Well, it’s been about three months since I last blogged. It’s been a whirlwind, and I apologize for the extensive post before you, but I promise it has a happy ending.
About a month ago, my instructor informed me she had a date in mind for my checkride. Then reality set in. I had exactly 3.5 weeks to prepare, and the thought terrified me. I hadn’t yet flown my full 10 hours of solo time that is required, hadn’t had many successful short and soft field takeoffs and landings, nor had I practiced crosswind landings on more than one occasion.
My biggest concern, however, was preparing for my oral exam, which would be a 1-2 hour quizzing session right before my actual flight test. We started with one hour study sessions before work, covering a new set of topics every day. I could get the information to stick for one day, but didn’t feel that I was retaining a whole lot.
As the checkride date grew closer, we started scheduling flights for every weekday, as well as some weekend work. I was getting tired. Really tired. My friends started noticing that I was always on edge, and I seemed to be completely consumed by the fact that a year’s worth of hard work was going to come down to one day of testing. To make matters worse, I knew it was coming right before Christmas, and I feared that a poor outcome would make for a very depressing holiday season.
My checkride was scheduled for Thursday, December 13th. The Friday before, I had a practice oral exam, which mainly centered around the DC Special Flight Rules Area (SFRA), the procedures for which I had mostly forgotten. The next day, we did the practice flight. We went out, did some maneuvers, and simulated instrument work and an engine-out. We had to divert to a nearby airport, which I didn’t have the frequency for. When we finally got back on the ground, the instructor evaluating me asked how I thought I had done. I looked him dead in the eye and immediately blurted out, “I hated it. I did terribly. I was uncomfortable. I want to delay my checkride.”
He kind of smiled and after giving me a short debrief, told me I did fine and that I was ready. I didn’t believe him but I figured I had at least a few more days to prep and I just needed to get this thing over with. To make matters worse, I had gotten sick over the previous few days, and seriously considered delaying my checkride on that basis, although that would’ve been a cover for the fact that I just truly didn’t feel ready.
The week of my checkride, my instructor and I studied for the oral exam twice a day and flew each day. I was basically at my wits end and was seriously hoping I was going to enjoy aviation after receiving my pilot certificate. I wasn’t sleeping at night, but even if I managed to fall asleep for five minutes here and there, I was having nightmares about my upcoming tests. My instructor had to constantly remind me that I had been consistently flying within Practical Test Standards.
My checkride was scheduled for 9:30 am, and I wanted to sit down with my instructor beforehand to look over my flight plan. I was supposed to plan a flight to Lancaster, PA (LNS), then to Cumberland, MD (CBE), and back to Frederick. I woke up at 5 am, feeling super tired and groggy, but after a cup of coffee or two and a few words of encouragement from my instructor, we headed out to preflight. The second I got to the plane, a huge sense of relief came over me. We taxied over to the flight school where I was taking my test and I input the flight plan into the GPS.
When I got inside, I saw the examiner, whom I had met the week before. I was really glad I had done that because it made me feel at lot more comfortable. I sat down in her office with my instructor while she went over the maintenance records and my logbook entries to ensure that I was indeed qualified to take the practical test. At one point, I realized I hadn’t gone over the National Transportation Safety Board regulations recently, so I inconspicuously took out my FAR/AIM and breezed over it while the examiner continued looking over the maintenance records. The last step before my instructor left was handing over my $400 in cash. That suddenly made the whole thing seem real.
My instructor got up, wished me good luck, and left the flight school. Before I realized what was going on, we were in the midst of the oral exam. I looked over at her list, which was a full page long of different topics typed in tiny font. I thought, “are you kidding me? This is going to take forever!” We covered spin recovery procedures, ground reference maneuvers (because it was a relatively calm day outside), obstacle clearances, special flight permits, Land and Hold Short Operations, airport signage, weather requirements, and more. I watched her check off item after item and before I knew it, she said, “ok let’s take a break and go flying.” I couldn’t believe it! There was so much more that I had fretted over and drilled into my head that we didn’t even cover! I suppose it’s like that for everyone, though. You never know which mix of questions you’re going to get asked, so you need to be prepared for everything.
What made the test the most comfortable was how my examiner would mention a topic and ask me what I could tell her about it. Then, she would ask me questions based on what I said. I never had to recite regulations perfectly verbatim. She wanted to make sure I understood the rules, and if I was unsure about something, tell her where I could find it. She also could tell when I didn’t understand a question and had no problem clarifying what she was really asking. Half of the test down—half to go.
I went out to preflight again and also called flight service to get an updated weather briefing. I knew that I wouldn’t end up needing the weather information for LNS or CBE, but I wanted to be prepared in case she asked me. She got in and got settled while I finished preflighting.
I finally hopped inside, put my seatbelt on, and closed to door, only to see that I had left the GATS jar on top of the cowling. Good move, Kristen. I retrieved it, started the plane up, and listened to the ATIS. “…arriving and departing runway 5.” Runway 5?? I hadn’t used that runway in months! I could barely remember which taxiways would get me there. The winds were only at three knots, so I had fully anticipated using my trusty runway 23. Runway 5 has a right traffic pattern, and it’s always been harder for me to maintain a tight pattern using right traffic. Oh, well…onward and upward.
We simulated a short field takeoff and had just barely made it to my first checkpoint when she said, “Ok, my airplane. You can put your hood on now.” After a little bit of simulated instrument work, we went over the other maneuvers I anticipated: slow flight, compass turns, an emergency descent, and power off and power on stalls. My left steep turn was unimpressive from my perspective, and my right one was perfect. That was, by the way, the opposite of what has happened while practicing those on any previous flight. I asked her if she wanted me to do the left one again, but she said it was fine.
She asked me to divert us to Hagerstown (HGR), to which I told her that we could not do that, because it would take us through Prohibited Area 40 (aka Camp David). I was ready to get a diversion for which I had to calculate a new time en route and fuel burn, but I didn’t end up having to. She then asked me to turn 180 degrees to Carroll County Airport (DMW). All I could think was, “Thank goodness my mock checkride instructor had me divert there.” Fortunately, I had already printed out the Airport/Facility Directory entry for DMW, so I entered the frequency and announced my position when entering the pattern. As soon as we were downwind, she pulled my engine, and I went over my engine-out procedures. We made one landing, which she said was soft enough to count as a soft field landing. We took off again and she told me to head back to Frederick. On the way back, she asked me to show her a forward slip. Piece of cake.
At one point, she offered me a mint. Was this a trick to distract me? I wasn’t sure but I really wanted the mint, and I somehow managed to unwrap the mint with one hand on the control wheel and maintained my altitude and heading.
We got back to the airport, I showed her a short field landing, and the tower instructed us to taxi back to the ramp. I turned to her and asked if I was supposed to comply or if she wanted me to taxi back to perform any more takeoffs or landings. She told me that taxiing back to the ramp would be fine. I suddenly realized that this whole ordeal was about to be over, as long as I didn’t screw up taxiing back to the ramp and parking.
I finally shut the plane down and after about two seconds went by (that felt like 20 seconds), she turned to me with her hand extended and said, “Congratulations.” That was it. I was done. I had just become a pilot! The sense of relief I felt was astonishing. Tears were welling up in my eyes. She told me she would head back inside and start the paperwork while I finished securing the plane. I hopped out and heard a familiar voice; one of my coworkers was also out on the ramp. He captured this picture right after my checkride.
My instructor came to meet me at the flight school and we sat together with the examiner while she printed out my temporary pilot certificate. They made small talk while I sat in a daze, unable to comprehend what had happened over the past few hours. When my instructor and I got out to the plane, she asked me if I wanted to taxi us back to the AOPA ramp. “Nope,” I replied. Although, I did end up taxiing us back over once I got in the pilot’s seat and my instincts kicked in.
The rest of the day was a blur of congratulatory remarks and trying to catch up on work I had been putting off while I was in the heat of my flight training. Since then, I’ve been asked about 50 times when I’m going to start on my instrument rating. Instrument training is definitely on my To Do list, but I’m looking forward to taking a breather and just enjoying being a private pilot for a little bit. I was recently asked if I plan on flying with an instructor any time soon. While it is really nice to know that I don’t have to deal with scheduling and always flying with someone whose job is to constantly critique me, I have a couple things that I really want to practice more. One of them is flying at night. I met my requirements for night training, but I never soloed at night, so I don’t feel that I am quite up to par. I also want to practice flying near max capacity, so that when I take friends flying, I’ll have a better feel for the performance of the plane with extra weight.
The biggest thing I want to focus on right now is finding a balance in my life again between work, flying, and my personal life. I am the type of person that puts everything on hold when I’m working toward something, and I became completely consumed with training. Did I need to do that? No. But I knew that the checkride was a momentous occasion when one person would decide my competency to pilot an aircraft whenever I wanted, not when my instructor was endorsing me to solo somewhere. And I realized it’s not just about someone saying “yes” or “no,” it’s about knowing that in case of an emergency, you know how to handle yourself and the aircraft. There will be no more instructors there to bail me out if something goes wrong, or answer my questions if I’m unsure of something. But finally having my pilot certificate has actually motivated me to learn more about my airplane, rather than focusing on performing maneuvers that I may never have to perform again.
If there’s any advice that I can give to future pilots, it would be to CALM DOWN during the time leading up to your checkride. The intensity of your flight training during that time is only to over-prepare you for the actual thing. People keep asking me whether the test was hard or stressful, and I haven’t been able to say it was that difficult. That has nothing to do with my examiner being easy on me; it has everything to do with awesome instructors wanting me to make sure I knew what I needed to know, not just enough to pass a test.