Your connection with the sky

September 21st, 2012: It’s Make it or Break it time

With everything getting down to the wire, I'm finding that I have less and less time to do things, like write about it all.

Today was my final "Mock Check Ride", a 4 hour lesson set up to prepare me for my actual check ride on October 9th. Between now and then I plan to go up for at least one more solo, but other than that it looks like I've made it through the training for my private pilots certificate. Am I ready?


Today I was flying with a new pilot, a veteran out at Skypark who has flown just about everything from Cubs to DC-3s. Today we would be taking our first flight together and honestly, I had no idea what to expect. I think that was one of the most difficult aspects of today's flight actually, the anticipation of not knowing. There is so much material that you study in flight training and anyone who thinks it's just all about going up and whirring around is in for a bit of a shock. I knew there was a lot of material and I way underestimated it, and there were any number of times along the way that I simply felt like I wasn't going to be able to get through it all, yet here I am, taking my final flight lesson with a written test and check ride scheduled in the next 10 days.

I don't know if today turned out to be the best reflection of what a mock check ride should be, but I have to say, I had a great time flying and learned a lot from my new "examiner".

The first thing Mike did was grill me on a little of the material I should expect in the oral, although, admittedly, he said this wasn't his strong suit, so we spent about 30 minutes going over some of the basics until he was confident that I could at least talk about flying the plane. Next I took the opportunity to go over the ground rules...or air rules I guess would be more appropriate, something I didn't do earlier on my previous mock check ride. Not knowing what to expect when being "examined" can lead to a lot of anxiety, which in turn can lead to some pretty anxious flying. This time, I just wanted to know what the rules were in advance. Would he be offering any instruction or just evaluating my flying, should I perform clearing turns before every maneuver, or before sets of maneuvers if they were grouped together, would he be asking me to do several maneuvers in a row, if I didn't understand his intent was it ok for me ask, could I talk about what I was doing during each maneuver? These were the things that tripped me up during my last ride, and since I was unsure, not only did I make mistakes, it made me anxious about my flying, which is never a good thing.

With the rules and expectations now clearly stated, we got on our way. Following my CFI's advice from our last flight together, I pulled out the check lists and went over everything step by step. Read, touch, do, read, touch, do. Because I have been flying 4 or 5 days a week for months now, I have acquired some bad habits which now I have to try my best to break, one of which is running through mental check lists instead of having them physically in hand. It's really good practice to use them on every single flight and apparently, essential if you want to make it through your check ride as the PTS clearly states "appropriately uses check lists", so I'm using them.

Pre-flight complete we board and head out for the run up, again, first thing on my mind, pull out the checklist and perform everything in order. As I performed each task on the checklist I read it out loud, a tip from my CFI John who said, let the examiner know what you are doing as much as possible, don't make them guess. Makes perfect sense to me. One of the first things I asked Mike was if it was ok for me to do just that, talk about what I was doing in the cockpit at all times.

After the run up I taxied down to the end of 26 and along the way Mike instructed me to do a soft-field takeoff, which of course brought up my first question. Knowing that there is a hold short line at the end of the taxiway, and that a true soft field take off requires you to keep rolling, what did he want me to do? Should I stop and do my before take off check list at the hold short line, or should I do it as we rolled out and continue right out on to the runway? Much to my surprise, he had me run through my before take off check list as we were moving, clear final, make my call and continue to roll out onto the runway. I have to say, for safety reasons I wasn't terribly comfortable with the idea, especially since I had never done that particular approach before at this or any other airport. This, of course, also brings up another big question, as a student, when do you call the shots regardless of what an instructor or examiner is telling you? He clearly wanted me to do what he had stated and wasn't trying to trick me into anything, yet my instincts told me that I should stop, run through my check list, clear final and then simulate the soft field approach. Final was clear and there were no other planes in the air so I dutifully followed his instructions, but given the choice to repeat it, I would have made the decision to stop the plane, completed my check list, cleared final and then simulated the approach. Besides the obvious safety issues, it was simply contradictory in my opinion, to intentionally perform several tasks wrong in order to prove that you could do another correctly, and again, it had an unfortunate side effect, infusing some undo uncertainty and anxiety into the situation, which in my opinion, should be avoided if possible.

Rolling out onto the runway I pulled the yoke back to lighten the load on the nose wheel and continued my roll-out, pulled the plane off the runway and immediately pitched the nose forward to gain speed while still in ground effect, then after gaining speed, pitched the nose up and started my climb out at Vx. We then proceeded to head out west to the usual maneuver area over the shallow mountains west of Petaluma where I started running through maneuvers. First there was some slow flight, then steep bank turns and some stalls, but just about the time we were getting settled in to have me fly under the hood, the view started to change out my left side.

The practice area we like to use is over the mountains between Petaluma and the Sonoma Coast and on a typical day, meaning any day I've ever been out there, there is no other traffic in the air, but not so today. Just as I was setting up to do a 90 degree clearing turn to the left I noticed a plane pop up on the traffic screen of the GPS, 1000 feet below and to me left and moving quite fast. Not only did one pop up, but then a 2nd, and a 3rd and a 4th and just outside my left wing, in a wide sweeping turn heading what appeared to be straight towards me, were 4 vintage military fighters flying in formation. Time for some PIC decision making.

I had checked in the morning and noted that there were TFRs in the Bay Area due to an air show and the presentation of the Space Shuttle fly over, but the TFRs covered SFO, about 30 miles south of us and the area we were in was well clear of the TFRs, yet here we were, close enough to feel like we were in formation with 4 military planes. They shouldn't have been there if they were part of the airshow, yet, here they were and right on us at twice our speed. All I knew was that I wasn't comfortable sharing their airspace, and certainly wasn't going to be flying under the hood and practicing maneuvers with these guys out here.

Mike could see them on the radar but could not see them out the window. "Mike, we're getting out of here", and with that I whipped the Cessna right and headed...away. We made the decision to let them have "our" airspace and head over to Petaluma for some landing practice, although, little did we know, these guys had the same intention and at twice our speed ended up in the pattern in Petaluma just ahead of us. Imagine, if you will for a moment, that this is supposed to be a mock check ride, full of approved sequential maneuvers and such, yet here I am, following formation "fighter" planes through the pattern into land.

As it turned out, there had to be 8 other planes in the air coming into Petaluma at the same time, so we had planes arriving on extended finals, planes coming into the 45 from opposite directions and planes already in the pattern. Cool..."uh Mike, so what type of landing are you looking for here?". I could see that my "examiner" was as thrown off by all the activity as I was. We could have made the decision to bail on the plan at Petaluma as well and exit the pattern for calmer fields elsewhere, but the uncertainty of constantly changing plans comes with it's own challenges and dangers, so we decided to at least get one good landing in and then see what happened in the pattern.

The pattern traffic calmed down fairly quickly and we made the best of it, pulling off a few landings and some pattern work and then headed out for some cross wind landings at Gnoss Field, of course, another airport I have never been to. I'm starting to see a pattern with these guys, they like to figure out places you haven't flown and then have you go there for some practice, sure, why perform these landings where I'm confident doing them when you can prove yourself somewhere you've never been before? problem, I love a new airport.

Heading over to Gnoss Mike did give me a couple of pointers, 1, that there are a set of towers just off the left side of 13 when taking off, and 2, that there is always a crosswind that frequently changes direction. Well, he was right about those towers, although I didn't see them coming in for what was basically an extended base leg, you can't help but see them after you take off. If you perform a straight out departure at Gnoss, you head directly for some residential covered hillsides which extend to a peak elevation of probably 800 feet or so, high enough that you have to pay attention to what's under you. The general noise abatement and safety policy is that you not head over those homes however and that you make a left crosswind turn at 600 or 700 feet. When you make that left crosswind turn however, it appears that you are heading straight for the towers, which without referencing my sectional, look to be about 800 feet or so. It's certainly enough to keep your attention. Making a couple of passes through the pattern Mike had me perform 2 more landings, 1 cross wind and 1 short field, before departing out to our now clear practice area.

After a couple of good clearing turns Mike instructed me to put on the "hood" and fly IFR for a bit. I did as instructed and verified with Mike that he would be clearing traffic during the maneuvers since I would not be able to. Mike ran me through the usual set of IFR maneuvers including straight and level flight, slow flight, climbs, descents, turning climbs and descents etc. All in all I spent a surprising 1/2 hour under the hood, and while I'm comfortable flying by instruments, I hadn't anticipated the amount of time that would be focused on it. After some IFR fliying we headed north to Santa Rosa. The objective at Santa Rosa was 2 fold, to give Mike an idea of my tower work and to get in a few more landings.

There is often a lot of traffic at Santa Rosa and today was no exception, but even so, I was getting used to it by now and was happy I had made a couple of recent solo flights here and put in some serious practice. I made all the right calls as we approached and after a few laps through the pattern and 3 landings we were off and heading south again, this time, to another familiar practice spot to run through S turns over a road and turns on a point. I could always use more practice at these particular maneuvers, put I'm pretty confident about being able to pull them off reasonably well and after a set of S turns in each direction and some sage advice from Mike about how they should be done, we headed out to the end of the bay over a set of trees along a river to practice turns on a point, something I wouldn't spend much time talking about except that I have learned a few things about these maneuvers, and there are things you can do to improve your chances of success, none of which I did today, by the way.

When picking a spot for turns on a point, I would suggest picking something over open ground where there are few distractions or distortions in view. By this I mean, pick something in the middle of a big, empty, flat open space, or a clear intersection of perpendicular roads. If all sides of your intended turning point are somewhat symmetrical, I believe it makes it easier to judge your distance from the center. My favorite spots are the intersection of multiple dirt roads in an open field, or something like a water tower in the center of a large piece of land. Of course, that wasn't what I chose today, today I picked a stand of trees along an oxbow bend in a river...what was I thinking? It actually went well, but I wasn't making it easy on myself that was for sure.

After performing turns on a point in both directions, we headed east to our 4th airport of the day, and one of my local favorites, Napa County Airport. Napa is not only a towered airport, it's an ATC training airport, so not only do you have students like me flying into the airspace, you have students in the tower controlling the airspace so you're always guaranteed that something unexpected is going to happen. I made my call and we accepted our clearance to approach in closed right traffic for 18R, of course, just as we were about to make said approach, the tower called with a correction, "Cessna 530 Echo Romeo, approach on an extended base and report at 2 miles". Okie doke...(that's not what I said) I swung the Cessna around and we headed in on a base to final for 18R, cleared for the option. Oh, but one other thing, "530 echo romeo, land and hold short of 24 for departing traffic"...that would over ride the previous "cleared for the option" as we obviously could not be performing a touch and go with departing traffic on an intersecting runway. "Will land and hold short of two four, 530 echo romeo"...and that's what I love about Napa.

I put the Cessna down for a nice short field landing and exited the runway at Echo, the first taxiway to the left. holding short of the intersecting runway I switched over to ground and made my call requesting taxi to runway one eight right. "530 echo romeo, hold short of one eight left for landing traffic then taxi right via Alpha to Kilo and hold short of 18R". Hmm, did she just say "taxi right via Alpha?". Now, I know where I am on the ground, and I know that I need to turn left on Alpha to Kilo, not right. I certainly didn't want to find myself heading into oncoming traffic on the taxiway going the wrong direction. I wasn't going to move until we were on the same page. "Napa Ground, confirm cross one eight left and turn right on Alpha to Kilo". "Correction, cross one eight left and turn left on Alpha, left on Kilo, hold short one eight right". This is exactly where all of that situational awareness and aeronautical decision making comes in, as the pilot in command you are the final authority on the operation of the aircraft and this stresses again how important it is to know where you are and what you are doing. Mistakes happen, but if everyone is paying attention, they can be avoided. While I have heard others correct a call made to other planes in the ground or in the pattern thisĀ  was the first time for me that I needed to correct the tower on instructions though. It gets clearer every day, this is a team effort out here, so don't be shy.

When we arrived at the runway, we were number 3 behind another small Cessna and a Piagio so the call from the tower probably should have been "line up and wait one eight right" but I wasn't going to push my luck and ask for another correction as it was perfectly obvious what was to be done. We were going to try to get in a few landings, but with the time spent sitting on the ground and the amount of traffic in and around the pattern, we decided to call it a day and head back to Skypark. By this point we had been in the air 3 hours, and 3 hours of maneuvers and landing practice at 4 different airports in busy traffic is enough to wear on you a bit, so we headed in for one final short field landing at Skypark.

All in all it was a great day of flying, and I learned some sage advice and a few new skills from my experienced "evaluator" Mike. I'm hoping the actual check ride has fewer curves, but this is flying, and it's rarely the same from one day to the next.

So now with all my flying time behind me, I'm off to bury my head in FARs, AIMs, PSTs and a stack of paper and computerized prep ware, after all, if I can't get past the written, the rest of this doesn't really matter much.



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