Monday, March 2, 2009

I'm officially a private pilot!

Wow, what a day! I woke up this morning and started in on some non-flying related stuff that I have on my list, and at about 8:45 this morning Kelly called me. Turns out one of the local FAA examiners that conducts check rides for private pilot candidates had today open and so he wanted to see if I could be at the airport for my FAA check ride at 1pm today. It wasn't quite where my mind was focused at the time the call came, but I quickly started shifting gears in my brain and agreed to be at Twin Oaks to meet Kelly at noon so we could make sure all the paperwork was in order.

I'd figured that I would have at least a couple more days to study and prepare, and I could have waited. But after I thought about it a bit, I decided I was ready to go and that now was the time. So I collected by books and equipment, loaded up the truck, and headed to town and to the airport.

I got there at about 11am, which allowed me time to get all the documentation for the airplane, like the log books showing the maintenance and whatnot. I also had to plan a cross-country flight from Twin Oaks to Corvallis, including the weather and a route to follow, as well as the standard weight and balance and other typical flying paperwork. One complicating factor for the flight was that I weigh about 180 pounds and the FAA examiner weighs about 210 pounds, which meant in the little Cessna 150 we'd be flying I could not take off with full fuel tanks, else we'd be overweight and unsafe. Luckily, Kelly offered to siphon some fuel from the already-filled airplane, and he told me later he didn't get a mouthful of fuel in the process. Been there. Not good.

The check ride consists of a session in the classroom where the examiner conducts and oral exam to determine if you know the myriad of basic information a pilot needs to be familiar with. We reviewed weather, charts, airspace, electrical and fuel systems, weight and balance, performance limitations of various types, a bunch of rules and regs imposed by the FAA, and various procedures. After a couple hours of that, we finished in the classroom and went to pre-flight the airplane.

The examiner watched as I conducted the pre-flight inspection and even offered a couple useful and seasoned suggestions for looking at the aircraft from a distance to get a big picture view of the airframe. It turns out he's been a pilot since 1965, and flew 17 different aircraft for the U.S. Army (rotary and fixed-wing), and since then has been a pilot, instructor and examiner in various model of Citation jet and other big/fast aircraft. So his advice was welcome and based on many years and many, many hours of practical experience. I can safely say I learned some new things today. Quite a few new things, in fact.

We did the pre-departure routine and then got off the ground. I started the first portion of my planned cross-country flight to the south and flew over the Newberg VOR (UBG), then lined up on the VOR radial I'd planned for the flight toward Corvallis. Now, I already knew we were not flying all the way there. The standard practice is to divert to an airport not on the flight plan once you get into the flight. Sure enough, after about 15 minutes of flying and discussion, he diverted me when I reached one of my visual checkpoints and told me to find McMinnville Airport. I located it out the right side of the plane and pointed it out, and told him the info necessary to get there. He was satisfied and told me that while I was not to fly there at that time, I needed to remember it because at some point he would likely be requiring me to return there later in the flight. Hmm, interesting.

We continued south and I executed some clearing turns to make sure the airspace around us wasn't occupied by any other aircraft. I flew the headings and made the altitude changes I was told, and then transitioned to slow flight. He them told me to descend at 70 knots until I reached 3200 feet, at which time I was to transition the nose high under no power and enter a power-off stall. It was a great method of simulating an approach to a landing, and the stall went off without a hitch. He then had me immediately recover to normal flight and climb back to 3200 feet, and then immediately enter a power-on stall. It took a while for the stall to happen (I was surprised at that, considering we were basically at max gross weight), but when it did I recovered properly and returned to level flight.

Next came the hood, a set of blinders that allow you only to see inside the airplane, with your view restricted to the instrument panel. He had me put it on, did a couple turns to disorient me a little and to make sure the area was clear, and then handed the controls back over to me. I flew straight and level, did some turns to specified headings, did a climbing and descending turn. Then he covered my eyes and told me to do a left turn, then a climbing left turn, and then to transition to a climbing right turn. The purpose of this was to force me into an "unusual attitude." That term means the airplane is not in a normal flight attitude - It's nose high or low, rolling left or right. You don't really know what the airplane is doing until you open your eyes and look at the instruments. Then you have to react and correct the problem immediately. I recovered fine from the crazy attitudes and he then had me fly a couple more turns and headings before telling me to remove the hood.

Upon removing the hood, he directed me to look outside the airplane and see if I recognized any of my flight plan landmarks in the area. Sure enough, just to my left was the Woodburn drag strip. I told him that and he said, "Okay, just don't land there..." as he pulled the power on the airplane. "There's way too many wires to hit on that piece of property," he said. Heh. I started the standard drill for a simulated engine out. First fly the airplane. Trim for 60 knots. Look for aluminum sharing your sky. Determine the winds for a landing and start looking for a place to land. Do the engine failure equipment check and try to restart as appropriate (simulated). Dial in 121.5 and make a mayday call if it won't restart (simulated). I was at about 2500 feet and there were several good fields in the area below me, so I did a forward slip and lost some altitude in the process. I then determined since I was just over 1000 feet above the ground that I would fly a proper right-hand pattern to a clean, large field on my right, and started the descent and turned base. I them simulated setting the mixture to rich and turned to the field. My speeds and everything were right on the money and the field was definitely "made." About 500 feet above the ground he instructed me to discontinue the drill and to climb back to 1200 feet as quickly as I could.

I climbed at Vy (70 knots), and leveled off at 1200 pretty quickly. Things were starting to get thrown at me pretty quick now. The pace of the instructions he was throwing at me starting with the simulated instrument maneuvers was accelerating, and we were flowing from one maneuver directly to another on a regular basis. There were a couple times when I just took my time and made sure I was truly ready before starting the next maneuver. It's amazing what five or ten seconds can do to get you ready for the next objective.

I was told next to immediately select a point in a nearby field and execute a turn around that point. I first did some clearing turns for safety and then did a fairly tight right-side turn around a dead tree. It wasn't the best turn-around-a-point I've ever done, and it was pretty darned tight and steep, but it worked. He had me transition immediately out of the right turn into a left turn as the beginning of flying S-curves over a line in the ground that the tree happened to be sitting on. He had me fly the turns pretty tight, and I thought I did a pretty darned good job on them.

Once the S-turns were done, he told me to find McMinnville (the airport from before when we did the diversion decisions). At 1200 feet it's a little more difficult to find an airport several miles away, but I found it and started flying toward it. I entered a 45-degree entry for the downwind leg and followed the examiner's instructions to execute a soft-field landing. I have to say, my landing was probably barely passable. I was truly disappointed, and the fast pace of the prior 30 minutes was probably pushing my brain a bit. I applied power over the runway a bit too late and as a result we skipped lightly once on the runway, which was aggravating to me. At that point I had to question whether I was going to be able to pass the check-ride. It just wasn't a good example of the maneuver. It wasn't terrible or dangerous, but it still sucked. But hey, it happens.

We did a few take-off's and landings at McMinnville: Soft-field takeoff (went well), short-field landing (went pretty okay), and a short-field takeoff (which I screwed up a little by lining up not all the way on the end of the runway). Then, after getting back in the pattern, the examiner told me my flaps were broken and that I was to fly the whole pattern and turn into the base leg with no flaps and to stay at 1000 feet AGL and not descend as one normally would. He had me fly most of the base leg at 1200 feet an then told me I could start my descent and turn to the final approach. So, as I started my (very) short base turn I was at about 900 feet above the ground and already pretty close to the runway. I entered into a full-defelction forward slip, which effectively turns the airplane sideways as it flys to the runway. You lose a lot of altitude really quick, and somehow the aircraft still flies. It's a weird feeling. We dropped like a bowling ball and I straightened it out before we got too low. He instructed me to go-around, and I applied full power and climbed out from the runway.

We departed the McMinnville airport and the examiner instructed me to return to Twin Oaks. I set the course and started the climb over the Newberg VOR again, and then descended and did a decent landing at my home airport. And when I call it my "home" airport I mean it. I have spent more time there than at home much of the past few months, and I enjoy the people there. It's a great place to learn to fly.

As I taxied off the runway and to the ramp to park the airplane, I started to think about my soft field landing and the short-field takeoff where I had set the airplane up not quite on the end of the runway. Those weren't terrible mistakes, I thought, but if they were out of line with the standard and he failed me as a result, I would understand. Not a problem, I told myself. Just do this all again in a week or so.

As I killed the engine, I took a deep breath and closed my eyes. It had been a whirlwind few hours to be sure. When I opened my eyes again, I saw the examiner's hand extended in front of me. He shook my hand and said, "Congratulations, Greg. You're a private pilot!"


My legs were rubbery when I got out of the airplane. I'd say it felt good to be on the ground, but in truth I love being in the airplane. It was stressful, sure, but it was also a lot of fun. I called a few people to tell them the news and found a few text messages from people close to me asking how I did. We did a bunch of paperwork to satisfy the United States Government, and I was handed my temporary pilot certificate, which will be replaced with a fancy-dancy wallet card whenever the FAA has a chance to print it up.

Tomorrow I'll fly with my good friend Dave, who became a pilot last year. I was his first passenger, and he will be mine. It's almost surreal to think that I've actually reached this goal, and that now I can share the experience with others along for the ride. I've learned a little thus far, and look forward to learning more and more. Wow!!


  1. Congratulations Greg I've been following your journey from the first post! Well done.

  2. Congratulations Greg! I am very happy for you!!! This is a very COOL milestone for you!

  3. Replies
    1. congrats on your new journey. welcome to the world full of fun and adventures.

      London helicopters

  4. Greg,

    Congrats and welcome to the very elite club. Your examiner had you do alot of stuff that mine didn't. Although my check ride was quite a while ago.

    Keep the dirty side down!


  5. Congratulations again! That was a really good review of your check ride, thanks for passing it along.

  6. Congratulations Greg, well done. Next RunAs Radio tell Richard from now on you're the pilot and he's the passenger ;)

  7. Congrats Greg! Another in a long line of excellent accomplishments! Well done!

  8. Awesome. Congrats. Wishing you safe air travels.

  9. Congratulations! I hope you keep these technical posts going, they are a really good read. Be careful up there! Have you seen the Hudson River plan re-enactment with actual radio? Simply amazing:

  10. Thanks for a very informative run down. One of these days I'm going after mine too.

  11. Thanks for sharing your check ride - mine is tomorrow...

  12. Hi Jeff - Have a great time, and relax! Let me know how it went!

  13. Congrats, I am close to my checkride. My instructor wants me to be consistent on my short field and simulated engine out. I am nervous and excited to get it done already. Your info helps, Thank you for the post.

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