Learning to Fly – Day Twentythree (The moment of truth)

I was up at 06:00, showered and in the car on my way to the airfield at 06:30. I had agreed to meet Gerry at 07:00 so we could do a couple of patterns to warm up. Now I had other plans. I wanted to go through my navigation plan, weight and balances and all the paper work I (as a pilot) need to be aware of. So we went through maintenance records on the aircraft, checked my weights and balances, landing and take-off distances required compared to the airfields we would be visiting. At 7:50 I drove off 2 miles around the airfield to where the FAA examiner Chuck has his own sea-plane base. I walked in, and on a veranda 2 guys were talking about one of the Sun’n’Fun accidents. Chuck introduced himself and offered me a cup of coffee. I sat down with the coffee and we started chatting. The chat and small talk very gradually turned more and more specific until I realised I was in the middle of the Oral examination. It was going very well. I answered every question correctly. After 30 minutes he turned up the heat. “2 things will fail you while you fly. Not might, but will. Your vacuum pump and your alternator belt. If you notice your alternator belt going, how long do you have on your battery?” I didn’t have a clue. I’ve never seen the question and hadn’t thought about the problem. It was obviously a good and valid question but I gave in. “I have no idea” “OK, you don’t have to know it. Guess.” “Between ½ hour and an hour?”. Spot on. Very lucky. He then asked me: “How many instruments run on the vacuum pump?” Before I continue, a little background: There is a group of instruments called Gyros. They are the Attitude Indicator, the Heading Indicator and the Turn Indicator. 2 of those run on the vacuum pump but the Turn Indicator runs on electricity. This is sort of a fail safe system as in a sticky situation, you can use the turn indicator instead of an Attitude Indicator. So the typical wrong answer to his question would be 3, answering a question about the number of gyros instead. The expected correct answer is 2. I had been through this one with Gerry, and felt brave enough: “3”. Chuck had been very praising and impressed with my answers so far and had more than once commented “Studying makes things so easy”. Now he looked at me and raised his eyebrows in surprise. “Really? Name them!”. “The Heading Indicator. The Attitude Indicator. And the Vacuum Gauge!”. “Smart-arse” he said with a smile. The gamble had worked. The vacuum gauge simply measures the effect of the vacuum pump. It’s not a flight instrument but it’s an instrument none the less. He then started to ask difficult questions. “What is your minimum visibility for a cross country? I know you know the legal minimum. I’m interested in your magic number”. He asked the same about cloud cover, cross winds etc. These questions were about judgement and evaluation of your own abilities. It’s obviously no good answering these ultra conservatively because he won’t buy it. You had to come up with reasonable values reflecting your own low level of experience. Again, it seemed I came up with answers he liked. He then did something that really phased me. He took me into the office and went through all the paperwork. At the end of it he printed off my temporary pilot’s license certificate and stuffed it into his folder. “Now don’t go screw it up and cause me a lot of trouble. Let’s get this little flight over with”. We went to the plane, pre-flighted and taxied to the runway. I stopped well short of the line and did my power up. We were away. “Let’s stay in the pattern for a while. Give me a normal landing”. I did, again counting my blessing having practiced cross winds so much. “OK, short field. Stop after landing”. I did. “OK, now give me a soft field take-off.” I had done 1 of those, 2 days ago and as I started rolling I remembered I had to pull back on the yoke, and as I accelerated the plane would take off “too early”. You had to keep it low (The so-called ground effect) until it had accelerated to normal take-off speed at which point you would start the climb. What I couldn’t remember was if I was supposed to use flaps or not. I’m thinking and doing all this rolling down the runway and when I finally deduce that off course I need flaps (since they give you more lift) I’m already near rotation speed and I have no idea what initiating flaps would do at this point considering I already had my nose high. What if I went tail into ground or something? So I thought “F*** it, I know I can take off safely without” and that’s what I did. At 600ft it came. He asked: “Did your instructor teach you to do soft field take-off with or without flaps?” “Well, I was actually asking myself the very same question, but now you mention it I think he taught me to use flaps and I just forgot”.   “Well, if I at this moment was in a really bad mood, you would be finished with your check ride now. However, you have put me into a really good mood so far so let’s get out of the pattern and do some work”. The owner of the flight school later confirmed the sentiments behind that statement. He said that you can technically get through on a shoddy Oral Examination but the examiner would then jump on any mistake you do. If, however, you demonstrate that you are well prepared you get away with more. Close call again. The FAA test is more extensive and more difficult than the CAA. I navigated to my first check-point. I was about 2 miles to the west of it, so he asked me to continue. The next checkpoint was really easy and I could already see it. I was heading straight for it when he had had enough. I had to put on the instrument hood. I then had to do some instrument turns. He then threw a curved ball: “I want you to do all your stalls under the hood. Do you have a problem with that?” “No, not at all”. And so it went. Landing stall, turning stall, power stall, all of them under the hood. I kept my course (except for the turning stall) and the maximum altitude loss was 100ft. I was under the hood and he said: Take me to Lakeland. This would be my diversion. I generally hate diversions because you have to estimate the new heading and either use a stupid slide rule calculator for wind correction or estimate that too. With an estimated heading and ground speed you then have to estimate the distance and come up with an arrival time at the diversion airfield not too far from the actual time you make. However, by asking me to make my diversion under the hood, he obviously wanted to see if I could use the VOR and DME. I switched the VOR to Lakeland and turned the knob until I was centred. 325. I changed my heading to 325 and tuned the DME. 18.4. “We are 18.4 miles from Lakeland and will get there on this heading in approximately 12 minutes”. “Take off the hood and show me a steep turn”. Remembering the “lesson” yesterday I did a near perfect steep turn. Then he wanted S-turns over that road. There was very little wind, which makes that exercise easy. “Look at those caravans there. Use them for a turn around a point”. As I was turning around the caravans he started to chat. “Tell me the difference between CAA and FAA examination. Which is the harder” And so on. I chatted back but was well aware that he was trying to distract me. We were at 1,200ft going into the turn around a point and we stayed at 1,200ft all the time never moving closer or further away from the caravans. “Do you know where Winter Haven is from here?” Did I ever! As I joined 45 degrees downwind for runway 11 he also ran through the list. He said: “You did very well. Stop being so nervous man, you’re sweating like a pig! Your air work was excellent and I really don’t have any serious complaints except for the lack of flaps on your soft field take off.” I landed, he handed me the license and I was a certified FAA pilot with the right to take on board passengers! Unfortunately it was a little too late for that holiday as the family was flying out. Jackie and the family arrived 1 hour later and I drove them to Tampa airport. From Tampa it was back to Winter Haven where Paul waited for the final leg of the CAA. We got into the plane and flew North towards Leesburg. I had written out everything in my flight plan. I had the runway layout drawn up, the direction I would be coming from in highlighter, the frequencies at Leesburg and at airports along the way, Miami Centre for emergencies and so on. Paul is a big guy (250 pounds) so I had done detailed weight and measure and I had calculated our fuel consumption. En-route he looked through all the stuff. He had obviously been talking to someone because he told me: “You have put me in a really good mood with this preparation. I’ll allow you two mistakes”. When we had Leesburg in sight in the far distance I asked him if he wanted me to do a full stop, a Touch’n’Go or an overfly. Whatever you want, he said. “I’ll overfly, then.” “OK, then I want you to divert to Zephyrhills”. This was the dreaded diversion again and this time, no VORs. I guesstimated the new heading, noted the time, got my protractor out and measured the right heading, made the changes, estimated the distance and came up with my bid: “We’re there in 9 minutes”. 8 minutes later we had Zephyrhills in sight out in front on our right. It would take another 2-3 minutes to reach it. “How far are you from Zephyrhills?” he asked. I’m not very good at estimating distances on the ground from the air. “5 miles”. “OK” he said “I’m not going to argue.” But I’m going to count this as one of your allowed mistakes and let’s get back to Winter Haven. What?! There’s no way I could have been so much off that it should count as a mistake. Paul could probably see my indignant look. “Tell me everything you can read off the map about Zephyrhills”. I ran through all the stuff. And then the 2 things he must be getting on to, hit me. I had not changed to the CTAF (Common Traffic Advisory Frequency) which you really should do before getting within 10 miles of an airfield. But worse than that. A parachute symbol indicated that Zephyrhills is a parachuting airfield and you should always be tuned into their CTAF if you are anywhere in the area so you can hear if there are parachutes in the air. Man! There’s just always something, eh? Back at Winter Haven after another good landing he commented to Gerry that he (Gerry) had done a good job and that I had passed. 2 check rides, 2 licenses (and a night rating) in 24 hours. I was tired but the feeling of achievement was just amazing.

Things were heating up at the school with lots of new student coming in. Normally, you get access to a plane for the day after you pass but I could only get a plane for 2 hours between 10:00-12:00 on Sunday as I was due to leave for the airport at 16:00. I would have loved to have had 32990 from 08:00-16:00 so I could go to Key West or somewhere else exciting. That night, I swore at my bad luck not realising how lucky I would count myself just 24 hours later. But that’s for the epilogue, which will follow tomorrow.

Day 1Day 20Day 21Day 22Day 23Epilogue

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