By Randy Mains

The FAA is investigating an incident involving actor Harrison Ford this past April at Hawthorne Municipal Airport in California. Reporting on this investigation prompted me to ponder the question that we all may need to ask ourselves 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 and wait for landing traffic before taxiing across the runway. He allegedly 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.” In his defense, Ford said afterward that he misheard the tower controller’s directives.

This is not the first time the FAA has had to investigate Ford’s lapse in judgment.

On Feb. 13, 2017, he was cleared to land on runway 20L at the John Wayne Airport in Orange County, California. Ford instead landed on Taxiway C, flying his aircraft directly over an American Airlines 737 with 110 passengers and six crew members that was waiting on another taxiway.

“Was that airliner meant to be underneath me?” Ford asked the air traffic controller. Then realizing his mistake, he 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.” But after these incidents at airports in Los Angeles and Orange County, 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

10 July/Aug 2020

me thinking about when it might 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) despite knowing they were going to lose their jobs. 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 others. This is especially true if you fly only single-pilot. Ford has now twice 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 checkrides 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 checkrides. 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 checkrides, 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.”

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