Early on in my flight training I wrote that one of the most difficult aspects of the endeavour is summoning the strength to humbly, and realistically, self- assess your own performance.
In the long run, I believe it to be a highly valuable capability to have as an individual, but that doesn’t make it any less difficult at times.
Today, I traveled to Santa Rosa for my private pilot (single-engine land) checkride with an examiner. If you’re not interested in the journey, but only the result, I’ll spare you some reading and state now that I didn’t pass. I’m disappointed not in the verdict, but in my performance.
I wouldn’t have passed me either.
The checkride somewhat started the night prior, when my examiner asked me to plan a trip from Santa Rosa to Santa Barbara. Upon arriving home I immediately set to work preparing for the following morning. I labored over every single detail of the flight log, the routing, and the weather. While I wanted to have all my bases covered for the checkride, I am also planning on making this same trip at some point with my wife, so the amount effort poured in would be “reusable.”
Hopping into bed around midnight, my heart rate higher than normal with anxiety, I forced myself to sleep. At 5:11am, I awoke. Not due to an alarm, I just woke up. Again I forced myself to sleep. Two more of these cycles before I gave up hope of rest around 7.
After an hour of killing time at home, I decided to head to the airport. Better to kill time in the company of other pilots than an empty house.
Hayward was overcast when I arrived, and was scheduled to be overcast into the early afternoon. My instructor and I talked about the checkride, did some paperwork, and waited [im]patiently for the fog in Santa Rosa to raise up high enough for a safe instrument approach.
As a lowly VFR pilot, clouds keep me grounded; with my instructor on-board, every cloudy day offers an opportunity not only to fly but also to accrue some actual instrument time.
I flew the departure, en route, he flew the appraoch, and then I landed after we popped out of the clouds. After a couple of unsavory bounces on the runway, he says “that’s okay man, just shake that one off.” I asked “does that count as three landings?”
A subtle indication of “roger, shaking that one off.”
I pull into the Sonoma Jet Center, park and we head inside for more time killing.
The first part any checkride is an oral examination. With most examiners this means a couple hours of conversation, wherein questions required by the FAA are interleaved into stories, open-ended discussions, and reviewing of prepared materials.
Without going into too much detail, the oral examination went well. I demonstrated that I had a sufficient grasp on the knowedlge I was expected to know, and the section ended with the final question of “shall we go flying?”
A full pre-flight of my airplane later, we’re both sitting in the cockpit and we each give each other our pre-flight briefings. Mine required by my checklist, and his required by his checklist.
Engine start, taxi clearance received, we taxi to the start of runway 14 where I perform my runup.
I request a straight-out departure, and one normal take-off later and we’re in the air.
I start navigating towards Napa County, the first leg of our trip to Santa Barbara, when I’m diverted to Healdsburg. I relay the information for the diversion, using my GPS unit to make things loads easier. The examiner is quite a friendly guy, and despite his confirmation that I was doing my work correctly, I was still incredibly tense.
Holding right rudder to keep the ball centered, I caught my right leg gently shaking once or twice.
En route to Healdsburg, he grabs the “foggles” (view limiting goggles) from my flight bag behind me, and starts vectoring me. Satisfied with my ability to climb, descend and maintain heading and control, he assumes control of the airplane for “unusual attitude recovery.”
The exercise means I’m to keep the foggles on, close my eyes, and put my head down. Meanwhile, the right seat puts the plane into an unusual attitude and says “recover,” at which point I’m to look back up to my instruments and put the airplane back in a proper straight and level flight attitude.
The first attitude was a steep nose down attitude, I immediately pull the power back and gingerly pull on the yoke. Airspeed is increasing. I continue to pull back gently, worried about the excess speed on the airplane and doing something unsafe on my first set of manuevers.
Speed increases to midway into the yellow arc before I get it heading back in the right direction. My head is warm with anger, frustration and worry that he’s going to ask me to take him back to Santa Rosa right then and there.
The next unusual attitude results in a nose-high attitude, I’m quicker to correct the attitude but it’s not great, certainly not to the standards I have for myself.
Approaching Healdsburg, there’s an X at the base of the runway. Runway’s closed, we continue on towards Cloverdale.
Overflying the field, I’m still tense, but setting up for a pattern entry for runway 32. The wind sock however, indicates that runway 14 (opposite direction) should be used for landing. I turn around, and start making my radio calls about entering the “left pattern for 14”, which is correct.
What I started to do however, was enter the right pattern for 14, which doesn’t exist, and is incorrect. The fog of anxiety made my mouth say the right things, but my actions didn’t keep pace. He waited patiently for me to see my mistake and correct it, but it just wasn’t happening, so he assumed controls and put the airplane on the correct side of the field.
I breathed deeply into the headset. I broke one of the four rules of the checkride: don’t do anything illegal.
Just can’t do that buddy.
He asks if I want to continue. I do, so we continue to perform our landing work at Cloverdale. The first approach I’m wrangling the airplane into position, tense about the final approach, we descend within 30 feet of the runway, and I go around. My airspeed wasn’t where I wanted, I didn’t feel comfortable with the approach, so I used my get-out-of-jail-free card.
When I’m flying by myself, I’ve got as many go-arounds as I have gas, but on a checkride, you get your one card, and then the examiner wants to see you land properly.
Next circuit is for a soft-field landing which I execute correctly and the stress starts to melt away. A successful landing generally makes me feel better, but as we taxi off the runway, I start to loosen up and start thinking with my entire brain again.
Holding short of the runway, I clear the area (spin in a circle on the ground) like i’ve been taught before re-taking the runway for a soft-field takeoff.
That executed correctly, we come around the pattern again for a short-field landing. On final approach, I throw in the final bit of flaps, approaching the runway my glideslope is sinking below 3 degrees so I add some power, then a little more power, then a little more, then I remove it and stop on the runway properly. I later realized this need for power was because I just threw in 40 degrees of flaps instead of the 30 degrees that I really wanted.
A stop-and-go into a short-field later and we depart the area to go perform manuevers.
At this stage of the game I was feeling confident, I knew I wasn’t flying home a certificated pilot, but I was still flying, so that’s something. The objective became to knock off as many tasks from the test as possible to redure the number of manuevers required for my follow-up checkride.
First I enter slow flight, followed by a straight-ahead power-off stall recovery. Both of those went well. Next I performed a power-on stall, he gave me the option of to the right or to the left, and like a doofus, I decided to perform my power-on stall to the right, which is a little more challenging than to the left. We turned probably 200 degrees before I was able to reach the stall buffet and recover.
Satisfied with those manuevers, I then performed steep turns, first to the left and then to the right, both to standards.
This wrapped up our manuevers and he asked to go back to Santa Rosa. Picking up the current ATIS, I call up Santa Rosa Tower, inform them of my current position and intentions and receive clearance for a straight-in appraoch.
Prior to my landings at Cloverdale, I wasn’t necessarily “behind the plane” in terms of my workload management. Rather, I was so busy being stressed that I wasn’t allowing myself to prove to the examiner what I know I’m capable of.
“Real soon now” I will return to Santa Rosa to demonstrate the last missing piece of the puzzle to the examiner: that I know which side of the field to fly on. Once that’s completed, I’ll finally return to Hayward a certificated private pilot.
By no means is a private pilot certificate the finish line, just the conclusion of this first leg of a life-long journey, burning money and avgas as quickly possible.