Private Pilot Checkride Passed!!!

I’ve been waiting for and dreading this day for a long time. I get nervous before tests, in general, but never have I been so anxious as last night. Since the family was out of town, I was at least able to relax alone and concentrate on preparing. I had trouble sleeping, but I tried.

I had the plane scheduled from noon until 6pm, but the exam wasn’t until 2:30pm. I showed up at the airport in Sanford at noon, retrieved the maintenance logbook, checked that I had all of the required items, preflighted 40B, and headed to Burlington (BUY). The weather was so-so. It was cloudy with a chance of isolated thunderstorms, just like every summer day in NC. The wind wasn’t too bad, but it was borderline more than I was supposed to fly in as a student under club rules.

I made it to Burlington with no problems and enough time for a little practice. I landed on runway 24 and took off straight out toward Charlotte (CLT). I wanted to make sure I could find my checkpoints and get a feel for the weather. I had no problems with either. I took a few minutes to practice some maneuvers and then headed back to BUY. I had enough time to practice a few landings. A soft field… awful, a short field, worse. Oh well. I could give up, or hope it worked out during the checkride. It was time to meet with Zenda.

I went inside and put my stuff downstairs on the conference room table. She was not yet there, so I walked around to help me relax. When I returned a few minutes later, she was there and ready to start.

We had a minute or less of small talk and she asked me for my paperwork: logbook, written test results, and the application, which had been done via IACRA (the FAA’s online application process) beforehand. She took a few minutes going over my logbook, asking a couple questions about my solo cross countries (“Did you get lost?” was one of them.) That checked out and then she asked to see the airplane maintenance logs. After a few questions about required inspections, I had to show the latest annual inspection entry in the logs. To my frustration and surprise, I couldn’t find it. I found it the day before, but it was lost in clutter of entries. She asked to look at it herself and she found it in no time. It didn’t seem to bother her that much, but that didn’t help my confidence.

As I was looking for the inspection entry, I noted where 40B had its engine mount replaced. She told me she’d heard about someone finding the broken mounting during a preflight and I raised my hand with a “that was me”. She followed with a few questions about my involvement in the maintenance of the planes at the club and a few minutes of small talk about it.

I wrote her a check and she explained the rules. She was not allowed to instruct, but after the test she could say anything she wants. She would be making notes, but I should not worry about it because the notes weren’t necessarily bad. For the flight, I was to be Pilot In Command (PIC). That meant I would make the go/no-go call based on my assessment of the weather and other factors, I would make the radio calls, and in case of a real emergency, I would be responsible for the decision making. While under the hood, she would be the safety pilot, but other than that, she was there only to observe. One other note was that she would call the go-around for the simulated emergency with a “Let’s go!” and if I aborted before that, I would fail.

I had one and only one chance to perform the maneuvers properly, so I was to take my time getting set up. Once I started, I could not stop or I would fail (unless it was for the safety of the flight). After she asks for a maneuver, I was to request a clearing turn. She would tell me how to make the clearing turn or if the area was already clear and I could go ahead. If I failed to ask for a clearing turn and began a maneuver, I would fail. If I noticed a maneuver not going well, say something about it and correct it. She can’t read my mind, so I should say as much of what I was thinking to help her know what I’m trying to do. And finally, don’t condemn myself. If I’m blowing a procedure, don’t say “I busted!” and give up. Just correct it and move on.

If I fail a maneuver, she would let me know at that point and we could either end the test or continue; it would be up to me. If we continue, I would only have to come back and complete the things I failed. Otherwise, I’d have to do that which I failed plus that which I hadn’t yet done. What this implicitly meant is that if we move on to the next maneuver, then I passed the previous maneuver, no matter how poorly I thought it went. I could forget about it and concentrate one what was coming next.

She was very clear about all the rules and everything sounded very fair.

We started the oral portion with my cross country planning. Questions about my checkpoints, how much time to the first two and what my expected heading was to be. She wrote down that info and that was it. I asked her about the altitude for the trip; on a “real” trip to Charlotte, 4,500 feet would be expected to meet FAR cruising requirements and pass over the tall towers southeast of Greensboro, but for the test, I would go to 3,000 and we would be diverting before the towers.

We then opened the Charlotte sectional chart and for the next 30 minutes or so, she asked questions about the chart. Pretty much everything depicted on the chart and related FARs for VFR flight into the various airspaces was covered. I was able to answer everything except I had some confusion with the 14,500 feet and how it relates to Class G and E airspace. I won’t try to explain it since it’s not an issue here in the east, and she didn’t care that I couldn’t clarify it. I’m glad we started with the chart, because I like charts and I was comfortable that I knew it well.

After the chart I was given forty plus more questions about FARs, airplane systems, emergency procedures (including engine out and fires), weather, aeromedical issues, runway markings, airport procedures, and more. I was able to answer 95% of the questions easily, but there were a few where I either flat out didn’t know them, or I wasn’t certain. Zenda was most forgiving and did all she could to help drive me to recall what she though I knew without her actually giving me the answer. In the end there were still a few I could not answer without looking up (though she didn’t ask me to do so), but she seemed satisfied, so we moved on. I think the oral lasted about an hour and a half total, but I didn’t pay much attention to the clock.

Zenda told me to go check the weather and make the go/no-go decision. I mentioned that I needed to eat something before we flew as I’d been so anxious before that I hadn’t eaten enough to keep my body happy. I had an apple while checking the weather and decided it was good enough to go. She told me to go preflight the plane and she’d be out in a few minutes. “I don’t have to watch you do the whole preflight.” is what she told me. That was a surprise, and I wonder if that’s standard procedure or if my involvement in the maintenance of the club planes had anything to do with it.

I went out to preflight and everything looked fine. She came out a few minutes later, hopped in and off we went. I tried to stay calm and not forget the little things, like checking the latest AWOS for wind, brake check after initial taxi, and keeping the controls set for crosswind taxi. As we made the taxi to runway 24, we chatted a little more about her career and other small talk; it helped me relax and gave me a better idea of her personality.

After a successful run-up, we were ready for takeoff on 24. As good a short field takeoff as any and I was one step closer. We climbed out, hit 3,000 feet and headed for Charlotte. As we approached the drag strip (my first checkpoint), Zenda said “Hey, looks like something is going on at the drag strip. That’s your first checkpoint, isn’t it?” It sure was. Abeam the strip, I started my stopwatch and wrote down the time. A few minutes later, as I successfully held my altitude and heading, we hit the second checkpoint. Before I could look at my watch and begin making calculations, she said “Let’s move on. Divert to Siler City.” That threw me for a moment; I was expecting to have to do some E6B computer calculations and spit out some timing numbers, but not even a mention of it.

I turned toward southeast toward Siler City and she asked if there is anything I could use to help me find it. I reached for the VOR radio; she immediately followed with “Not that. Is there something on your chart?” I noticed (and already knew, but it didn’t register before) that Hwy 421 (which was my second checkpoint) goes right through Siler City. I said that I could follow this highway, which is what she was looking for. At that point, I noticed something rather frightening: I had lost 300 feet of altitude. +/- 200 feet was the allowed range. “Oh no! I just blew it!” I thought to myself. I said “Whoa! I lost too much.” (or something to that effect) in a calm, matter of fact, tone as I pulled back to climb. I was sure she was about to end it when she said “Ok… Let’s…” with an ever so slight pause. Then “…move on.” It took a second or two, but I realized it wasn’t over. She let it slide and we moved on. Gift number one.

Slow flight was next. After a clearing turn to the north, she asked for 50 knots and full flaps. I took my time, but had no problems with it. A turn to the right and we were done with that.

I don’t remember the exact order of the remaining maneuvers, but I’ll pretend like I do.

Power off and power on stalls followed. Both went as well as any other I’d done. I was starting to feel cautiously confident that I might actually pass.

Zenda asked which steep turn (left or right) I liked better. “Neither, but I usually start with the left.”, I answered. “Well, were only going to do one, so pick whichever.” I chose left, and after a clearing turn, set up directly north at 2,700 feet and made my way around with no more than a 50 foot loss at any point and rolled out with no problems. Another maneuver passed.

Then I went under the hood. A heading and altitude change and that was it. Easy enough.

Then came the VOR. I was concerned about this one. I understand it well on paper, but I’ve had trouble with getting oriented in flight. She gave me a radial to track, so I determined the current radial and proceeded to figure out the heading that would get me where she wanted. When she noticed the radio was acting up and not giving a good reading, she just asked me what heading I would use if I wanted to get to the radial. I paused, and mentioned 45° from that radial, but couldn’t do the math in my head. I was starting to feel the “I’m gonna fail.” coming on, but she was satisfied and we moved on. Another thing that threw me is that I had always practiced that under the hood, but that wasn’t the case this time.

As I was trying to put that behind me, Zenda pulled the power. Time for emergency procedures. I went through the checklist in my head, calling out the items. Finding a good spot wasn’t as easy as I’d hoped, but I found one that looked good enough: a grass field running along side a road. As we circled around, she was asking me about which field I had chosen. I was trying to describe it, but was apparently not doing a good enough job. I said, “How about I just show you as we approach it.” “Ok.”, she said. On the base leg, it was looking as good as I’d hoped for making the field. Then she called “Let’s go!” and I went. She pointed to our left at the field and asked if that was the one. I said it was and she said that’s the one she was talking about too. Good. One step closer.

She pointed at a water tower and told me to use that for my turn around a point. We were headed more or less downwind, so it was an easy set up. She mentioned a few cell towers in the area to avoid, but they weren’t really a problem. While answering questions about the test standards for this maneuver, I entered the turn and did what I needed to do. I paid little to no attention to the heading indicator, but rather watched the plane to see that we weren’t drifting off course. After once around, she had me roll out and climb.

She put me under the hood again. Oh yeah! I still had unusual attitude recovery to do. It’s never been a problem before, so I felt comfortable. A couple minutes and two successful recoveries later, I took off the hood.

Then she asked me to “take us back to the airport any way you know how.” Being under the hood for a couple minutes and not paying much attention to our location during the maneuvers was about to take its toll, though she did tell me before the flight not to worry about where we were; she’d keep us near the airport. We were headed northeast and I thought we were south of the airport, but all I could see where trees, and lots of them, so I turned south. Then I couldn’t help myself, so I looked at Zenda and asked. “Ok… so how to we get back to the airport?” She chuckled and said, “Why don’t you call them up and ask. Maybe they’ll know.” I laughed, but I was getting a little nervous not knowing where it was. I tuned in the Liberty VOR. She asked me what the radial to BUY was, which I knew, and she said “It looks like were right on it already.” Yup, we were, but it still wasn’t where I thought it should be.

Then I looked out the window and there it was, not 5 miles in front of us. We were north of the airport. “How did that happen?”, I thought to myself. Oh well. Zenda asked me a few questions about how I knew that was it. The direction of the runway, the lake we crossed when we took off were the two main indicators. I think she still wasn’t sure I knew we were on the north side until I made a radio call that we would be crossing over for runway 24, which I subsequently did.

Zenda asked for a soft field landing and asked me to describe the setup. I fumbled through the description as I was concentrating on flying, but she was fine with what I said. The landing went very well. Yay! We taxied back for a soft field takeoff. That also went well.

Around we went and she asked me to pick a spot, for a short field landing. I chose the 500 foot marker (three solid stripped lines and both sides of the center line). I was not allowed to land before that point and must land within 200 feet after it. She said “It will make things easier if you just hit the point.” On my turn to final, I realized I was way too high. Not good. I pulled the power and entered a full forward slip to get reasonably close. Just before touching down (probably too long), she said “Let’s go around.”, so I did.

“What did you think of that approach?”, she asked. “I thought it was too long.”, I replied. “So did I. Consider that a gift.” “Thank you for that gift.”, I proclaimed.

As we went around, she talked about how many people are taught a very steep descent into a short field, but even a typical 50-foot tree is not as tall as it seems, so a fairly normal glide path is sufficient. That was borderline instruction, but I told her that’s what I was taught and took the hint to make a “normal” glide approach. What followed was a passing touchdown; two actually. As I rounded out, my descent didn’t slow as quickly as I’d expected and we touched down a little hard and skipped into another touchdown. I was concerned that she wasn’t happy with it, but I didn’t think it was that bad. “Two landings. Alright!”, Zenda joked. I guess that was good enough for her, then.

As soon as she asked me to taxi back to the ramp, I knew I’d passed, but there was still room for me to do something stupid, so I concentrated on getting back safely. There was a departing plane waiting for us to get out of the way. I pulled well off to the side and radioed that we would wait for him, but he seemed hesitant to go. He finally did and I parked it.

“Congratulations!”, Zenda said as she shook my hand. “Thank you!”, I said with an enormous amount of relief.

We went inside to take care of the paperwork and spent at least half an hour chatting about the few things I missed on the oral and some helpful tips and comments about the flight, all intermixed with small talk about flight instruction practices and aviation in general. Time well spent.

I got my temporary certificate, said goodbye and headed back to Sanford. The flight to BUY earlier in the day was bumpy. During the checkride, it was almost as bumpy. I recall a few times we hit some significant bumps, but nothing damaging to my maneuvers. The trip back to Sanford, however, was as smooth as any flight I’ve had. It was not too hazy, so I trimmed the plane and let it fly me back as I enjoyed the scenery during my first flight as a Private Pilot.

The trip to BUY, including my pre-test practice, left me with 76.3 total hours before the test. The checkride itself was 1.3 hours, and the trip back 0.6 hours, leaving me with 78.2 total hours at the end of the day.