Sunday, November 15, 2009

Passing Your Exam Again

This is probably old news to Americans, but I just came across it now. It seems that a number of FAA testing centres were not administering the full test to prospective aircraft mechanics, just passing them anyway. It's not clear to me whether the candidates paid extra to take exams they were guaranteed to pass, or whether the testing centre simply charged the normal fee and gained extra revenue by taking less time per student for the testing and attracting extra business as word of the expedited process at that testing centre spread. It's probably coincidental that a lot of this occurred in Texas, and that it was work done in Texas that was the final straw in our Person Responsible for Maintenance deciding to always fly a company mechanic out to work on our airplanes.

I have a few thoughts on this. I'm probably not as horrified as the media tells me I should be, because I don't think exams are the end-all and be-all of knowing how to fix an airplane. A newly "qualified" person is probably going to be supervised anyway, and regardless of how they was tested or how they did on the test, new personnel are going to learn lots more as they actually do the job. If someone challenged your possession of your credentials and asked you to redo your qualification tests right now, would you pass? I have to repass my proficiency test on this airplane every year, which includes an oral knowledge portion, but I wonder how well I would do on the ATPL written papers. I'll bet there are hundreds of competent Canadian pilots who couldn't pass the PSTAR right now. That's the written test on which you must score 90% before making your first solo flight, usually at around ten to twenty hours of flight time.

Taking an exam in Spanish in a predominantly Spanish-speaking area didn't sound so bad right off. The pilot might speak Spanish too, and pretty much anyone can point at a part and say "no va" or draw a diagram of their problem. I have done that with English-speaking mechanics, when my problem went beyond my vocabulary. Then I learned words like escutcheon. Sometimes the engineer has to look up the name of the part in a book. The problem comes when an esoteric part arrives with important English-language instructions that the mechanic can't properly interpret. The person also needs to be able to understand and implement ADs, not always the most clearly worded documents. The altavista babelfish isn't going to cut it there.

A lot of airplane maintenance and repair tasks are not that hard. I just changed the brake pads and hydraulic filter under supervision of an AME. There are plenty of people more mechanically inclined than I am who could diagnose and repair problems without a lot of formal training. So I don't think that the improperly tested people are going to be producing repair jobs like these, but, assuming they had the same training courses as the typical candidate, then a number of them left their training with weak areas that should have been identified and retested. What it comes down to is that when I do maintenance work an airplane, a properly certified AME watches and takes responsibility for it. If someone cheated on a test, where's the responsibility?

I would definitely like to have incompetent personnel removed from the roster of qualified aircraft repair people. But I don't believe all of the incompetents are graduates of improper testing centres, or vice versa.


Sarah said...

I'd not heard that Texas testing center story. It's terrible, but not surprising.. the market will find a way. Scary... I rely on mechanics to keep the engines running! Fortunately, we use one guy we know well and trust. He's great.

I still haven't taken my instrument exam. I tried - showed up yesterday thinking I could register on site, but it turned out the remote registration phone wasn't answered after 2pm Saturdays. Oh well. More time to study - I'll try to get there after work Monday.

After cramming for tests, I think you're as prepared as you can be to pass the test, not necessarily the same thing as being the best mechanic or pilot possible. If the TC question bank is anything like the FAA's, there are "trick" questions that just require memorization of the accepted right answer. And there are memorization topics.

For instance, no one I've talked to believes the FAA's "Primary and Supporting" classification scheme for instrument attitude flying is useful in the air. It's complicated, academic, and confusing - but it's on the test. I must be ready, because the scheme actually makes sense to me now if I think about it a minute.

Here's one, for your amusement.

Which instruments are considered to be supporting instruments for pitch during change of airspeed in a level turn?

(a) Airspeed and VSI
(b) Altimeter and attitude indicator
(c) Attitude indicator and VSI

MyHeadHurts said...

Certainly is academic... maybe of some use to instrument instructors but for the student? Or it could form the underlying basis for an animated teaching video (without using the academic language - primary and supporting).

I'm trying to think what I would actually refer to as my main reference during such an exercise - probably first my rpm gauge to ballpark the speed change, and AI for setting bank angle... then Altimeter (more accurate than VSI) and AI to judge rate of pitch change and desired bank angle ... DI to watch heading target approaching... ASI to watch AS target approaching..

And through all that "head flying" I still haven't got a clue what they want for the RIGHT answer...

Paul B said...

I'm an IT-related instructor, and part of the requirement for certain of the courses I give is that, when a new version of the software becomes available, I'm supposed to take an exam on the new version within 3 months. Sounds reasonable to me.

Of course, exams have nothing to do with knowing the correct answer to the question, it's about giving the answer that the exam setter is expecting :-)

Icebound said...

Nevertheless, you want to protect yourself against Technicians who come out of schools such as this:,653.0.html

Sarah said...

The answer was 'c'. Primary for pitch in this state would be the altimeter, which is what you're trying to keep constant. The confusing parts are the differences between "establishing" and "maintaining".

It's history for me now - I passed the written with 92%. That's 5/60 wrong, 2 I see I messed up, 3 I'd argue interpretations. In particular, on a 160 degree heading departure procedure whether "left of the localizer" is from the airplane's point of view or the map plan view. :( My obsession now changes focus to the oral & flight test..

Oh well. The questions are not as