The Fearful FAA Check Ride Exam by Tom W

Well, there I was… Finally sitting in front of my FAA examiner thinking about how long and hard I had worked to get to this point, and shaking my head in disbelief that after this day, if all went well, I would be an actual pilot.

I was about to take my check ride in the Cessna 172. It didn’t take long to wipe the smug smile I had on my face completely off and leave me wondering if I had just blown one of the biggest days of my life.

After I sat down at the desk where my examiner was sitting, and the usual checking of documents and the all-important “passing of the check”, it was down to business. I quickly found myself sweating beyond anything I had experienced before, and fumbling for answers that I knew the night before. Some people do very well during tests; I am not one of those people. I had taken the time to study and prepare several weeks prior to my check ride, but when it came down to it I was stumbling over myself and not showing anything close to what I really knew. The examiner in his wisdom could obviously see that I was nervous and helped drag answers out of me. Instead of just telling me I failed, which I’m sure he could have during several points in the oral exam, he just kept coaxing me until the answer came out of my mouth. It was apparent to both of us that I had the knowledge but because of my nervousness I was not able to pull the information from my brain right away.

Some of the things he attacked were aircraft inspections, medical certificates, biannual pilot reviews, pilot compensation, airspace and weather restrictions, general airspace rules, instrument failures, all of the V-speeds, weight & balance and cross country planning. All in all I would estimate he asked a total of 60-70 questions.

After what I considered a long and painful oral exam, which was approximately 2 hrs, he asked me if I was ready to fly. Well this had to be a good thing right? Why would he take me up if I had already failed? Ok I thought – I still have a chance to pull this thing off.

Out to the plane I went to start my preflight. Once out there I noticed my examiner was nowhere in sight. I decided to go ahead and start my preflight and then inform him what I had looked at if he asked.

Around the time I was checking my first fuel sump my examiner showed up and out came the questions again. Typical things asked were what am I checking for in the fuel sump test, how much oil can the engine hold, what’s a good level for the oil, what’s the pitot tube for, what’s that antenna (ELT), and so on. Again with my nerves uptight I was not able to deliver answers as quickly and efficiently as I would have liked.

Once inside the plane I gave him my briefing, hitting on the three main items, seatbelts, door use, and fire extinguisher, and something I have added for extra safety; don’t touch the controls unless I ask you to.

With the briefing concluded, it was time to start the engine. Once I had the engine started I tuned the local ATIS freq to triple check my weather. I say triple check because that morning I had called for a standard weather brief and then a while later I called the local ASOS. After I taxied and performed my runup he asked me to perform a soft field takeoff. No problem I thought, Flaps 10, power up, keep the plane rolling, etc.

We lifted off at about 59 kts and after initial climb out I made my radio calls to local traffic and made all my turns to get out of the pattern. We were climbing to 5500′ for a simulated cross country trip to Fresno. While climbing I tuned my NAV radios so I could stay on course. My first leg was going to be a 30nm trip to a VOR. Once we got to our cruise altitude and I had the plane stabilized with trim and power, I told him that I would now switch over to rancho radio on com1 and activate my flight plan. Rather than actually having me make the call he told me to just tell him what I would say. After that I told him I would call Oakland Center and ask for flight following.

Right after we checked in over my first checkpoint he told me that he didn’t want to go to Fresno anymore, that he wanted to go to an alternate airport. After he told me the name of the airport I told him I had never heard of it, so he kindly helped me out by finding it on my sectional and pointing it out to me. I estimated the heading and distance as 065 degrees off the VOR I just passed, at about 55nm. Looking at the terrain data on the sectional I told him I needed to climb to 7500′, he didn’t say anything so I started my climb. We were about 5 min’s past the VOR when he asked me to put the foggles on. After donning my blinders he banked and climbed and turned until he thought he had me mixed up enough and then told me to recover. We did this twice and apparently he was satisfied because he told me to turn around.

With the cross country portion of the ride over we moved on to flight maneuvers, simulated engine failure to a complete landing, a go around, slips and a short field landing. I felt very comfortable in the air and my radio calls were clear and precise. The simulated engine failure did not bother me like I have heard so many other pilots talk about. When the examiner pulled the throttle out I was at 5500′ with plenty of time to maneuver for a landing. After setting trim for 65 kts I glanced around and noticed what looked like an empty field, so I started my turn for downwind for that field. Once I got the plane turned about 10 degrees I could see an airport at about my 5 o’clock position, and easily reachable with my altitude. I told the examiner we were going to go for the airport rather than the field. I switched over the local CTAF and made my announcement that I was going to be entering left base for runway 34, I was at 4500′ and approx 5nm out with a simulated engine failure. Once on base I realized I was too high and needed to drop quickly if I wanted any chance at pulling this thing off. I dropped flaps to 10, no good, still too high, 20 degrees, still no good, looked at the field to confirm I was going to make it; I made a judgment call and dropped flaps to full 40 degrees. Even with 40 degrees of flaps I still had to do some slipping to get down. Once I started my turn to final I made another radio call to let everyone know where I was again. I ended up making a beautiful landing with the stall warning horn sounding just as we touched main gears.

The ride home was quiet. It was a little too quiet. I wasn’t sure if I had passed or failed. Once on the ground at home my examiner shook my hand and said he’d see me inside. I thought the hand shake was just a formality, still thinking that maybe I had blown it.

After getting the plane tied down and all of my things back in my flight bag, I walked inside to see my examiner typing on the thing I wanted most right then – My Private Pilot Certificate.

It was amazing – after a year and a half and at 51hrs total time, I was now a pilot. It had been a financial battle for me at times. I didn’t take out any loans to do this, and the total cost to get my license was around $6500. I was able to do it on my own; it just took me longer than most.

My examiner gave me the familiar speech we have heard from other pilots about this being a license to learn and I really take that to heart. Low time pilots have the worst statistics, and I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to become another statistic.

Keep the blue side up and go for your dreams,

Tom W