkouts of transient pilots or new customers of the FBO may or may not uncover hidden flaws in the pilot's technique. The company needs customers, but that need must be balanced against safety and liability. If you are a CFI who is moonlighting or working freelance, don't launch on one-time flights in a privately owned airplane to administer a flight review or teach until you are certain that the airplane is legal, airworthy, and certified for the operations you will conduct.

Unknown pilots aren't the only hazard to your professional health. The operating environment created by the Federal Aviation Regulations can leave CFIs out on a limb, such as when you grant such required signoffs as high-performance piloting privileges or a one-time tailwheel endorsement. Think about it: Does proficiency in a 65-hp Aeronca Champ imply competence in a 300-hp Cessna 185 or in an AT-6? You get the idea. So those are the issues, but what are the solutions?

Above all, don't be nonchalant about these affairs. Brief as these encounters are, they can be serious in scope and consequence. We can't fly with the pilot in every make and model with a tailwheel or a 200-hp engine or retractable gear, but we can give a darn thorough checkout in the ones that we do fly.

I would also suggest the following approach. Recognize that you are the barrier between an unknown pilot and the company's vulnerability. Respond accordingly by quizzing the individual on his knowledge of general flight rules, the specific model of aircraft to be flown, and any local considerations (terrain, nonstandard flight procedures, weather characteristics, and so forth). State that the practical-test standards or any more-stringent company standards will be the applicable measure of proficiency. Review them in a preflight briefing if there is any question. Consider using a questionnaire-based approach, not unlike the presolo written exam that is now required of all student pilots before solo flying is authorized.

Form an impression of the person with whom you will fly. Experience teaches that we should be wary of big talkers trying to wow us with their experience or the number of hours flown-all too often their hours and skills are imaginary. Ask the would-be renter, or flight-review subject, or checkout applicant, to perform a weight-and-balance computation and a calculation of aircraft performance. Monitor the preflight inspection-openly or covertly-for completeness and care, rather than giving in to the more tempting (and common) practice of making small talk with the help in the FBO while the renter gets ready. In flight, evaluate routine operations with the same care that you would use to scrutinize maneuvers and emergencies. Apply realistic but safe distractions as a designated examiner would on a flight test. Don't hesitate to go back over weak areas or insist on more training before granting your professional approval. Document everything you do in the pilot's logbook, in your own records, and in the company's files against the unlikely but always possible event of an incident or accident.

Years ago, an old friend who was a designated examiner gave a flight test to an applicant for an instrument rating. The applicant performed well, seemed smart and cautious, and had no trouble meeting the standards. Shortly thereafter, the same pilot launched on an ill-advised flight with a passenger aboard. The consequences were tragic. Although held blameless and spared from the legal wrangling that ensued, my friend has often asked himself if he might have somehow spotted whatever flaw in judgment or character motivated the new IFR pilot to launch into freezing drizzle on that fatal night. The question has no answer, but it's a question that no one wants to be forced to ask. One way to ensure that you never ask yourself that question is to know what areas of flight instructing are risky-and to be ready when duty calls.

By Dan Namowitz

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