Friday, September 12, 2008

The Checkride

After having a hard time falling asleep Wednesday night, I awoke at 6am on my 22nd birthday to numbers flying through my head: V_r = 50, V_x = 54 (aim for 60), V_y = 67 (aim for 70), 121.5 & 7700 for emergencies, 122.0 for FSS, fuel is 6lbs per gal. I tried going back to sleep and thinking about something else, but it was useless. By 6:30 I climbed out of bed with at best 6 hours of sleep and a very big test in front of me.

I'd left my half-finished flight plan on the coffee table, so I sat down, called FSS (Flight Services, 1-800-WX-BRIEF) and got the weather. It was supposed to be a good day for flying, and I logged all the key weather information. Using it I did more work on my flight plans before deciding at about 7:30 to drive to the airport. I didn't eat breakfast before leaving, but my mom made me a bagel and drink so I wouldn't be hungry during the test.

On the way in I listened to music and managed to let my mind wander for a bit. I reminded myself that failing wouldn't be the end of the world and that if I had any problems I could certainly try again. Besides, I reminded myself, Chris is probably just freaking me out so that when Royal shows up, the test is a lot easier than I've expected. I still had my doubts, but managed to nibble on a third of the bagel and take a few sips before I got to the airport.

I walked through the terminal to Classic Air (the company Chris works for). He had let me borrow a key last night in case I beat him in this morning, since my test was to start at 9am. Unfortunately, the key he gave me was the wrong one. The outside door didn't open. I went around through the unlit hanger to the main door. Nothing. I tried the back door. That got me as far as the back workshop, where a bunch of the tools are kept. Luckily the key I had gotten worked on the two remaining doors too. For a minute I thought I was going to be finishing my flight plan from the terminal, or the cockpit, while I waited for Chris to arrive.

I was finishing up the details of all my flight information, including printing out more weather information from when Chris and his uncle (the expert mechanic) came in. I wrapped up and Chris made sure everything was in order while I ate as much of my bagel as I could. Then we wandered around until Royal arrived.

Royal flew in on his own plane, a blue 172, kept in great condition. When he walked over and shook my hand all I could think was "Mr. Rogers" - he was short, at least 67 (probably closer to 75), white hair, glasses and a big smile. He introduced himself and we went inside. Chris immediately peeled off as Royal started asking me ice breakers: when did I start learning to fly, when was my first solo and how did it feel? It was obvious to me that these were prepared questions intended to calm me down. Knowing that, I tried to let them work - and they did a little.

Once we were done chatting, he logged onto the computer and we registered my exam using IACRA. (If any future pilots are reading this, make sure your IACRA is complete before you take your test or it doesn't count. I cannot over-stress this.)

Then we returned to the table and the questions started out easy: show him the flight plan and explain it, show him the weather forecast and I had to decide if we could make today's flight (yes, we could). Then some of the harder questions came out: which instruments would fail if the vacuum pump died? I didn't know, and I wasn't about to bullshit. I misunderstood the vacuum pump as the static port at first, since the pressure difference (as you would find in a vacuum) is what the static port measures. He corrected me, at which point I figured out the answer. Still more hard questions: what would you do if you HAD to land and at Oxford but had a complete electrical failure. Using logic and reasoning I deduced that I wouldn't be able to talk to the tower since my radios would be dead, but I wouldn't be able to communicate my radios were dead by turning 7600 on my transponder either, since my transponder would be dead. Even though you're no supposed to break class D airspace without talking to the tower, I said I would be forced to, and hope to see light signals coming from the tower as I came in to land. I was correct. When he followed up with "what light would you hope to see from the tower?" I knew it: "green."

The questions went on for a while, including a detailed coverage of the sectional, including several things on it I'd never noticed. Regardless, he said "you seem to understand everything just fine, now let's go for the flight and see how you apply it." I had passed the oral, the part I was most nervous about.

For a fleeting moment I got excited: I had thought that if I passed the oral, I would certainly be able to pass the flight. Then I got myself in check thinking to myself: ok, the oral's done, good. That doesn't mean it's over: you still have the check ride to worry about. This was it.

We went out to the plane and I informed Royal that I had performed the pre-flight prior to his arrival, which I had. We got into the plane and he reminded me that I was the pilot-in-command (even though I technically wasn't), and that I could do things on my pace. If I had any instruction for him, I was to issue it as I deemed fit. This was my flight.

I used the checklist and got the engine started. For some reason I had to pump it more than usual because the first attempt at starting failed. (In hindsight, it could have been because Chris's uncle had done one last minute bit of work on it between my flight last night and my check ride.) Either way, Royal didn't seem phased by the start. I had him perform a break check and instructed him to put his shoulder harness on - something I think he was waiting for me to instruct him on.

Before getting cleared to taxi I performed a break check and had him do the same. I then got ATIS and made my radio call. I missed part of what the ATC said -- I thought he said use runway 36, but Royal said something about 18 that corrected me. I wasn't sure if this was a test to make me mess up, or if he was helping me. Realizing the wind was coming from the south, take-off on 18 would make a lot more sense. I guessed he was helping and taxied onto 18, to taxi-way C as instructed (which I was pretty sure was on that end anyway).

I did the engine run-up and everything fine. I was instructed to do a normal take-off and start my cross-country towards Groton. I made fine radio calls and remembered to set my heading indicator, perform my checklist and set my altimeter. Take-off went well, as did climb out. Despite best climb for time being 67 knots (V_y), Royal told me to put the nose below the horizon to check for traffic. He taught like Chris did. As I came up to 1400' (300' shy of pattern altitude) I turned left to start my cross-country.

Then I started making mistakes.

As soon as I was turning left to head east I realized that I didn't have my flight plan up front; it was behind my seat in my headset bag. I tuned the LORAN in to Groton, but Royal had me reach back to get it anyway to look up the heading. I kept my eyes in front as I reached back. Forgetting it was mistake #1. Not how I wanted to start. Even once I got my heading, I had a hard time maintaining it; I kept finding myself too far south since I took off on runway 18, something I'd never done prior on a flight to Groton.

As I continued my climb to the 5500' I had planned (currently at almost 3000') we were passing Waterbury, the first checkpoint. Royal asked how long it took and how long my flight plan had predicted. That was when I realized I forgot to note what time we took off. Another mistake. I estimated to myself, and gave him a time. He was happy with it. Continuing to climb, however, I noticed the clouds were getting lower above us. Royal asked me what altitude I estimated them to be at: 3500'. So then, he asked, what altitude should we fly at instead of the 5500' proposed? Noting that the east/west odd/even thousand foot altitudes didn't apply below 3000', I would descend to 2700-2800' and continue flight there. He was happy, so I was too. I descended and maintained that altitude, but kept drifting south.

During the descent I realized I had forgotten the emergency instructions prior to take-off (where we'd land in the case of an emergency during take-off and where we were going). I told him I forgot it and apologized, to which he simply replied, "OK." He pointed out I was drifting south a few times, so I'd correct. Eventually I found MMK, Meriden Airport, which was my next checkpoint, and continued on towards the one after it.

Royal had me demonstrate how VORs worked as we headed towards Chester Airport. VORs were tools I liked, but had only used briefly before; I was nervous as I used it, but got it right. He then asked how much longer towards Chester and where it was, so I told him. He then informed me I had demonstrated enough of the cross-country and it was time to demonstrate some maneuvers. Suddenly I got nervous again.

The first maneuver I was to perform was slow flight. I performed clearing turns first to make sure the area was clear, then made sure I had an emergency place to land, then made sure we weren't above houses. Finally it was time to do slow flight. Carb heat, a little power out, first notch of flaps, visually confirm down, second notch, visually confirm down, third notch, make sure the nose stays down until pulling more power and pitching for 40 knots. We were in slow flight. "Turn to 270," he instructed, so I did, with a very shallow bank. I explained as I turned that it was shallow so that the vertical component of lift, which was already minimized by my slow airspeed, would remain strong enough to keep us from stalling, whereas if I banked over too far we'd lose that vertical lift and stall. He gave me a few more headings to turn to, then I was done with slow flight.

Next up was a power-off stall. Shit. These were probably my least favorite. I confirmed that the area was still clear (but made sure it was OK with Royal that I didn't perform more clearing turns) before turning the carb heat back on. Half-way to turning it on, I put it back and clarified: "do you want me to perform this until the first buffet [the bumpy feeling of a plane about to stall] or to actually induce the stall?" He replied, "full shall." Damn it.

I pulled the carb heat (which turns it on), then a little power. First notch of flaps, visually confirm, hold the nose down. Repeat for the second and final notches. Then: pull the power to idle and maintain altitude until stall. I was doing it, but the plane started losing altitude. I pulled back harder, thinking come on, come on, STALL ALREADY! Finally it came - a good, solid stall. I recovered and reset to normal flight. Normally with Chris I couldn't feel the stall before he'd push the nose over; that time I felt it loud and clear. It may have even been the secondary stall, but Royal didn't look at me and say I failed, so I kept going.

Next was the power-on stall. Double-crap. I knew the theory behind this one, but had only just learned exactly what to do last night. Here went nothing. I told him I would get the plane to 50 knots for V_r, as if I was taking off on the runway, but I doubt I ever got it below 65 before I gave-up on 50 and went for the stall. I pulled the power to 1900RPM and held the nose up. This time he said just do it until the first sign of a stall - even the warning horn would do. Easily I pitched back and got the horn to go off before recovering. That ended up probably being the most simple thing I'd do during the whole test.

Royal then took the controls (we did a positive exchange of controls, which is one of the things he was supposed to check for) so I could get the BAI (aka. "foggles") on. He gave them back to me, then had me get certain headings and altitudes. After just a few of these I was good, so we transitioned to unusual attitudes. Correction: these were the easiest part of the test. And my favorite. I put my head down closed my eyes while he made the plane do something - well - unusual. I brought my head up (goggles still on) and noticed we were aimed way too high, potentially going to stall. I gave it full power to prevent the stall, lowered the nose to straight flight and leveled the wings before pulling the power back to a cruise speed. We did it one more time, this time diving the nose down. I pulled the power to idle and leveled us out again before applying power. I was done with the foggles - I'd done well.

Next was steep turns: one to the left, one to the right. Left first. I kept my head out the window and turned sharply: 45 degree bank. With the proper rudder applied, and me calling out everything I was doing we whipped around pretty quickly. The turn the the right found me starting at the attitude indicator a little too much, so Royal covered it with special covers he'd brought. (He's used them a few other times too, but this was the one time I really remembered.) I had almost didn't go steep enough to the right (which is odd, since normally I go too shallow to the left), but did fine. It looked like I passed steep turns as well.

At this point Meriden Airport was to the north of us, so Royal had me look up their information on the sectional and enter the traffic pattern there for runway 36 (left pattern, which is traditional). I made my radio calls and entered the pattern. As I came in to perform a short-field landing I was way too high. I dumped in the flaps, but wasn't set-up well. "How about you do a go-around?" Royal suggested, so I did. On the way up another plane was taking off runway 18, and said he had me in sight. I told royal I heard him, but didn't bother to call back on the radios.

I extended pattern this time, but made it too wide. Royal commented, "learning at Oxford they make those wide patterns. You should bring it in closer here." I understood and agreed, but said I still intended to extend my down-wind leg so my final would be longer this time. Royal nodded, but apparently disagreed when he told me to pull my power (unlike Chris, who would pull it himself). Time for an emergency landing!

I made the radio call: "Meriden traffic, Cessna 48984, turning left base for short approach, Meriden traffic." As I came in for the emergency short-field landing I touched down a bit hard, then veered to the left. Royal pointed it out, but I was already aware. "Right rudder" I said and I stepped on it. He pointed out the wind-sock (technically it wasn't a wind-sock, but it did the same thing) and that the wind was gently from the south, so I did a 180 on the runway and was about to perform a short-field take-off, per his instructions.

Holding the breaks I gave it full power. I let go of the breaks and we started rolling -- quickly. I pulled back at 50, took off at 54 and climbed out at 67 (once clear of the trees Royal pointed out). We were off. Royal then had me head back towards Oxford, but on the way picked a cell-phone tower for me to do turns-around-a-point on. I said, "well, the wind is coming from the south right? So I should enter down-wind on the other side." He said "assume you don't know - figure it out as you perform the maneuver." Tricky man.

I got down to 800-1000' above the ground (1000', since there were buildings in the area) before starting the maneuver. I made sure Royal was sure as I pointed this out as a "congested area" even though there were plenty of fields close by. He said OK, so I performed my turn to the left, keeping it off my wing the whole time, but getting pushed inward when I held a steep bank during one part of the turn. Oops. Royal pointed it out, but when I observed and corrected it he said nothing more about it.

I climbed to 2500' (appropriate for the heading) towards Oxford and called to request a stop-and-go. (A stop-and-go, Royal told me, was a touch-and-go where you come to a complete stop. Sounded like fun.) We were denied due to painting operations on the ends of the runway, so Royal had me request a landing-taxi-back instead. Denied again: "I can't allow pattern work right now," the ATC said. Instead we requested a landing full-stop, but Royal said he'd have to figure something out.

I came in for another short field landing, hoping to have a better one this time. It wasn't. Right before we touched down I meant to add power to help the flair during this type of landing, but we touched down (hard) and too soon, so I ended up giving it power (somewhat accidentally) while we were on the runway. What a dumbass move that was. That, and I started veering to the left again. As I slowed Royal asked why I kept doing that (nicely), to which I explained "I don't know - I'm normally MUCH better at landing than this." He also asked about the power, so I gave him the honest answer: I fucked up. I explain what I'd intended to do, and he seemed forgiving.

We started taxiing back when I slowed to a stop once clear of the runway. Royal called the ATC and explained, "Oxford Tower, 984." He did it the old-school way: call the tower, then wait until they ack before stating your request.

"984, go ahead" Tower called.
"Could you fit us in for just one more landing? If not, I'll go shut-down then start it right back up, 984." Royal was obviously going to get his landing. I began to realize what this was: one last shot for me to do a good landing.
"984, yeah, I just don't want any pattern work, but I can fit you in for one more landing. Taxi to 36 via hotel for take-off, perform a tear-drop turn and land 18. Winds are calm."

Well, this was all new, but I was game. This was my last shot, and I knew it. Royal didn't have to say anything.

Once cleared for take-off, he had me perform a soft-field take-off: never come to a complete stop and keep as much pressure off the nose as you can. I did fine, but I was nervous as I realized that 10 months of training was about to come down to a single landing.

Once at 1600' I started the 180 degree turn to complete a tear-drop shape in the sky. "Steeper. Steeper. Really bank it!" Royal egged me on. We must have been at 60 degrees or more (which technically requires a parachute to be allowed to perform), but as I came around and got straight he said, "just keep center line." My rudder was going crazy again. I kept forgetting which to give: right rudder? left rudder? no rudder? too much? too little? Suddenly...

Thunk! I touched down. My flair was short and the landing was hard. As I rolled I slammed the right rudder. Must. Keep. Center line. I wasn't even sure it mattered after that horrible touch-down, but I wasn't about to give up. I held center line alright, but it was still, in my book, a horrible landing.

We taxied back and I left the airplane out since it was too crowded to bring it much closer. Royal thought that was safe. I performed the shut-down checklist (even though I hadn't used the checklist for almost any other part of the flight - another mistake I realized) and turned the engine off. We took off our headsets before he turned to me:


I don't remember the rest of what he said. Some combination of the words "private pilot", "demonstrated" and "well done." I was in my own world. I passed. Somehow, with all those mistakes, I passed.

We got out of the plane and I made sure the control lock was in and peto tube was covered. I cleared out the backseat and left the plane in a good condition. Chris had warned me that he would fail me if I didn't shut it down correctly, even if he already told me I passed. It didn't matter: I left the plane in fine condition, time logged and everything. Then we went inside.

We filled out the paper work, he told me about a fly-in happening in Simsbury (where he's from) and gave me my temporary certificate. The real license will arrive in the mail in 2-3 months. Meanwhile, this paper is good for 120 days. I apologized for those landings and invited him to come up with me any other time; I insisted I was better than he got to see. He assured me it was nerves, and after a little chatting, he left.

I hung around until Chris got back from an intro flight with a new student, and when he finished with him I acted like I failed before telling him the truth. We hung out for some time before I finally left the airport. I'd be back - and soon - to get checked out on the Piper Warrior. But for a few days I decided I was taking a break. I was a private pilot now, and I could do whatever I wanted. It's a great feeling and it's still sinking in:

I'm a pilot.

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