Today was my stage III checkride. This is the final internal test that Tradewinds requires before you can go for your FAA checkride. Grainne had setup for me to fly with John Sircable, another of the senior CFI’s at Tradewinds. I meet him briefly last Wednesday and he had given me a flight to plan to Chico in Northern California. I had finished the actual navigation log on Friday night, but I had to head into work early to get print out the DUATS weather briefing and calculate the actual headings and ground speeds for the current winds aloft (I need to get a working printer at home!). The weather in the Bay Area was perfect for flying, winds calm, 15 miles visibility, just a few clouds at 3000’ and 17C. However, over the Central Valley it was a different story. Solid IMC (Instrument Meteorological Conditions) over a wide area from Livermore north to Sacramento, mostly just winter ground fog that was forecast to clear by 1pm. I knew to expect a diversion, and when I made the plan I guessed it would be to Livermore or Tracy. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen now, with both these airports fogged in, as were any other likely destinations along the planned route.
I arrived about 30 minutes early and spent some time rechecking the weather on one of the school’s computers. John turned up on time and we started into the oral part of the stage check right away. With work being so busy lately I felt unprepared going into this and it really showed. We started by going over the flight plan. I had planned a route directly north from RHV towards Travis AFB (a reuse of the plan from my first solo cross-country), then following a radial to and from the Williams VOR into Chico. John was happy with the route and rechecked some of the calculations – they were all good. Then he started to ask questions from the chart. I mostly did OK, but missed a couple of easy questions on class E airspace. I needed to check the sectional key to remember which color denoted class E starting at 700’ and 1200’, was a little fuzzy on which side of the line the airspace changed and missed a question on an area where class E abutted class G and how high class G went (14,500‘ in this case). I also got asked for the VFR visibilities, cloud clearances and ceilings in every type of airspace, day and night and Special VFR rules for day and night. I got most of this right, but missed a couple of questions on class B visibility (3 miles), horizontal clearance from clouds in class E above 10,000’ (1 mile) and limitations on night SVFR (need to have an IFR rated plane and pilot). John also asked questions on aero-medical factors such as hypoxia and carbon-monoxide poisoning, and how you would know the difference. A bunch of questions on various aircraft systems such as the engine and instruments. For example what would cause detonation, what would happen if you had carb ice and what the engine would do when you switched on carb heat, what instrument would fail if the pitot tube was blocked. In the end we took the full two hours on the oral portion. Somewhere along the way I told John the sorry story of last Wednesday’s landing attempts at Frazier Lake, this would come back to haunt me later.
The preflight, run-up and taxi went without problems and we took off at 12:20 on a right 45 departure taking us north over Calaveras Reservoir. On the climb up we simulated opening a flight plan with Oakland Radio and skipped getting flight following. Once we got above the lake it was clear that the fog was still solid from Livermore north – a solid, dirty brown haze just stretched across the horizon. John told me to level off at 3500’ and when I finished that to divert to Frazier Lake – looks like I was going to get a chance to finally land on the grass. I got the plane turned around and heading in the general direction and noted the time. Then drew the course line in on the chart and measured the distance at 35 miles. I moved the plotter over to the SJC VOR radial on the sectional and marked the radial for the heading. However, the chart is so crowded in that area it took me a while to actually read off what radial it was, finally I got 135 degrees. Then I calculated the ETE (20 minutes), arrival time (12:49) and the fuel (2.7 gallons). It took me seven minutes in all to calculate the diversion. My control of the plane was a not great, after I had turned around it decided to oscillate around 4500’ and I got too wrapped up in plotting the diversion to really get it straight and level. John told me to just fly the course and then let him know when I had the airport in sight.
I got the airport insight a good ten miles out and John said we would start doing some maneuvers before we went to try landings. We started with slow flight. I did my clearing turns and checklist and we did a couple of turns, as usual its was hard to roll out on the right heading without also gaining some airspeed. This type of flight really takes total concentration, the controls are sluggish, the nose is high and the stall horn is pretty much going off the whole time. Then we recovered back to cruise and tried some stalls. John had to keep reminding me to do the clearing turns – stupid on may part, you just have to remember to do turns before each and every maneuver. I guess, you often save a little time with instructors by only doing them every few maneuvers or so, but this sets up a bad habit for the checkride. We did a power-off stall, I let the nose drop a little far on the recovery and John demonstrated one and then made me repeat it, this one went better. A single power-on stall was fine. More clearing turns and then a steep turn to the left. This went badly wrong. I let the bank angle get way too steep, almost 60 degrees. I could really feel the G-force pushing my arms and legs down, which scared me a little. I lost almost 300’ feet of altitude on the turn. What I should have done was just terminate the maneuver went it started to go wrong, instead of following it through to the end. John had me do another to the left which was perfect and then two more to the right which were also fine. I don’t know why I let the first one go bad, but I’ll have to take more care on the checkride.
We got turned around more or less in the direction of Frazier Lake and then John closed the throttle and told me the engine had failed. I got best glide speed and said that we could make Frazier Lake. John told me to just pretend there was no airport near and to pick a field instead. There was a nice big plowed field straight in front of us so I told him that was where we were going. Got through my cockpit checks and checklists, simulated an emergency call and made a couple of calls on Frazier Lake traffic to let them know what I was doing (we were only about 2 miles west of the field). The emergency landing was fine, I glided down parallel to the field on a downwind leg, then turned base and final at which point John told me to go around. We climbed back up to 1100’ (Traffic Pattern Altitude for Frazier lake) and entered the right 45 for runway 23. This time everything went fine and I made a passable soft field landing on an actual soft field. It really isn’t as hard are you expect, it just takes more power then usual to taxi and you have to go easy on the breaking. We got off the runway and taxied back to the start of the strip (the taxiway is paved). You have to make sure to get the plane ready for the takeoff before you get on the grass. I forgot this and John had to shout at me to hold short (I had the mic button pressed, announcing I was taking the active – so I could hear him in my headset). So we stopped, did the correct pre-takeoff checklist including 10 degrees of flaps. Taking off, you need a lot of power when you first get on the grass to taxi to the center, then full power without stopping and keep the nose high, but no so high that you can’t see the end of the runway. On grass you know exactly when your main wheels are off the ground, then fly in ground effect until the plane just takes itself into the air. We did another circuit of the pattern, this time John told me to make a short field landing on the soft field. Apparently this is a favorite trick of the FAA Examiner. So how do you do a short field landing on grass – basically the same as a short field landing anywhere else. Put you wheels down where you want them, don’t add the power on touch down (as in a soft field landing) but keep the nose wheel as high as possible and break as hard as you dare on the soft surface. The landing went well, the grass is more bumpy but it still feels firm, its not nearly as difficult to land on as I had been expecting. We took off, made a crosswind departure and headed back toward RHV.
John had me put on the hood for some instrument work on the way back. We did some turns to headings, a climb and level off, a descent and level off and a couple of recoveries from unusual attitudes (one high and another low). All the usual stuff, I was in an instrument grove today and the flying was spot on. The instrument work is one area where I’ve never really had any problems. Once the hood came off John asked what I would do if I had an electrical failure, we discussed coming into RHV without radio’s, transponder or flaps, how you would enter the pattern and look for light signals and so on. He said we would do a no flap landing at RHV, but to hold 1500’ until he told me I could start to descend, then to do a forward slip to get down. I got the ATIS and called into the tower. As usual we were told to make straight in for 31L and call in at 3 miles. At the call in point I was told to change to 31R and cleared to land. Just a little short of the Mall, John told me to descend. I made a passable job of getting into the slip, but let the airspeed stay about 80~85 KIAS so we were still way high as we came over the numbers. We went around, one circuit through right traffic and then I made the no flap landing without a problem, we did float a little, but got down pretty gently.