Matt was nervous; that is to say, he was like every other flight student who has reached his solo stage check. He stood beside his Piper Cadet, putting on a brave face as I approached, and he was sweating. Of course, in the Florida sun, I was sweating too. Our very regimented flight academy mandated uniform shirts and ties even on August afternoons. On this afternoon, the humidity gave one the unshakeable sensation of swimming on dry land.
I gave Matt a wide grin and patted his shoulder to emphasize my goodwill. It didn’t do much good. Despite the fact that I was the kindest and fairest check airman in the whole wide world, something in my appearance must have been intimidating. Nothing would assuage Matt’s fear. Had I been dressed in a fur-lined red suit and leading a reindeer by a tether, he would still have been shivering in the tropical heat.
My heart went out to him. I knew well the power an authority figure can have over your day, affecting your outlook and your performance. Even now, I stumble just a bit when an FAA inspector shows up to ride on our jump seat. On one such visit, the ASI smiled and said, “It’s a beautiful day, isn’t it?” When he went back to stow his suitcase, my FO and I looked at each other nervously. “What do you suppose he meant by that?” we said in unison.
Matt should not have been worried. His Oral had gone well. He had obviously done his homework. He rattled off the Cadet’s limitations and the VFR cloud clearance requirements enthusiastically. He knew the aircraft systems cold. His flight planning was thorough and accurate. His instructor had assured me that Matt was his best student. I saw no reason to doubt it. “Shall we take her around the pattern?” I asked, beckoning Matt toward the cockpit. He grimaced. A bead of sweat rolled down his forehead.
I have been in Matt’s place many times over the years. I have paced back and forth in the FlightSafety break room awaiting the arrival of my tormentor, whose inquisition would determine whether I got to keep my job and my airline dream for another six months. Sometimes I would have gladly volunteered for a root canal to get out of a “Maneuvers Validation.” I have spent hours shuffling through a 6-inch pile of flashcards, each bearing a cryptic label such as “RVSM requirements” or “ITT limitations.” I have perspired profusely in an air-conditioned full-motion simulator awaiting the dreaded V1 cut. This check ride stuff is for the birds.
I wish I could tell you that it gets easier. Maybe for some folks it does. But in 24 years of orals and flight checks and L.O.F.T.s, I have never purged that persistent little voice in my head that says “You’re not good enough. This is the time they are going to find out you are a fraud, that you can’t really fly an airplane.” There is modest progress, of course. I used to get a knot in my stomach a whole month before my scheduled recurrent ride. Now I’ve gotten that down to about a week. I still study the cards and read the SOP and sit in the cockpit procedure trainer running the flows and practicing the call-outs. It all helps. But nervousness, self-doubt and over-thinking remain, for me, part of the experience.
Even back at the academy, I had seen enough check rides to understand what Matt was going through. I knew about the nerves and the tunnel vision. I remembered how one little mistake sometimes cascades into a full-blown disaster. I learned these things from watching my own students. I learned them from making my own dumb-dumb moves on check rides.
And so, as a check airman, I had empathy for Matt and his fellow students. I was rooting for every one. I wanted them to succeed. I wanted them to relax and do their best. I tried to create a friendly, non-threatening environment.
Early on, I discovered that the most innocuous off-the-cuff remark by a check airman will be taken in deadly earnest by a student. One day, I was administering a multi-engine check ride to a very impressive and accomplished student named Ted. Ted was a natural; there is no other way of saying it. When I, during the climb, reached down between the seats and shut off the left fuel selector on Ted’s Seminole, he ran the memory items, feathered the prop, and secured the engine with hardly a degree of heading variation nor a foot of altitude loss. I was so proud of him, I wished he were my student.
I thought his triumph was obvious to him, too. I asked him to restart the engine. He did this quickly and efficiently and by the book. When he was done, he looked over at me for my next instruction. Since things had gone so well, I thought to give him a little laugh. I smiled and said, “Well, that was pretty good. Unfortunately, I’m going to have to unsat that maneuver because you forgot to yell ’clear prop’ when you restarted the engine.” Ted’s face sank. I honestly thought he was going to cry. I quickly told him I was joking and that he had passed the check ride. A grim little smile finally crossed his face, and he nodded silently. “Ha, ha,” he stammered, “that was really funny.” I learned there and then that a check ride is, for a student, a serious affair, and so must it also be for a check airman.
That hot afternoon in Florida, Matt was focused on his check ride. We all tend to focus in such situations. We focus on our priorities. We focus on our memory items. We focus on our procedures. The problem with a tight focus, of course, is that it prevents a wider view. It compromises situational awareness because when we focus, we only see part of the big picture.
Another term for a tight focus is tunnel vision. We have all experienced this in our own flying and on our own check rides. On his solo stage check, Matt’s focus was tight. His tunnel vision was about to reveal itself. Matt settled into the cockpit and strapped his knee board to his thigh. He had carefully reviewed his procedures, and I could see that he had written reminders to himself on the pad. “Don’t forget to switch fuel tanks, be sure to yell clear prop, beacon’s on (underlined and highlighted).”
I could see tremors in Matt’s hand as he picked up the checklist and commenced the Engine Start Checklist. As he completed each item, he slid his thumb down the checklist to the next. “Throttle!Â¼ inch open, master switch!on, electric fuel pump!on, mixture!full rich.” Everything was looking good. “Clear prop!” he yelled through the open window as he scanned the area from left to right.
And then!his thumb slipped. It slipped down the checklist past the line that read, “starter!engage.” Unbelievably, while running the Engine Start Checklist, Matt had forgotten to start the engine. He moved on. The Cadet’s list next called for checking the oil pressure. Matt looked up at the oil pressure gauge. The needle lay, troublingly, on zero. He looked at me, then back at the gauge. He tapped it with his fingertip. “I think the oil pressure is a bit!low,” he finally ventured. I nodded. Uncertainly, he proceeded to the next item. “Electric fuel pump!off.” Matt did it. Without the engine-driven pump turning, the fuel pressure dropped to zero.
Matt looked gravely at the indicator, then at me, then at the indicator. He could not believe his bad luck. He could not comprehend two significant system failures in the first three minutes of his check ride. He looked at me again, and I shrugged. Subsequent inspections of the ammeter and the vacuum gauge revealed more bad news. He tapped them both in befuddlement. His misery was complete.
At this point, I let him off the hook. “Matt,” I said, “what should the oil pressure be when the engine is not running?” His training kicked in. “Oh, normal oil pressure for the PA-28 must be between 25 psi and 100 psi, and it should be!” He fell silent. Then he looked up, smacked himself on the forehead, and smiled for the first time all day. “Oh, yeah,” he chuckled, “It’s awfully quiet, isn’t it.”
I knew Matt had gotten the point. We sat for a few minutes and relaxed. We chatted about our families and our hometowns. And then we started again. And this time he started the engine. And it was one of the finest solo stage checks I had ever seen. Matt passed with flying colors. He had come out of the tunnel.