So here I am, at the end of this journey. Along the way I have written something about nearly every lesson, for the most part, selfishly, to help me understand and reflect about what I'm going through in the hope that it will make me a better student, and ultimately, a better pilot, but perhaps also through this journal, to help others understand what the process of learning to fly is like, at least from one other person's perspective.
I've read every book, studied every guide, watched every video and taken every online course I could find time for. I've spent countless hours studying weather charts, winds aloft, and practicing E6B calculations for time, fuel, distance and density altitude, created dozens of flight plans and calculated weight and balance for every possible scenario I can think of. I've studied about meteorology and physics, airspace and FAA rules and regulations, spent hours with the GPS and struggled to wrap my mind around VOR navigation.
I've practiced each maneuver time and time again both solo and with my instructor. I've pounded away at diversion practice, lost procedures, radio communication, tower work and emergency equipment failures. I've performed hundreds of short field, soft field and cross wind take offs and landings. I've flown during the night and day, over mountains, over water, in clear skies, haze and smoke, in calm winds, turbulence and wind shear. I've read and listened and watched and practiced flying in some way every day since I began, but today, I was going to have to prove that I have what it takes to call myself a pilot.
I'm pretty confident about my flying, and have rarely been nervous in the air, but after flying almost daily over the past 4 months, I haven't been in the air now for over 2 weeks, and today, I was going to have to fly better than I ever have. In order to prove myself in the air however, I first had to make it through the oral exam, for me, the most intimidating part of the testing process. I've never done particularly well at oral exams. Even though I may know the material inside and out, oral exams are intimidating for me. Don't get me wrong, anyone who knows me knows I love to talk about things I know something about, but there's a distinct difference between talking about a particular subject and being questioned about your knowledge by someone who clearly knows much more than you do. This is something I have always struggled with in some way in my life and it boils down to one simple thing, while I consider myself reasonably humble, I don't like being wrong, and I especially don't like being called out on it. This obviously puts me in a difficult position because as I've stated before, as much as I'd like to, I know I don't have all the answers and I know I'm going to be asked questions that I don't have the answers to, that's a given, so the challenge is, answering enough of them right to show I've put the effort in to learn.
I was nervous, I didn't think I was going to be, I did everything I could think of not to be, but the fact is, I was, and I knew it was going to affect me today. I got up this morning and rode 26 miles in my spinning class thinking that might help calm me down...it didn't. In retrospect, maybe I should have gone to yoga, or over to the local ashram for some meditation, on second thought, yoga and ashrams make me nervous, so that wasn't going to happen. I took the day off of work so I could relax a bit in the few hours before my test, but of course, all the best laid plans, that's not what I did. Instead, I opened the books, one after the other, speed reading my way through anything I didn't quite yet have a handle on. This didn't help to calm me down, it just made me more aware of everything I still didn't know. Despite the fact that my instructors, my wife, my friends and my fellow pilots all told me not to worry, that I was going to do just fine...I ignored their wisdom and worried instead, I couldn't seem to shake myself out of it.
The only thing I like less than being wrong is failing, I hate to fail, I know it sounds arrogant, but I don't do things to fail, that's never a goal. I can accept that it's part of the learning process, and indeed I do fail and subsequently learn from it, but that only makes me appreciate it, it doesn't mean I like it.
Ok, snap out of it man, you have a half an hour to pull yourself together and get to the airport.
I left the house and headed to meet JP at the airport as we had to fly up to the neighboring town of Santa Rosa since they don't do the flight testing here in Sonoma. I planned to meet JP a little early, one, so I could relax...right, and two, so we could go over any last minute details and make sure we had everything we needed in the plane, flight manuals, log books, maintenance logs, the POH, airworthiness and registration certificates, medical certificate, proof of citizenship, check, check and check. Gas? oh ya, we should probably do that. It's the little things.
Flying calms me down, so what I really wanted to do was get in the plane and get off the ground. In the air I can clear my mind of everything other than flying, it's a nearly instantaneous physical and mental response, it's my meditation, my yoga, my ashram. On the flight up to Santa Rosa JP and I kept the conversation light, talking about the wind and the weather, we didn't discuss the test. He knows what this is about, for a young guy, he's been through 6 check rides of his own so he had a pretty good idea about where my head was at. John has been amazing throughout this process, helping me with every detail and offering to spend as much time with me as I needed along the way keeping me confident and positive at all times. Did I mention I hate to fail? Well, there's something I hate worse than failing and that's letting someone who has worked so hard on my behalf, down when I do. He's done everything he could to get me here, and if I fail, it's a reflection on JP, and I didn't want to let him down.
Arriving in Santa Rosa, I taxied the plane in and parked it near the Jet Center. JP and I gathered up everything we might need and headed over to the testing center to check in with the office and meet the examiner. After some polite conversation, and some checking of the paper work, applications and log books to make sure I had all of the proper endorsements and such, JP excused himself and headed off leaving me and my somewhat exposed nerves with the examiner.
My examiner is a veteran pilot with 30 years of flying experience and by all accounts a heck of a nice guy who's seen hundreds of students roll through his doors over the years looking to become pilots, but he's no pushover. He immediately reminded me of my oldest brother, the kind of guy that makes a joke, but isn't kidding. He's ex-military and ex-California Highway Patrol so even his smile is pretty serious. After outlining what to expect and what needed to be covered, the oral questions began, one subject more or less rolling right into the next. To my surprise, most of the questions I had answers for, and the ones I didn't, I could find easily and quickly in the pages of the reference materials that I was allowed to bring, which included things like the maintenance logs, FAR/AIM and the POH for the Cessna. I don't know how impressed he was with the hundred or so torn color paper book marks I had placed in the pages, but I was sure glad I had, you see, while it's important to have much of this information committed to memory, it's equally, if not more important to be able to find it when you don't.
At one point he had me pull out my flight plan, the one he had called to give me last night, a flight from Santa Rosa to Palm Springs in the Cessna with he and I in the front, 2 additional passengers in the back and 75 pounds of baggage. As soon as he gave me the plan last night I had to laugh. Like I said, this guy has been around the block, and he knew that you couldn't fly a Cessna 172 from Santa Rosa to Palm Springs with 4 people and bags without making some serious adjustments, but that's ok, flight planning is actually one of my favorite aspects of flying. I love to plan flights, so just for grins, I came up with a few options. When he asked me to show him the plan I had come up with, I said, "well, which one do you want?" to which he responded, "what do you mean?". "Well, how important is it that everyone goes, and how soon do they need to get there, and if everyone goes, how important are those bags; if we can leave someone behind, we can fly straight through, if everyone needs to go but we can leave the bags, we can take a little extra fuel which adds some margin of safety, but if everyone and the bags needs to get there, well, we can still go but we're going to have to leave with a lot less fuel and stop somewhere en-route". I'm not recommending this particular approach mind you, it's just the way I think. My instructor used to chuckle whenever I'd show up for a cross country because he knew I'd have 4 different flight plans. My examiner looked over my plan of choice, with everyone and bags on board, and a fuel stop along the way, and complimented me on my thoroughness. I'm not sure if he was being sarcastic or not when he said in his smiling but not kidding manner, "you're funny". I wasn't feeling funny.
2 hours and a lot of questions later, he seemed satisfied that I knew enough to now go prove I could fly. It was a huge relief...and I mean HUGE relief to get through the oral. I shouldn't have been so worried about it, and my examiner was a heck of a nice guy, serious and all, and he wasn't trying to trick me, he just wanted to know if knew what I needed to know. I get it, he doesn't want to be up in the air with me if I don't know what I'm doing, I don't blame him. It wasn't nearly as challenging as I had imagined it, in fact, it was very enjoyable, but I let my imagination get away from me.
He gave me a little time to go get things ready and to take a little break before heading up into the air which I was very grateful for. I went out to the plane and got everything situated and set up for the check ride. Honestly, I couldn't believe I had made it that far. My nervousness and anxiety was now being fueled by adrenaline and my normally calm attitude in the plane was about to be considerably challenged. This hasn't been my flying experience to date and I knew this was going to be nothing short of difficult if I couldn't calm down, but no matter what I tried, I couldn't seem to.
"Focus, deep breaths, get some water, you know this stuff, you've done it over and over again, just do it the same way today, fly, you love to fly, just go fly" that was the mantra from one voice in my head, but it was the other one that was working on me, "what will he have me do, what airport will I have to divert to, how far will he want me to take it, does he expect me to contact Oakland Center for flight following, what type of emergency procedure will I have to do, engine, controls, instrument, it's windy today, will I be performing S turns, turns on a point, unusual attitude recovery...and on and on". What does it matter? Psyching myself out was the worst of all options, I had to get a grip.
He watched carefully as I performed the pre-flight, something I had done many, many times before, still I pulled out the checklist to be sure I hadn't over looked anything...remember, one of the things the PTS specifically states "exhibits appropriate use of check lists". My CFI gave me one last piece of advice before leaving Sonoma when I asked about using checklists during the check ride. He said, most matter of factly, "no one has ever failed a check ride for using too many check lists". Point taken.
When I had finished the oral test and prior to leaving the testing center, my examiner had asked if I had any questions. Indeed, one of the things that had thrown me off during my previous mock check rides was the uncertainty of what could or couldn't be said in the cockpit. Was it ok for me to talk out loud as I performed each function and maneuver for example, could I ask for clarification if I didn't understand a particular request? If he asked me to divert to another airport, how far did he expect me to go? Do I complete my calculations and fly to a landing or will he give me instructions to discontinue and move on to something else? These were things specifically that caused me some uncertainty during my previous mock check rides, so I just wanted to be clear on the rules.
I also asked about what I could use in the cockpit, could I use my note pad where I kept the identifiers and frequencies for most of the local airports, if he gave me a diversion, and most surely he would, could I use the sectional on my iPad for navigation and could I use it to make in flight calculations or would he prefer I use my E6B, a paper sectional and a plotter? Again, it didn't matter to me, I just wanted to be sure I knew what the rules and expectations were and didn't want to be fumbling around with something in the cockpit that I shouldn't be using.
I had other questions as we continued as well, for instance, I noticed as I was performing my pre-flight that 2 other pilots appeared to perform their run-ups where their planes were parked, and having never performed a run-up here before, and no area clearly marked on the airport diagram, I asked what the proper procedure was. I'm sure I should have known, but I wasn't going to start moving without asking, and as much as I hate to fail, I am adamant about the fact that pilots should never pretend to know how to do something they don't know how to do, and if I was going to fail, I might as well fail right now, before I ever get started. "There's a run up area at the end of the taxiway". "Thank You".
I made my call to Santa Rosa Ground, and for what may be the last time used a phrase that I hoped would work to my advantage one more time, "Santa Rosa Ground, Cessna five three zero echo romeo, student pilot at the jet center request taxi to one four" and off we went. At that moment I was relieved that I had made 2 previous solo flights up to Santa Rosa, had I not, I would have been pretty nervous about what was going to happen next. Even though I had only landed to a full stop at this airport once prior to today, I was happy I had, it also took a little pressure off that I had studied the airport diagram in detail over the past few days and it didn't hurt that I also clipped a small copy to the yoke in front of me just in case.
I taxied out to the end of one four, swung around into the run area and ran through the run up at the end of which I contacted the tower and made my call for departure. Within a minute we were off the ground and flying. The first thing on the agenda was to fly via my flight plan, of course we weren't really going to fly to Palm Springs, but we did fly far enough that he could see how I was navigating, judge my use of the instruments, GPS, etc. Next came the diversion, having practiced this over and over again I was ready. Even though I had my iPad on the kneeboard, I didn't use it, instead opting to whip out the sectional, E6B and the plotter and within 60 seconds or so had our new course, distance, time, ground speed and fuel burn calculated to our new destination.
The next hour and a half was a non-stop performance test with one maneuver leading right into the next, steep bank turns, slow flight, stalls, and on it went. Thankfully, during a couple of my previous solo flights I had practiced this very thing, coming up with a list of maneuvers and running through them in sequence without stopping for anything other than clearing turns. While I certainly wasn't going to be performing the same list I had during my solos, it did at least prepare me a little bit for what I was doing now, with one significant difference, beyond my initial clearing turns, the examiner continually cleared the airspace during the maneuvers, which made the pace of it all even quicker than I had anticipated.
One maneuver after the other, while I knew I wasn't flying my best on all of them, I did everything to the best of my abilities under the circumstances. Of course, when you're under this type of scrutiny everything is accentuated, so I noticed every little thing, deviations in altitude and speed, course etc., but in the end, they were not as significant as I imagined them at the time. My examiner did take notice at one point of my now more than apparent overall anxiety however, and did ask me what was going on, to which I answered, "to be honest, I'm nervous". When he asked me why, there was only one response, "You" I said, "You make me nervous". "Am I that intimidating?". "It's not you personally, it's what you represent". By that, of course, I didn't mean authority, or the FAA, I meant ultimately, success or failure.
Much to his credit, he then suggested we do something about that. "Let's just fly for a bit, when you get comfortable and get set up we'll start, whenever you're ready". From that point on things started to fall into place. We headed up to Cloverdale, of course, yet another airport I have never flown into, (how do they know?) to get some takeoffs and landings out of the way. First a soft field landing, followed by a short field take off, then a short field landing followed by a soft field take off, then bam, right off the runway and not 400 feet off the ground, he pulls the throttle, "so what are you going to do now?". "If you don't push that back in I'm going to put is down in that field up ahead". "Good answer, I like you" he said, the throttle went back in and up we climbed. No sooner did we hit about 2500 feet the throttle came out again. "Now what?" he said. "Looks like we lost the engine", and then I ran through the emergency engine failure procedures and guided us down towards a large open field. Another moment of un-clarity, and I mention these for the benefit of others preparing to go through this, how far does he want me to take it? When I practice these with my CFI we generally start them at 3500 - 4500 feet or so and fly them down using 1500 feet as our landing altitude, at which point I simulate a landing and go around, but my examiner didn't offer anything beyond, "show me you can do this". Having completed my in cockpit emergency checklist I continued to fly the plane down, but descending through 1000 feet I made the decision not to descend lower to this unknown field, pulled the plane up and did a go around. He was expecting me to take it to 500 feet, I was anticipating taking it to 1500 feet. It turned out to be ok, but it was another moment of unclarity, and one that could easily put the examination at risk.
It went on like this as we made our way through the list of maneuvers that had to be covered until he finally said, "Get us back to Santa Rosa, correctly and safely". It was about 10 minutes back to the airport in a somewhat uncomfortably quiet cockpit. I didn't have any idea what was going through his mind but mine was racing. Did I pass, did I fail, did I totally blow it? "You know you're not done" he said, "not until we come to a full stop". Right...tower, land, ground, after landing checklist, taxi, shut down check list, there goes my mind again. I made my call into the tower 10 miles out and got my instructions, "Approach on extended final and report 2 mile final for one four".
I love flying, I have to tell you, it's just never the same. While I've practiced landings and touch and goes at Santa Rosa over the past couple of weeks, it's all been in the pattern. Here I was coming in for my last landing of the test and doing so on an extended final in a 15 knot crosswind from the west, two things I had never done at this airport before. I couldn't believe it, seriously, it couldn't have been nice and calm, just today, just for me? Make it or break it time. I positioned myself on the VASI and held a constant slip into that 15 knot wind from the west greasing the Cessna down the center line for what turned out to be the best crosswind landing I had ever done. I rolled off the runway onto the the taxiway and made my call to ground for clearance into the ramp, taxied the Cessna in, parked it and ran through the shut down checklist. As my examiner sat next to me taking notes, I still didn't know what to think but I was glad one way or the other, it was over.
Extending his hand out to me he simply said, "Congratulations, you're a pilot" "And by the way, that was an excellent cross wind landing, excellent control, one of the best cross wind landings I've seen". I was totally stunned.
My examiner said he'd meet me inside while I secured the plane, and upon entering the Jet Center, I must have looked like a kid with a key to the candy store. The news had proceeded me and everyone in the lobby congratulated me on passing my test, none of whom however, were happier, or more proud than my instructor John. You see, I didn't know it until that moment, but not only did I pass my Check Ride today, I was John's first student who made it all the way through. It was a most significant day for both of us, one of great accomplishment, one that brings tears to my eyes as I write this, and I was as happy for him as he was for me.
For the past 5 months I have flown everywhere we had been together and even though I had just earned my wings and for the first time could fly us back to Sonoma as a certified, legal, licensed Private Pilot, I handed John the key and asked him to get us home. As we left the ground and headed back to Skypark he said, "you've never actually seen me fly, have you, for all you know, I can't". I was willing to take my chances.
Needless to say, it was a great ride home for both of us full of laughs and congratulations and smiles, a beautiful, casual, sunset ride that I will never forget.
I don't know where it's going to take me, but today I accomplished something I have been dreaming about all of my life, today, I'm a pilot. I may never stop smiling.
I want to thank everyone who has read and commented on these posts over the past few months. I've done my best to keep them relevant and true to my experience.
I guess now I'm going to have to find something else to write about.
My very best regards to all, enjoy every minute.