Smoke is pouring from the exhaust stacks of Walt Pierce’s Stearman. The prop snarls at the air as a Pratt & Whitney radial engine drives 450 horsepower to that whirling airfoil, pulling the airplane ever faster. The pilot and airplane work as a team. They’re directly over the airport at low altitude. Together, they nose over and race down toward the runway. As the airspeed indicator touches 150 mph Pierce pulls on the stick and heads up again, past the vertical, going inverted, then rolling right-side up again to complete the first half of a Cuban 8.
It’s just another day at work for Pierce and the airplane he’s dubbed Ol’ Smokey. Since 1963 the pilot from New Mexico has been thrilling crowds with his mastery of the airplane. He’s been working with Ol’ Smokey since he acquired it in 1968.
The fact that his name is emblazoned on the side of the airplane in letters two feet tall says something about his renown. The fact that those letters are upside down so they can be read by an airshow audience as Pierce and Ol’ Smokey cruise past low, fast, and inverted says something about Pierce’s ability to precisely handle the airplane in ways most of us never will.
But none of this matters as Pierce sits in Steve Alcorn’s office on Gilbert Field in Winter Haven, Florida. Alcorn is an aviation jack of all trades. Rated in airplanes and helicopters, he’s an aircraft mechanic and an aircraft mechanic examiner. Although a World War II-era hangar sits on the other side of his office door, there will be no wrench turning today—Alcorn is exercising the privileges of his flight instructor certificate to run Pierce through an experience all pilots face from time to time. They’re embarking on the educational journey of knowledge and skill assessment known as the flight review.
Alcorn thumbs through Pierce’s logbook, noting dates and flights and experiences that matter a great deal to a pilot’s pilot. Their interaction bears some resemblance to a kid meeting a ballplayer on a cool summer evening after watching him win a game. Alcorn is as much a fan as he is a friend. He’s seen Pierce perform many times over the years, sometimes as a face in the crowd, sometimes as a fellow performer. Reminiscing about the first time he saw Pierce and Ol’ Smokey perform, he’s wistful about the old days. “It was back in Greencastle, Indiana,” Alcorn says. “I was just a young man, 21 or 22 years old.”
Alcorn is no stranger to the airshow business, either. Years ago he had an act called the World’s Shortest Airport, which was in fact a 1969 Pontiac Catalina on which Alcorn would land his Piper Cub as the car drove down the centerline of the runway. It’s fair to say both participants in this flight review have a talent for manipulating the controls of an airplane.
The oral portion of the flight review includes a few memories, a story or two, and delves off into, “Hey, do you remember so and so?” now and then. But the discussion always finds its way back to the business at hand. By the time it’s over, Pierce the client and Alcorn the flight instructor have invested well more than the minimum one hour of ground training required in any flight review. Neither of them is complaining about it, either.
For his part, Pierce is all business. The flight review is more than a formality, and he knows it. Like most good pilots who have managed to achieve both notoriety and longevity, he knows the flight review is a tool he can make good use of. If conducted properly it can be an important refresher. This is where the mighty and the mild meet, because there are no inverted low passes on the flight review.
Before he was an airshow performer, Pierce flew right seat for Trans Texas Airways, which gave him the opportunity to fly with men who learned to be pilots well before the outbreak of World War II. “I got to fly with a lot of old timers,” he recalls. The lessons they taught him stick with him to this day. Among them is a standard of achievement sketched out by a captain he flew with in his younger days. The older pilot said, “There’s three kinds of pilots. There’s regular pilots; there’s the intermediate pilots—they’re the professionals; and, ultimately, you become an artist. Son, anything you do, you want to become an artist.”
As you might imagine, the FAA has a thing or two to say about the flight review. It starts with Federal Aviation Regulation 61.56, which requires a minimum of one hour of ground training and one hour of flight training to complete a flight review. A review of Part 91 is required, as are the maneuvers the instructor deems necessary to demonstrate the safe operation of the aircraft in the system. The FAA is interested in proficiency. It produces a document that can be downloaded as a PDF from the Internet for free (“Conducting an Effective Flight Review”).
While a minority of flight instructors will utilize this document on their own, very few pilots likely will ever read it. That’s unfortunate because this short publication covers everything from managing expectations to establishing a training plan to filling an ever-expanding number of deficiencies. Changing regulations; the installation of advanced technologies, both in the aircraft and on the ground; and even the introduction of new maneuvers to the practical test standards for various pilot certifications virtually guarantee all pilots will have a hole in their knowledge base at some point.
What about Pierce? Does the pilot who spins and rolls and zips over the surface of the Earth with the dirty side up have limitations? “Absolutely,” he says. “I don’t hesitate to tell people that.”
Being really good at what you do isn’t about knowing everything. It’s often about knowing where you are weak, and putting in action a plan to strengthen that weakness.
It was many years ago that Pierce decided he wasn’t as good at instrument flying or multiengine flying as he would like to be. So he chose to focus his career on single-engine operations in VFR conditions.
With those self-acknowledged limitations in mind, it’s no wonder Pierce’s greatest challenge during his flight review wasn’t VFR cloud clearance limits or airspace rules. No, his greatest challenge was stepping out of the Stearman with which he is so closely associated and taking the controls of a Cessna 172. “It’s strange, almost like I never flew a Cessna 172 before,” he said. “I remember how the rudder felt different, but it’s only the second time I’ve flown anything other than a Stearman in four years.”
Add to that slight disorientation because of the Garmin G1000 glass panel in the aircraft, and it isn’t hard to see how even a highly skilled pilot with logbooks full of flight time might have a hurdle or two to clear during a flight review. The Stearman, by contrast, has a decidedly analog instrument panel.
In this respect Pierce is not much different from the rest of us. The flight review isn’t about being the best pilot on the block. Its purpose is to discover the pilot’s level of understanding and ability to perform basic maneuvers and tasks in an aircraft they are rated to fly.
“It’s actually a commercial pilot checkride to commercial pilot standards,” says Alcorn of Pierce’s flight review. That’s because Pierce is a commercial pilot. A sport pilot flight review would reference the sport pilot standards and a private pilot’s flight review would reference the private pilot standards. “Basically, I use the PTS [practical test standard],” says Alcorn.
That choice of using the PTS as a guide rather than basing the outcome of the flight review on personal opinion or the strength of a friendship is what makes Alcorn as professional and highly skilled in his field as Pierce is in his. “You would be surprised how many pilots can’t plan a cross-country,” Alcorn says. He peppers his customers with questions designed to find their strengths and weaknesses. “How much fuel can we take? What is the daytime VFR [fuel] reserve?” These questions and more pop up in the ground and flight portions of the flight review. The pilot has answered all of them before, although it may have been many years ago for some.
“It’s not about what you know,” Alcorn says. “It’s about finding out what you don’t know.” It’s also about filling the holes in the customer’s knowledge base so they can be safer and more confident when they fly. “I’m glad to work with them,” Alcorn says. “I’ll sit down with them and do a weight and balance.”
Alcorn tells the story of a highly experienced Hawker business jet pilot who was thinking about buying a lighter aircraft. For all his flight time and experience, he hadn’t flown VFR in nearly 25 years. So before making the purchase he enrolled in a private pilot ground school and used it as a thorough refresher course.
How did Pierce do on the flight portion of his review? “He pulled out the checklist and used it to do the preflight,” Alcorn said. “He’s got the checklist on his leg and uses it while he flies the maneuvers.” Which is exactly what an examiner wants to see on a commercial pilot checkride, and what an instructor wants to see on a flight review.
“Walt is the ultimate professional,” Alcorn says. Sure sounds like a successful flight review endorsement—and a green light to fly for another two years.
Jamie Beckett is a pilot and writer living in Winter Park, Florida.
AOPA’s Rusty Pilots Program works with local flight training providers to help lapsed pilots get back into flying.
By Jack Boyd
It was October 12, 1980, when I met Sig Uyldert, my local designated pilot examiner (DPE). I was ready for my private pilot practical test. Nine months of training by three instructors in two different states prepared me to do battle with myself as an applicant for this rating. Uyldert wasn’t expecting me to demonstrate new maneuvers or command another model of aircraft; he simply hoped to see me perform the same way I had done in the past few weeks.
Uyldert was an intimidating figure when I met him. I imagined his years of dodging thunderstorms and making seemingly impossible instrument approaches to unfamiliar runways. My case of checkride-performance anxiety peaked as my mind raced through what was expected from me that day. Long story short—my checkride was successful, but I often wondered how Uyldert got to the esteemed position of DPE.
For me, the DPE appointment process started with submitting an application to the FAA’s National Examiners Board (NEB) documenting my certificates and experience, and an essay detailing why I should be considered. I met the requirement of thousands of flight hours in various categories and a record free of accidents, incidents, and violations. My essay stated that my years of flight instruction, corporate aviation, and airline experience uniquely qualified me for the role of pilot examiner. The NEB thought so, too, and notified me that I was selected to participate in the applicant pool among hundreds of other candidates—some swimming furiously for years in hopes of being one of the top three in each region chosen when a DPE position opens.
Last January the anticipated phone call came from the assistant manager of the South Florida Flight Standards District Office. I was asked to interview in consideration of appointment as a DPE.
After an interview and online knowledge exam, I was shipped off to Oklahoma City to attend the DPE initial training seminar—“FAA Charm School,” as one of my instructors called it. The other candidates in my class included retired military test pilots, current and retired airline captains, and an oil rig helicopter chief instructor pilot. We were drilled in our knowledge of the FARs, practical test standards, and how to conduct a practical test and evaluate an applicant. We were videotaped conducting mock oral exams, then critiqued by our instructors and fellow candidates. The mock orals became a competition to test our level of aeronautical knowledge. We also were schooled in methods to make an applicant feel at ease during a practical test, which I found quite helpful.
The charm school came to a close and we were tested on our absorption of knowledge with another online exam that required successful completion to graduate; it led to further evaluation and training at our local FSDO. Back in Miami, this started with an oral exam with Aviation Safety Inspector (ASI) Bud Melvin, who manages the DPEs in the nation’s largest FSDO.
Until I had my first question from Melvin, I thought I had a fairly good knowledge base. His question: “What is proper taxi speed?”
My answer: “One that maintains positive aircraft control; approximately a brisk walking pace.”
“Wrong answer,” he said. “Look up the definition in your FAA Airplane Flying Handbook. You need to know the exact requirements to evaluate an applicant.”
I found the definition and he was correct. There were more examples of this, but apparently I scored sufficient knowledge to receive the nod from Melvin. He also warned me to study harder, so I consumed every nuance in the Airplane Flying Handbook and Aeronautical Information Manual over the next week. The FAA Airplane Flying Handbook does say, “Taxi speed should be at a rate where movement of the airplane is dependent on the throttle.” Slow enough that if the throttle is closed the aircraft can be stopped promptly.
Next were flight evaluations, consisting of a preflight briefing and questions on the standards for and proper demonstration of the various private and commercial pilot maneuvers I would be judged on, in both single- and multiengine aircraft. Again I was admonished to know the exact description of the PTS tasks; nothing less than perfection was Melvin’s credo. Each of the three flights we did was observed by Melvin and another ASI, with the two of them trading seats while evaluating my every move. At times I was asked to describe typical mistakes and deficiencies by applicants while demonstrating the task maneuver.
Although there is no practical test standard for a DPE, the majority of my performance during these flights was, in my opinion, within private or commercial PTS standards. But I was asked to repeat most again to near perfection. Melvin stated that I should strive to be perfect if I am to judge the performance of others.
Nearly 34 years after that flight with Uyldert, and having dodged my share of thunderstorms and safely flown countless instrument approaches to minimums, I received my appointment as a DPE. This designation is the pinnacle of a professional aviator’s career and marks the beginning of public service. My letter of designation states, “I have been found to have the necessary knowledge, skill, experience, interest, and impartial judgment to merit special public responsibility.” It’s been a long road but I feel fortunate to be here.
Jack Boyd is a DPE in Florida and president of Gold Standard Aviation in Miami.