Somebody get me the SOP!
As pilots, we all have memories of certain flights or events in our aviation journeys. Perhaps it was an ILS approach on a low visibility day, or maybe it was a beautiful sunset over the water, or maybe it was an emergency that happened and was handled with ease. For those with many hours in the cockpit, some of these events eventually blend into the memories of a career well flown and, frankly, get kind of jumbled up and mixed together.
And then—there’s those things you will NEVER forget! Things that will forever be there for your recall because they were so monumental in your experience: your first solo, your Private Pilot check ride, carrying your first passenger, or experiencing your first cross country flight to name a few.
And I suspect, if you’re like me, perhaps it was when you failed your first check ride.
Like it was yesterday, I stood in front of the Chief Flight Instructor, who was pacing behind his desk, wondering what had just happened. His hands were flailing and “colorful language” was being used to express his absolute incredulity at my performance during my first “Phase Check” at this school. I was being yelled at—and the examiner who had just flown with me was standing behind me and smugly reviewing the horrible job that I had just done trying to demonstrate the maneuvers for becoming a Certified Flight Instructor. I felt sick.
My thoughts were all over the map…how could I have done so poorly? As the examiner painfully reviewed my mistakes to the Chief Flight Instructor, I wanted to run and hide. I was embarrassed, I was angered, and I was trying to figure out the best way to tell my Airline Pilot dad that his son completely “flagged” his ride…that would be the hardest part of the whole experience.
I was 19 years old and I had transferred from a Community College to a 4 year University that had an FAR 141 aviation program. Because I had started flying much earlier, I was able to attend that school and use my licenses up to that point to be counted as college credit. I had been learning to fly at the local airport using flight instructors that were not teaching using a FAR 141 syllabus but using the less restrictive FAR 61 process; but, by every indication and the feedback I had received, I felt that I was a good pilot and well on my way to becoming a professional aviator. I was super excited about my first flying course at the school and eagerly began training for my CFI.
My previous instructors had been fantastic. They were experienced, they were encouraging, they were knowledgeable, and they had prepared me for my check rides that I was able to pass on the first attempt. Spending hours and hours with my dad’s influence as well provided a foundation that would stay with me even to this day.
The instructor I had at this school, however, was not much like the ones I had had earlier. Interested more in flying charters than flight instructing, my instructor was not totally “into it” and would sit in the plane looking out the window while I attempted to “instruct” from the right seat…and that set the stage for my first Phase Check.
From the very beginning, I knew I was in trouble.
“What’s that?” the former Air Force Fighter pilot asked me as we were looking inside the open cowling of the Cherokee 140…
“Ummm”, I replied—“the oil line?” (Prior to this airplane, I had never flown one that you could open the cowling for the preflight!)
“No!” he emphatically said—“It’s the fuel primer line!”
“Oh.” I was clueless.
“What’s this?!” he barked.
Thoughtfully I replied, “That’s the magneto!…yes, I’m pretty sure that’s the magneto.”
After a painful preflight, we then got into the airplane and began the flying portion of the check ride. Maneuver after maneuver it was obvious that I was not up to the expectations of the examiner and I found myself often confused over his directions. Sweating my way through the ride, we landed (not soon enough) and I ended up finding myself in the Chief Flight Instructor’s office getting “chewed out” up one side and down the other for my (lack of) flying abilities and my inability to maintain the standards that were expected of me.
The Chief Flight Instructor looked like a retired Marine—tall, fit, tanned, and sporting a “flat top” hair style and a 4 letter vocabulary, he was loudly expressing his displeasure at my check ride and my apparent lack of preparation. Over and over the examiner was comparing my maneuvers to the “SOP” and then it would start a whole new round of arms flailing, legs pacing, and colorful adjectives directed at me and my flying by the Chief Flight Instructor.
Somewhere in the middle of this chewing out, in my confusion and hurt and embarrassment, I blurted out,
“Excuse me, sir…what’s this S-O-P thing you keep talking about?”
You could have heard a pin drop.
The Chief Flight Instructor leaning over at me with incredulity declared angrily” “THE S-O-P!”
With an obvious look of confusion I said, “Sir—this is my first flight course here. What are you talking about?”
Pounding his desk he said, “The S-O-P!!!—THE S-O-P!! Somebody get me a $#@% SOP!
Another student ran out of the office and returned with a book of the Standard Operating Procedures for the flight school and handed it to the Chief Flight Instructor.
Shaking my head I said, “I’ve never seen that before.”
A noticeable change occurred in this man who would later become a friend and mentor—with eyes looking like he could kill and veins popping from his neck he yelled out of his office,
“BREIT-LING!” (not his real name!)
Looking kinda like John Belushi, my instructor happily walked into the maelstrom saying, “Yeah Boss?”
That was about the only words he said.
For the next several minutes, my instructor received a “chewing out” the likes of which I had never seen before! Feeling somewhat vindicated, I tried not to smirk as the ire of the Chief Flight Instructor came full force on the guy that had been sitting in the airplane “teaching me” for many hours and wasting my money.
After several minutes with the boss telling my instructor to basically “start over” with me, we both were dismissed and walked out to the hangar without saying a word. He was mad and I was mad. Walking into the hangar and seeing an airplane in Maintenance, he angrily pointed to the plane and said, “This is an airplane!”
We were done.
Never again would I fly with him and with the hours left in my syllabus, I had to “start over” learning to fly the maneuvers the way the school wanted them flown.
Every milestone in our careers serves a purpose. I went into this check ride thinking “all was well!” —and I got spanked pretty badly. I lost my “slot” for a CFI check ride and had to spend additional time and money to be prepared for a ride with the FAA at the FSDO. It was a hurdle to overcome, and that made the accomplishment all that more sweeter.
For those of you who have persevered to achieve your goals—I applaud you. Looking back over 42 years of flying, I can say it is so worth it. If you have recently “botched” a ride…congratulations! It will make you a better pilot and you’ll be all that more prepared the next time out.
And when you fly, be sure to use the SOP! It will save your bacon!
About The Author
Jeff Collins is from SW Florida and is an Airline Captain flying the “big iron’ for a major airline. The son of an airline pilot, he learned to fly in high school, has spent his whole life in aviation, and loves to share the stories that have followed his career. When not in the air in the Flight Levels, he can be found in his SR22 flying to see his kids and grandkids and enjoying the view from down low.