Examiner: George Barone, Wurtsboro Airport (NY)
I’ve read many descriptions of student pilots’ flight tests, and most were very interesting. Hopefully mine will be too – the experience was definitely memorable for me.
I was up late last night doing my flight plans and double checking that I had the paperwork and tools I needed for the test. Woke up shortly after 5 AM to get a weather briefing and do the wind computations for my navigation. It was one of the most boring weather briefings I’ve ever received – wind calm, visibility unrestricted and expected to stay that way. Stu called me as I was finishing my flight plans and asked how I was feeling. I asked him the same, thinking that maybe he was a bit nervous too since I was to be the first student he has approved for a checkride. We each reported feeling well and excited and agreed to meet shortly at the airport.
It was still dark when we got to the airport. I went into the hangar to pre-flight the airplane while Stu got out some paperwork we would need to bring. My pre-flight inspection was thorough, as I knew it would be the kiss of death to bring a less than airworthy plane to a flight test. Since I would technically be Pilot-In-Command (PIC) during the flight test, it would be my responsibility to verify that the airplane was flyable (I’ve read of test applicants who failed because they proposed to fly the examiner in a questionable airplane). Then Stu and I sat down to fill out forms, which took a while. It was just after 8:00 that we took off for Wurtsboro, I in the Warrior and Stu in a Piper Comanche.
I started to get excited when we got airborne. The weather wasn’t just good – it was PERFECT. Clear and calm, with no wind to speak of. It was also cold, which gave the airplane increased performance. Stu later claimed it was the single best flying day all year. I took off first and Stu followed. Having never flown in formation before, I just flew straight & level and let him worry about keeping his distance from me. It was thrilling to see Stu pull up a few hundred feet from my left wingtip. The Comanche is a fast airplane, and Stu actually had to fly a couple of 360’s to keep from overtaking me in the Warrior. I was smiling with anticipation and excitement as we flew together toward my test.
As we approached Wurtsboro Stu said he would go in first so he could watch me land. It was just like the movies as he banked the Comanche and peeled off to turn into the Wurtsboro traffic pattern. I followed behind, a bit too close as it turned out because I felt some of his prop wash. I slowed down the Warrior and followed Stu through the pattern. I was on final as he landed, and didn’t really believe that the Comanche’s wake would create sufficient turbulence to be a problem as I came in.
As I approached runway 23, the controls began to get mushy. The stall horn emitted a few peremptory chirps, which it shouldn’t in an 80 mph approach. I suddenly had the feeling one gets on a bicycle when you KNOW you going to fall in the next three seconds, and quickly shoved the throttle full forward to initiate a go-around. The plane climbed smartly upward, and I let out a big breath as I realized it would not have boded well for me to have stalled and crashed the plane on my way to the checkride. It was good that I had taken the precaution of wearing my lucky shirt – apparently it worked.
So I went around the pattern again, lined up on final, and proceeded to execute the BEST landing of my LIFE! I didn’t even know I was on the ground it was so smooth – barely a squeak from the wheels. At that moment I adopted a take-no-prisoners attitude toward the test, and had a feeling I would fly very well. Stu was waiting for me as I climbed out of the plane and remarked that he hadn’t heard me land either. We were both grinning as we went into the FBO.
The FAA examiner, George, has a reputation for being a fair and non-intimidating tester. However, the first half hour was a bit awkward. There were people milling in and out of the office, and George was interrupted several times as he and Stu went over my paperwork. So far he hadn’t even spoken to me, even referring to me in the third person a few times. I began to wonder if we had caught him on a bad day. There were also a couple of minor problems with the paperwork. It really got weird when he noticed my address is a P.O. box. He said I would have to draw a map to my house.
Draw a map. Here’s some paper. I looked quizzically at Stu and he affirmed the request, saying that he had to do it too once when he lived in a rural area. Incredulous, I thought maybe they were indulging in tease-the-test-taker. Perhaps it’s a right of passage when you take your checkride? I said with a half smile, “Are you guys messing with me or what? I feel like next you’re going to send me out for a bucket of prop wash.” They assured me they were serious, explaining that it was necessary for the FAA to be able to find me if necessary. I shut up and drew the map.
After what seemed an eternity, George took me to an adjoining office to begin the oral segment of the test. I was relieved to be free of interruptions and paperwork, and to be talking about flying. I handled most of the questions easily. He stumped me only twice – once with an obscure marking on the sectional chart, and once on an equipment/airspace question. Each time I confessed to being stumped, but demonstrated that I did know where to find the information. He patiently allowed me to look up the answers in the FAR/AIM book that I had brought along, and I also conjectured correctly on one question without using the book.
We took a short break to help move some airplanes around in the hangar (which I suppose demonstrated that I knew something about the ground handling of aircraft), and then did another half hour of oral questions. Then it was time to fly. George explained that he would ask me some questions during the pre-flight, that we would depart with a short field takeoff, and fly a short way on my planned cross country before turning back and doing some maneuvers.
I breathed a mental sigh of relief that I had gotten through the oral portion, and reminded myself to be slow and methodical in my flying. George watched me inspect the plane as I verbally worked through the checklist. He didn’t ask me many questions, possibly because I kept up a running narrative explaining what I was doing as I worked. Soon we climbed into the cockpit, and I did what I had reminded myself of many times in the last few weeks.
During a checkride, the applicant is technically the Pilot-In-Command. The examiner is considered an observing passenger. This means that, as required by FAA regulations, you must give the examiner a safety briefing on the use of seat belts and emergency cabin egress. I’ve heard of more than one applicant who failed to deliver this briefing, thereby earning a pink slip on their test. So I dutifully informed George, a pilot with thousands of hours of in numerous aircraft, how to operate the seat belt and shoulder harness in a Piper Warrior.
During the taxi out to the runway George remarked that the wind was virtually nonexistent. “So you have no excuse for not holding your heading and altitude today,” he said gently with a laugh. I laughed with him, as I was genuinely not worried. I felt good, and while I was paying careful attention, I did not feel nervous. I was ready to show what I could do.
We departed with a short field takeoff, and I explained what I was doing at each step. I held the climb a bit longer than necessary, and when I announced that we had cleared our hypothetical 50 foot obstacle George wryly replied that we certainly had.
I climbed up and alongside the runway and began my navigation track, again narrating what I was doing and why. Once on course I explained that I would normally call flight service to open my flight plan at this point, and did he want me to do that for the purpose of the test? He said no, to which I replied, “Good, because I didn’t file one.” I guess I was feeling comfortable enough to joke a little. After logging the time at first checkpoint, I said that I would normally call New York Approach at this point to get on flight following. I thought he might want me to actually do that, but he again said no. A few minutes later we reached the second checkpoint exactly on time. George surprised me by saying that that was enough, and to turn to a new course heading for some slow flight. I was glad that I had apparently passed that section, but briefly reflected that I could have forgone most of the two hours of navigation I had done the previous night.
Slow flight was uneventful, with George watching me fly straight & level and turn to headings. Then it was on to simulated instruments with the hood. After flying straight & level and doing some turns, George then had me look down at my map so he could place us in an unusual attitude. He gave me the plane in a banking descent, and after leveling the wings I found that the trim had been placed full forward. I uncranked the trim as I gently pulled up and leveled off. George joked, “Looks like your electric trim failed on you, huh?” Then he had me track a VOR and intercept a radial. When he was satisfied that we were headed toward the VOR he had me take off the hood and asked me to tell him where we were.
There was an airport just to our left that looked like Wurtsboro, but I thought that would have been too easy. So I took out my map and plotter, dialed in a second VOR, and began to triangulate our position. Being careful to divide my attention between flying the plane, scanning for traffic and working the problem, my hand slipped as I drew one of the lines on the map. So naturally I came up with an incorrect position, and began to say that the airport I saw was in fact Wurtsboro. It was at the base of a ridge just like Wurtsboro, so I thought it was plausible. George asked me if I was sure, and I quickly reversed myself as I realized the runway numbers weren’t correct for Wurtsboro. I re-tuned the VOR’s and looked back to my map, and saw that the line was drawn perfectly straight… and no where near the VOR radial. I showed George and conjectured that my plotter had slipped while I was drawing the line. I did it again, and correctly determined our position to be just Northeast of Resnick Airport in Ellenville. Resnick is a few miles from Wurtsboro on the same side of the ridge, which is what had thrown me.
George asked me to divert to another airport on the map, and I again divided my attention between airplane and map as I plotted a course and figured out how far it was. Satisfied with that, we climbed up and away from the airport and did some stalls and steep turns. These are among my strongest maneuvers and were no problem, apart from the airplane not wanting to stall in the cold, dense air (that’s why I love that Warrior – it’s so forgiving!). Then we descended for turns around a point, one of my weaker maneuvers. This was made easier with the calm wind, but just to be sure I narrated my actions, thinking that if I messed up he would at least see that I knew what I was SUPPOSED to do.
We then executed a climbing turn to 5500 feet. I guess I had a brief mental lapse at this point, because I should have known what was coming. We were heading right over the Wurtsboro airport when George reached over and pulled the throttle down to idle. I blinked momentarily and went into my emergency procedures, establishing best glide speed and figuring out how to land.
I feel this was the best piece of flying I did all day. My first reaction was to turn right and try to spiral down to land on runway 23, where we had taken off from. I worked the problem in my mind for a moment, and decided to reverse my turn and land on runway 5. The wind was calm enough that I didn’t need to worry about a tailwind. Once I had us headed where I wanted us to go I took out the checklist and ran through a simulated engine re-start and subsequent preparations for a forced landing. George prompted me to make a radio call, which I did immediately: “Wurstsboro traffic, Warrior 1483 X-Ray, simulated engine out over the airport. We’re going to spiral down and most likely enter the left downwind for runway 5, Wurstsboro.”
It was with great satisfaction that I maneuvered the airplane into the downwind, and arrived abeam the numbers of runway 5 at exactly the traffic pattern altitude! I knew I had it at that point, as I needed only to execute a normal power-off landing. When it was clear that I had the runway made George told me to go around. I was so thrilled to have nailed the emergency landing that I almost made a bad mistake. I don’t know what made me do this, but instead of throttling up for the go around, I began to retract the flaps. Hastily stopping myself, I advanced the throttle to full and waited for a positive climb before taking out the flaps, mumbling that I didn’t know what had made me do that. George didn’t appear to notice, and instructed me to do a short field landing on the next approach.
My short field landing was good, with a nice soft touchdown. We taxied around and then did a soft field departure. This was another maneuver that had given me trouble in practice, but I did it well this day, thereby upholding the tradition of many test applicants doing their best flying on their checkride. George then asked for a no flap landing, which meant forward slip. I think that’s just plain fun, and although I used a bit more runway that I would have liked, it seemed good enough and I then heard the words I had been waiting for – “OK, let’s taxi back and park. We’ve gone through all the items on our list.”
Yes! It was done! All I had to do was park safely, and I passed.
George hadn’t exactly said I had passed. He just said we had gone through all the test items. Could it be that I had done something wrong that I didn’t know about, and was about to be pink slipped? I asked him a bit shyly, “Um… have we SUCCESSFULLY completed all the items on the list?” He replied, “You should already know that.”
I parked very carefully, as I felt certain my passing status could be easily revoked were I to bump wings with another plane on the flight line. I felt like I was still up at a thousand feet as we climbed out of the Warrior and walked across the ramp to the FBO. I did it! I’m about to be a pilot!
We had ordered Chinese food earlier with some of the airport folks, and it was waiting for us when we arrived. It felt a bit anticlimactic to come in from the test only to sit down and have a quiet meal. Afterward they typed up my Temporary Airman’s Certificate while I called Stu. He let out a whoop when I told him I was a now a pilot, and said he would be there shortly.
I talked with some of the folks around the airport while I waited, and was told that everyone had come outside to watch when they heard me make the call for our engine-out landing. They said they knew I was going to pass when it was clear I had the runway.
Stu arrived and we clapped each other on the back and took some pictures in front of the airplane with my new license. He then suggested that we fly over to Orange County Airport for a celebratory snack. I smiled as I pre-flighted the plane, rejoicing in the freedom of not having to get a logbook endorsement to make the flight. I could just go! Orange County was busy, and I was extra careful as I entered the pattern and landed. Didn’t want to foul up on my first flight as a new Private Pilot. We sat in the snack bar and had a de-brief of the test. It was getting dark, so we soon departed for home. I enjoyed the flight back very much, and felt triumphant as I landed and parked the plane at it’s home base in Monticello.
I feel that my checkride was a good experience, in that I learned a bit in addition to completing it successfully. The conditions were such that I was able to show my ability well, and I think I did some of my very best flying. I can only hope that I will disprove the theory that a pilot is never again as good as the day they pass their test. The challenge is now to keep learning, and stay vigilant and cautious.
And of course, start learning to fly IFR!