Learning to Fly – Day Twentytwo (UK/CAA check-ride)

The day had come. It was really amazing to stop and think about. 3 weeks ago (It seemed like an eternity) I arrived not being able to fly. Since then I’ve done some amazing stuff, and now not just can I fly but I can land, I can navigate, I can do the radio calls etc etc In some ways the achievement is the same as when you graduate from a very hard school-course, but your typical age when you do that, I think, makes you arrogant to the underlying achievements and you don’t appreciate it so much. I recognized how much theory, practice and skills had got into me over a very short period of time. I was very nervous and a bit shook up from the previous night’s incident on the runway. I went up with Gerry at lunch time for 1 hour preparations. Mainly doing a couple of circuits and getting my visual references for the turn-ins in place. Personally, I think it’s a bit cheating since it obviously assumes you know the airfield, and you should really be able to make nice patterns at any airfield with reference to the runway you are landing on. Gerry wasn’t having it. “The examiners are looking for sharp rectangular patterns and that’s what you will give them!” I hadn’t had breakfast and it was 13:30 when we walked back from the plane. I wasn’t hungry so I had an apple and a diet coke for lunch and I then read a little more for tomorrow’s FAA Oral Exam and tried to relax/meditate in the sun outside the flight centre. Errr… What sun? For the first time in 3 weeks the weather was closing in. Paul, the examiner, called and asked if I wanted to go ahead with the test since he would not be able to be there before 18:00. At that point it looked like scattered thunderstorms and a call to the MET briefer confirmed that the line was moving NW and we should be clear for my 100+ miles navigation route by then. Paul arrived at 18:15 and I had already pre-checked the aircraft and we walked straight out there. This was it! I got in first, strapped myself in, plugged in my headset and strapped the clip-board to my leg for the airfield information and flight logging I would have to do. Made the taxi call and proceeded to runway 11. When you take off on runway 11 the taxiway leads to 1/3 down the runway. So you have to make a call that you back-track on the runway so no-one tries to land. I was approaching the hold short point on the narrow taxiway at which I would do my power-up checks. I steered out to the left to make as much as a turn to the right as I could so I would be facing more or less into the wind as I was supposed to. It was a narrow taxiway and in doing this my left wing crossed over the hold short point. “You do that tomorrow, and Chuck will fail you immediately” it came from Paul. Chuck was to be my FAA examiner tomorrow morning. Red-faced and with my confidence in shatters I proceeded to do the power up checks, back taxied runway 11 and took off. “I suggest we start with a few patterns and we can check out the weather from 1,000ft” he said. That’s what we did. We did a normal and a soft field landing. On the third pattern he pointed to the south (Where we would be going according to the plan). “You are the Pilot in Command. What’s your decision?” I looked at it. Had I been with Gerry we would have flown it, it didn’t look too bad and I had an experienced instructor next to me. Obviously, Paul was even more experienced but he was only counting as a passenger and I asked myself would I go if this was my first flight after getting the license? The answer was simple: I wouldn’t! I told him: “No go”. “Good decision” he said. He then suggested we went off to the North and did all the skills work so all we had to do next day was the Navigation. That’s what we did. He asked me to do steep turns. We were heading due North and pointing at 3 small lakes. I did the turn and as I rolled out, we felt our own slipstream. I was smugly congratulating myself. “As you did that turn, what did you look at?” Paul asked. I knew the “right” answer but I was also too smart to try and kid an examiner. “A little bit of everything: The horizon, the spinner, my altitude, my vertical speed, the bank angle and the speed. He looked surprised at the honesty. I hadn’t lost any altitude while doing the turn (Which is one of the main things you want to demonstrate). He took my map, covered ALL the instruments and asked me to do another steep turn. The smug feeling dissipated rapidly. I turned steeply to the left at a bank angle of (estimated) at least 45° keeping the spinner (The middle of the propeller) on the horizon (Or rather where the horizon would be, could I see it through the clouds and mist). Rolling out at the visual reference point we again felt our own slip stream and he removed the map from the instruments. We had lost less than 50ft and you are allowed to lose 150ft. “As you would have seen, it’s actually easier to do without the instruments” Paul said. “OK, back to Winter Haven. Do you know where it is; it’s not part of the test?” I informed him that I thought Winter Haven was “that way” and he agreed and we were on our way. I couldn’t believe it had been that easy. I had done my stalls, turns, slow flights etc and that was it. Not quite. Suddenly, I lost my engine. Paul had pulled the throttle back. “Engine failure”. I went through the check-list I had practiced all hours of the day in all situations for the past 2 weeks. I just couldn’t find a spot I was comfortable committing to land. That’s really disastrous. You can pass your check-ride having chosen a bad site and you can pass it missing whatever site you choose. However, if you are indecisive and just land where the plane takes you… you will (justifiably) fail. “OK, I’ll land at that field there”. I followed through my checklist and got to the carburettor heating which I duly switched on. I simulated attempted restart and made a mayday call (without transmitting) and (pretended to) put my transponder on 7700. All the while I was rapidly approaching my site. It stunk. It had looked good from 2,500ft but now it seemed much shorter with trees at both ends. Really stupid choice. I was too high anyways. At 400ft I informed him that we needed to go around and he concurred. “You would never have made it before hitting the trees” he dryly commented. I thought I had a chance but I had to yield to his superior experience and I obviously wouldn’t argue the point anyways. As we approached Winter Haven he looked at the sky to the south. “You know, when you said no go I thought to myself it didn’t look too bad and we could have made it. I gotta say, you made a better call than me!” The sky was pitch black with a wide squall line of thunderstorms. It was a nice “pick-me-up” to get though. He asked for a short field landing. “I don’t want you to dive in, there is no obstacle, but there’s a taxiway 1/3 down the runway” (The one we came in on) “and it would be really nice if you could get us off on that”. “I won’t fail you if you don’t, but it would be nice…”. Right. I kept myself relatively high on final, got over the bushes before the runway and the second I was clear of the bushes I cut the power. I glided in at ca. 3 knots below my normal final speed, compensated for the cross wind and took her down just after the numbers and bang on the middle line. I didn’t even have to break particularly hard as we rolled down towards the taxiway and I swung nicely into the taxiway. “That was a very good landing” he said. I had thought the same thing but it was nice hearing him say it. As I was shutting down he gave me the verdict: “You are safe and stable and I don’t have a problem passing you as long as we manage the navigation tomorrow. 3 things: 1) Don’t cross hold short lines. If you do that at a towered airport you can lose your license. 2) What do you think is the number one cause of engine failure?” I suggested “Fuel Starvation”. “In the UK, where you will be flying, the number one cause of engine failure is carburettor icing. You took so long getting to the carburettor heating when you had the engine failure that the heat which would have removed the icing would have gone! Don’t follow the American lists blindly but think about it. Re-arrange the order if it makes sense. The first thing you do in the UK when you get an engine failure is switch on carburettor heat. In the US, the number one cause of engine failure is, indeed, fuel starvation. It just goes to illustrate the level of airmanship here. 3rd point: When you do the “full and free” control movement you don’t look out and check to see if the ailerons and stabilator is moving. So all you know is the yoke moves. You don’t know if it’s connected to anything. Only the first one is a big thing so you did well”. When we came back to the school Jackie and Simon were waiting. We had planned to go out and eat together with Gerry to celebrate. Now it was a bit strange. I had all but passed the CAA exam but it still wasn’t official. I also had an FAA exam next morning that, if I repeated today’s performance, I would fail within 10 minutes. I felt very nervous and both Gerry and Jackie commented how stressed and stressy I was. I was back at the Villa and in my bed at 23:00 for a 06:00 start. Tomorrow would be make or break on 2 check rides. Would I achieve what I had come for? I swung between feeling confident (Well, I thought I was safe and I knew how to do all the stuff) and very unconfident (One small mistake and I have failed).

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