From the archives: how valuable are check rides?

Editor’s Note: In this trip through the Air Facts archives, we pause in 1967 for a thought-provoking article by Richard Collins. He explores the value of a check ride, and considers whether any evaluation can really improve safety over the long term. His comments on what an instrument rating can do are particularly insightful: “without really working at keeping it current, the instrument rating is worth about the value of the ink on the piece of paper.”

The Most Important Part

If you ask pilots what they consider the most important part of the airplane, you can get a lot of different answers. A purist might say the airfoil. A dependent soul might say the engine, or if he is very dependent, both engines. A lad who just got through buying a transponder instead of a fur coat for his wife might say his new squawk (the one in the airplane) is the most important part. In the final analysis, though, we all must acknowledge that no matter how many engines we buy, and how much equipment we put in the instrument panel, the most important part is the pilot. A safe pilot makes a safe airplane, and an unsafe pilot makes an unsafe airplane.

When the figures are studied, this is borne out. In the National Transportation Safety Board’s recently released review of 1966 accidents there is a terse computer analysis of the causes of small fixed-wing fatal accidents, and the pilot is listed as a cause of 81.36% of the fatal accidents, and as a cause of 80.52% of the non-fatal accidents. It is no wonder that FAA, in considering new rules which will appear to the non-flying public to be just what aviation needs, wasn’t long in proposing proficiency checks for all pilots. It’s simple. In this modern day you ask the computer what causes the accidents, it says the pilot, s0 you ground all the pilots and have safe airplanes.

A good number of you sent us copies of your thoughtful letters to the FAA on the proficiency check proposal, and only about 10% of the letter writers indicated they were in favor of annual proficiency checks for all segments of the pilot population. Forty percent were against any form of new rule, and 50% were for proficiency checks or annual refreshers for pilots who fail to fly a specified number of hours per year. FAA’s books on comments closed on April 1st, and if they really seriously consider all comments it would seem obvious that the proficiency check proposal, if enacted, will be very mild.

Some of the letters we have seen are very interesting. One asked the following question: “What statistics, if any, are available to back up the contention that annual dual, or an annual checkride, would materially improve the safety picture?” Another, from a person with considerable experience in both military and civil accident investigation, stated flatly that no scientific proof was available to support the opinion that an annual proficiency flight test would reduce the number of general aviation accidents.

Really, what is proficiency? And, once you decide what it is, how do you measure it, judge it, and relate any lack of it to safety?

Any pilot who flies a certain amount, and doesn’t have any trouble, would seem to be proficient. The most important thing here is that a pilot’s proficiency is related to the type of flying he has done. For instance, a lad who flies a Cherokee only on calm Sunday afternoons is a proficient calm Sunday afternoon Cherokee pilot. Another fellow who spends all his time practicing ILS approaches under the hood at Trenton is a proficient Trenton ILS hood pilot. A pilot who has taken a lot of check rides with fire-breathing inspectors may only be a proficient fire-breathing inspector tamer. The licensing system doesn’t recognize the great variety of things we do with our airplanes. It only recognizes the motives: private, commercial, airline transport, and flight instructor. It is rather up to the pilot, as a matter of self-preservation, to see to it that he is equal to whatever flying task he presents to himself.

The Story

The place statistics tell a story is when pilots start doing something at which they are not proficient.

Take the calm Sunday afternoon Cherokee pilot. As time runs he eventually finds himself at the airport with a strong desire to go somewhere when it is windy. He is at the airport, the local aero club is having a fly-in lunch, his family is with him, and everyone else is going even though the wind has kicked up way over forecast and is 15 knots, gusting 25, and is 45 degrees across the narrow strip at the destination.

Pilot pride being what it is, he decides he can handle it and takes off. Thirty minutes later, after he “lands” and the dust settles there is business for FAA’s computer, which decides the pilot lost directional control after landing. This is, incidentally, such a problem in modern tricycle gear aircraft that FAA has given it a name, “wheelbarrowing,” and issued an Advisory Circular on the subject. “Wheelbarrowing” occurs when the pilot, after landing the aircraft with too much speed, tries to keep the aircraft on the runway by pushing the control wheel forward. This only serves to lighten the load on the rear wheels with the result that the airplane weathercocks and pivots around the overloaded nosewheel.

Who Knows?

Who but the individual pilot in the example would have known that he was not proficient at crosswind landings on narrow strips? His instructor might have known it from days of basic instruction, but certainly no one who had given him a proficiency check on other than a windy day would have known that the pilot was very weak in this area.

For Example

Such examples are plentiful. One which is particularly pertinent comes from the relative accident rate between airplanes of varying complexity. Logic would suggest that the fixed-gear, fixed-prop airplanes are flown by the least proficient pilots. Next would come the retractables, and then the light twins would be flown by the most proficient pilots. In turn, the pilots presumed most proficient should have the best safety record. They don’t, though. In each case, a manufacturer’s most sophisticated single engine retractable has a better safety record (from a fatal accident standpoint) than does the same manufacturer’s least expensive conventional twin. Where does the fixed-gear, fixed-prop airplane come in? Better than the retractable or the twin in most cases.

In that the safety potential of the fixed-gear and retractable gear single engine airplanes should be the same, and the safety potential of the twins should be better, this would only suggest that the potential is not being matched by pilot proficiency in each case.

In flying, some do tend to fall victim to the ruse that something in safety can be bought for nothing other than money. A person can virtually buy any license for himself by paying through the nose for total patience from an instructor. He can also avoid the things which bother him while doing this—such as flying in the wind, or actual instrument flying when working on an instrument rating. After he has passed the written tests, then all that is left is to learn the maneuvers in the flight test guide, and demonstrate them to an inspector or examiner.

If it was an instrument rating, for example, the pilot can then buy some more “safety” by getting a twin with boots, an autopilot, and elaborate electronic gear. After this impressive drain on his dollars, he is convinced he is ready.

What happens when, in turbulent icing conditions in a congested terminal area, his autopilot goes out? Or an engine starts acting up? The same thing that happened to the pilot who couldn’t fly in the wind, except when a person tries to use sophisticated equipment to maximum advantage without ability to match, the consequences are usually a great deal more serious than a loss of direction control on landing.

Can check flights or annual dual help on things like this?

In the comments on proficiency checks a lot agreed that it might be a good idea for pilots to have a check if they don’t fly a certain amount every year. Forty hours a year was suggested, and this seemed to meet with agreement. The one thing suggested which struck a nerve was 2 hours of actual or simulated instrument flying a month, with at least 6 hours of actual instruments a year required to maintain an instrument rating without taking an annual refresher or proficiency check.

It’s For Real

From reading the letters on the IFR question, it is hard not to get the opinion that many people don’t understand what an instrument rating is, and what it is for. There seems to be a pretty widespread feeling that an instrument rating is something to get and keep for the day the pilot gets caught in weather. On this basis, without really working at keeping it current, the instrument rating is worth about the value of the ink on the piece of paper. IFR operation is a most serious part of flying. It is based on every participant being able to fly precisely, to follow instructions, and to keep up with the latest procedures. Anyone who wants to keep an instrument rating current has to be willing to devote a considerable amount of time and energy to doing so, or he ought to be satisfied with it just being a keepsake. Pilots in some parts of the West do raise a valid point—they don’t have any weather in which to get the actual instrument time. That fact, though, isn’t going to help them cope with weather and the system when they get to IFR conditions in another part of the country. It would seem that an annual refresher might be good if a seldom used instrument rating is to be considered of value to the pilot.

Something which is very much on pilots’ minds is what checkrides might consist of. The way they are done by FAA now is disturbing to many. Checkrides seem to be more a test of how well the directions in a book can be followed rather than how safely a person might be able to use an airplane.

What do present day check flights of already licensed pilots consist of? (Air taxi pilots and flight instructors are the only general aviation pilots subject to periodic flight tests under present regulations.) With the subject fresh in mind, and the questions in the letters fresh in mind, and the expiration date on our flight instructor certificate for airplanes and instruments at hand, an appointment was made for an FAA check ride (on April Fool’s Day—how naive can you get) to get the rating renewed and to get a recent sample of a checkride.

Originally a Skyhawk was going to be used for this as it is a type airplane to instruct in. April Fool’s Day dawned bright enough, but the wind was rattling things pretty good and the weatherman said there might be gusts as high as 45 knots, so it seemed best to leave the Skyhawk in the hangar and take the Twin Comanche.

Norm Johnson

All recent FAA business has been done with Johnny Doster at the Allentown, Pa. General Aviation District Office, and that was where we had this appointment. When we got there, though, John was indisposed by paperwork and the appointment was with Norm Johnson instead.

How do you start? With a short bull session about the current state-of-the-art, and a review of things which are troublesome. One point we were sure glad to hear Norm mention is that he takes careful note of how much and how effectively a pilot looks around for other traffic. Mid-air collisions are definitely on the increase, and the only way for them to decrease is for pilots to look around. It would seem reasonable to be hard on a fellow if he didn’t keep up on active scan for other traffic.

Norm is a believer in heads-up flying anyway, and in flying VFR by attitude and power with only an occasional glance at the instruments to see that attitude and power are producing the desired results. His best line was in talking about approach and landing problems. He said that a lot of pilots seem to just hunt for the end of the runway, with no system, and that this is quite a problem.

A lot of the letters on proficiency checks advanced the idea that seminars, ground schools, tutoring sessions, or written tests, might do instead of checks. Norm was asked if he could tell how well a person was going to do on a checkride from talking with him beforehand, and his answer was, “Not really.” He added that you could get an idea of how he could relate that knowledge to the operation of the airplane.

Up, Up & Away

Time to fly.

When taking the inspector riding it is very natural to try hard to put your best foot forward, and then almost fall over it from trying too hard. It was the first time in ages we started an engine on the airplane, got it running, and had it stop running. Why it did is still a mystery, but after the false start it cranked right up.

When the inspector looks at you quizzically, it’s hard not to wonder what he is thinking. Right after we called Allentown Ground for taxi, Norm had such a look on his face. We didn’t ask him why, and thus don’t know why. Maybe it was because the better part of the checklist had been run on the ramp before calling for taxi clearance, which is a habit we are trying to acquire.

The wind was pretty strong, and when asked what next after takeoff Norm suggested we climb on up to smooth air. This seemed like a good idea because that would put plenty of altitude between the airplane and the ground, which is good if any stalls are to be done. This day it took between 6,500 and 7,500 feet to reach smooth air.

The first item was 45 degree banked 360 degree turns, VFR. These came out reasonably well, and at least half the altitude gain or loss was due to wave effect from the high wind over the ridge north of Allentown which was quite pronounced in the area. (On a check-ride, if your area doesn’t have hills for a wave effect surely you can think of something.) He also cut an engine in a steep turn.

Next came stalls.

After researching and composing the piece on stall spin accidents in the last issue, we are gun-shy when it comes to going far into a stall with a high performance airplane. It is an area where there has been a lot of trouble, so why push it? FAA’s advisory circular on the subject says that stall recoveries from all types of stalls will be initiated as soon as evidence of stall is detected. In smooth air (it smoothed out as soon as the 720’s were finished) the aerodynamic buffet of the Twin Comanche is easily discernible well before the stall, so recovery was begun when the stall light came on and the buffeting was definitely noticeable. Norm didn’t seem to object to this, though on one stall he did seem to think recovery came too early. Better too early than too late maybe, but we did it again just to have it according to the book.

Then came slow flight in various configurations.

After the slow flight, guess what! Lazy 8’s and Chandelles. In a Twin Comanche. This was a flight instructor renewal ride, so Lazy 8’s and Chandelles were certainly called for. They are mild maneuvers now, with a maximum bank angle of 30 degrees, and wound up even being enjoyable.

On Instruments

At this Norm seemed convinced that it was within our capability to manage the airplane VFR so he gave us the hood and a clearance to East Texas VORTAC, to maintain 6,500, to hold west on Victor 30, right turns, one minute patterns. We were about 20 miles east of the station when this started.

There was a very strong west-northwest wind, which was good. It gave more time to try to remember the bit about how to enter holding patterns properly. In the end it was almost remembered correctly—the outbound heading after crossing the station was miscalculated by only 15 degrees. Sorry about that, but things not done tend to be forgotten, and the occasion to hold has not arisen in the past three years.

Before East Texas was reached, the clearance was down to 3,500 feet where the air was really choppy. The station was passed and the holding pattern entered when Norm pulled a throttle back, had us identify the dead engine, and then advanced the throttle a bit to simulate feather. Next he covered the artificial horizon and DG. Then we told him that were this actually happening we would advise approach control and request an immediate straight-in approach. He said: “OK, but let’s hold awhile.”

Outbound in the next holding pattern, he turned everything back on and cleared us for a straight-in ILS.

Momentary Confusion

It’s interesting how little things are momentarily confusing. Everything had been planned in advance—the ADF was tuned to the outer locator, the glideslope and marker were on, the ILS frequency was in mind, and the missed approach procedure had been studied and was well understood. The only thing which hadn’t been noted was the relationship of the East Texas VORTAC to the localizer. For some reason it seemed that it should be south of the localizer. So, as a turn was being made to center the ADF on the locator there was a moment when everything was just a little bit out of place. A look at the approach plate for the transition heading got everything back in place.

The localizer was intercepted just outside the marker, and not quite enough allowance was made for the strong quartering tailwind, so the needle wound up a bit to the left. The glideslope was a bit elusive, too, as the groundspeed must have been pretty high inbound to the airport. In the end, though, Norm said “there it is” and we looked up and there it was, the end of Ry. 6 almost where it should be. A circle was made to the right to land on Ry. 31, and the checkride was over.

As a result of this checkride, which lasted about an hour and a half, and of the bull session which lasted about 45 minutes, Norm reissued the flight instructor certificate with airplane and instrument ratings, and also counted it as a 6-month instrument check for IFR air-taxi operations even though we don’t fly air taxi. We felt that it was thorough and well administered.

Reflections

As 95Y was on the way back to Trenton, though, there were two predominant thoughts. One: “What, really, does Norm Johnson know about our judgment, and our ability to use this airplane safely the way it is used in actual practice?” Two: “How bad would the ride had to have been, for him to suggest some refresher work or whatever it is FAA would plan to suggest to people who couldn’t do well on a proficiency flight test?”

Those two thoughts define the basis for opposition to proficiency tests for pilots who are already licensed—whether you are contemplating something the FAA might require, or whether you are contemplating something to be done voluntarily from a standpoint of self-preservation. And, incidentally, in the letters on the required checks, many included the fact that they were already taking an annual check, or dual from time to time, on a voluntary basis.

On No. One, Norm is a believer in the book as we suppose one must be to be an FAA inspector. He obviously followed the book closely in the checkride: engine out at the appropriate times, Lazy 8’s, Chandelles, steep turns, slow flight, and various types of stalls. Presumably all these maneuvers were formulated to give inspectors a basis upon which to judge a man’s ability to work the flight and power controls in a coordinated manner, and to handle the airplane in various regimes of flight. This was followed by a determination of instrument capability. He discharged the obligations placed upon him by watching us do these things and deciding that everything was within tolerances. It is our opinion, though, that on such a ride it just was not possible to take a reading on the really important things: our judgment and our ability to use the airplane in many of the ways it is used.

For instance, the airplane is turbocharged and this means there are the complexities of that system coupled with the necessary understanding of oxygen use, different regulations at high altitudes, and high altitude weather. To get a reading on proficiency at that would have to involve a several hour IFR trip at high altitude.

The airplane is often flown over long distances. Do we stretch gas? Or are we conservative on gas?

The airplane is very versatile on weight. It starts with 120 gallons of fuel, two people, and 101 pounds of baggage. From there, fuel can be unloaded and more people can be put in—if it is flown legally. Or, if the pilot is a true villain, it has five seats and room for 3 big suitcases, so how about full tanks, five tubby people, and 3 suitcases full of gold ingots? How could he tell whether we do it the right way, or the other way?

That’s enough in the way of examples to make the point that the check, while giving a measure of mechanical skill, really could provide no knowledge of operational practices.

As far as No. Two, drawing the line on pilots who are already rated—this would be extremely difficult in most cases. If a man came in for a proficiency check and had just gotten over a 60 day license suspension for a violation, and had had a couple of relatively minor accidents in the past year, he would automatically be a candidate for a hard time. He had proved, by actions, that there are areas in flying which get the best of him.

By the same token, when a fellow comes in who has had no trouble and has been reasonably active, he would likely not get a hard time. If shortcomings became obvious during the course of a check they would probably be passed over with nothing other than a little friendly advice.

Flying with other pilots, and watching our own performance with the inspector and the deviations which he did not call (enroute from the VOR to the outer marker the descent went 60 feet below the transition altitude for instance), reinforces the idea that all pilots operate in a larger range of tolerance than is probably normally thought. Some pilots hesitate to submit to dual, or to a checkride, because they feel that if it is not perfect it will be disgraceful. Nobody’s perfect, though, and there’s nothing healthier than to have an experienced pilot observe your flying and make suggestions.

As far as formal proficiency checks for all licensed pilots go, though, it is difficult to see where any practical system which would be of value to the flying public could ever be worked out. In our case, for instance, a real test of proficiency in using airplanes might well take several days and a trip from coast to coast and back in marginal weather conditions, as well as flights in all the airplanes in which we are current—a couple of dozen or more. We would be the last to say that an inspector couldn’t find things to comment on in the course of such an examination, too, and that the experience wouldn’t be of value.

Big brother doesn’t have the resources to do that for, or to, all of us, and the improving safety record in general aviation points out that it is being done from within anyway. All a person has to do to be a safe pilot is want to be one, and to work at it.

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