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Harrison Ford’s FAA Exam… and My Great Regret

Posted 21 days ago ago by Admin

Author: Randy Rowles

In 1997, I was a relatively new FAA Designated Pilot Examiner (DPE) in the South Florida FAA District Office. On a beautiful Saturday in December, I was asked to complete an FAA private pilot added-rating exam for an applicant at a helicopter flight school at the Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport (FXE). As I had done many exams for this school, there was nothing unique about this day. At least, that was my thoughts prior to my arrival.

The exam was scheduled for 8:00 a.m., so I arrived about 15 minutes early. I often arrived early so I could stroll next door and visit my friend Terry at CavAir, a helicopter maintenance facility, and have a cup of coffee. We enjoyed a quick chat and off to work I went.

Volar Helicopters, the flight school hosting the exam, was owned, and operated by Tony Hicks. Tony would often be in his office when I arrived, so when I walked through the door of the school and heard someone shuffling papers in the office area, I assumed it was him. At that time, a voice said “Hello”.  At that moment: I knew!

“Hi, I’m Harrison Ford”. Of course, my response was simply “I know.” Immediately, I questioned myself as to his identity: Was he Indiana Jones, Han Solo, or should I simply call him Mr. President? Although I was able to focus on the reality of the moment, my mind absolutely took a second to gather its thoughts.

Once I introduced myself, his initial words surprised me. He looked at me and said, “I’ve got kids older than you”, and this was very true. As a young DPE in my 20s, I was not the expected FAA representative to administer the exam in his mind, and he was not the expected applicant in mine.

With those words, I knew I had to collect my thoughts and maintain a professional posture. Being star-struck was not the best way to get this task accomplished, however, my admiration for Mr. Ford’s work and how my life had been so affected by him was a reality I had to work through. It was his character as Han Solo in Star Wars that sparked my interest as a pilot. At that moment, I realized it was my task to evaluate him; this was not a movie.

Once the ground portion of the exam started, I knew immediately that my normal method of oral questioning wasn’t going to work. He was able to recite specific notes within the Rotorcraft Flight Manual and the subscript of documents. It hit me that Mr. Ford’s career was based upon memorizing scripts and he was very good at it. I shifted the oral discussion to a scenario-based discussion, which proved to be very effective.

Since this was a helicopter-added rating, the oral discussion focused heavily on helicopter-specific questioning. There were no issues found and we were able to move out to the flightline for the preflight. At this point, I was in the groove and wasn’t thinking about who the applicant was. My focus was simply to observe and evaluate the preflight of the Bell 206 helicopter and go fly. His preflight was thorough with a satisfactory passenger briefing conducted.

Utilizing the checklist, we started the helicopter. I could hear that the igniters weren’t firing at a rate that I was comfortable with to start the helicopter, as if there was a weak battery. At 15%, an attempt to start the helicopter was made, and as predicted in my mind, he had to abort the start. We discussed the situation, and he explained the solution. He said, “I’ll go get a ground power unit” and exited the helicopter. He proceeded to the fixed-base airport operator (FBO) and it was soon after this moment that I regained my knowledge of just who I was examining.

As Mr. Ford exited the FBO and was returning to the helicopter, quite a few people were following and chatting with him. He was kind to them, but tried to get back to the helicopter to get us in the air. After all, this was his checkride. After a few pictures, the small crowd allowed us to continue. I apologized to him as I had not thought about such an occurrence. He was very kind and reflected positively on the moment. He said, “They love aviation, and so do I.”

We departed FXE and proceeded to the Pompano Beach Airpark, which is historically known to be very busy, and that day was no different. All his maneuvers were well above minimum FAA practical test standards, and we returned to FXE. 

At the completion of the exam, we conducted a debrief with his instructor. I found it truly inspiring to know that Harrison Ford had completed most of his helicopter training in a Robinson R22 and then transitioned into the Bell 206 shortly before his exam. In my mind, he was one of us! 

One of my greatest regrets is what came next. He invited my wife and I to dinner that evening. I was excited until I thought about the optics. I didn’t want anyone to think his exam was anything less than professional, so I said thank you and turned down the offer.

The event described occurred on 6 December 1997. I did everything in my power to conduct the exam in a compliant and effective manner. In doing so, I met all my obligations to the FAA and our industry. What I failed to do was enjoy the moment, go to dinner, and share a unique once-in-a-lifetime experience with my wife. Being a professional aviator does not mean you can’t enjoy your career. Take it from me, you can do both!  

About the Author: Randy Rowles has been a FAA pilot examiner for 20 years for all helicopter certificates and ratings. He holds a FAA Gold Seal Flight Instructor Certificate, NAFI Master Flight Instructor designation, and was the 2013 recipient of the HAI Flight Instructor of the Year Award. Rowles is the owner/president of Helicopter Institute.

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