So today was my pre-solo stage-check, it went very well. The stage check consists of an oral test and a practical test with one of the senior CFI’s at Tradewinds. Grainne set it up for me, the CFI she chose was a guy called Tony Plumb. He turned out to be a young guy with a goatee, but real nice. The way Tradewinds conducts training is very precise, Tony came armed with a checklist of topics to cover in the oral part, and he pretty much systematically worked his way down the list. I guess checklists are just second nature to aviators. The questions covered the FAA regulations, mostly on what are the limitations placed on a solo student pilot. The operation of the plane’s systems like the engine and the instruments. Some questions on the local airspace and the airspace around South County. Some questions on the length of runways at RHV and Q99 and how much of said runways I usually need to takeoff and land. We covered density altitude and its effects on performance – basically the less dense the air than the worse the plane works. We spend some time going over the SFO Sectional Chart and demonstrating I could identify different airspace types and read the airport info from the chart. Lastly we covered some emergency procedures like what to do if you have an engine fire in flight and what to do if you have a total electrical failure inbound to RHV. I really didn’t have any problems with any of the questions, I’m good at book learning and the technical stuff is mother’s milk to me. I went to have a smoke, got the key book, borrowed a headset and headed out to pre-flight 54D.
No issues with the pre-flight, got a fuel fill up while I was just finishing up. Tony turned up and we got started. I had fun telling him how to undo his seatbelt, but on a stage check you have to make sure to do the passenger briefing, so he got the full spiel on the how to use a seatbelt, the under-wing emergency exits, the secondary rear exit (the baggage door) and not to touch the controls or talk when somebody else was talking on radio. We had a normal taxi, but had a little trouble with the left magneto, but I did what I had been shown and it cleared it. The takeoff on 31R went well, just a little drift to the left when we lifted off. Flew the right pattern and exited downwind. I had a Cessna 152 ahead of me and a new Cessna 172 behind me. It was funny, I out climbed the 152 easily on my way to 3500’ and then turned to look out my right window to see that the new 172 had caught up with me and was passing to the right. The newer Skyhawks have a bit more power than the 33 year old plane I was flying. I remembered to complete the climb checklist and the cruise checklist when we leveled off. It was sweet, I nailed 3500’ and pretty much kept it here plus/minus 10 feet.
Because of the traffic around us we flew a little further South to Anderson Reservoir and I did a clearing turn to the right and another to the left, completed my maneuvering checklist and then started slow flight. I lost about 300’ slowing down because I was slow to add power to stop the descent. Tony asked me to gain it back, so I added power and we slowly climbed back to 3500’. This was the right answer, pitch for speed, power for altitude. Then a couple of turns at slow speed, which went well thought I let the aircraft pickup a little speed in the turn. I should have added some power, I think I need to practice this some more. Then powered back up to cruise did a couple more clearing turns and setup for a power off stall. This went fine until the actual recovery, I actually forgot to add full power until Tony pointed it out – stupid mistake, but the only major one of the day. A 180 degree turn and then a power on stall, which went well, had good rudder control and we maintained our heading fairly well. Still the stalls need practice as well.
We did another two clearing turns (Tony believes in “clearing turns for clearing turns”) and we started into steep turns, one to the right and another to the left. These were passable, but I really need to apply more back pressure in the turn and keep the nose up. We lost some altitude and gained some speed. This is the hardest part of steep turns, but they were fun to do all the same. At this point Tony pulled out the power and told me I had lost an engine, he didn’t put carb heat on, but I think he noted that I did it for him, so I hopefully scored some brownie points there.
I did a good job of getting best glide and trimming for it. I knew we were close to South County but when I located it out the back window I couldn’t judge if was it inside glide distance or not. I hummed and hawed a bit before deciding I should just turn around and see what it looked like from the front. As soon as I turned it was apparent I could easily make the straight in approach to runway 32. Tony took care of the radio and a nice couple of planes in the pattern made way for us to allow us the straight in landing. I got through all the checklists, including actually getting out the checklist, and continued to fly the plane and getting us on final for the runway. It was clear we were high, so I got a full 30 degrees of flaps in and we made a fine landing with only a little drift to the right due to a crosswind that just caught me as I flared. But a nose high, no bounce (one handed) soft and gentle landing. Just great!. We got off the runway and I completed the post-landing checklist and taxied back to the takeoff point. Tony told me to make a circuit of the pattern and this time handle all the radio work on the way around. There was just one plane turning base, but I had plenty of time to get lined up and takeoff. It turns out that South County has a rule about making turns in the pattern, you are not supposed to turn under traffic pattern altitude (1300’). I hadn’t known this before and had been turning at 800’ (or the usual 500’ AGL), Tony said we should follow the rule so it was a long climb up to 1300 on the upwind leg, then a simultaneous level of, reduce power and turn to crosswind. This actually went very well and I nailed the 1300’ altitude. The approach for the second landing went fine, right on glide slope and another fine, no bounce, one the center line landing. We did the touch and go and Tony said head for home. So I started the climb back up to 3500’ and headed for the call in point at UTC. I remembered to complete the climb checklist and was just listening to RHV ATIS when we leveled off at 3500’ close to UTC. I made the call to the Tower and was told to make the straight in approach to 31L and report at 3 miles. At 3500’ we were high, so I started the descent right away, a nice 500 FPM, 90 KIAS powered glide.
At this point another plane called in from Calaveras, whose call sign was 45D (very similar to our 54D) and another plane in the pattern was calling in with 475 (also very similar to our 4754D). So the Tower had three planes all coming in to land and all with almost identical call signs and he proceeded to get more and more confused. I made the 3 mile call and took great care to clearly say my full call sign and was cleared to land on 31L. Shortly afterwards 45D called in on the right 45 for 31R. The Tower, then cleared ME (54D) to land on 31R instead of 45D. At this point Tony called in and asked for clarification – did 54D have clearance for 31L? the Tower then said “Um 54D is cleared for 31R, no um 31L”. Tony repeated back the clearance for 31L and both of basically rolled our eyes to heaven. We figured that we didn’t appear to have anything in left traffic for 31L and we had the clearance, also 45D didn’t seem confused, he knew he was headed for 31R so we looked good to land. At this point we were coming over Eastridge Mall, I had slowed at the 3 mile point and had in 20 degrees of flaps, I got in the last 10 degrees and setup for 65 KIAS on short final. The landing was beautiful, right on center line, no bounce, one hand and nose high – everything was good. Tony helped a little in breaking (I’m still a bit timid on the breaks) and we exited at taxiway C and were cleared to cross 31R. I called Ground Control and go cleared to taxi back to parking. In a final fit of confusion, Ground Control called himself “Reid Hillview Tower”. As we taxied back along Zulu the Bonanza with the 45D call sign was stopped at taxiway D. We heard, Ground Control tell him “Be advised, there is another plane on the ground with a similar call sign”, to which the pilot in 45D replied with an audibly sigh “we know that”.
The debrief went well, Tony said I was ready to solo whenever Grainne thought the time was right, basically a nice calm day, without too much crosswind. He said my oral exam was well above average and my flying was excellent for my current stage of training. He nitpicked a couple of things, like the delay in turning back to South County when the engine “failed” and the loss of altitude in the steep turns. But otherwise we were both pretty happy with how things had gone. I’m still not quite sure why the landings have gotten so much better. I can’t really point to a single thing I feel I’m doing differently from when they were terrible. To some extent I’m a little worried that I’ll “lose it” and they will revert to previous performance (or lack thereof). Still, if I fly with Grainne and land a couple of times like I did today, then I’ll really feel ready to do it on my own. I hope its soon, I’m eager to get it past me and start the next phase of the training.