My Checkride

I was pretty alarmed about the whole thing, although everyone assured me that "he wants you to pass" and "he's really nice." I had studied hard and been flying every day for a week. I read the whole Oral Exam booklet several times, and out loud to my husband on our vacation the week before (he's a pilot, he didn't mind). I could do all the maneuvers - but I couldn't always do them the first time. I was seriously abusing caffeine.

So, on the morning of the checkride, I met my instructor (Mary Ellen Carlin) at the club at 8- a couple of hours early, in case the log books hadn't come from SQL. We went over the airplane logs and the paperwork. We marked all the relevant pages in the log (annual, ADs, ELT, etc.) with yellow stickies, and Mary Ellen prepared the application. The examiner (Mike) had given her a list of common mistakes to watch out for. We were finished with everything in plenty of time, so we went to get coffee and talked about anything but flying, to keep our minds off it.

Mike showed up shortly after 10. We went over the paperwork and he checked the maintenance logs and my log book, which took about 20 minutes. He checked my flight plan - I had copied out the weight and balance information, done the winds aloft, written down the figures for fuel usage in the climb, the whole nine yards. He had also asked me to figure takeoff distance to clear a 50-ft obstacle at PAO, and landing distance at FAT (my flight plan destination). I told him that I wouldn't really go to Fresno, since there were fires burning in the valley, and the visibility at Merced was already 3 mi. in smoke and haze.

Then we started the oral exam. I had been told to keep it short, and took that to heart - when he asked "What color are the taxiway lights?", I said "Blue." The questions were pretty straightforward - far less tricky than the ones in the prep book. I defined stalls, spins, and wind shear. I identified things on the chart. He didn't try to trip me up or anything, and really seemed to appreciate my not volunteering the tons of facts I had absorbed in the previous weeks. In fact, I still find myself kind of disappointed that he didn't want to know this or that obscure thing that I had carefully prepared. When it was over, he congratulated me on finishing up in record time!

Before going up for the checkride, I wanted to be sure to eat, so as to avoid low blood sugar. That was fine, he wanted a sandwich too, so we went to the little deli. I had brought cottage cheese (easy to choke down with adrenaline) and water - I didn't want to drink more coffee, since my heart was already pounding, and I was starting to worry about dehydration. Mike really was very pleasant, and tried to put me at ease - he had just gone through several checkrides himself, and gotten certified to do instrument exams just the day before, so he knew how I felt.

Finally, we got the book and went out to the plane. He called for gas, and I did the preflight. He didn't look over my shoulder or anything. He did get the documents out of their little bag and look at them. He gave me briefing on what we would do, and where, and in what order. We were to head for my first checkpoint (Sunol), then divert to an airport he would give me. I would find the direction and distance, then we would go do maneuvers before actually going to that airport. He said that he would try not to say anything most of the time, so as not to distract me.

I did the runup, using the checklist and being careful to actually do everything on it. Then I tried to give him a passenger briefing -
"If you were not the FAA examiner, but a passenger unfamiliar with small aircraft, I would give you this briefing--"
"Consider it done," he said. "Uh, well, ok. You have your seatbelt on? You know how to open the door? OK."

Geez, what a disappointment. I had a whole spiel ready. I noted the time and we did a standard takeoff.

I made it to Sunol in exactly 11 minutes (Ha! I had added one minute for the climb! Perfect.) He told me to divert to Livermore. I looked it up on the chart and verified that its direction and distance was right there in plain sight. We then stayed right there over Livermore valley for the maneuvers.

I had been worried that I would forget to do clearing turns, but he told me exactly what to do and when - "Do a clearing turn then slow flight" - I had absolutely no feeling at any time that he was trying to trick me in any way, or do any of the things I had heard about, to see if I would forget something. We did slow flight, an approach to landing stall, then steep turns left and right - I did everything pretty well, if not perfectly, and blessed Mary Ellen a thousand times for all the recent prep. In the right steep turn, I lost 50 feet, gained it back, gained 50 feet, lost it, ended up right on altitude. He didn't say anything, and apparently wasn't at all concerned about minor variations. I had been advised not to comment on my own performance either, and didn't.

We then did an emergency engine failure, with a spiral down over Meadowlark, the little private strip out there. I did remember to check the checklist. I made it, but just barely. We didn't land, of course, but got down to about 200 feet. (He was talking to Livermore all this time BTW - there was another plane doing maneuvers in the area as well.) He then pointed out to me that when I was right over an airport like that there was no need to hold best glide so carefully - it would be fine to pick up airspeed and maneuver a little more easily to line up. Then he demonstrated a spiral down himself!

We did the ground-reference maneuvers around his favorite tree - he feigned annoyance with the other plane for using "his" tree, in fact - then went on to the hood work. While I was putting on my foggles, he put it into a 70 knot climb, and just told me to keep that up to 3500 feet. On the way, he gave me some turns to headings - no problem. It was all nice and stable to start with.

Then he did the only thing that really gave me a turn. He told me "You have the controls - close your eyes." Well, I had been carefully repeating "You have the controls", "I have the controls" (since I had just been reading a magazine article on that subject) - so I said "*I* have the controls!? Are you sure? With my eyes closed?" Yup, he made me do things with my eyes closed, then recover from what naturally became unusual attitudes. This turns out to be a very effective technique for inducing actual disorientation! He then put us into some unusual attitudes himself, but nothing too severe.

Finally, we headed for Livermore to do a soft-field landing and short-field take-off, followed by a short-field landing and soft-field takeoff. I went back to doing the radio, and remembered to repeat the runway back every time. We got a straight in to 25L, and were told to report 4 miles out. I asked him where 4 miles was, and he asked how far I thought we were. I said 6 miles, and he said that was just about right, and told me the reporting point was the shopping center, which he pointed out.

A cool thing happened while we were taxiing back - the tower told us to go off to one side and wait for a plane to come around to pick up a banner. Mike took it, saying it wasn't fair for me to have to deal with extra things during my checkride, and we watched the pick up  - it was very cool, he dragged a hook over a kind of clothesline arrangement, it was like landing on an aircraft carrier.

Finally, he told me to just take him back to PAO, doing everything I would normally do. Then he didn't say another word, the whole way back.  He had said that he would do that, but I must say I hadn't really noticed it before. I took us back, did a standard landing - by the time I was taxiing back, I was really beginning to worry. I didn't want to just say baldly "Did I pass?" - I mean, the test wasn't really over yet, was it? So I shut it down, pushed it back, wrote down the time - then finally said it. "So, did I pass?" He looked surprised. "Well of course you passed." I later learned that if you don't pass something they stop the test right there, so I guess it really was a stupid question. Anyway, at that point the reaction set in - my hands started shaking and all. We went back to the club, he filled out the license and gave it to me to sign - that, he says, is the moment I became a pilot. He filled out my logbook, with me as Pilot-in-Command.

I spent the rest of the day turning to my husband every 5 minutes to say "I'm a pilot!"

I am! I'm a pilot!