Today's lesson, gentle and patient reader, was a checkride with the FAA examiner.
I'll spare you the suspense and say right here that I passed. But if you'd like to get the whole story, including the part where I thought for sure I'd blown it, keep on reading.
(If you'd like an indication of how I feel right now, having dreaded this day vaguely in the back of my mind for 39 years and dreading it specifically for 8 months, click HERE or HERE .)
When I woke up this morning, I was studied out. I was prepped out. I just couldn't study any more. I lay in bed trying to visualize myself doing a power-on stall, but it was no use. I couldn't concentrate. Rolled out of bed and hit the bathroom. Got myself dressed, except for bare feet. Slipped out the front door to get the paper, feeling the cool grass and then eased across the gravel driveway, pausing on the way back to scrape stones off my damp soles. Back in the house I poured a big coffee mug full of orange juice and sat down with the paper. Read every article on every page. Ate a bowl of cereal standing up in the kitchen. Ate a cup of Yoplait key lime yogurt. Filled the mug with water and nuked it in the microwave and dumped in the instant coffee. Yes, yes, you're supposed to add the water to the coffee, but this method uses only one container instead of two, and the mug gets good and hot this way.
Why am I telling you all this? And what's it have to do with the FAA checkride? Because. And nothing.
And everything--you'll see.
Finally I couldn't stall (that's an appropriate word for this little story) any longer. I phoned the Leesburg Flight Service Station and got a standard weather briefing. The briefer gave me the AIRMETS, the SIGMETS, the winds aloft, the NOTAMS, and all that stuff. I asked her about the Farmville MOA, but she didn't know whether it was going to be active today, or not. There were going to be a lot of scattered clouds around, but the ceiling was high enough and the visibility good enough for VFR. She expected the convective activity then in eastern Kentucky to reach central Virginia by about five o'clock, but in the form of isolated thunderstorms that we could probably fly around.
I got out my CX-1 calculator and figured in the wind speed and direction to get the heading, ground speed, leg times between checkpoints, and the fuel consumption for each leg. I'd already done the weight and balance calculations last night and had found that we'd be 7 pounds over weight with a full load of fuel, so I planned on carrying only 23 gallons.
Finally it was time to drive to the airport. I drove to the airport.
I got the weather again. I waited for Adam to come in so I could get the aircraft logs and a hood. I waited some more. I walked out on the ramp to N68608, and made sure it had fuel. Went back inside the terminal. Waited. Adam came in and suggested that I put my stuff in a conference room to stake out a place for my exam. The examiner phoned to see if I was there and told the Kathy the counter woman that he'd be there. He was supposed to be there at one. I waited. By a quarter past one he still hadn't arrived. Then someone came and told me he was back in the conference room, waiting for me..
He seemed as surprised to see me--that I wasn't some kid, I guess--as I was to see that he was older than I am. It was an awkward moment. We shook hands and got ourselves introduced--Don, Leo--and sat down. He started to sit down and then just as I was hitting the chair he stood up and then sat down down again.
He said he'd been reading the FARs about ultralights. Said that a lot of guys were building ultralights and then getting them registered as airplanes. He said that some guy out in--somewhere--had phoned him last night to say that he had just registered his twin engine ultralight--the props are only about that long--as an airplane and now he wanted Leo to check him out for a multi-engine rating. He said he'd said, "Aw, Bill, why'd you call me about that?"
He talked on about ultralights for a while, and then worked his way around to quizzing me about flying things.
He was very calm and quiet and deliberate about the quizzing most of the time, but every now and then he'd get enthusiastic about something or other and his face would light up. Then he'd suddenly say, "Well, enough about that," and would get serious again and go back to the quizzing.
Several times he said things about how he'd had to pink-slip people for screwing up one thing or another--almost as if he were talking to a colleague. I think he was trying to put me at ease, but mainly it just kept reminding me that he pink-slips other people, and he could pink-slip me, too.
He actually didn't ask me very many questions, but the quiz lasted quite a while because he did most of the talking. He talked about how he enjoyed teaching, that he wasn't supposed to be teaching me today, but that he thought about the examination as if that's what he was doing. His questions all made good sense and he didn't waste time asking questions that I was going to find too easy--and fortunately I knew the answers to all of the questions that were really in the PTS--the FAA's Practical Test Standards book. He got in a couple of his own--one was about who can be a safety pilot if you're trying to get in instrument practice without paying for an instructor. I guessed that it had to be someone current in that particular aircraft, but he said, "No, that's the only one that doesn't apply here at all.. He said it had to be a private pilot or better who was rated for single engine--it didn't even have to be single-engine land, could be a seaplane pilot. Then he said what I guess was really on his mind, that you could count up to twenty hours of that kind of time toward the instrument rating and save a lot of money. So he was trying to teach me something and to encourage me to go on for the instrument rating.
We went out to the airplane after that, and he surprised me again by untying the tie-downs while I was checking the tach and Hobbes times on the dispatch and stowing things. He followed me around for the first part of my preflight, then he stood under the left wing in the shade until I finished.
All right, I won't belabor you more with every little detail. You get the idea of how it was going.
I started the engine, checked the other things, and got ready to taxi. The wind was dead calm, and I wasn't sure which runway to use. I'd seen several planes land and take off earlier on 33, but there was no traffic at this time. I was about to taxi to 33, but decided at the last minute to ask UNICOM which runway was in use--the first time I'd ever felt the need to do that. It was good that I did, because the answer I got back was "one five." Leo seemed a little surprised, as I was, but I got the impression that he was pleased I'd thought to ask.
After the runup I taxied to the hold line, and just then he said to do a short-field takeoff--"Just to treetop height"--so I dumped in ten degrees of flap, announced, and taxied out and stopped at the very end of the runway. Brakes on hard, throttle full. "Engine instruments in the green. Rpms look good." I let off the brakes and said "Here we go."
Oh, boy, I hope this works out all right. "Airspeed is alive." Held it down until almost 60 knots, figuring that we were heavy and the density altitude was around 1800 feet. Rotated and it just lifted right off. Airspeed was 55 knots and I pulled back until it held just under 55, and we climbed up more smoothly than I'd ever done it before, and right at Vx all the way.
"All right," Leo said, "we're at treetop height." I pushed the nose over a little, let it pick up speed to 67, or so, and waited for the vertical speed indicator to register a positive rate of climb, then got the flaps up and climbed out at a tad under 70 knots, right on Vy.
I can't say that I relaxed then--but I definitely felt less anxious after doing my best short-field takeoff ever.
The air was pretty hazy, but we could see just well enough to go on. I turned west and headed for my first checkpoint, the south end of the reservoir. Hit it right on the minute and got on the heading for Roanoke. I'd planned to climb to 6500 feet, to be well above the MOA, but Leo said that was too high, that the clouds were lower than that, so I stayed at 2000 feet. He said we weren't going all that far, anyhow, that all he wanted to do was be sure I could get on course and find my second checkpoint. I'd already set the VOR to the Flat Rock frequency and listened to the Morse to verify that I had the right station, so I turned the VOR indicator around to 210, the radial I expected to be crossing at the second checkpoint.
Leo said, "That's good." Then he tuned the VOR to another frequency and said, "Let's just say your VOR quit working and you'll have to navigate by dead reckoning. I want to see if you can find your next checkpoint this way."
I was able to make out a visual intermediate checkpoint--a lake to the south--so I was sure we were on the right course. And right on the minute, there was the railroad and road that I'd chosen for the formal checkpoint.
"That's fine," Leo said. "You were right on course, and you got to the checkpoint right on time."
After that, I sort of lost track of things. He had me put on the hood and climb and turn a few times, and that was all for instrument flying. Then it was a couple of stalls and some steep turns. The stalls went okay, although I remember being surprised by how quickly the plane slowed up--it seemed much quicker than I'd ever seen it happen before, and I couldn't understand why it happened.
I had a little trouble sticking to the altitude on those turns, and that got me rattled because just a week ago I'd done them perfectly. I was still feeling rattled when he said to do slow flight.
I got slowed down into the white arc, but didn't get the first notch of flaps in until the airspeed was down to about 75 knots, and we were at about 60 before I got the third notch in--much slower than I usually do it.
Now, I've done slow flight dozens and dozens of times, and have always enjoyed it and never had any trouble at all. This time, though, I got too slow and for some reason that I haven't understood yet had the nose too high. I suppose now that it was our weight--right at the maximum limit--and the relatively forward center of gravity that required a higher angle of attack to maintain altitude, and that created a lot of induced drag. Anyway, this time I had the nose too high and was too slow, and it stalled. I didn't have enough right rudder in for that slow speed and high angle of attack, so naturally the nose swung off to the left, and oh-oh it's turning left and the nose is down and we're going around...
I got the throttle all the way back and neutralized the ailerons, then stomped the right rudder pedal to the floor. We straightened right out, and I gradually pulled the nose up and then added power.
"That was a nice spin recovery."
SPIN recovery! Oh Jesus, I spun out, that's got to end it right now.
But Leo just said, very calmly, "You got too slow and stalled, and you didn't have enough right rudder. Try it again."
Try it again. I don't see a pink slip yet. Maybe he--well, all right try it again.
The second time I managed not to stall, despite the quick deceleration, and got stabilized in slow flight, finally, and with a little coaching from Leo, Did some turns, and he said to recover.
"Let's say there's a fire in the airplane, and you're going to have to make an emergency descent."
Okay, I pulled the throttle back, carb heat on, dumped in full flaps, and pointed the nose down. Had a little trouble keeping the speed constant at 85, but managed to level off at 1500 feet, when he said to. It is exhilarating to go down at 1700 feet a minute like that.
Then it was back to the field--well, first it was find the field, which fortunately I was able to do. He had me do a cross-check with two VORs, and I drew the radials on my chart and was able to show him exactly where we were and what heading would get us to the airport.
As Becky had predicted, he had me fly over the field at 1500 feet (she'd actually said 2000) and pull the throttle. This is another unusual Leo thing--he let me decide when to have the engine "quit." I said sort of under my breath, "I'd just as soon it didn't quit at all," so he yanked the mixture back. I pulled the throttle and punched the mixture back in.
He grinned sideways at me. "What, you don't want a real dead engine?"
Okay, Pitched for 60 knots and announced where we were and what was going on. Went through the try-to-restart routine while turning downwind, then talked through shutting it down, and swung around on base. Then I discovered that I was well past the runway line and realized that there must be a wind from the northeast that was blowing us west, even though there was still no trace of a wind on the ground. Even though I was wide, I managed to swing back in and get lined up with the runway and get down right on the numbers. Even had time to get in a notch of flaps.
After that it was a power-on flaps-up landing. It's not in the PTS, but I didn't say so. But Leo explained that he wanted to emphasize that sometime I might be flying a plane with electric flaps and they wouldn't work. Okay, now I understand why he wanted a flaps-up landing. What he was doing today was teaching me new things. He knew that Adam and Becky wouldn't let me get that far unprepared, so teaching really was what he thought was his true function in this exercise.
All right, flaps up. I kept the speed slow and got down nicely. Did pretty well on a short-field landing, too. Got down short enough for the PTS, although a little longer than Leo really wanted..
"May I have the airplane?" he said. "I don't get much chance to fly, and I'd like to ask for your indulgence."
"Sure," I said. He got the flaps up, the heat off, and the throttle open so easily that I realized he'd done it only after the fact; took off and climbed out.
We hadn't hit a single bump all afternoon, and I'd noticed only twice when there was anything like an updraft--so in other words, the air was very smooth.
But I didn't know how smooth it was until Leo started flying. Then it was clear. It was soooo smooth--well, of course he was so smooth. It was quite a demonstration. He trimmed on climbout. He turned crosswind and retrimmed. Trimmed again on downwind--all this time I was hardly aware of the turnings. He also flew his downwind leg much farther out than Adam and Becky had insisted on--out where I've always felt was the right distance. I mentioned that and he said, "Aw, they're nuts. That's no good."
He turned final and then put in his flaps all in one smooth motion. He trimmed again, then said, "Aw, I have too much trim," and rolled it halfway back.again.
This was to show me how to do a short field landing--but what surprised me was that he came in very low. We were only about a hundred feet up crossing the road that's a quarter mile from runway 15, and we were so low on short final that he had to add quite a lot of power. But he planted it right on the numbers and could have stopped dead in a couple of hundred feet if he'd wanted to. Instead, he powered up and blasted down the runway at just under flying speed to the center turnoff, where he gave the airplane back to me.
I taxied in and shut it down. He tied it down while I was writing down the times and tidying up.
By this time I'd almost forgotten about that spin. But Leo didn't say anything about passing, or anything like that, so I remembered it and was feeling pretty uncomfortable. He didn't seem displeased--quite the contrary--but stilll...
We went through the terminal to the conference room. Still nothing.
He sat down.
"If you need to take a break," he said, "it takes me a while to fill out these certificates."
"Ah. You mean I passed?"
"Of course you passed."
"Well, thank you! That's all the break I need."
Later on, he told Becky about the spin. Her mouth opened and she looked as though she couldn't believe him. It seemed to be a good joke by then, and we all had a good laugh over it. Or at least they all had a good laugh. I just had a laugh.
Becky wanted to know how the rest of it had gone.
"Oh, he really greased his landings." It wasn't really true, of course, but that's the nice thing to say about someone's flying. Leo seemed to be enjoying himself, and I didn't see him switching off the smile to the examiner mode any more.
After chatting with Becky a bit longer, he turned and went out to the parking lot.
What an interesting guy.
He said after he signed my certificate--when I asked him--that he'd
begun flying in the Air Force in 1951 and had been an instructor during
the Korean War, converting World War II pilots to jets. He's 69 now.
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