Friday January 31st 2003, 2pm, N4754D, 1.5H – PPL Checkride

So the big day has arrived once again and finally the weather is good enough to fly. I got to Tradewinds about 11:30am, got the DUAT weather briefing and spent about an hour completing the flight plan to Paso Robles. The weather was forecast clear all the way down the coast with visibilities greater than 6 miles and just broken clouds at between 12,000’ & 20,000’. There was a SIGMET for turbulence south of Salinas and a PIREP over Salinas stating no turbulence found. The only excitement was taking care of my solo endorsement. I realized during the week that the 90 days had expired at the start of January. I emailed Grainne during the week to ask her could she be at Tradewinds to sign another one or set up another CFI to do it. I wasn’t too worried because I figured she would be there anyway. About 1:30pm I called her and found out that she hadn’t checked her email and wasn‘t due into Tradewinds until about 4pm. Luckily, Yoed showed up shortly afterwards and gave me the endorsement, I’ve flown with him several times, and flew with him just two weeks ago, so he was happy to sign me off.

Mike Shiflett, the Designated Examiner turned up a little late about 2:20pm and we got straight down to checking the maintenance logs for 4754D. We had already established that I knew where to find everything when I completed the oral last December so he just checked it himself. Then Mike checked my solo endorsement, thankfully that was now in order. Mike briefed me on what we would do, first the three possible outcomes, pass, fail or discontinue. He said that we would try and get the landings done in the pattern at RHV traffic permitting. Then depart on the cross-country, once he’d established I could fly a heading and was going in the right direction, he’d give me a diversion. On the way we would do the air work, steep turns, slow flight and stalls. Then go enter a pattern somewhere and complete any of the landings we hadn’t got done at RHV and finally do some hood work on the way back including two unusual attitude recoveries. Then he sent me out to pre-flight and told me he’d meet me in the plane in 15 minutes.

The pre-flight was fine. Mike turned up and we ran through the inside checklist. He’d already told me to skip the briefing, but I pointed out when I would have given it anyway. My troubles began with the taxi instructions from ground control. Ground gave me some kind of a preamble which I didn’t catch. He appeared to say “…. after Dakota…taxi via Zulu to 31R”, I thought he was referring to a plane already on Zulu and telling me to wait for it before taxing. I confirmed this back and everything seemed ok. I pulled out checked my brakes, asked Mike to check his and turned onto Zulu. Just as I was turning Mike called Ground Control and said “Was that that for us?”, there was a reply which I didn’t quite catch and Mike told me to turn onto Echo and taxi via Yankee to 31R. So I did, but I really wasn’t sure what I had missed in the whole exchange. Had I totally misheard the Ground Control instructions? what had just happened? I decided to put it out of my mind and not explore the whole thing with Mike as we taxied down Yankee. The run up was fine and Mike told me to make a short field takeoff. This went fine, though the speed control transitioning from Vx to Vy was a little sloppy. I turned crosswind then downwind in right traffic. Mike told me to make a soft field landing. I ran through the pre-landing checklist, got my clearance to land, turned base then final and made a fairly good soft field landing. We did a touch and go with Mike taking care of the flaps. Second time around Mike called the Tower and told them we would do short approach just after I got my clearance to land. He’d told me he would do this for the emergency landing, so I took my hand of the throttle and let him pull it back to idle. I established best glide, told him I wasn’t going to perform any cockpit checks, instead I was just going to “fly the plane”, however, I said I’d secure the engine (fuel off, mixture at cutoff and magnetos off) in case of a mishap on landing. I didn’t put any flaps in, and we were high coming over Eastridge Mall. He commented on this and I told him my aiming point was taxiway Bravo about one third of the way along the runway. Our glide-slope for this point was reasonable and I‘d have made it without problems. Over the numbers he told me to go around, which went well. Back on downwind again he told me to make a short field landing between the VASI lights. I turned onto base too soon and pretty much realized my mistake right away. Turning to final it was clear there was no chance of making the touch down point so I called the Tower and said I was going around. There was another plane rolling on 31R so the tower told me to fly left of the runway. As we climbed up my airspeed was high and I got a little pre-occupied with this. I forgot to take out the last 10 degrees of flaps which Mike reminded me of as we got to about 900’. I got back to pattern altitude and this time the short field landing went ok, but I had to add quite a burst of power to just make my touch down inside the first VASI light, not the best short field I ever done. Mike told me to exit at taxiway Charlie, I did, turned onto Yankee, stopped and did the after landing checklist. Then I was about to start taxing down to 31R again when Mike said “Are you going to taxi without a clearance”. I said no, and called the Tower to ask for clearance to taxi to 31R. It took three attempts to get the Tower to reply, finally they did and got somewhat tongue-tied explaining that they couldn’t see us on Yankee with the rows of parked planes in the background. On the way down Yankee I requested a downwind departure and the Tower asked me if left downwind was ok, which it was. Mike asked for a soft-field takeoff. So I put in 10 degrees of flaps and did the usual soft-field taxing with the nose high not using any brakes to turn. We were cleared to cross 31R and takeoff on 31L. The actual takeoff was poor, I’m not sure I really got into ground effect well and we wandered a bit on the runway. On the climb up I realized I’d forgotten the pre-takeoff checklist and so I quickly put on my landing light and transponder. I also hadn’t actually written down the takeoff time, though I’d noted it in my head and I wrote it down when we got onto the downwind leg. This was also when I realized that I hadn’t brought a watch with me and that the clock in the plane was firstly showing Zulu time and even so was totally wrong.

I did the normal climb checklist, did some shallow turns to check for traffic and pitched for 80 KIAS to get a little better visibility over the nose. Then I started playing with the heading indicator, I was flying towards South County, but the heading didn’t seem to match my calculated heading which would send me in the wrong direction into SJC class C airspace. Mike asked me what my first checkpoint was, so I told him top of climb at 5500’ about 4 miles before South County. He told me to level off at 3500’ head for Lake Anderson, then to do a diversion to Watsonville. This actually gave me some time to work on the charts before I got to the Lake, for once my altitude was bang on 3500’ and staying put. However, I managed to completely waste this time, by measuring a heading from Lake Coyote. I realized my mistake as soon as I turned onto the heading. So I started a wide easy circle over Anderson trying to work out the correct heading. Now its hard enough to struggle with charts and plotter flying straight and level, its even harder to do it flying a circle. In addition the lake falls right on a fold in the chart so you need to have it unfolded and there just didn’t seem to be any convenient lines of latitude or longitude to use to measure the heading. It seemed to take forever to make the measurement. When I finally turned onto the heading I made the mistake of not checking I was clear before I turned. I could see Mike somewhat energetically looking out the window to check for traffic. He didn’t comment so I didn’t either.

I passed to the north of South County and Mike told me to setup for steep turns. I did a couple of clearing turns, slowed to 95 KIAS and ran through my maneuvering checklist. Then did a turn to the left. It was terrible, I lost 300’ of altitude and way over-banked the plane. Mike claimed I reached 70 degrees of bank, I didn’t believe this but I wasn’t going to argue with him. I then did a turn to the right which was a little better, but still lost about 100’. He told me to do another to the left and this one was almost as bad as the first. I just couldn’t seem to understand what I was doing wrong, as I was coming round in the turn I could see my altitude start to drop, I added some more back pressure and tried to keep the bank angle at 45 degrees, but I still felt the G increasing and lost even more altitude. Mike asked me how I’d been taught to do steep turns, I said with reference to the horizon. He told me I was spending too much time looking at the instruments and not looking outside. He said show me two more turns to standard and I could just feel the test slipping away from me. So I did another turn to the left, same problem and I thought well that has blown it. Then he asked did I want to see how a steep turn was done, so I said yes. He then performed a turn left and right that were flawless. With that he took out some Postit Notes and covered all the instruments and told me to try it once more without the instruments. So I glued my eyes on the horizon and tried one last time. I think the turns were a little better, but as the altimeter was covered I couldn’t see if I made the standard or not. Mike told me make a couple more clearing turns which got us flying back towards South County. So as he hadn’t ended the test there and then, I figured he’d finally given me the benefit of the doubt. It bugs me, but I’ve flown perfect steeps turns so many times, and the first time it really matters I screw them up so badly. I know, that as I increased the back pressure that the bank angle would steepen, but I tried to account for that keeping the plane at 45 degrees to the horizon.

Mike told me to setup for slow flight, full flaps at 50 KIAS. This went well, I got slowed down without losing any altitude. Then he had me make a couple of turns to headings left and right. I was somewhat rattled by the steep turns and my rudder coordination just went to hell. I was using aileron to compensate for the left turning tendency and I overshoot the heading on the left turn by quite a bit. Still, the speed and altitude control was reasonable. Then he told me to do a power-off stall, I asked if I should do it from the current configuration and he said just pull the power to idle and do the stall and recover to Vy. I did, and remembered to call the buffet and stall break (the stall horn was already blowing), the recovery was just fine. I guess because the power-off stall went so well he didn’t ask me to do a power-on stall (whatever the reason I was happy).

Then he told me to head for South County and enter the pattern. This went pretty well. Nobody answered when I asked for a traffic advisory. So I over flew the field at about 2500’. I saw one plane on the downwind leg for 32 and announced I was going to enter on the right 45 for 32. The pattern entry was great, right at 1300’ (correct altitude) on the 45 and turned to downwind. There was a reasonable wind blowing so I had to crab a little on base. There was just a minor crosswind so I did just a very gentle side slip on final, keeping lined up with the runway. The normal landing was fine, the only thing I forgot was to add in the crosswind correction as we did the rollout. We did a touch and go and then departed back towards UTC (the usual call in point for RHV coming from the south).

Mike had me put on the hood as we climbed. He asked for a constant speed climb at 80 KIAS, with a couple of turns to headings on the way up then to level off at 3000’. No problems with any of this. Then he took the plane and put it into some unusual attitudes. The first was a dive to the right, I was a little slow to get the power off, but I remembered to do that, level the wings before pulling the nose out of the dive. The second was an almost stall, pitched up to the right. I got in full power and then back to straight and level. Again no problems. He told me to take off the hood and he took control of the plane while I got the ATIS for RHV. The haze was really bad over UTC (about 9 miles out) I couldn’t even see Lake Cunningham (which is a big lake right next to the airport). Mike told me to make a normal landing at RHV. I called the Tower and was given straight in to 31L, report 3 miles. So I started my descent, got through the checklists. The Tower warned me of some traffic on the way in, but it was another of those complicated calls where I wasn’t quite sure where to look for the traffic. I called back saying I was looking, there was a plane at about my 2 O’clock position, so I called the Tower and asked them to confirm that was the traffic, they said it was. Just as I was about to report in, I got my landing clearance. Here was another of those “well I was told to report at 3 miles, but I already have a clearance so do I really need to?”. Normally I’d say no the whole point of reporting in is to get the clearance, but with Mike in the plane and after the issue with the taxi clearance on Yankee I thought I’d explain why I wasn’t going to report the 3 mile point. The actual landing was just fine and there were no surprises on the taxi back to park the plane.

Mike told me to get the plane secured and that he’d meet me back in the briefing room. As I got out of the plane Grainne was just pulling out in another plane with one of her other students. I gave her a thumbs-up coupled with a shrug. I figured that as Mike had let me fly the plane back to RHV and hadn’t stopped the checkride that I must have passed, but he hadn’t said anything getting out of the plane. I felt that my flying had been so marginal that I wasn’t really sure I’d passed. Back in the briefing room I had a long discussion (one sided Mike did all the talking). He told me that I was banking too much in the pattern (I‘ve heard that before). That I turned the radio down too far on takeoff, so that I might not have been able to hear the Tower over the engine. That I forgot the crosswind correction in South County (i.e. keep flying the plane every second, don’t stop just because the wheels are on the ground). We had a long chat about radio procedures and how, while you might assume something in RHV because that is the way its always done here, it was an exception to the rules and that assumption would get you into real trouble at other airports. Finally, he handed me my Temporary Airman Certificate and asked for my log book in which he logged the 1.5 hours PIC. I had passed!

I can’t really say the checkride was a positive experience. It was really stressful. I felt I flew badly, made some dumb mistakes and in general came away feeling like I’d only just made it by the skin of my teeth. I am a bit pissed at myself because I know I can fly far better than I demonstrated today that has definitely taken away some of the elation I expected to feel on passing the test. Still, the PPL is just the starting point. This checkride is just the first of many. I had already resolved to stay training until I climb out of the first 250 hours danger mark. So I’ll take a little rest do some flying for fun and then its time to start on the IFR rating.

Saturday January 25th 2003, 3:30pm, N4754D, 1.3H

So its been a week since my last flight. I was given another reschedule date of Friday January 31st for my checkride. However, I was supposed to be away on business that week so I moved it to the next available date on February 10th. Then, my trip got pushed out a week, so yesterday I left an apologetic message with the Examiner asking for the January 31st date again. He called this morning and confirmed next Friday was fine. I hadn’t planned to fly this weekend (at least not as a pilot, I was supposed to on a plane to the Philippines). But with the checkride in six days I want one last practice, as luck would have it Grainne was scheduled with two other students today and had another open slot at 3:30pm.

So (hopefully) my last flight before checkride. I wanted to practice some landings and ground reference. So we headed off to the south. The visibility was terrible, I was feeling rushed having setup this flight at the last minute and then having to drive like the devil to get here on time. I climbed up to 4000’ and the haze just seemed to get worse as I went up. Even though I’ve flown over this area many times, for the first time I felt confused as to where I was. The restricted ground visibility, the low sun in the west (it was about 4pm by this time) just made everything look strange. There was a freeway right below me, but it didn’t seem to match any freeway I knew and was in the “wrong” place to be highway 101. It was really quite disconcerting. So instead of leveling off at 4000’ and neatly setting the plane up for cruise I got distracted trying to figure out where I was. Grainne brought me back to my senses by gently reminding me not to red-line the engine. I had let the plane get into a dive on full power, the tach was over 2600 RPM (redline is 2700), the airspeed was north of 120 KIAS in the yellow arc and we were back at 3500’. All this because I was distracted by the view outside. Pretty f**king stupid for someone supposed to be ready for his checkride. I leveled off at 3500’ and continued on passed South County to get to the nice open fields around Frazier Lake. We did a nice leisurely descent down to 1000’ and went looking for the wind. As is typical down here there was a wind blowing down runway 32 at South County but it appeared to be blowing in exactly the opposite direction just 5 miles further south. So I found a tree, made a 180 turn to enter downwind losing 200’ in the process which I had to gain back as I started circling my chosen tree. By about half way round I had the altitude and airspeed under control again and we made two circuits that were reasonable. Actually, they feel pretty good when you fly them, its only looking at the GPS ground track later that you realize the imperfections – thankfully there is no instant GPS replay on the checkride!

Then it was off to South County to practice some landings again. We did four landings, two short, one without flaps and one soft. We were doing touch and goes. When I do T&G’s with Grainne she takes care of the flaps and confirms they are up, I not allowed to do T&Gs solo so there’s no risk I’ll mess up on my own (like forgetting the flaps and trying to takeoff). So as we land Grainne says do a soft field takeoff. About halfway down the runway I figure out that the main wheels are still on the ground because I don’t have the recommended 10 degrees of flaps to get up into ground effect. Grainne put them all the way up. The Cessna 172 will eventually climb into ground effect without flaps, but your airspeed will be almost up to normal rotation speed anyway by this point. So I lowered the nose, got 55 KIAS and took off normally. All the landings were fair, none were great.

We had a nice uneventful trip back to RHV, the visibility had cleared up a bit, we could just make out the VASI in RHV 6 miles out in the haze. I’d been given a straight in approach to 31L and Grainne asked for a short-field landing “on the numbers”. This landing was simply picture perfect, I swooped in with full flaps, did one of those flares that feels like a bird landing (just one long continuous pull on the yoke, no round-out or float). I planted the wheels right on the middle of the numbers and it only took light breaking to get off on taxiway bravo (the very first exit after the threshold). A great high note to end my last flight before checkride.

Monday January 20th, 2pm

I was supposed to be flying my checkride today. It was really foggy when I got to Tradewinds at 11:30am, but the TAF’s for SJC were forecasting it burning off by 1pm. It never happened, the Pilot Examiner called me about 1:30pm and called off the flight. He’s going to call me back later with another date. I headed home really disappointed. Guess what, the fog finally cleared about 3pm, damm I should have told him to give it another hour and then see if we could fly.

Saturday January 18th 2003, 2pm, N739YE, 1.6H

I was hoping to fly solo today to practice some landings, but the visibility never got above 5 miles. As often is the case Yoed was around so I asked him to come with me. I’d told him my checkride was on Monday so he decided to give me a pretty good workout to make sure I was ready. We did the usual downwind departure heading south. Up to 4200’ and into power-on turning stalls. These were reasonable, though I just don’t get why you slow to 55 KIAS (rotation speed), then apply power and start the turn. If this is supposed to simulate a departure stall then I would think you should be climbing at Vy and simulate the stall as if you were turning onto crosswind. Still everyone insists you do it the former way (including the PTS). We did a couple of these and then tried slow flight without flaps (a new twist) some turns and then a couple of power-off turning stalls. Then it was steep turns left and right, these were reasonable, and to standard, the last one was perfect.

We were about 4 miles north of Frazier Lake, flying south when Yoed cut the power. I made that same long ago rookie mistake of forgetting that South County was behind me, which Yoed pointed out. I had plenty of altitude and I decided to come in over final to runway 32 and circle down getting the cockpit checks and checklists out of the way as we descended. In hindsight I had enough altitude to make a more conventional entry on the 45 and that is what I should have done. After one circuit around final there was a Saratoga calling on downwind. I really needed to loose some more altitude but Yoed decided that I just needed to get down before the Saratoga can up behind up on final. So he had me drop in the full 40 degrees of flaps and dive for the ground at Vfe (85 KIAS). This is a fun attitude to be in this close to the ground! I got down over the numbers and rounded out, trying to bled off some speed. I was at about 70 KIAS and I believe I would have gotten down (though without much tarmac to spare) when Yoed called the go-around. All in all an exciting landing attempt.

We did four trips around the pattern practicing short & soft landings. The wind was actually blowing fairly hard to I finally got to practice the classic rectangular ground reference flying, needing a fairly significant crab angle on base and crosswind. None of the landings were too memorable.

Back to RHV, got the usual straight in approach to 31L. The tower was busier than I’ve ever seen it. I guess we had beautiful weather all week. However, this morning we all woke up to dense fog which really didn’t clear until 1pm. So the world and his wife were flying. I made a passable short field landing exiting at taxiway C (which was what Yoed had asked me to do) then we sat for almost 5 minutes waiting for a clearance to cross 31R, there was that much traffic on the runways. Not a bad flight today, no major mistakes though the emergency landing could have been less exciting.

Sunday January 12th 2003, 10am, N4754D, 1.1H

More practice to try and banish the cobwebs after Christmas. The wind was from the south today, so it was one of those rare occasions when you get to use runway 13 in RHV. The sky was blue with some clouds at about 3000’. Flying south, the winter green California landscape below us, over and around the white clouds with visibility clear across to the Sierra Nevada mountains was truly magical. I did some steep turns over Anderson Reservoir. These were ok, all more or less within PTS (Practical Test Standards). Then I had fun doing a long forward slip to get down to 1000’ for some ground reference turns around a point. Believe it or not this is only the second time I’ve ever practiced these, it was just as well as I had forgotten some of the basic stuff (like enter on downwind and always make the first turn to the left), while remembering the relatively complicated stuff like how much to bank the plane depending on wind direction. The GPS ground track looked reasonably like a circle, but truthfully there wasn’t a lot of wind.

We headed to Hollister to practice a few landings. There wasn’t anybody answering when I asked for a traffic advisory on the CTAF so I was just setting up to over fly the windsock when Grainne pulled the power. The wind was calm so I as I was already more or less on the left downwind for 31, that was where I decided to land. This time I made the runway with power and without problem. We did a touch and go and came back around in the pattern for soft field landing. Another touch and go and headed back to RHV under the hood. I’ve never really had any problem with hood work, but I wanted to get some practice in to make sure I wasn’t getting rusty. We did some turns and climbs with no problems.

I got the ATIS as usual and then called the tower. I was told to make right traffic for 13R and report at 2 miles. There was another plane to my right who called in just after us and he was given left traffic for 13L. There was also a great big cloud right in front of me that I had to fly around. With all these (real world) distractions I mixed up the left/right traffic instructions. So I happily flew around the cloud and started to get lined up on Lake Cunningham (which is fine if I was supposed to be entering left traffic for 13L!). About 4 miles out Grainne asked me where I thought I was going and I realized my mistake. I was just turning to get lined up on the other side of the airport when the tower asked me if I understood what right traffic was (smart ass), I lied and told him I did and was just getting lined up. About this time the tower started to get confused about who was who (probably because I wasn’t where he expected me to be). So I’m trying to get myself back where I’m supposed to be, the tower is asking folks to change transponder codes and Ident when Grainne decides its a good time to pull the power again. So the tower is asking both of us (me and the guy on left traffic) our positions, another plane is ahead of me on right base, I’m calling in the 2 mile mark and getting a clearance to land (for the wrong runway, the tower gets confused when the wind shifts as well, he quickly corrected). All this is going on, oh and by the way your engine just quit a minute ago hadn’t you better think about how to land this thing without it. By this time, I was abeam the near end of the runway already below pattern altitude. There was just no way I was going to make it all the way around without an engine. I guess in a real emergency I would have just made a quick 180, told everyone to get the hell out of the way and gotten lined up with most of 31L and gotten down. However, your not really allowed to do that at a busy class D airport just for practice. So the engine magically restarted and we made another somewhat messy crosswind landing on 13R. I’m not happy about the dumb mistake with the pattern entry instructions – just the kind of thing that would ruin your checkride day.

Saturday January 11th 2003, 12pm, N4754D, 1.2H

Back in sunny San Jose again. My checkride is scheduled for January 20th so I’m just going to practice enough to stay as sharp as possible. Today I flew with Grainne again. Nothing too strenuous, down south along Anderson doing slow flight and some stalls. These actually went pretty well, I was expecting to be really rusty. Then a diversion to Watsonville to practice soft & short field landings. These went reasonably ok. The second time around the pattern Grainne pulled the power. I was already passed the numbers on downwind so I had 10 degrees of flaps in. There was another plane on final so I couldn’t really turn early onto base. I should have put up the flaps knowing that I was going to have to eke out every foot of altitude to make it to the runway. I didn’t and it was pretty apparent on final that we wouldn’t make the runway, so we went around. This is the first time I’ve missed an emergency landing in a while. We had a nice relaxing flight back to RHV other than Grainne covered all the Pitot Static instruments (Altimeter, Airspeed Indicator and Vertical Speed Indicator). For a change we actually had a crosswind of a few knots landing back at RHV. My landing wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t a picture perfect crosswind landing either. I really would like to get more practice at these, but its just so damm rare to find them around here.

Tuesday December 17th 2002, Checkride – Part I

I spent an hour last Sunday with Grainne going over N4754D’s maintenance logs making sure I could find everything and getting my final endorsement for the practical test. Grainne called Mike Shiftlett the Pilot Examiner who is going to do my checkride and I was given Paso Robles as my cross country destination – that was lucky, my long cross country was to San Luis Obispo and I flew right over Paso Robles so I can reuse most of the flight plan. Mike is a senior CFI over at Nice Air, he has his own web site at which has a lot of useful info on the usual dumb mistakes and how he typically conducts a checkride. Grainne had told me about this last week so I read through everything he had to say and we took some time to make sure all the documents, endorsements and logged hours were correct and in line with his requirements. I had booked flying time with Grainne on Saturday and Sunday and solo time on Monday, but the weather has just closed in, so I haven’t flown since the 8th, not a great lead in to the checkride.

So the big day has arrived, exactly 99 years since the Wright brothers flew for the very first time, what a great day to gain your Private Pilots License! what a pity then that winter had finally arrived in the Bay Area and the weather sucks.

I arrived early to get a briefing from DUATS, it sucked. Ceilings of 2000~4000’ forecast all the way down the coast, embedded thunderstorms and a freezing level at 4000’ with intermittent rain showers. You might be able to fly, but only by staying low and playing dodge with rain clouds and always having a handy airport to land at quick if the weather closed in – so an easy choice that I wouldn’t fly today. The test was supposed to start at 10am, but Mike called about 9:30am to ask if I wanted to fly (nope), then he said we could just complete the oral part of the test today and at least get that finished. This sounded fine and he said he would come over at 11:30am instead. This was just as well because as I put the phone down I realized that I had forgot to bring my checkbook to pay the exam fee and I had to drive home to get it (not having $350 in cash in my back pocket).

I got back to Tradewinds about 10:30am and spent some time going over bits and pieces in the FAR and various other things I thought I’d screw up. I was just in the middle of asking Yoed (a Tradewinds CFI I’ve flown with a couple of times) about some tricky class E/class G airspace boundaries over the Serria’s when Mike turned up. He was pretty relaxed and asked what my question was, joking that he could check if Yoed got the answer right (he did). He spent some time talking with Yoed about IFR stuff in Europe, apparently Mike spent time training RAF pilots in the UK, and telling us about the book he had just written called “Fitness for Pilots”. All in all he comes across as the total Californian dude, head-set in one hand, surf board in the other. Finally, we got settled down to start the test.

He started by explaining exactly how the test would be conducted. The various options on how it could end (pass, fail or discontinue) and then checking my eligibility – all the various endorsements and logged hours. Grainne was on hand, which was just as well because she had to go fill out some stuff on logged ground school hours and stick it in my log book. Once he had checked everything, he asked for a $150 fee, I’ll have to pay the other $200 when we get to do the practical test. We started with the planes maintenance logs, although he explained we would have to do this again when I actually flew to make sure the plane was airworthy. He asked questions on when all the required inspections needed to be carried out, the Annual, 100-hr, ELT, Pitot-Static and Transponder. The only one I missed was how often the ELT needed inspections, I said I thought every it was 24 months and he said “do you want to check the FAR before you make that your final answer”, I checked and of course it was every 12 months. In general, he said anything you didn’t actually have to know in the plane, you could look up. I remember he asked questions about the planes systems, what was the suction pump for, what would happen to the engine if the master switch was turned off and what instrument would fail if the pitot tube was blocked. He asked some aero-medical questions like what are the symptoms of hypoxia and what would you do if a passenger was hyperventilating. He asked what color the lights on a sides and far end of a runway were at night and what color taxi way lights were. He asked about night currency for carrying passengers, and he asked if the 3 landings were to a full stop or would touch and goes be ok and what time would the landings need to be performed at. He pulled out a chart and asked me to identify al the various airspace types and about the various VFR minimums for each and about SVFR requirements. He picked an airport and asked me to tell him everything I could read from the chart about that airport. He asked what would happen if a piece of equipment failed, this was kind of open ended and we got into a discussion about the minimum equipment requirements, the required equipment in the POH, marking it INOP, the only bit I missed and had to look up in the FAR, is that the piece of equipment must be deactivated as well, he also asked if I could simply remove it, I said not without invalidating the weight and balance. He didn’t check my flight plan to Paso Robles in great detail, but he did ask where I got the TAS from, I said de-rated from the POH figures which was the right answer, he said many folks say “my CFI told me” or “my rule of thumb is…”. He asked about Vx and Vy, what they were for my plane, as a “bonus” question he asked if a headwind would effect the time to climb to a particular altitude, which I got right (no effect).

And that was it. He told me I had passed with no problems, it really was easier than I was expecting and all in all it took just slightly longer than an hour. He gave me a “Letter of Discontinuance” due to the weather, as long as I get the practical test done inside 60 days I’m done with the oral part. I’ve got a date of January 20th scheduled for the checkride flight and I’m on his waitlist if a slot opens up earlier. I’m going back to Ireland on Sunday for a 2 week Christmas holiday, so I’ll be back in San Jose on January 6th ready and waiting to fly some more and try and get sharp for the checkride. Grainne emailed me later and told me it was one of the shortest tests she’d every seen Mike do and that he could see I really knew my stuff.

Tuesday December 10th 2002, FAA Written Test

I’m writing this almost a month after the fact so it will be brief. I took the whole day off work, even though the test wasn’t scheduled until 4pm. This gave me a chance to finally finish the Glime book and study some of the tricky bits that I keep getting wrong (like altimeter errors, compass errors and once again going over the FAR’s). It was actually a nice relaxing day laying on my couch with all the aviation books spread around me.
I got to Nice Air a little early. The receptionist had me fill out an application form, checked my ID and log book and then asked for an $80 check to do the test. The actual testing room is a tiny (hot) room just behind the front desk, it had three computers and there was one other person doing a test when I got started. I was allowed to bring in my chart plotter, E6B and a calculator. The test starts by asking you to reconfirm that all the personal details entered on the application have been correctly entered into the computer. Then it asks gives you some demo questions (not related to flying) to show how the software works and some other screens that explain the various controls. Finally it asks you if you want to take a practice test (I declined). At last it gets to the real test (after asking you about three times whether you really want to start the test).

The actual test was really a breeze. I think most of the questions I had already seen from the Glime book. Basically, if you complete a ground school class like the Cessna Pilot Center and study something like the Glime book then it really shouldn’t be too difficult. many of the questions can be answered very quickly, you either know the answer or not – for example all the FAR related questions. The ones that take time are the performance calculations where you really need to take care to read the example performance charts. There were questions on takeoff and landing distances using that complicated combo performance chart – take the time to actually draw in the lines on the chart, its really easy to make a mistake trying to just eyeball your way across. The cross country calculations (like calculating ETE from one airport to another) also need care and attention, in most cases the available answers are only a couple of minutes different so any inaccuracy measuring the heading or calculating using the E6B can easily put you closer to a wrong answer than a right one and don’t forget to add any time given for climb out from the airport. There was one question on weather depiction chats that asked what the weather would be like for a flight from southern Michigan to north Indiana. I laughed when I saw this, I was born in Ireland, and while my geographical knowledge of the western USA is fine, I’m really hazy about all those scrappy little states in the mid-west and east. I had seen this question in the Glime book this morning and actually went and looked up an atlas to find out where Michigan and Indiana were – thank goodness for that.

Once you complete the 60 questions you can go back and review any of the answers. You are also able to checkmark any answers that you want to review at the end. I had checked four or five that I wanted to review, either because I wasn’t sure or I wanted to double check calculations. The software won’t let you complete the test until you have removed all the checkmarks. Once you decide that your done, and having confirmed about three times that you’re finished the test, it goes into a survey to find out how the test was conducted. For example it asks did the computer work ok, was the room comfortable and quite and so on. Finally, it tells you to call the test supervisor to grade the test. This takes no time and you get a printout of the results which is then embossed with a stamp from Nice Air. I scored 98%, just one question wrong in subject matter area I22. A little research in the Glime book (which had a table that relates all the questions to the FAA subject matter codes) and I discovered that Pressure Altitude is equal to True Altitude for Standard Atmosphere Conditions, not when pressure is 29.92 as I had thought. This was actually one of the questions I had checked, oh well, I just guessed wrong.

Sunday December 8th 2002, 12pm, N4754D, 1.1H

Another beautiful California winters day. 20C, almost no wind, clear sky and sunshine, just a little hazy. I arrived really early to work on the FAA practice tests on the school’s computer. I still haven’t done the written test and my checkride is only just over a week away. I had planned to do it long ago, but work suddenly got really busy and it has interrupted my study (and my journal). Grainne needed to see two attempts at the practice tests both with scores over 80% before she would endorse my log book to go do the real test. I completed the Cessna Pilot Center ground school kit about a month ago. Since then I have been using the Glime FAA test book to study the actual questions, but I’m only about halfway through. I decided to take a chance and see if I could get the two practice tests out of the way today – it worked, 95% on the first and 90% on the second. Not perfect but good enough for the endorsement.

Grainne showed up about 5 minutes late and we went over the results of the tests and she gave me the endorsement. We talked about yesterday’s flight and decided that today we would fly up to Sunol and do some slow flight, followed by a diversion to Tracy (a likely spot for the FAA examiner to take me). The preflight was fine, tee-shirt weather – you’ve got to love California. Nothing of consequence on taxi and run-up. Grainne asked for a short field takeoff – I was just running up the engine to full power when the tower asked us why we weren’t off the ground yet (he must of been having a bad day), we were rolling by the time Grainne got on the radio to reply.

We climbed up to 4000’ and flew done the valley over Calaveras Reservoir. I did my clearing turns and maneuvering checklist (remember the item about picking out an emergency landing spot – I missed it today). Then throttle back to 1500 RPM, flaps to 10 degrees, keep pitching up to maintain altitude, flaps all the way down once your in the white arc, then power back in to 2100 RPM to maintain the altitude with the airspeed hovering around 40 KIAS and the stall horn blowing merrily in the background, set the trim to keep it all stable. We just did a couple of 90 degree turns – the hardest part is keeping the airspeed slow. As you turn, the nose wants to dip and its really easy to pickup 5 to 10 KIAS of airspeed. The key is to add enough power when you start the turn and to really watch the pitch as you roll out of the turn. Once you can keep the stall horn sounding the examiner should be happy (and don’t lose more than 100’ altitude). I recovered to cruise flight and Grainne gave me the diversion to Tracy.

I got the plane turned in the right general direction and noted the time. Then drew the course line on the chart, it went right through the restricted area west of Tracy so I started a climb up to 5500’ which would take me over the top of the restricted space and was the right VFR cruising altitude for the course anyway. A quick check on the chart and I had the heading and the distance, then I calculated the ETE, (Estimated Time Enroute) and ETA (Estimated Time of Arrival) and the fuel required. I’ve really gotten rather good at doing this now. I had Grainne find Tracy in her Airport Directory and she gave me the TPA (Traffic Pattern Altitude), CTAF and AWOS frequencies. We also tried to get the Tracy NDB tuned in, but it didn’t appear to be transmitting so the ADF didn’t work. There was no signal on the AWOS either (I just checked the NOTAMs, the AWOS has been out of service since September 12th, but nothing about the NDB). It was really hazy as we came over the Altamont Pass and I was almost on top of the airport by the time I got it in sight. I had the CTAF tuned in and we could hear folks landing on runway 30. About this time Grainne killed the engine to make this a simulated engine out landing (another favorite trick of the FAA examiner). I had started descending, but I was still way high, so I flew roughly parallel to runway 30 to get a look at it and then made a wide right turn to bring me in on the left 45. I was still a little high on the 45 but I was at pattern altitude by the time I turned downwind. I flew a wide downwind and as I turned base I felt a bit low so I decided I didn’t need any help from the flaps to get down. I got on final and made a passable landing pretty much exactly where I wanted to – no engine and no flaps. I even remembered all my checklists. We taxied to the end of 30 and then turned around and took off on 12 – the wind was calm and there was nobody else in the pattern.

On the climb out it was apparent that the haze was really bad – probably below VFR visibility. I made a right crosswind departure and the haze cleared up a bit as we climbed higher. Grainne told me to take us back to RHV. I wasn’t really sure of the heading, so I plotted it on the chart and got it from there. The highest part of the mountains east of San Jose were between us and home so I kept climbing to 6500’ to give myself plenty of margin. On the way up Grainne asked me to intercept the 175 degree radial to the SJC VOR. I got it tuned in and identified, worked out that to get on the 175 degree radial with a to indication you need to setup the 355 radial on the VOR (this is another FAA examiner trick question). I made a bit of a mess working out the intercept angle, I verbally said I wanted to intercept at 90 degrees, but I was actually flying almost due south, so it would have been a long time before I intercepted it on that heading. When I realized this I turned west (the correct intercept). If I had continued on that course I would have intercepted the radial, but somewhere on the final approach to San Jose International and deep in class C airspace – so I’m not sure what Grainne was thinking giving me that one to intercept. Either way, by this time we were coming up on Mount Hamilton so I got the ATIS for RHV tuned in – to hear nothing but silence. I left it on for a while, and we did hear part of a transmission, but I believe they were in the process of the hourly update. In the end I called the tower with negative ATIS and was told to enter right base for 31R and report at 2 miles, he also gave me the wind and altimeter setting. I started the descent and as usual even when you just clear the last ridge before the valley you are still pretty high. So I did a forward slip which worked like a dream, got down to pattern altitude pretty much at the same time I called in the 2 mile check and got a clearance to land. Grainne had decided that this was to be another no flap landing and it went like a dream. The trick is to be really carefully to pitch for the airspeed you want, its harder to fly slow without the flaps and you have to anticipate the fact that it will be a shallower glide to get down.

I really enjoyed the flight. Everything went to plan, no major mistakes. I’ve already setup the FAA test at Nice Air for the coming Tuesday. Hopefully, I’ll fly once or twice next weekend and then its the checkride!

Saturday December 7th 2002, 12pm, N4754D, 1.3H

Grainne wasn’t able to fly today, but she setup for me to fly with Scott Bunch, one of the other CFI’s at Tradewinds. We got some rain last night, but today is beautiful with blue cloudless sky and no wind. I arrived pretty much on time and Scott arrived just after me. We talked a bit about the stage check last week. I needed to do some turning stalls, I hadn’t ever done them with Grainne and John had asked for one last week. We also decided to go to Watsonville as that is a favorite diversion airport for the FAA examiner. We would practice some slow flight, steep turns and stalls along the way with some soft field landings down at Watsonville.

N4754D was in good shape, this is the plane I’m booked to do my checkride in and I haven’t flown it since my solo cross-country to Sonoma (during which it apparently sprung an oil leak I didn’t even know about until later and was grounded for nearly 3 weeks). I want my last few flights to be in the checkride plane so I’m really used to its handling on the big day. The preflight, taxi and run-up went well. I did a good soft field takeoff and we made a downwind departure heading for Anderson Reservoir. On the way up Scott showed me the Loran that is installed in 4754D – I guess you need to know how to operate everything in the plane you take on the check ride and I’ve never used this particular box before. Apparently it works like a ground based version of GPS with pretty much the same functionality. I’ll play with it some more before the checkride.

Over Anderson, I did my clearing turns and maneuvering checklist and then entered slow flight. This went reasonably well, but I lost about 80’ because I didn’t add quite enough power in. We did a couple of 180 degree turns and this time I managed to roll out on the right heading, but as usual I had some problems letting the plane gain some speed on the turn. We flew a little further south to avoid San Jose class C airspace and then turned towards Watsonville. I could just make out the runway in the distance. Along the way I did some steep turns, one to the left and two to the right. These went well except that I let the bank angle get a little shallow on the right hand turns.

Scott talked me through a turning stall. basically its just the same as a straight ahead stall except you do it in a bank. This means you don’t have to worry about keeping a heading, but you do need make sure the turn is coordinated. We tried two, both power-off. You do the normal setup of slowing down getting in full flaps, then you start the turn as you pull out the power, no more than 20 degrees of bank and start pulling back to create the stall. The main mistake is not pulling back far enough to get a clean break on the stall. The first one worked pretty well, as soon as you start the recovery, its easy to level the wings. The second, I really didn’t pull back hard enough and then kind of preempted the stall break. Still, not too bad for a first attempt – I’ll try some more next weekend just to make sure I’ve got the hang of it.

We were over the mountains just southwest of South County so it was a short trip over to Watsonville. Tuned into the CTAF, it was apparent there was a lot of traffic around the airport. I made a fairly high pass over the eastern end of the field and then made a descending right turn to come in on the left 45 for runway 20. There was yellow biplane ahead of me in the pattern and we passed another couple of planes (rather closely) as I came in on the downwind leg. The biplane was extending his downwind to let some traffic on the ground takeoff. We watched a Cessna Citation (a business jet) takeoff as we flew downwind. I was quite distracted by all the traffic and radio chatter so I left it a bit late to start my descent. So I also flew a long downwind. This was supposed to be a soft-field landing, but I screwed it up. I landed flat (just about on three wheels) and didn’t add the power to keep the nose wheel up. I’m not sure why I made the mistake, but I think it was mostly the distractions of all the other planes and a new airport. We taxied off the runway and back for another takeoff. This one was a short-field takeoff and it went well. Once around the pattern again, this time watching a Lear Jet take off while I flew downwind (there must be a lot of rich strawberry farmers down in Watsonville). This soft-field landing was textbook, no problems at all. We did a touch and go and a downwind departure heading eastwards.

It was a nice leisurely flight back over South County towards Anderson. Over the lake, Scott had me try a power-on turning stall. This was even easier than the power-off stalls and we just did the one. Then back homeward to RHV for a short field landing. This went well, I put the wheels down pretty much where I wanted them, but a little harder than I’d like – Scott didn’t seem to mind. He said that most short field landings come down firmly anyway.

All in all a good flight, no major problems except for the poor landing down at Watsonville. Scott seems to think I’ll have no problems on the checkride, I wish I felt as confident.