Sunday, January 24, 2016

Taking Flight with Rickey Harber

Five facts

Earned pilot’s license: 1973

Began certifying pilots: 1996

Number certified: 1,100

First-timers’ ages: 17 to 79

More information:

Rick Harber is a local flying legend – not from dramatic aerial feats, but because he has either instructed or examined most of the private pilots in the Inland Northwest.

Rickey Harber attended Bible college with the intention of becoming a full-time minister.

That calling never got off the ground.

But eventually he embraced another sort of ministry – helping more than 1,000 aspiring airplane pilots earn their wings.

Harber himself logged nearly 11,000 hours in the air before Parkinson’s disease three years ago ended his career as a pilot examiner for the Federal Aviation Administration. But he still teaches ground school at West Plains-based Northwest Flight School, and conducts simulated check rides for pilots preparing to go before an FAA examiner.

During a recent interview, Harber discussed what it takes to be a good pilot, what challenges lie ahead for aviation, and what goes through his mind when he hears about a small plane crashing.

S-R: Where did you grow up?

Harber: In Tennessee.

S-R: What were your interests?

Harber: I liked spending summers farming with my grandfather. But I was intrigued by planes as far back as I can remember, even though I wasn’t around them.

S-R: What did you do after high school?

Harber: I studied to become a minister. But after graduating, I realized I was not called to that service.

S-R: What brought you west?

Harber: My wife, who I met in college, was from Spokane. We spent the summer of ’73 here after graduation, and her parents paid for me to get my pilot’s license at Felts Field.

S-R: How much did learning to fly cost?

Harber: Twelve hundred dollars.

S-R: When did you move here?

Harber: In 1976. I went to work delivering bread for Oroweat, and did that until the end of ’99.

S-R: Tell me about your flying career.

Harber: After getting licensed as a private pilot – meaning I could carry passengers – I got my instrument rating, and then my commercial license, which is not to be confused with what we call an airline transport pilot. A commercial pilot is someone who can be reimbursed for his services. Then I got my flight instructor certificate, which enabled me to build the hours to qualify as an FAA pilot examiner.

S-R: Was that always your goal?

Harber: I hadn’t even thought about it. I was working 52 hours a week for Oroweat, and there was already a local examiner. But he developed heart problems and lost his license. When I went to visit him in the hospital, he said, “Have you put in your application to become an examiner?” He might as well have asked when I was leaving for Mars. But I took his advice and got it.

S-R: Do examiners work for the FAA?

Harber: No, we’re freelancers designated by the FAA. Currently there’s one in Spokane and one in Coeur d’Alene. We test student pilots, and if they pass we certify them. Once they have their license, they must pass a flight review every two years.

S-R: How much does certification cost?

Harber: It was around $150 when I started. Now it’s $400. The review pilots go through every two years costs around $60 an hour, and takes two or more hours, both on the ground and in the air.

S-R: What must pilots do before seeking certification?

Harber: The minimum requirements are ground instruction and completion of a written FAA test of flying knowledge. They also need at least 40 hours of flying time, including 20 hours of in-the-air training with a flight instructor.

S-R: How much does that training cost?

Harber: About $10,000, because most people train for more than the 40-hour minimum.

S-R: How quickly could someone learn to fly?

Harber: Theoretically, in as little as six weeks if they’re sharp. But it’s not just book knowledge or brains. It’s not uncommon for very smart people to lack the ability to multitask well enough to become good pilots.

S-R: Have you ever owned an airplane?

Harber: No. First of all, I couldn’t afford one. But once I became an instructor and examiner, I got to fly in a variety of aircraft – an opportunity I wouldn’t have had if I’d owned my own plane.

S-R: Did you cut back your bread-delivery hours after you became an examiner?

Harber: No. My days off were Wednesday and Sundays, and in the summer I also could do exams after work, because it stayed light longer. Most FAA examiners do it part time, or they’re retired. It’s not a 40-hour-a-week job, but I always had as much work as I could handle. When we were short an examiner, I’d give check rides as far away as Bonners Ferry, Idaho, and La Grande, Oregon.

S-R: Did any skills learned delivering bread transfer to your job as an FAA examiner?

Harber: Growing up, I was pretty shy. Working for Oroweat, I had to meet people – store managers and vendors – and that forced me to interact with strangers.

S-R: Is being a flight instructor anything like being a minister?

Harber: There are certain parallels. Both ministers and flight instructors have to deal with touchy issues. Some student pilots are too arrogant, which is a hazard if they push the rules’ limits.

S-R: Is there a busiest time of year for examiners?

Harber: Typically the fall, because people like to train during the summer and get their license before winter hits.

S-R: What does the actual test involve?

Harber: We spend about three hours on the ground assessing students’ overall knowledge and whether they show good judgment responding to hypothetical situations. Then we go fly to assess their piloting skill.

S-R: Do some people get nervous?

Harber: Everyone is nervous to a degree, and I allow for that. I recall giving a check ride in Pullman to a young lady. It was winter, but she was so nervous that she never turned on the heater. As we landed, I could see my breath. She passed the review, but I chided her for not using the heater. Judgment is a big, big issue.

S-R: How did you gauge it?

Harber: Examiners are supposed to create a distraction during the test. But usually I didn’t need to make one up, because something would happen on its own. Once we were about to land at a small airport when a World War II aircraft came up behind us – no radio call – went around us, and landed in front of us. The lack of a radio call wasn’t a violation, but it was against protocol. As soon as we landed, the other pilot hurried over and apologized, explaining that his mic didn’t work and he had an oil-pressure problem. So I used that as a teaching opportunity, explaining to my pilot that if you have an emergency, you can deviate from standard regulations to handle the situation.

S-R: What did you like most about your examiner job?

Harber: Watching how people from all walks of life responded when they were under the gun, so to speak. I also liked seeing pilots progress to higher levels. I could certify someone, and later on give them their instrument rating, their commercial rating and their instructor rating.

S-R: What did you like least?

Harber: Having to fail someone. That was no fun.

S-R: When you watch a film that included flying, do you see things and think, “That’s not right”?

Harber: Yes. Flying is inherently boring to watch, so Hollywood has to add pizzazz or drama.

S-R: What challenges lie ahead for private aviation?

Harber: There’s a big need for pilots and air traffic controllers, yet not many young people are interested in aviation. When I was their age, flying seemed magical. Today, kids can pretend to pilot an airliner on their computer.

S-R: When you hear about a small plane crashing, what goes through your mind?

Harber: If it’s a local crash, I probably know the pilot, so naturally I wonder where the crash occurred, the weather, the time of day. But I’ve learned never to make assumptions.

S-R: If someone passes the FAA test, can the public assume the pilot is competent?

Harber: I wish I had a good answer. There are some people you’d rather not ride in a car with. The same is true with aviation. An examiner only observes a pilot one time. We can’t crawl inside their head and see what they’re really made of.

S-R: What sort of person is best suited to be a pilot?

Harber: First and foremost, a person who is emotionally stable and able to see the big picture.

S-R: Have you been in a crash?

Harber: Yes. Thirteen years ago, someone I was testing crashed his own plane. The plane was destroyed, but we walked away.

S-R: Did he pass the test?

Harber: Not that day. But he passed two weeks later.

This interview has been condensed.

Story and photo:

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