I have survived five checkrides in my 18-year flying history, and I dreaded every one. Only one, my private pilot checkride, felt good from the start, perhaps because I had no idea what to expect or didn’t understand the consequences of a pink slip.
Yes, you can retake the written exams and checkrides after you’ve failed. I’ve proven that. But it feels heavier the second time, burdened with greater expectations. Despite the agony of defeat, however, most failures have made me a better pilot. They also make for good stories, like my multi-engine commercial checkride.
It was a beautiful day, the sky a perfect place to be. I was nervous, as always, and felt my shoulders tightening, my breath shortening, but I was ready.
I had studied hard the previous week, memorizing, rehearsing, practicing everything I had learned. Landing gear, props, engine, flaps, brakes, electrical system, emergency procedures, V-speeds, heating and vacuum systems. For the first time in my life, I could draw a schematic of a complex aircraft fuel system and understand what was happening.
I wanted so much to pass the test, so eager to close this chapter in my life. The multi-engine training had been difficult for me, perhaps it was my age, 48, or maybe it was my personality-free instructor, a diligent perfectionist who wasn’t much fun. I had worked very hard, given up playing with my friends and husband to study, practice and prepare in the twin-engine Piper Seminole. I was ready.
After waiting a half-hour past the appointed time, I met my examiner, a large, soft-bodied man with tortoise-shell glasses, full facial features, and a Boston accent. He shook my hand, smiled and commented on the Grumman Tiger I had just arrived in.
I had flown a borrowed Grumman from Truckee, Calif., to Concord, a 1.5 hour flight, and offered to fly him to Oakland where the Seminole was based, which would save him the hour-long drive in heavy traffic on a hot, smoggy freeway. I thought it might make the examiner a little more sympathetic, more reluctant to fail me on some insignificant technicality.
I sat down in his small office and noticed the photos of the space shuttle and other aircraft on the walls. I thought of asking him questions about the pictures, mostly to relax me, maybe to delay the oral exam a few minutes, but didn’t.
I asked him if he was from Boston, he said yes. I said I’d lived there for a year. No response. He immediately began looking for some paperwork, joking about how he often talked to himself aloud and asked things to which he didn’t expect an answer.
He opened a large spiral binder and began turning the pages. I sat nervously in my chair across the small dark desk, trying to look composed. He pushed a piece of paper toward me and said, ‘Why don’t you fill this out.’ I glanced at it-a weight and balance problem, based on our upcoming flight.
While looking over the questions, I thought I should ask him what he weighs, but he had left the room. I decided to guess his weight and be as realistic as I could. I was certain he wouldn’t want me to underestimate his weight, since that could be dangerous for a commercial pilot carrying passengers. I knew his height. His wife had described him on the phone as ‘five feet eleven inches with glasses.’
Revealing themselves under a wine-colored polo shirt, his upper arms looked large, and a ‘bay window’ hung over his belt. My husband is 5’9′ tall and also has a barrel chest. I know that he weighs 195 pounds stripped on a good day. His belly doesn’t stick out like that, though, so I added 15 pounds and figured I was probably being conservative.
After calculating the weight of two large adults, which included an honest number from me who wishes she was ten pounds thinner, he reappeared and asked me how I was doing. I said, fine, I’ve calculated our weights and full fuel. ‘How much did you figure me at?’ he asked.
‘210 pounds,’ I replied, casually, not looking at him, not expecting a comment.
‘I’m 195,’ he said, in an irritated tone.
‘Oh, well, I’ve added lots of clothes on you and some heavy shoes,’ I joked.
‘Ah, silver-tongued,’ he said, sarcastically.
I kicked myself for not underestimating his weight. When I told a friend about this later, she said, ‘Always remember that weight and age are two things people never want to be realistic about.’
The first question came at me like a surprise torpedo. ‘Tell me about a minimum equipment list,’ he said.
‘The Seminole doesn’t have one,’ was my immediate answer. That was a direct quote from my instructor.
‘Well, what is a letter of authorization?’ he asked. I shrugged, feeling as if I had mistakenly come to the wrong room.
Then he went into pressurization, another area I hadn’t studied. Unnecessary, since the Seminole wasn’t pressurized, I had been told by my instructor. Why wasn’t he asking me one of the two hundred things I had learned? Was there someone standing behind me signaling to him?
By now he seemed disgusted. I must have looked stunned. ‘Well, we’ll have to go over this another time,’ he said.
Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, he moved into things I knew. I drew a schematic of the fuel system. I knew my V speeds. When he asked me to list the ten components of Vmc, however, I struggled with the last two. He watched me twitch.
I hated this guy. His pudgy face twisted into an expression of ‘I love to watch you squirm.’ After all, he had said he was a police officer with ‘two years, five months and 22 days’ left till retirement. What did I expect?
He joked, ‘I love stress, but I’ll probably drop dead at 61.’ I secretly put in my vote.
As he stood up, his stomach cast a shadow upon the desk. Closing the book, he said in a feigned apologetic tone, ‘We’ll have to go over some of this stuff again, you realize, but we’ll still fly today.’
Feeling very alone, I went out to preflight the perfectly parked Grumman. Fifteen minutes after lifting off, I landed in Oakland and taxied to the hangar where the Seminole was parked. Preflighting the small twin, I discovered that instead of full fuel, which I had requested the week before, the airplane might have 2-1/2 hours on the outside. He wanted me to confirm that there was enough fuel in the plane for our checkride. I couldn’t, since I didn’t know how long he’d want to torture me.
A Chevron gas truck drove by, and he ran after it, whistling and waving. The truck didn’t stop. We watched it until it was a quarter mile away on another ramp, expecting the driver to turn around and race back to us. ‘He didn’t want to see us,’ said my examiner, gasping for breath. ‘Well, that’s what we do in the police force when we don’t want to stop; we pretend we don’t see ’em.’
Twenty minutes and 20 gallons later, I taxied to Runway 33 and was instructed to taxi into position and hold. It seemed like I held for at least ten minutes. I was sweating; I didn’t dare look at him. It was a short field takeoff, and I was sure he was going to fail one engine so I’d have to abort the takeoff. And he did.
Shortly after, we lifted off. 500 ft. AGL: establish climb cruise, retard throttles and props. 1000 ft. AGL: fuel pumps off, check gauges one at a time, establish 110 KIAS. Something not quite right. Aircraft is slow. Oops! Gear is still down. How much time has passed? Too long. Get that lever up fast. Don’t say anything.
A few minutes later, just as I was beginning to think about everything else, he said, ‘It did take you three miles to get the gear up, but that’s not unusual in a checkride.’
At his direction we headed over to the Concord area for high altitude and engine-out work. As we approached the flat farmland of the north Delta, he failed one of the engines. I went through the procedure for an engine failure, troubleshooting, and then said, ‘I’m going to feather this one,’ as I changed the prop’s pitch and it stopped. Whew!
‘Why don’t you restart it,’ he said. I took out my emergency checklist, and began going through each step. It wouldn’t start. I tried three times. No start. I thought I’d forgotten something very important. But, he didn’t say anything. I decided to turn on the fuel pump, the last measure. Then, whispering ‘Come on, baby’ as I depressed the starter, it came to life.
‘Come on, baby?’ he said, ‘Maybe that’s what it takes.’ I didn’t care what it took; I was thrilled.
At this moment, an angel hopped inside that airplane with me. The examiner wanted slow flight, ‘dirty.’ I gave him slow flight, setting my throttles for 19 inches, with the gear and flaps down. It worked. He wanted a power-off stall with recovery and return to descent. I gave it to him and stayed on my heading. A power-on stall and recovery, a Vmc demo, and a drag demo. Happily, I stayed on my heading and altitude.
Then he wanted steep turns. ‘Why don’t you start by pointing at Mt. Diablo,’ he said. ‘I don’t know if you like an outside reference, or if you only use a heading.’ I said I like both. He gave me a thumbs-up. Unfortunately, that didn’t help my performance.
Perhaps I jinxed it by saying, ‘This is my favorite maneuver.’ It took a couple of tries to get it right. ‘Barely, just by a hair,’ he said after the last attempt. I breathed out and relaxed too long as the nose lifted up, as if in defiance. I pushed down the yoke as hard as I could and remarked, ‘I love that maneuver.’
I felt like I had just escaped the ejection button.
‘We might as well do our engine-outs in the pattern at Rio Vista, since we’re here,’ he said. My instructor and I had landed in Oakland, Concord, Hayward and Livermore. We had done engine-out work in nearby Tracy and Byron. I had never landed in Rio Vista; I couldn’t believe my bad luck.
Back to square one.
Luckily, there was no one else in the pattern. He failed an engine on approach, failed one on climb-out, failed it again on downwind. After three touch-and-goes, he looked at his watch and said ‘Let’s go back to Oakland.’ Then he added, ‘I like the way you fly; everything went pretty well.’ I don’t remember anything else. Was he actually paying me a compliment? By now, I didn’t care, I was too numb.
My short field landing at Oakland wasn’t perfect, but it wasn’t off by too much. I just know that that final touchdown was as much a relief to me as if I had just done an instrument landing with a 200-foot ceiling, 500-foot visibility, and strong crosswinds all the way down. It was over; I was on the ground, and I would never ever have to do this again.
We weren’t through, though. I had to get him back to Concord without doing anything dumb. Thankfully, the flight was short and my landing there was good. He said something nice again about my flying, something about my certainty and smoothness with the controls.
I locked up the Grumman and went in to get my pink slip, which is indeed pink. Writing him a check for $250 in exchange for a ‘notice of disapproval of application’ felt like paying the drycleaners for clothes they had just ruined. He then handed me 70 pages of reading material on pressurization and high altitude flying, and minimum equipment lists.
Walking toward the Grumman, the sun low on the horizon, I felt deflated. I was sad that I couldn’t close the book, move on, and be rewarded for all my work. I knew, though, that getting into the air would feel better than any consolation cocktail or fancy meal. I lifted off, looked at the city below, the bay, and the sunset. I listened to some poor lost pilot who had gotten within one mile of the airport before telling the controllers where he was.
I’m not such a bad pilot, I thought. I know where I am and what I’m doing. I will get my multi-engine rating one day. Until then, I know I can fly back to my home in the mountains where my husband and friends are waiting with understanding and support. I will close this chapter one day and choose to be a better pilot for the experience.
Two weeks later I flew back to Concord to return the 70 pages of documentation to the examiner and answer two questions about pressurization and minimum equipment lists. After the successful 15-minute session, I jokingly asked him if I could pay him for his time.
‘Yes, $100 will be fine,’ he said, while shuffling papers on his desk. I couldn’t believe it. I waited for him to add, ‘Just kidding.’ But, not a word. So, while he filled out my temporary certificate, I wrote the check and consoled myself with the knowledge that the multi-engine rating was mine for keeps and this was a story I’ll tell one day.