Be afraid, be *very* afraid! by Dane Spearing

The skies over Northern New Mexico are no longer safe because I just passed my checkride!!!! Woo hoo!

Given yesterday’s (Thurs) weather, I thought for sure I was going to get wx’ed out again today. As soon as I woke up this morning, I poked my head out the window: not a cloud in the sky and dead calm. “Too good to be true…”, I thought. So, I fired up my computer and logged on to DUATs to get the TAF’s and weather for the proposed XC portion, fully expecting something evil to be lurking in the forecast. SKC and VFR conditions all the way. Yesssssssss!

After a shower and breakfast, I headed out to the Los Alamos airport (LAM) as I was greeted by one of the most spectacular sunrises I’ve seen in a long time. The Rio Grande Valley below was fogged in, bound by the snow-capped Sangre de Cristo mountains to the east and capped by a clear blue sky. Today is a *great* day for a checkride.

After a thorough pre-flight, I took off over the cotton-filled valley below and turned south toward Santa Fe, where I was to meet the DE. (I already knew from the METARs that the fog didn’t reach all the way down the valley to Santa Fe, or I wouldn’t have left in the first place). After a few steep turns and a stall or two on the way, I squeaked a fairly nice landing. I tied the plane down, went in to the FBO, and sat down to make sure all of my paperwork and XC were in order before the DE showed up.

The oral portion lasted only about 40 minutes (I think the fact that I had aced the written kept the number of questions he had to a relative minimum), and then we were off on the XC portion of the checkride (after another thorough pre-flight with the DE watching, of course). Made the first two checkpoints quite a bit ahead of schedule due to an unexpectedly strong tailwind at altitude (we were doing over 145 kts groundspeed in a C172! Yeowza!) Funny, the winds aloft said only about 19 kts, not 35! After the second checkpoint, the DE had me turn around back toward Santa Fe and then do the steep turns, stalls, and slow flight. No surprises or problems there. Somewhere along the way he tried to distract me by reaching across my face to point out some of the local rock outcrops and asking what they were (I’m a geologist). I politely answered his questions, but kept my attention focused on flying. Then it was time for some foggle work. Unusual attitude recovery (again, no problems), and some navigation by the instruments. Foggles off, and whoops, looks like I just lost power (big surprise). Trim to best glide, and find a nice field to land it. Lo and behold, my power came back about 50 feet above the ground.

After climbing back to about 800 ft AGL, the DE said “My Plane!”. Uh, okay. He flew us back down to about 200-300 ft AGL, gave it back to me, and said, “Now do some turns around a point”. ?!? A bit low, but okay. So, I tried to do one, and totally botched it. “Don’t you think you’re a bit low?”, was his comment. Aaaaaahhhhh. *Now* I understand. I climbed back up to about 600 ft AGL, tried again, but entered a bit close to the point, and had to back off and enter it again. Ho boy. I hope this doesn’t fail me… Third time was a charm, and did a fair job. Turning around a point is not my strong suit, but I’m pretty good a S-turns, strangely enough.

After that, he said “Let’s head back to Santa Fe”. I climbed to a few hundred feet above pattern altitude (SAF was still a good 25-30 miles away), and whoops!, there goes the power again. “Now where would you land it?”. Well, I look off to my left and right and there are nice fields there, an arroyo in front of me, and some low lying hills behind me. “Probably in one of the nice fields to the left or right of us.”, I say. “What about the dirt runway right beneath us?”. DOH! Now where the hell did that come from?!? It’s not on the sectional! So much for my astute observational skills.

Finally, we head back in to Santa Fe. I got a bit confused on entering the pattern, and called up the tower to clarify what they wanted. (This frustrated me a bit, since I don’t usually have any problem visualizing where I am in relation to the runways, but in hindsight, I think I was beginning to get a bit tired and hungry.) “Your choice on the first landing.” All right! I decide to do a flapless landing (something I’m *very* good at), and GREASE IT! Woo hoo!

“Okay, next go around, let’s do a short field approach”. Okey-dokey. Flaps in, slightly higher than usual approach, watch the airspeed, aim just in front of the numbers, and…..*SQUEAK*, right on the numbers! Flaps up, hard brakes, and I stop just after the 500 ft marker. Yessssss!!!!!

Back in the pattern, “Now do a soft field approach, and request full stop.” Full stop?!? Did I do something wrong? Is it over? Bah. Push that thought out of your head and concentrate on the landing. Slightly longer approach, minimal flaps, slightly higher airspeed, round out, eaaaaaaasy on the flare, let it settle veeeeery slowly….and….*squeak*,…..keep the nose up…. squeak. YES! Three of my best landings ever!

Taxi back to the FBO. Is it really over? Did I so badly botch the turning around a point and getting confused over the tower’s instructions that I failed? The DE doesn’t say a thing as we walk back to the FBO.

I didn’t know I’d passed until I saw him pull out the Temporary Airman Certificate and start filling it out. “You got a bit confused entering into SAF’s pattern, but you called and clarified things, and your turning around a point needs a little work, but overall you performed quite satisfactorily”.


The short trip back to Los Alamos from Santa Fe was one of the most beautiful flight of my life, and, for a change, the approach in to LAM was as smooth as glass…

Now the *real* learning begins…

Dane Spearing