If you read any number of aviation periodicals, you will probably note that some of the stories are written by pilots who designated as “check airman,” or “line check airman.” It may be tempting to think that this position is the same as a designated examiner or a position on a football officiating crew. Both assumptions are wrong.
In the piloting ranks, there are a variety of “checkers” or evaluators. Examiners are generally pilots that conduct checkrides in the airplane or simulator. For example, when you took (or take, as the case may be) your private pilot checkride, you do so with an examiner. While it is possible to undergo that evaluation with an FAA employee, it is far more likely that you will do so with an examiner “designated by the Administrator.” This examiner isn’t just some guy with connections. He or she has to work up the experience chain as an instructor, meeting a number of other criteria along the way before applying to the FAA for the position. Further, the number of examiners capable of giving various checkrides is limited to the actual need for such examiners within a geographic region based on known levels of flying. That is why there are far more examiners in Florida than, say, Maine. The hope is that the examiner pool is sufficient to keep all examiners steadily examining, while preventing pilots from being able to shop around for the easiest checkride. It should be noted that the training process to become an examiner is pretty rigorous, the selection process is not easy, and the standards are high.
Examiners also exist in the simulator training world, with some significant differences. An examiner for a particular jet, like the Citation X, may be able to give evaluations in the Citation X and nothing else. Likewise, at an airline, the examiners are likely to be pilots employed by the airline. A letter of authorization from the FAA will allow them to administer checkrides and evaluations on say, a 737, to their own pilots as representatives of the FAA. But they will not be allowed to use that letter to provide training or checkrides to any Joe who walks in off the street. It is still a 737, and the examiner’s expertise does not change. But the scope of his authority is limited to what his letter allows. Now, this does not mean that he cannot apply to the FAA for a separate letter to conduct Part 91 checkrides, and it does not mean he cannot apply for an examiner’s letter to conduct general aviation checkrides on his days off. In fact, many airline guys do exactly that.
Line check airmen, on the other hand, are a different breed altogether. Commercial airliners have a third seat in the cockpit called the jumpseat, which is there as a requirement for the FAA to be able to observe flight crews, conduct flight tests, or engage in any other business as a part of their jobs. It is also used by line check airmen. Again, like other examiner positions, the line check airmen (the title can vary from company to company) usually come from the ranks of the airline’s pilots. They are put through a training process that covers not only the ins and outs of the job, but also qualifies them to fly the airplane from both seats.
During line checks, the check airman’s role is to sit in the jumpseat and watch a crew do their job. Often, it is technically the captain who is being checked, but in reality both pilots are being observed. (Sometimes it really is only just the FO, but that isn’t as common.) As you may surmise, the nature of the job is such that the check airman must be extremely knowledgeable about the company and aircraft flight manuals, the FARs, and the how’s and why’s of the jobs of both pilots. While the crew is conducting a revenue flight, the check airman scrutinizes every aspect of their performance from checklist usage (including proper terminology) to approach briefings to weather analysis to their communication skills. It is, in fact, a checkride, but instead of being conducted in a simulator with a blizzard of emergencies, it is done in real time, in the airplane. This actually gives the crew a big advantage, as they are being examined doing what they do every day.
The purpose of the line check is to ensure that the standards as defined by the company and the FAA are being followed both in spirit and letter. Crews are expected to use their best judgment when unusual circumstances arise, and like any checkride, an intervention by the check airman or creation of doubt about the crew’s ability to safely do their jobs means the event will be a failure (sometimes called “an unsat”).
I’ve been a check airman for almost four years now, and it is a job I am proud to have. It comes with a certain amount of prestige, and it generates a certain level of respect among my peers. It also means—and this is something I take very seriously—that my company and the FAA trust in my evaluation and judgment skills. They trust that I am willing to remove pilots from duty if necessary, no matter how it may mess up the flight schedule. It means I may have to make a decision that ends another pilot’s career. But most important, it means that I will do whatever I can to ensure the safe operation of our fleet and our pilots.
I enjoy doing line checks, as it gives me a chance to learn from other pilots as well as get their feedback about what is working and what isn’t. I then turn that feedback over to my bosses, who decide how to incorporate it or how to ignore it. Line checks also reinforce what I already know: The guys and gals flying the line are among the best pilots and people in this industry, and placing the lives of my family in their hands is something I readily do. They take criticism with an eye to being a better pilot themselves, and they always ask if they can do something better. That, in my mind, is the hallmark of a professional.–Chip Wright