Not long ago Flight School Business published an article by David Jack Kenny entitled “An Incomplete Check” about a tragic accident that took place in 2013. The accident proved fatal for a private pilot—who had been certificated for less than two months—and three other members of his family. I was his examiner.
I learned about the accident and who was involved a few hours after it happened. At that time we didn’t know what had happened or why the crash had taken place. I will be honest, it hit me pretty hard, and I started wondering whether there was anything that I could have done differently during his practical test that could possibly have helped avoid the accident. This was the first time (that I know of) that a pilot for whom I had provided training or had tested for a rating or certificate had been involved in a fatal accident.
I called a colleague who was one of the senior examiners in my FSDO (and had even given me a couple checkrides along the way as I became certificated) and talked with him. I asked if he had ever had any students or applicants pass away from accidents, and he in fact had. I considered what I remembered about the conduct of the practical test for this particular applicant. I reviewed my notes from the test (examiners use “plans of action” when conducting practical tests) and found no insight in them that led me to think that I could have done anything differently. Like most of my checkride notes, they are simple. Tasks are checked off as “satisfactory” or “unsatisfactory.” If there are unsatisfactory tasks (they didn’t meet practical test standards), the applicant is issued a notice of disapproval. In this case, there weren’t any tasks listed as unsatisfactory, so he was issued a temporary airman certificate. Nothing stuck out as memorable or remarkable from the test. However, I will admit, I do quite a few practical tests, and while every test I do is fully evaluated on the day it is conducted, any particular memory of a specific test months later is typically minimal, unless it is remarkably bad or some other unusual occurrence happens.
An event like this makes you think as an examiner or as an instructor. It makes you think about the responsibility that we have as instructors and examiners.
When examiners and instructors see applicants for practical tests, for flight reviews, for instrument proficiency checks, for insurance checkouts, or to provide more extensive training, we are providing the checks and training that may mean the difference between life and death for those pilots and the passengers that fly with them. This is heady stuff. It is an immense responsibility, and we need to take it seriously.
In this particular case, the pilot forgot to put the flaps back up on a Cessna 172 after his preflight and attempted takeoff heavily loaded with his flaps fully extended. The aircraft didn’t perform as he expected it would and his actions proved fatal.
A few weeks after this accident I was conducting a practical test during which, in the process of a stop and go (something I don’t do very often, but since we were on a runway over 10,000 feet long I allowed the applicant to do so), the applicant forgot to retract the flaps for the takeoff. I asked the applicant to abort the takeoff and taxi off the runway, and then we talked. I informed the applicant that I was going to issue a notice of disapproval for inappropriate takeoff procedures.
The applicant was not happy, and in fact, wanted to argue a little with me about how the airplane could take off anyway even if the flaps were down. Maybe I was still a little bit raw about the subject, but I told the applicant I didn’t care if the airplane “could make it anyway” with the full flaps applied because the POH for the aircraft indicated that a full flaps takeoff was not an approved procedure.
The point that I got from this whole experience is simple: As examiners, instructors, and flight training providers, we are potentially the last line of defense between life and death. Our responsibility is paramount. We are freely given this responsibility, and we shouldn’t take it lightly. I live every day with the knowledge that someone to whom I issued a private pilot certificate killed himself fewer than two months after being certificated.
I can’t say I would have done anything differently when I look back at the event, but I can say that every test I give going forward is affected by the fact that I never want to see another person to whom I give a test have the same result. When I issue notices of disapproval on practical tests, it is because I think there are areas of knowledge or skill that need to be improved for that pilot to meet the minimum standards that will keep him and his passengers safe. That is our responsibility as instructors and examiners.