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Knowing it’s time to hang up the headset

Posted 3 years 275 days ago ago by Admin

A recent incident the FAA is investigating involving Harrison Ford that occurred this past April at Hawthorne Municipal Airport in California, prompted me to ponder the question that we all may need to address at some point in our flying career as we age: Will you know when it’s time to hang up your headset?

This recent incident occurred when the air traffic controller directed Ford, 77, to hold short of the runway to wait for landing traffic before taxiing across the runway. He didn’t wait and as he crossed the runway without clearance the controller said quite forcefully, “I told you before to hold short. You need to listen up,” causing the FAA to probe the incident. In his defense, Ford said afterward that he misheard the tower controller’s directives.

This is not Ford’s first time the FAA has had to investigate his lapse in judgment. On 13 February 2017, he was cleared to land on runway 20L at John Wayne/Orange County Airport in California. Ford flew his aircraft directly over an American Airlines 737 with 110 passengers and six crew members that was holding short of runway 20L.

"Was that airliner meant to be underneath me?" Ford asked the air-traffic controller. Then, realizing his mistake said, "Oh, I landed on Taxiway Charlie. I understand now. Sorry for that."

Ford once remarked in an interview on the Ellen show, “Flying is a big part of who I am.” After this recent incident at Hawthorne airport in Los Angeles and the incident at Orange County Airport I am thinking if Ford’s not careful, flying will be a big part of who he was.

It isn’t my intention to beat up on a celebrity, but evaluating Ford’s decision-making from a flight examiner’s perspective got me thinking when might it be time to consider hanging up one’s headset.

As a helicopter ATP examiner I’ve literally given hundreds of checkrides and I receive no pleasure from failing a pilot. There have been occasions where I have had to fail a pilot (even a good friend of mine in his mid-50s) knowing that by not passing them, they were going to lose their job. Examiners are working on behalf of the public interest, thus we are the gatekeepers of the public’s safety.

My criteria for passing or failing a pilot on a checkride is simple: During the oral and the actual checkride, I continually ask myself: Would I sleep soundly at night if I were to place a beloved family member in their aircraft and be assured they would deliver them back to me safely? If the answer is yes, they pass. If no, they do not.
I often tell those I’ve trained, “This aircraft doesn’t care how important you are. It doesn’t give a hoot how much money you have or who you may know. What is important is knowing your aircraft limitations, knowing your own abilities, knowing your limitations and not exceeding them.”

The hard thing of course is being aware that you may be becoming a danger to yourself and to those whom you may impact if you make a catastrophic error in judgment. This is especially true if you only fly single-pilot. In Ford’s case, twice he’s lost situational awareness of what’s happening around him. So when should you hang up the headset? Hopefully you will know before being told that it’s time to quit. Ford may serve as a good example.

There could be an unknown reason why a pilot performs poorly on a checkride. It’s worth a flight examiner’s exploring. An excellent example is my good friend Paul (not his real name). Paul had failed three ATP check rides in the Level-D sim I operated in Dubai. He was given to me as his last chance to pass it otherwise he would be let go from Abu Dhabi Aviation.

Hoping to gain insight, I discussed Paul’s poor performance with the other examiners who had failed him. We were all perplexed that he was suddenly performing so poorly as he’d been with the company about five years and had always performed well during past check rides. Because of the sudden degradation in his performance, I wondered out loud if he had some sort of physiological problem causing him to perform poorly, like a brain tumor. I’m serious. I was grasping at straws and leveled with Paul on the day I was to give him what could be his final checkride with the company.

“Look Paul, I’m concerned about your degraded performance. All the examiners are,” I said. “Having tested you before on several check rides, please tell me what the heck’s going on because the only thing I can think of is that you may have a medical problem that’s causing you to perform poorly.”
Paul stared down at his lap thinking for a long moment then. Looking up he told me, “My wife is in the U.K. doing a battery of tests for cancer and it’s been heavy on my mind these last few weeks.”

“Paul, you should have told us. How’s she doing?”
“She’s finished with the tests and the prognosis is very good.”
“That explains it. You feel up to taking this checkride today?”
“Yes, I feel confident I can pass now.”

And he did. He wasn’t ready to hang up the headset once the problem had been identified.

As for Harrison Ford? My personal advice as a flight examiner is this. I’d tell him:

“Harrison these infractions should serve as a wake-up call. You need to either fly with a safety pilot or take your love of flying Northeast to your 800-acre ranch in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. It’s evident by your performance you need to get out of the hectic LA and Orange County traffic. I can certainly empathize with you though. I know what it’s like to operate in the LA, Orange County, and San Diego areas because it was my stomping ground for many years. Wyoming’s quieter and shouldn’t overtax your ability to stay situationally aware. You can relax up there—and more importantly—you should be able to wear your headset for several more years to come.”

If a pilot cannot admit to himself that perhaps it’s time to hang up the headset (although, if they’re honest, they probably know deep down the time has come or is very near) then friends, fellow pilots or a flight examiner during a flight review can do a personal and public service by suggesting it may be time to make a change. If the potential danger is not addressed, your peers staying silent or the outright denial by the pilot in question can lead to tragedy. It takes courage to admit to yourself that perhaps your skills are not what they used to be and to call it quits. It’s the mark of a professional to make such a tough call. Doing so not only keeps you and others safe; your decision prevents possible heartache for those you love that you may leave behind if you make the ultimate bad decision.

Randy Mains is an author, public speaker, and a CRM/AMRM consultant who works in the helicopter industry after a long career of aviation adventure. He currently serves as chief CRM/AMRM instructor for Oregon Aero. He may be contacted at [email protected].