Why I’m Not a Pilot…Yet or What Went Wrong

John HurlbutFlying9 Comments

The most frequent piece of advice I’ve heard since last Friday after not passing my private pilot check ride is “Hey, if it was easy everyone would be a pilot”. While I suspect there is some truth to that, and I do take comfort in the fact that I’ve come a LONG way since I started on this quest some 14 months ago, it still sucks to know that I’m not a pilot yet.

The guys and gals over at the Facebook Group I’m a part of, Flights Above the Pacific Northwest (FATPNW) (Cause Everything is an Acronym in Aviation) (CEIAAIA) have been great about sharing that many of them too did not pass on their first attempt. Again, even more comforting especially with the immense amount of respect I have for them as a group. But did I mention it sucks I’m not a pilot yet?

OK, so what exactly went wrong? Now that I’ve had a few days to reflect on it, I think I know. I won’t tell you right now because that would spoil the post. For my check ride I had been asked to prepare a cross-country flight from Puyallup (KPLU) to Spokane Felts Field (KSFF). I was told this months ago when I first started thinking about my check ride. So I planned that route, I flew it in my head a dozen or more times and I knew every question I thought the examiner would ask me about the route. If there’s one thing I geek out on, it’s maps. Ever since I was a wee lad of 14 and in Explorer Search and Rescue (ESAR) and learned how to triangulate my position on a map and read a compass, it’s something I totally dig. So the flight planning part of my training has been a sheer joy. (Seriously) In fact I’ve spent countless hours planning flights all over the West Coast that some day I’d like to visit when I’m a pilot.

The Friday before my actual check ride, I had a mock oral exam with the chief flight instructor at Safety In Motion Flight Center, Shawn Pratt. Shawn is a former FAA DPE (Designated Pilot Examiner) and so having him so close and available is a great resource. HOWEVER, I will say the mock oral exam that we did last Friday really in no way prepared me for the ACTUAL oral exam that took place on the day of my actual check ride. (More about that in a minute) But it was good preparation to get my confidence up that I actually COULD talk about aircraft systems, aerodynamics, aeromedical factors, aviation weather, etc. etc.

Now up until my actual check ride, I had been flying solo a fair amount. I had gone up and practiced maneuvers by myself. S-Turns, Turns around a point, Slow Flight, Stalls, Short Field Landings, Soft Field landings etc. and I felt I had a “pretty” good handle on the maneuvers. In hindsight, I really should have gone up with my instructor a couple/few more times before scheduling my check ride. It wasn’t for lack of trying. Either the weather was crummy, or her schedule didn’t align with mine, so a good number of dual instruction flights got cancelled or never put on the schedule due to one or more of these things. And really I felt that the flying part was the part I had in the bag. I KNOW I know how to fly an airplane.

So the day of the check ride had finally arrived. I got maybe about 2 hours sleep the night before and all I was doing was visualizing Summer (My flight examiner) handing me my temporary airman certificate and taking a picture with her and my flight instructor, Meg, next to Summer’s Student Prince bi-plane. Perceive, Believe, Achieve. My high school swim team knows what I’m talking about. I saw it, I believed it and damn it, I would achieve it. So first sign this wasn’t going as planned, very little sleep.

I woke up Friday morning and called Lockheed Flight Services to get a Weather Briefing. I won’t bore you with the details, but one of the comments from the briefer was “Boy, I’m not sure I’d pick today to do my check ride.” There was a cold front off the coast and it was moving in by 2PM – 3PM ish, but certainly I’d be done by then, my oral exam was going to start by 10:30, so I should be well done by then. Looking at the weather between Puyallup and Spokane, if we were actually planning to fly that route that day, I would have probably chosen to NOT fly, but we weren’t going to. We’d likely make it to Enumclaw at the furthest, so we should be fine. So the second sign I had was the briefer telling me he wouldn’t pick today.

I arrived at the airport after having a quick bite to eat at Jack in The Box (OK, I’m not counting this as the 3rd sign, but probably should!) at 9AM. I walked down to the maintenance hangar and got the log books for N84823, the plane I would be flying later that day (assuming I passed my oral exam). I made sure all the sticky notes I had placed in the Airframe, Propeller and Engine log books were still there. I brought everything back to SIM Flight Center. (You want to make an airplane mechanic nervous? Walk off with some log books). I camped out in one of the briefing rooms and got all my documentation organized. Log Book, Medical Certificate, Drivers License, Charts, FAR/AIM, Examiners Fee, etc. I sat down in one of the comfy chairs in the Pilot’s Lounge and reviewed some of the questions I thought the examiner might ask. TOMATO FLAMES, AVIATE, IM SAFE, etc.

Finally at 10:30 my examiner arrived and in short order we closed ourselves in the briefing room and the Oral exam began. She told me what to expect that day and asked if I had any questions. I was ready, let’s do this! We took a break around 11:30. We took another one around 12:15. Finally at 1:30, the oral exam was over. THREE HOURS. Holy crap. And I passed! I really expected that my oral exam was going to be an hour and thirty minutes to two hours at the outside. But nope, three hours. I was at that point pretty mentally spent.

The examiner made it clear that after I checked the weather, it would be 100% my decision whether or not to fly that day. (Remember the weather was supposed to come in around 2 or 3 O’Clock) I checked the current weather at KPLU, McChord (KTCM) and SeaTac (KSEA). All were reporting VFR and winds at about 7 knots. Nothing super serious, so I made the decision to go. (In hindsight, I’m actually glad I did because while I didn’t pass, I have a clear understanding of what to expect in the future and have a plan, more on that in a bit)

The instructor and I made our way out to the plane and I walked her through my pre-flight inspection of the airplane and ended up adding 1 quart of oil to the engine, but other than that, she was ready to fly. We climbed in and I went through my passenger briefing. I went through the engine start checklist and fortunately the engined fired right up. I set the frequencies on the radio for our flight and the two VORs I would likely use for navigation. We taxied out to the run up area. I did the runup checklist and we were ready to go. I gave a shout out and my examiner asked me to do a soft field take off to start.

On a soft field take off, you taxi onto the runway and turn without stopping at all and apply power, keep the yoke back in your chest to get the weight off the nose wheel as soon as possible. Then when the plane begins to lift off, keep it in ground effect until you reach a safe speed to climb out at, either Vx or Vy. Right after we took off, I had to point my nose about 10º into the wind to maintain the centerline of the runway. I thought to myself at that point “Boy, if I pass today, it will really be a feat” the winds had picked up and we were in for a bit of a ride.

The first part of my flight had us flying to Crest Airpark (S36) and I calculated that it would take me about 9 minutes to reach Crest. After about 5 minutes into the flight, the examiner told me we’d need to divert, where would I go? I chose Enumclaw. She asked how long it would take to get there and based on our position and direction of travel I estimated about 5 minutes. After about 3 minutes she asked “Do you see the airport yet?” to which I replied “yes I do” and she had me point it out. We then did some climbing turns and descending turns. Then she had me put the hood on so I was flying only on instruments. Again some climbing and descending turns, turns to a heading, etc. So far so good. Then she told me to look into my lap and not look at the instruments at all (with the hood on mind you). She took control of the airplane and put us in an unusual attitude. She gave me back control and told me to look at the instruments and fix the attitude. We did that twice and she had me take the hood off. The unusual attitudes gave me a wee bit of motion sickness, but I wasn’t letting that stop me. Things were going well, I thought.

Next up were steep turns, bank the plane to 45º and do a 360º turn one direction while maintaining altitude and then 360º the other direction while also maintaining altitude. I didn’t do a great job with this, but she passed me on them so I’m not going to complain. But I know I can do better.

Next up, slow flight. I was actually looking forward to this because I usually rock slow flight. Plus for the most part, it should be nice gently flying along straight and level, let me get over my motion sickness a bit too. So she has me configure the plane for slow flight. Carb heat on, throttle back to 1,500 RPM, pitch up a bit to bleed off some speed, white arc confirmed, add a notch of flaps add 100 RPM. Add another notch of flaps, another 100RPM, another notch of flaps, another 100RPM. By this point you’re doing about 50 knots and the plane is right on the edge of the wings stalling. You’re supposed to be in a configuration where any change in pitch or reduction in speed will cause an immediate stall of the wing (as evidenced by the stall warning horn going off) and sure enough that’s where I was.  She had me do some turns to a heading in slow flight. You’re supposed to maintain +/- 100 feet of altitude while doing these maneuvers and I lost 200 feet. She told me to get my altitude back and that was the end of my day. My brain was full. Even though I said out loud “Pitch controls airspeed, power controls altitude” and what I should have done is jammed the throttle in and set carb heat to cold to get my altitude back, I started to pull back slightly on the yoke while slowly adding a little power. The stall warning horn is going off every other second and I gained like 12 feet of altitude. Summer was kind enough to give me instruction, but again, brain full, John done.  She put it as politely as possible to tell me that I had failed, but the fact is, I didn’t recover fast enough and slow flight ultimately ended my check ride.

I asked Summer if we could stay up for awhile longer because actually I was really learning a lot from her. If someone told me I was getting on a flight where Summer Martell and Meg Godlewski were the pilots of the flight, I would be like “Oh yeah, this is gonna be fun!” these two women know how to FLY! Summer showed me emergency descents, steep turns, slow flight, it was awesome to just watch her fly the plane and then try to replicate what she had done. She asked if there was a particular maneuver that I was nervous about and I replied “Turns around a point” just as we were flying by a water tower. She points it out and says “OK fly around that!” and I did my best, which actually turned out to be OK. (I asked her if I had done that during my check ride, would it have been a pass and she said it would have).

We got back to the airport and the winds were kicking at that point. My first attempt at a landing I decided to go around. Summer said my set up for the landing was beautiful, but there was a 90º cross wind at about 10 knots and it didn’t feel right. So we took a lap around the pattern and I got us established on final again and Summer asked if I wanted her to demonstrate. OF COURSE! She showed me a great cross wind landing. She did comment on that landing that she would have probably deferred the landings portion of my check ride because it wouldn’t have been fair to do them in those winds. No matter we didn’t make it that far anyway, but it’s nice to know that the weather did play a small part in my failure that day.

I secured the airplane while Summer went in and did some paperwork. I was walking back to the flight school when Meg met me on the ramp. I was pretty upset with myself. I thought for sure I was going to be able to hold it together (I’m a crier) until I saw my wife’s car in the parking lot. I asked Meg “Is Teri here?” she said “Yes” and I lost it. I just broke down right there on the ramp. (There’s no crying in flying!) I had to sit on the step of the Spencer Aircraft van for a few minutes to compose myself before going back in. The day was really over. I hadn’t passed. I wasn’t a pilot. Teri and I would not be flying to Friday Harbor the next day for lunch. I had let everyone down, everyone that was rooting for me, friends, co-workers, family, my wife, and myself.

I went back in to figure out what the next steps were. Summer filled out my notice of failure, or whatever it’s called and it listed all the sections that I passed and didn’t need to test on again. I guess if there’s a silver lining in this cloud it’s that the parts I did OK on, I don’t need to do again as long as I complete this within 60 days. So I won’t have to retake the oral portion (thank god!), and really up until slow flight, everything else was a pass. I know the next time I go up, I’m going to nail slow flight and stalls because I love doing them. Rectangular patterns, S-Turns, Turns around a point will all be great! My emergency procedures will be nailed and my take offs, landings and go arounds will be perfection! I’m pretty darn good at securing an aircraft, so that’ll be nailed too.

Summer says I passed 75% of what I needed to to become a pilot. It’s that last 25% that we need to knock out next time. A few more hours with Meg to practice and I’m ready to go again. This certainly isn’t the end of my journey. I got my new medical certificate in the mail today, so I’m good to fly for another 365 days. That’s what started this whole blog in the first place, fighting with the FAA for my 3rd class medical. It was just the first in a series of battles to be fought on my journey to achieving this life long goal. Not passing my check ride was just another. I’m confident I’ll win this one too.

And hey, if it was easy, everyone would be a pilot.

9 Comments on “Why I’m Not a Pilot…Yet or What Went Wrong”

  1. I appreciate this blog. I will be doing my check ride soon and found this to be very helpful. Thanks

  2. You didn’t let anyone down brother, you just showed everyone that you are committed to the journey. Nobody knows what tomorrow has in store for them, they can only decide what they want to make happen and go do that. I know you will pass this check ride and before you know it Friday Harbor and any number of remote places will be within your grasp with Teri at your side. Chin up, study up and go get that ASEL cert!

  3. It’s okay to admit that it does suck — the important thing is to not let it defeat or paralyze you, which you’ve done an excellent job of. You’ll get back in the left seat, get your practice in, and you will excel at those maneuvers.

    A simple piece of practical advice for turns during slow flight — keep them real slight. Unless your examiner specifies otherwise, use a bank angle of 5 degrees. This will help keep you at altitude mostly in check, with just slight changes to power.

  4. you know what you have to work on, and you WILL make it. and before you know it, you will be taking Teri to Friday Harbor for lunch and all the other places that you want to go.
    You have many friends and family proud of you, and never forget that. Always follow your dreams

  5. Great read. Summers a tough one! You will be a pilot one day! The fact your even attempting something that 99% never will, sets you above the rest! Keep the chin held high, We will see you in the sky around KPLU soon!

  6. John life is a journey, as is this goal. I know you will achieve your goal of becoming a pilot! It won’t be long!

  7. Keep striving, you’ll make it, no question. In a few years you’ll look back on this as an experience that made you a better pilot.

  8. Thank you for sharing your experience. I too am working with Meg and will be in your footsteps in the future.

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