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Learning To Fly: Check Ride!

Rough weather the day of my checkrideAfter about a year of learning and preparation for the big day, I checked around and found the names of two different FAA Designated Test Examiners in my area. Both were very qualified, and my friend Jamie had used one of these guys for his test flight too. I went with that guy. I had heard that he was very low-key and made prospective pilots very at ease during the test. This was not true, so don’t expect that when it comes time for you to take your checkride.

Looking back at things, there was a whole chain of events that led up to my checkride that should have warned me right off the bat that this was going to be dicey. Here’s how things went…

First, I needed to book the plane and make a test date and time. I like to fly early in the morning because the air is smoother and there is usually good weather, so I made my reservation for 8:00 am on a Tuesday morning. I took the time off from work and everything. Well, Tuesday came and the test examiner called and cancelled, so that day was a wash. I used it to practice my take-offs and landings, and just generally try not to get all flustered. After all, I’d waited for so long that a couple more days wouldn’t matter. I’d make it for later in the day and go then.

No dice. The next time I tried to do it, I couldn’t get the plane, so I had to make it for the next afternoon, at 2:00 pm. That sucks, because that time of year things get pretty ugly up there in the afternoons, but it had become clear that the timing was not really up to me at all and I’d have to take what I could get. So 2:00 it was.

The next day I went back down there and prepared for my test. I really needed to get it out of the way at this point, because I was about to lose my instructor, who had just been hired by a regional airline. These guys come and go at a phenomenal rate, and you can’t count on them being there for very long even if they tell you otherwise. You need an endorsement to even take this test, so I didn’t want to invest another 4 or 5 hours into a new instructor to get another one, so I needed to take the test TODAY.

I had been studying feverishly for months, and knew the Jeppesin book backwards and frontwards. My first instructor had given me the ASA book to study when he left for Nantucket, and now I had been studying that for about three months as well. Don’t waste your time with that one, it screwed me up worse than anything else and nearly made me fail before we ever got in the plane. Lemme explain what happened next.

The Practical Exam (checkflight or checkride) is in multiple parts. The first section is called the “Knowledge Exam”, and is an oral exam given by the Examiner on the ground. You will be asked questions about the FAR/AIM’s, density altitudes, best practices, V speeds, navigation, and anything else related to being a pilot. This takes about an hour to an hour and a half, and you will be completely drained by the time it is over.

On the day of my test, I got there about an hour early to prepare myself. The night before, the check pilot had told my instructor where he wanted me to plot a course for, and that was Valdosta, GA so that I could be ready to file and open a flight plan on the day of the test. I had done this, and plotted all my checkpoints, etc. On the day of the test, I got the weather and winds aloft and did all my calculations. The winds aloft changed dramatically about a half hour before he was supposed to arrive, so I had to re-do all my calculations again at the last minute.

Right before he was supposed to arrive, the FBO tried to switch planes on me again. I couldn’t allow this that time, so I told them no. This was mainly because of the three planes available to me, no two were alike in panel or performance, and I wanted the one I’d been practicing in. These planes were all “beaters” and two of the three had some really nasty habits that I didn’t want to have to fight during this all-important test. So I had the plane I wanted and was ready with my course and flight plan. All I needed now was the examiner.

At about 2:00 he called the FBO and told them he was running late and was on his way across the bay right then. He showed up at about 2:45 and was in one very foul mood. His first words to me were “Well, let’s get this wrapped up post haste. I’ve got another one of these to do today back on the other side of the bridge, so we’re gonna blow through this pretty fast.”.

Doh! Was that good or bad?

We went into a small classroom there at the FBO, and he began to grill me. I went blank. I knew this guy’s history of flying, and it’s damned impressive. Helicopter Instructor, C130 contract pilot for the Government, 10’s of thousands of hours in everything from small piston singles to the largest multi-engine jets, etc. This guy knows his shit, and he’s not bashful about telling you when you don’t.

He started asking me questions, and I started to answer using the wording from the second book. Every time I’d say something, he'd wince like I farted in church and told me that’s not the wording he wanted, or worse yet, that I was completely wrong. He was in a terrible mood and I was going to pay for it. Then he started asking me about regulations and procedures. I went blank. I wasn’t this nervous at my wedding. I wasn’t this nervous when I gave the speech at my college graduation. I’ve never been this nervous in my life! I could barely get the words out. I was sure that I’d already failed, but since this little test costs between $300 and $400, I soldiered on. Suddenly, I remembered that someone had told me that I was allowed to use my FAR/AIM book to get these answers. The Examiner had never told me this, but I figured that I was already so close to failing that I might as well go for it anyway, so I got the FAR/AIM’s out of my flight bag and started looking things up as he asked them.

He allowed it.

I then demonstrated the uses of the E6B flight computer (This is what I refer to as the “wonder wheel”). This is basically a round slide rule that can calculate time/distance, Density Altitude, Fuel Consumption and lots more. They make little electronic flight calculators now, but I’ve stuck with the E6B because it’s more versatile and doesn’t ever need batteries, etc. You can drop it from 10,000’ into the ocean and it’ll still work just fine. I even carry an extra one in my flight bag. With a chart, a ruler and an E6B, I can navigate the globe.

Finally, we were finished with the ground portion. I felt about 1 inch tall by now, and knew for sure that this guy was not impressed with me at all. For one thing, I am not the traditional pilot type, and he knew it. I have a whole different perspective on life, and it obviously rubbed this guy the wrong way. Whatever, it was time to fly!

One good thing that he told me, was that he was very impressed with my thorough pre-flight. That felt great because I had felt like he was trying to rush me through it, and had stubbornly stuck to my routine. I do it the same way every time, and I don’t care how long it takes. I’m betting my life on the quality of that preflight inspection, and I don’t want to lose.

On top of everything else, the main runway was closed for repairs and we’d be making a cross-wind takeoff on the short runway. The weather was not good. I’ve included a picture of the runway right after we came back, so you can see for yourself what I took my test in. He had already checked my flight plan for errors before we left the FBO and was satisfied with it. This was a huge relief for me, because it was about the first thing I’d done right so far.

At any rate, we took off to the North and departed the pattern at 1,000 feet. It was extremely bumpy, with very strong winds and turbulence. Rain began to hit the wind screen as we headed North toward Vandenburg. He had me fake opening the flight plan, then proceed on course. It was very hard to hold steady altitude because of all the wind and thermal ling action going on outside, but I did my best.

When we hadn’t even gotten more than 10 miles from Peter O’, he told me to divert to the nearest airport, chart a course while flying, and calculate how long it’d take us to get there. The nearest airport was Zephyr Hills Municipal, so we headed there. Lemme tell you right now that it was no small feat to fly that bucking bronco of a plane, chart a course and run my calculations! I noticed that a major highway ran right to the airport, so I identified it below us and started following it. I could literally SEE the destination airport in front of us in the distance. This did not please him at all, and he scolded and corrected me all the way there. I was starting not to like him very much.

As we approached, he told me to make a straight-in landing on the North/South runway. I don’t generally like to do straight-ins, unless a tower tells me I have to. I like to fly in above landing pattern altitude and look at the runway(s), the wind sock and any other features that might affect the plane while landing. However, I had no choice here, so I followed his instructions and in we went. I began our descent from about 2 miles out, and was gradually bringing us down as our speed bled off. I was using full flaps, and was watching the air speed like a hawk.

80 Knots, apply 10 degrees flaps, slowing to 70 now, add in another 10 percent flaps. Pitching for 65, at 30 degrees flaps now, and we’re right over the threshold of the runway. We have a fierce cross wind, and he’s telling me to make it a soft field landing. Now, a soft field landing is different than a standard one, and involves setting the mains down and holding the nose up for as long as you can. This was an older 172, so I still had another 10 degrees of flaps to use. I kicked in the last of the flaps and started to flare about a foot off the runway. Now we’re going about 60. He starts crabbing at me that we are too high, and that I am about to pancake it onto the runway. This is freaking me out, but I pull off the soft field landing almost perfectly anyway – even in that bad cross wind. He tells me to do a touch and go, and go around again. I did it and did a standard landing this time, followed by another touch and go.

As we’re leaving the pattern, he has me climb up to about 2,000’ and wants me to enter into slow flight. I had heard that this guy was s tickler for clearing turns, so I started my clearing turns first. Halfway through the first one, he announced that we were in the clear and demanded that I proceed with the slow flight, so I did. Now, keep in mind that this guy had just yelled at me for slowing down to 60 at landing, but now he wants me to fly the plane at 2,000’ in heavy wind and weather, at 51 Knots. Not 55. 51. Well, I did it, and was waiting to stall and spin at any moment, but I stayed off the ailerons and we were fine. Now he wanted a power-off stall. I did this too, and upon recovery, he immediately wanted a power-on stall. This was going to be a little more difficult, because now we were going about 80 knots in a plane with a climbing prop, and he didn’t want me to slow down before pitching up for the stall.

I pitched it up and waited, and waited… and waited. The plane got nearly vertical before it finally broke into the stall, and it was one of the most violent I’d experienced to date! I recovered quickly, having lost about 190 feet in the process, and we were on to the next step.

Now he wanted me to put on the foggles. Foggles allow the user to see only the instruments and nothing outside. The goal is to teach the student how to fly on instruments alone in case you get caught in the dark, or in fog, etc. You have to have a minimum of 5 hours of foggle time to take the test. I had exactly 5 hours. To start the procedure, the Examiner takes over control of the plane while the student closes their eyes and tilts their head to one side and down. The Examiner then puts the plane through some truly wild maneuvers to disorient the student. At this point I swear I could hear air beating the BACK side of the prop! We slid sideways, we went up and finally, he put us into a death spiral and told me to open my eyes and save us.

My first instinct was to tip my head back and peak, which I did before I could stop myself. This pissed him off royally. I felt like an idiot. I’d done this drill several times before, but never with someone getting so outright radical on the controls first. Anyway, I had saved it in less that three seconds, but I knew he was gonna fail me, so I asked him if we could try it again and told him that I’d peaked by accident. He had seen me do it, and would have failed me right then if I hadn’t told him and asked to try again. This next time made the first one look like a Sunday stroll, but I managed to pull us out of it OK. He was satisfied, but not impressed. We then flew for about 10 minutes on instruments alone, and I had to demonstrate turns, altitude control, climbing 360’s, descending 180’s and more. All this was in stormy conditions and the sky wasn’t looking any better.

At this point, he told me to start back to Peter O’. We would do a simulated engine out procedure when we got there. Now, this guy was just looking for something at this point. He had me maintaining 2,000’, and we were approaching the class B airspace for Tampa International as we neared the city. I know exactly where the boundary is for class Bravo. I learned to fly here. I knew I had another couple of miles before I’d have to come down to 1,000’, but he suddenly tells me “I have control of the plane. At this point I am discontinuing the test.”. THAT SUCKS!!!!

I decided not to argue with the guy. He told me that I was about to violate class Bravo airspace, and he couldn’t allow that. I clamped my mouth shut and flew toward home. At 1,000’. By this point, I was fuming mad. I was sure I’d failed, since they NEVER take the plane unless you do, and I was sure that the deck had been stacked against me from the start. Nothing I could do right this minute, but get us back on the ground, and make an appointment with the other guy.

I cut through that wind like a hot knife through butter – not a foot up or down from 1,000’. I brought us around for a landing on RWY 35, and made a beautiful cross wind landing along the cannel. I taxied off at the first exit, and completed my post-flight list, then I started to taxi back to the FBO. I never said a word to him. About half way back, he told me that he was going to pass me. This was my ticket to continue learning. I couldn’t believe it! I had to wait a full minute before I could respond. I thanked him profusely, and tried to convince him that I was really a much better pilot than this. I still got the impression that he was thoroughly unimpressed with me, but I passed none the less.

I was a pilot. Me and my CFI right after my checkride

Now I think about that flight every time I go up. I try to practice everything that I did that day, along with all the other exercises that my instructors taught me. I book time with an instructor at least every other month, and attend the FAA Safety Awareness seminars each month. I know for a fact that I’m a much better pilot now, and I’ll be better prepared when I take my next checkride, because I know what to expect.

I couldn’t find any straight information on exactly how a checkride is supposed to go before I did mine, so I thought that it might be beneficial to others if I told my story here. If nothing else, you’ll feel better when yours goes smoother than mine did. It was a fine example of some of the worst flying I’ve ever done, and if that got me by, then I know the way I usually fly is even safer. AFTER I took my test, other pilots began telling me about their first checkride experiences, and I found out that mine was really kind of typical. They WANT you all stressed out to see how you’ll handle it.

I hope this helps anyone who’s interested, and if you’d like to share your own checkride experience with others, send it to me and I’ll put it up here too.

Fair winds and blue skies,



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