I passed my private pilot checkride on Friday! The checkride, otherwise formally known as the Practical Test, was the final step to qualifying as a private pilot, which allows me to take passengers with me.
After getting postponed a couple times due to poor winter weather, spring rolled around, the weather was sunny, and the checkride was finally on. I had chosen a Friday based on examiner availability and not having to battle the weekend air traffic.
The examiner would arrive at 8.00am, so I turned up at the airport at 7.00am so I could do some last minute prep work. John, my instructor, arrived minutes later. “Did you see what’s happening outside?” I walked outside to see a workcrew with a huge drill opening up a hole in the tarmac – right in the middle of the ramp and right in front of 2407N, the plane I had booked. “Let’s hope they’ll be gone in a couple hours.”
John retrieved the plane’s maintenance logs from the hangar while I borrowed the Pilot Operating Handbook from the plane. We then spent some time fiddling around with an online FAA application form – you have to report the hours you’ve spent doing various things, and it was a chore making sure all the numbers were right.
Tom turned up at 8, and we sat down to do the administrative work. Turns out that our application form was still not quite correct, so after two more attempts we finally got that squared away and the test could begin.
The exam starts with an oral portion, followed by a practical portion where you actually do the flying (with the oral exam technically continuing through the practical portion).
The oral is open book and I had all my notes and materials arranged in front of me. But, I had drilled this stuff quite a bit so it turns out that I didn’t need to refer to the notes very much. The examiner, Tom, tossed out a few questions about documents and other requirements needed to fly – thankfully, fairly straightforward questions. He asked when the weight & balance data expired, and I had to um and ah about that for a while before I half-guessed out that it’s only going to change if the aircraft is modified.
Tom gave me a METAR to decode and left the room while I did so. I made relatively short work of it given that I had printed out the METAR decoding section of the FAA’s Aviation Weather Services document, which makes the decoding process very easy. I was done after about 10 minutes and sat there twiddling my thumbs for another 10 minute before Tom stepped in. “Oh sorry, most people take 45 minutes to do this.” Tip: Bring the AWS document to checkrides – you’ll need it to decode thorny PIREPs and METARs.
I got through the rest of the orals pretty unscathed, except for when I was stumped but what I needed to do if the altimeter setting reported was 32.10, since the plane’s altimeter adjustments don’t go that high. Turns out there’s a Part 91 rule that says you need to check the NOTAMs to figure out what to do. He asked some questions about charts (“point to one place where you can fly with 1 mile visibility, 500′ below clouds, 1000′ above clouds and 2000′ lateral to clouds”), aircraft performance, aircraft systems, the FAA’s special emphasis areas, and a few other things that I can’t quite remember now.
The oral was done after a couple of hours, and then it was on to the practical test, which was the bit that made me the most nervous.
The drilling crew had disappeared from the ramp, but they had left behind an orange cone, again directly in the path of my plane. I picked it up and saw it was covering a hole.
Someone suggested that I pull the plane around it instead of trying to taxi around it, so I did so after finishing my preflighting.
As I prepared to start the engine, a problem arose that threatened to end the exam right then and there (and I would have to pay $350 to resume it another time). A big red X appeared through the right digital fuel gauge. I had seen this problem before – it was an issue with the fuel tank being overfilled, and it would be X’ed until the fuel level dropped a little. However, the plane was not flyable with an inop fuel gauge. It was not, in pilot-speak, airworthy. I groaned.
“What’s wrong?” Tom asked.
“The right fuel gauge is inoperative,” I replied, pointing at the screen.
“Can we fly with that inoperative?”
“No,” I sighed.
I was pretty sure the slight slope the plane was on was causing the gauge issue. To make matters worse, when I wiggled in my seat to get the fuel sloshing inside the tanks, the gauge would flicker between being dead and coming back to life. So frustrating.
“Look, if you can go back in and sort this out, I’m happy to continue.”
We went back in and a discussion ensued between John, Tom and myself. I was pretty sure that the problem would be fixed by draining the right wing of a half gallon of fuel. But there was no easy way to siphon it off.
“You’re PIC [pilot in command], it’s your call,” Tom said. It was my call, and I was still being tested. If I made the wrong call, Tom could end the test right then and there.
In the end, I decided that I would take the plane out to try and burn some fuel off. I decided I would not attempt to take off, but instead just took it for a drive around the airfield. Fortunately, the regulations state that “no person may take off an aircraft with inoperative instruments or equipment installed,” with the emphasis being on “take off”, so it was ok to operate the aircraft as long as it stayed on the ground.
After starting a lap of the field, the fuel gauge corrected itself and I brought it back and shut the engine off.
I told Tom it was working again, only to find out that when I restarted the engine it was displaying the angry red X of disappointment again. “Look, I’m ok with you taking it out to the run up area, and if it’s working then, we can go,” Tom suggested.
We were now ready to go, and Tom got into the plane as I started the engine. He had had me plan a cross-country flight to Lodi (which he would divert me from), so I asked ground control for a Right Dumbarton departure that would send me over East Bay into the Central Valley.
As expected, as soon as we started taxiing, the gauge sprang back to life and stayed that way. Phew.
In the run-up area, everything went smoothly. Tom noticed that the plane to the right of us in the run-up area had a door loose, so he called into the tower to report that and it was fixed. (Incidentally, if a door comes ajar in flight, there is a procedure in the manual for dealing with it.)
We took off and after reaching the Dumbarton Bridge, I turned right and started the timer to track time to the next waypoint, over Sunol Golf Course. I had estimated 7 minutes.
Tom asked me to stay at 2500 feet. The air was smooth and I trimmed the plane for level flight. Tom tapped twice on the standby altimeter. “I think this thing is broken.” I glanced down and was pretty sure he was joking. “Private pilots aren’t meant to hold an altitude this steady.” The air in the East Bay was incredibly hazy, but seemed to clear up as we got closer.
Forecasted winds were double of what they were when we were in the air, so I made a course adjustment to compensate, and 7 minutes 10 seconds later we were over the golf course.
At Sunol, Tom asked me to plan a diversion to Salinas, which mean that I needed to estimate the course bearing and fuel needed to get there from my present position. “And you can’t use GPS,” he added. I unfurled my chart, which is always an unwieldy exercise, while sneaking quick glances back at my heading, altitude, and out the window for traffic. Unfold map. Check instruments. Check outside. Look for Salinas. Check instruments. Adjust pitch. Check outside. Use thumb to estimate chart distance. Check instruments. Adjust pitch. Check outside. Use hand to estimate heading. “150 degrees and 60 nautical miles, which is about 30 minutes and 5 gallons of fuel,” I declared. Tom was satisfied with that answer and told me to bring it in for a landing at Livermore, which was now quickly approaching.
(Incidentally, I checked after the test what the actual distance was from Sunol to Salinas and it turned out to be 57 nautical miles and 153 degrees!)
I turned to avoid entering Livermore’s airspace and got ATIS. I had a quick reference chart on the back of my kneeboard with frequencies of Bay Area airports. Much easier to look up than the chart. I called Livermore tower and was told to enter left base for 25L.
As I began my descent to pattern altitude, Tom said, “If the engine gave out here, could you make the field?”
“Then why are you still descending?”
When I brought the plane in for a normal landing, the deceleration caused by my braking sent everything loose in the cabin shooting forward, including the kneeboard, chart, nav log and pen that were on my lap. By instinct, I took one hand off the yoke to try and catch the airborne paraphrenalia, which I half succeeded in doing. Unfortunately, I had also succeeded in losing control of my rudder pedals and the plane swerved to the left. I had to quickly adjust, and we skidded side-to-side on the runway. Crap. I decided to let go of everything and concentrate on steering the plane, dropping everything to the floor.
“Yeah you don’t want to do that,” Tom said.
A little bit shaken, I exited the runway and promptly dialed in the wrong frequency for ground control. Twice. “No, it’s point 6.” Tom mentioned. I had a mental block. By convention, when a ground frequency is given as “point something”, the three numbers before the decimal point are standard. And right now I couldn’t remember what they were. After an interminable 5 seconds, my mind become unstuck and I punched in 121.6.
We taxied back to 25L and he asked me to do a soft field takeoff. That went smoothly, and then on the downwind leg he asked me to pull the throttle to idle and called in to the tower to alert them we’d be doing a short approach.
I was having trouble judging distances (and 25L didn’t have VASI or PAPI lights), so I erred on the side of caution and kept high. As I circled onto final, I hit full flaps and realized we were still way too high. I put the plane into a forward slip.
“Not at 55 knots, you’re not,” Tom mentioned.
Shit. I immediately pushed the yoke forward to pitch down and gain speed. I always have trouble remembering to do that.
By the time I released the slip and rounded out, half of the 2700 foot runway had passed us and the end was looming. A short approach is meant to simulate an engine failure, and in the real world, I would only have one shot at landing. I might have been able to make it. But I wasn’t going to find out one way or the other.
“I’m going around,” I said.
Tom was silent on the next circuit.
“What sort of landing would you like?”
“A normal one.”
We were meant to be doing performance landings, so I thought he was going to let me land before telling me I had failed.
When we landed, he told me to show him a short field takeoff, so I guess I hadn’t failed. And when we came back around, he asked for a short field landing.
Finally, he told me to get a left crosswind departure and perform a no flaps takeoff. I had actually never done a no flaps takeoff. John had always taught me to take off with 10 degrees of flaps, and Cessna recommends that take offs have those flaps in. There’s not much difference, but I suspected there could have been a difference in rotation speed. I thought it was 55 knots, but I seemed to recall it being 60 knots for no flaps. So I hedged, and took off as the airspeed indicated about 57-58 knots. (Turns out that it should be 55 even with no flaps.)
On the climb out, Tom took the controls and I put on foggles. He gave me some vectors to follow. Then he was on the radio with Livermore Tower reporting that he was seeing a fire on the ground and did anyone know about it. He took the controls from me temporarily to check it out and reported back that it looked like it was a controlled burn. With foggles on, I didn’t see any of it. When I got the controls back, I was battling the turbulence coming off a ridge of hills trying to maintain my altitude and heading.
After some more vectors, Tom took the controls from me again, asked me to close my eyes, and put the plane in an unusual attitude. I came out of my seat at one stage. After Tom barked “Recover! Recover!” I opened my eyes and saw we were in a dive. I recovered. We were now heading back to the Bay.
Tom had me do slow flight, followed by clearing turns in slow flight, a power off stall, and then a steep turn to the left (which turned out quite well). Tom then simulated a medical emergency and asked me to perform an emergency descent to 1500 feet.
After recovering the plane, we headed towards the salt ponds and he had me do turns around a point at 1000′. I slipped to about 950′ at one stage, which technically broke altitude requirements over congested areas (although also technically, we were over a field so it wasn’t really congested).
Then it was back to Palo Alto for a no flaps landing. I circled a couple times to get ATIS, joined the traffic pattern, struggled a bit with getting the speed correct, but had it mostly stabilized by the time I was on short final. I landed long and had to use the last runway exit. I just needed to taxi back to parking without hitting anything on the way, but then I was done!
Tom was silent all the way back to parking. After I shut the engine down, he turned to me and remarked, “Congratulations. I’ll see you inside for the paper work.”
The club’s printer was low on toner, so Tom had printed me out a temporary private pilot certificate complete with white streaks down the middle of the page where the toner had run out. The FAA would send me a permanent certificate within 120 days, but right then and there, I was a brand new pilot!