The Front Lines

Flight instructors and Designated Pilot Examiners should lead the battle in accident prevention


The new private pilot was on fourth flight with passengers in a Cessna 172. In his first landing attempt he was long and went around. During the process the airplane was observed performing strangely.

On the second attempt the pilot again landed long and again attempted to go-around. He added full power but did not retract the flaps from fully extended, whereupon the aircraft pitched up, stalled and crashed.

The two long landings were bad enough, implying both inadequate training and substandard proficiency, but the problem had even deeper roots. The NTSB investigator found only two entries in the pilots logbook regarding go-around training. Both were pre-solo. The pilot also had not been required to perform a go-around on his private pilot flight check.

When interviewed, the accident pilots CFI could not explain satisfactorily the full flap go-around procedure. He did not seem to understand the deleterious effect on climb performance of the drag produced by extended flaps, or why forward control wheel pressure was required when full power is applied to an airplane trimmed for landing.

Another mishap involved a pilot whose private license was only six months old and who was the new owner of a Piper Lance. He was known as a head-strong individualist who knew what he wanted and when he wanted it.

The CFI who trained him in effect followed the pilots curriculum. When the CFI attempted to teach the rejected takeoff procedure, the pilot had snapped that he knew enough and to get on with the program.

The pilot was known to depart from the nearest runway regardless of the wind direction. This ultimately proved to be his downfall, because one day he attempted to depart with a 40-knot quartering tailwind. Witnesses heard the tires squeal as he departed the runway edge, yet he kept trying to go. The plane failed to get airborne and the pilot was killed in the subsequent crash.

The investigator theorized that the pilot had browbeaten the CFI into recommending him for the Private Pilot flight check. To complicate matters, the Designated Pilot Examiner who conducted the test and issued the certificate was a buddy and part-owner of the FBO that had sold him the airplane.

In yet another instance, I was the flight instructor and hired to train a student-captain for a Sabreliner type rating. The 32-year-old pilot was the new chief pilot for a cantankerous old man with a reputation for thriftiness. During training the pilot showed an excellent understanding of instrument flying but sometimes ignored basic safety practices.

In one instance I found him standing on the air-stair door smoking while the fuel truck was pumping Jet A into the airplane. In addition he confessed to having had three major accidents in the past, one in which he over-stressed an aerobatic airplane and had to bail out.

After two weeks of training I was reluctant to recommend him for the type rating. His adolescent personality and unreliable judgment worried me. He was so flippant that I talked to him in all seriousness about his demeanor and attitude. But his flying was faultless, and ultimately he passed the checkride with flying colors. His next task was to find a copilot/mechanic who would tolerate the owners quirks, which turned out to be difficult. Besides, the owner was reluctant to pay for the training of the copilot.

Thirteen months later, the airplane was departing at night over the black expanse of New Orleans Lake Pontchartrain. The owner and his eldest son were the only passengers. It was a dark night with two miles of visibility in smoke and haze. The tower told investigators that less than three minutes elapsed from engine start to takeoff. The Sabreliner climbed to about 400 feet then began a slow descent to the water. The airplane exploded on impact. Only the captain survived.

He called from the hospital to tell me the story. With the copilot flying they had lifted off normally. Shortly after getting airborne the copilot noticed the captains altimeter was stuck. With the captains head down in the cockpit attempting to troubleshoot the altimeter and the copilot watching his efforts, the airplane began a slow descent toward the water. Investigators found the trim switch OFF. They suspected that the captains flight director was inoperative too, since the selector was in the number two (copilot) position.

The copilot/mechanic had recently obtained his ATP in a light twin and had no training in any jet airplane, including the Sabreliner. In fact the NTSB found him unqualified as second in command.

In retrospect, the captain should never have been recommended for the Sabre type rating. But how do you stop a mans career in mid-stream just because you think he might have an accident?

A question arises whether he should have even been hired in the first place. Smart companies use careful pre-employment testing and evaluation of the pilots background. An interviewer should have spotted the personality problem simply from the accident history alone. Its not bad karma that causes certain people to have multiple accidents.

Integrity Factor
Flight instructors and pilot examiners are key players in aviation safety and accident prevention. They have the last word in verifying the skill and proficiency required for a pilots certificate. Any time either or both fail, the stage is set for an accident. Complicating the problem, however, is that both actually live with the threat of economic retribution. Develop a reputation as a tough task-master or examiner and watch business disappear.

Santa Claus Factor
The fear of losing business eventually leads some people to lower their standards, while others merely cut corners to maximize their income. A case in point was discovered after a Cessna 172 mishap that again involved a full-flap go around. After a two-year investigation, the FAA revoked the credentials of the DPE who issued the accident pilots private certificate. The investigation determined that on the day of the accident pilots private checkride, the DPE had flown a six-hour Citation trip then administered a commercial and three private flight checks.

The accident pilots oral had lasted about 20 minutes and the flight test 25 minutes, yet the entire Practical Test Standards table of contents had been checked off as accomplished. When interviewed, some of this DPEs applicants even complained about the short checkrides. But at $200 per checkride, the DPE was realizing the American dream.

In another case an FAA/FSDO was contacted by a congressman who demanded that a new flight school owner in his district be made a DPE. The FSDO resisted because no one in the office had even met the individual. After a few exchanges of forceful letters, the FSDO was ordered by management to comply.

At first the new DPE fit the profile of a good examiner. Then his flight school began advertising in Trade-A-Plane a guaranteed 100 percent pass rate. The FAA office was mystified. The examiner was performing a large number of flight checks and had a 27 percent failure rate, so FAA management concluded he was being meticulous. But a tenacious FSDO inspector kept checking.

The inspector noted that ATP flight checks were being accomplished at a relatively remote airfield, which lacked the necessary ILS for the required approaches. The nearest facility was 45 minutes away. Yet the total flight time for each flight check was only 0.5 hours.

Since the DPE was issuing numerous temporary licenses each week, the inspector decided to retain 10 per week and do a follow-up surveillance. This in fact was part of his job. He began with the pink slip failures that were followed closely by a successful re-test. When he called the newly minted pilots he was often told there must be a mistake, that they had passed the flight check on the first try. Thus it became clear that the 27 percent failure rate was bogus. The inspector concluded the DPE had been submitting phony pink slips to hide the advertised 100 percent pass rate.

The flight school had a large number of foreign students, most of whom were to be pilots for their national airlines. An informant told the inspector that the DPE, who by now was also a written test examiner, was helping the applicants complete their written test. Then, if the student had an airline ticket home with a departure date within five days the DPE would write out an ATP certificate without a flight check for $1,000. The FAA inspector quickly documented that the DPE issued four ATPs in one day with no flight time shown in company aircraft logs.

The FSDO immediately moved to suspend the DPEs designation, but the DPEs lawyer argued in federal court that the FAA would be depriving the individual of his livelihood. It worked. The FAA was ordered to retain the DPE and continue processing the licenses he submitted and the FAAs regional attorney refused to prosecute the man for the alleged felonies.

But the tenacious inspector was not finished. He noted that the DPE was getting his second class medical from an AME in another state. The inspector discovered the DPE was taking medication for both a heart problem and high blood pressure and suspected the AME was simply mailing the medical certificate as needed to his boyhood friend. The suspicion was never proven, but the physician gave up his AME designation without argument.

Some Instruction
Pilots pay flight instructors to show them the ropes, but some instructors dont know when to quit.

One FAA inspector was administering a multi-engine checkride to a relatively new private pilot. During the pre-takeoff runup, the inspector thought he noted the applicant check the right magneto of the right engine twice. He asked the pilot to repeat the mag check. Upon checking the left mag the engine quit. The applicant said his flight instructor told him to fake the mag check because they didnt have time to fix it before the checkride.

The inspector confronted the instructor, who couldnt explain what would have happened if the inspector had given the applicant a left engine failure after lift-off. Advising a student to cheat the system shows a gross lack of ethics and moral character on the part of the instructor, and accepting such counsel shows the same in the pilot. In this case, both the applicant and flight instructor were appropriately rewarded by the FAA inspector.

There may be hundreds of pilots who have been licensed without adequate training or testing because of fast buck artists and poor instruction. Many of them dont even know who they are. While you may be confident in your abilities, think about it the next time you fly into a crowded uncontrolled field or get into a plane with a pilot youve never flown with before.

When a person gets a student pilot certificate, he or she becomes part of the aviation industry. The safety record and profitability of that industry is directly related to the integrity, skill and knowledge of all the people involved. The same rules apply to student pilots through ATPs adding jet type ratings.

It may seem like a relief to buy a cut-rate Citation type rating from an easy tester, but that wont help you in the coming months when bad weather is compounded with mechanical troubles. If your instructor is an easy-going person who never mentions a mistake nor encourages you to fly better, what are you really learning? If an outfit doesnt pass the smell test, stay away.

Take a look at the accidents from Alaska to Miami and youll see a multitude of errors that simply boil down to poor instruction, inadequate testing or lapses in judgment. The record is full of mishaps involving overloaded airplanes, illegal hazardous cargo, IFR departures by unqualified pilots and poor flight planning.

It is certainly true that not every aspect of flying is governed by the FARs, but the rules that exist – even the widely flouted ones – have evolved from a very long and tragic accident history. The requirements for a pilots certificate are no exception. When someone shortchanges your training and the DPE pencil-whips the oral then gives you a half-hour flight check, you havent beaten the system. You dont know your weak areas or what you cant do reliably. And instead of a license to enjoy uncommon freedom and a long flying career you are set up for disaster that the record shows often takes your closest friends and loved ones with you.

It should be noted too that if someone sells you a license it is a felony and you are an accessory. Try getting a job with the airlines or a major corporation with a felony conviction on your record.

Becoming a competent pilot requires a structured regimen of academic training and a carefully planned flight training program. If you short-circuit the system because youre in a hurry then its you who loses.

The checkride with a DPE gives you an idea of your proficiency level. Its not an ego trip, but a simple measure of the quality of both your training and new skill level. You can feel proud of obtaining that certificate because you, with the help of your flight instructor, earned it. And while flying is such great fun, there is much to learn in order to be a safe pilot. Ignorance and incompetence have no place in the cockpit, so dont invite them in the door.

-by John Lowery

John Lowery is an aviation safety consultant, author of the book Professional Pilot and a former corporate and Air Force pilot.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here