Aviation

FAA tosses flight tests by well-known bush pilot, throwing some Alaska aviators into limbo

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A new federal notice warns that scores of Alaska pilots may need to redo flight tests administered by a widely known longtime bush pilot out of Talkeetna to maintain a crucial safety rating.

The Federal Aviation Administration last week issued the notice that airplane pilots who took two specific types of “check ride” flight tests with instructor Don Lee between July 2018 and June 2022 will generally need to get re-inspected to keep those ratings — and potentially for some, their jobs.

One pilot likened the situation to being an attorney who passed the bar exam four years ago, only to have to test again in two weeks.

Lee is an iconic Alaska aviator known for his decades of real-world experience and easygoing personality and popular with pilots needing check rides, numerous people interviewed for this story said this week.

Few details were available about the reason the FAA decided to issue the notice and what problems investigators found with Lee. The notice makes no reference to any specific safety problems involving any pilots or Lee.

FAA officials did not answer any specific questions about their decision. Lee did not return a call for comment through his family-owned flight instruction business Alaska Floats and Skis in Talkeetna.

According to a federal registry, Lee still holds active certificates as an airline transport pilot with multiple ratings, a flight instructor, a remote pilot, a ground instructor and a mechanic.

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The timing of the notice just as the holidays arrive earned criticism from some in Alaska’s aviation community, as did the decision to broadly publicize the decision before sending individual notifications to the specific pilots involved.

“This is kind of a gut punch for a lot of folks, I’m not gonna lie,” said Adam White, government and legislative affairs advocate for the Alaska Airmen’s Association, a pilot advocacy group more than 2,000 members.

White, who said the Airmen’s Association has been in discussions with the FAA about the notice, said the issue was an examiner “that basically wasn’t doing a complete check ride.”

The check rides referenced in the federal notice involve those for pilots earning an instrument rating or flight instructor instrument rating, both significant steps beyond the basic private pilot rating.

On check rides, pilots fly with FAA-designated examiners who make sure they meet safety requirements for competency. Instrument ratings reflect a pilot’s ability to fly relying solely on cockpit gauges and are generally required for any pilot working commercially for Alaskan air taxis or charters.

The new notice involves about 140 pilot check rides, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. It wasn’t immediately clear just how many pilots may ultimately need to get re-examined to keep their ratings, or how many currently work for Alaska air services.

Lee, described by the FAA as a “legendary Alaskan bush pilot” in a 2018 safety seminar program, was featured in the “Alaska Wing Men” reality television series. He came to Talkeetna in the 1970s. People from all over the world have taken flight instruction from him, Lee told community radio station KTNA in 2016.

The notice states an investigation into Lee’s certification activities found there is “reason to believe that the competency” of the pilots involved in check flights between 2018 and this year “is in doubt” so they are required to get examined again by an FAA inspector. Pilots for large commercial airliners, who already have transport pilot ratings involving additional reviews, are exempt.

Regional FAA spokesman Ian Gregor did not answer specific questions this week.

Gregor emailed a statement: “The FAA is requiring certain pilots who received check rides from a former Designated Pilot Examiner in Alaska to contact their local Flight Standards District Office.”

White, with the Airmen’s Association, described such actions as “rare, very rare” though not unprecedented.

“The FAA has the responsibility to make sure pilots are able to meet the qualifications of the certificates they hold,” he said. “When they find out their test is flawed for whatever reason, they have an obligation to go back and make sure the pilot meets the designations.”

Rick Ruess, owner of Arctic Flyers flight instruction school in Anchorage, said he sent many students to Lee for private pilot check rides and at least one for an instrument rating.

“I know he’s an excellent pilot,” Ruess said, of Lee. “He wouldn’t pass anybody that wasn’t a good pilot.”

The federal notice was dated Dec. 12 but individual pilots have yet to get notifications. Once that comes, pilots have 10 days to contact the FAA for re-examination within 15 days of getting the letter, with some exceptions.

One Anchorage-based pilot said he already spent $1,200 getting an instrument instructor check ride from Lee, and didn’t plan on going through the expense to get another one. Another said he knew a number of pilots who weren’t sure they could work until they got a new check ride.

[Northwest Alaska village uses vehicles to light dark runway for a medevac flight]

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At Grant Aviation, which flies to eight Alaska communities including Bethel, Cold Bay and Dillingham, managers know of two pilots who had check rides with Lee during the time period in the notice, but both have had follow-up check rides “so they’re all good,” said Grant president and CEO Rob Kelley.

Grant pilots do internal check rides before they’re put into service so the company should be able to handle any issues, according to Dan Knesek, vice president of commercial operations.

But given the ongoing pilot shortage, there may be pilots who got their instrument ratings from Lee in Alaska but then moved to regional carrier jobs in the Lower 48 and haven’t heard about the notices, Knesek said.

“Some people might know they’re coming,” he said. “I think for others, it might be a surprise.”

It’s not clear if new inspections will be available in such a short window. The sudden notice and quick turnaround time required is expected to lead to a check-ride backlog, several pilots said.

White said the FAA listed 14 designated pilot examiners for planes in Alaska as of Monday, with Lee’s name no longer on the list.

“There is no way that 137 people can get this done in 2 weeks, especially this time of year,” he said. “The FAA did not intentionally ruin people’s Christmas. The FAA is not the Grinch. Some people might disagree with me when I say that. But the FAA was trying very hard to be transparent. Unfortunately, it backfired.”

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Zaz Hollander

Zaz Hollander is a veteran journalist based in the Mat-Su and is currently an ADN local news editor and reporter. She covers breaking news, the Mat-Su region, aviation and general assignments. Contact her at zhollander@adn.com.

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