I’m currently recovering from some minor surgery, and out of the cockpit for a few months. During this time, I’m digging up some memorable flying experiences from the past. Don’t worry… multiple paragraphs contemplating the ocean from 40,000 feet will be back soon!
The door to the briefing room creaks open, and I look up from the computer I am working at and check my watch. Way too little time has passed for my student to have already completed the oral exam portion of his checkride, so something must have happened. I’ve been flight instructing for about 800 hours now, and while I am confident in my ability to teach students, I am still slightly intimidated by some of the examiners. Mike, a long-time Designated Pilot Examiner rolls his chair into the doorway and crooks his finger at me before rolling back out of view. I close the spreadsheet I’ve been entering flight times into and walk into the next room, closing the door behind me, and then lean against its cool surface once it has shut.
My student is looking puzzled, but still confident. I take that as a good sign… or that I’ve really messed up in my lesson plans for him somewhere. Mike nods at my student and says, “Tell him what you just told me,” then leans back in his chair and waits expectantly.
My student is in his early 20s, just out of college, and excited to be working on his flight ratings, talking constantly about how his life will be once he gets to the airlines. My goal is flying for an airline as well, but after a year of instructing six or seven days a week, while seeing many of my friends get interviews and jobs, I’ve become slightly jaded about the speed of things. He leans forward, while in his head he sorts out the last few things he said, and then starts.
“We were talking about anti-ice and deice systems on the Seminole,” he begins. I nod encouragingly. Aircraft systems are an area he is strong in. “The plane isn’t certified for flight into icing, so there aren’t a lot, but there are the NACA vents under the wing, and the carb heat on both engines, and then the gas heater in the nose.”
I wince slightly at the last item he lists, as while it may prevent the pilots from freezing in the cold air during the winter, it really doesn’t protect the airplane from inflight ice buildup. That said, no examiner would hold that against a pilot during a checkride. I look at Mike, confused as to why I’m in here. He raises his eyebrows and makes a “continue” gesture to the student.
The student nervously licks his lips. This checkride is obviously not going the way he’d envisioned it, but he doesn’t know why. “Well, then I mentioned the Deice Monkey,” he says. My heart falters. I don’t now whether to laugh along at the joke that apparently is being played on me, or cry in frustration that this has actually come up.
“I mean, I know we don’t have them on our planes, but it’s an option,” he says earnestly. “Right?”
Mike lets out a long breath and while staring at me with a look somewhere between amusement and disgust, says to my student, “Go on.”
“Ok… sure,” he says, now sounding decidedly less than sure of himself. “So there are these specially trained monkeys that you stow up in the nose by the heater. And they have a little platform that they get on and then you press a button and the platform moves out along the wing, and they use little rubber mallets to knock the ice off. And then when the ice is gone, you press a button to retract the platform back up into the nose.”
He is trying very hard to sound confident still but is obviously confused as to why he seems to be digging himself into a hole with the examiner. Mike has been staring at me this whole time. In the silence that follows the explanation, I can hear the air conditioning cycle as it fights the heat of the Phoenix summer that is pressing in on our building. Still looking at me, Mike says, “And the parachutes?”
I cringe, but my student charges ahead. “Right. So the Deice Monkeys are trained to wear parachutes so if somehow they fall off the platform while they’re knocking the ice off the wing, they won’t die.”
Mike looks back at the student and nods gravely. “You wouldn’t want a dead monkey,” he says. “That’s for sure.” He then stands up and stretches while pulling a crushed pack of cigarettes out of his pocket. He looks down at me. “I’m going to go smoke. You want to sort this out before I come back?”
I nod, but he’s already walked out of the room. I know Mike won’t fail my student over this, but the rest of the checkride is going to have to be absolutely perfect for him to get through. I glance at my watch and try to figure out how many minutes I have to explain to my student what humor and sarcasm are, while frantically trying to remember any other systems or airplane jokes I may have told him during the past two weeks.