Sunday, December 18, 2005


Two Years Ago Today

(Reprinted from a post on the message board)

Things don't always work out the way we would like them to. It would have been great to have earned my pilot's certificate on the centennial of the first flight, but the New England winter weather had other plans.

It would also have been nice to have passed my checkride with a flawless performance, but... read on for the full story:

Since yesterday morning, we'd been keeping an eye on the weather for today. Overcast, snow flurries, and strong winds dominated the hourly forecast, so I wasn't surprised to see all three in evidence when I drove to work this morning. It did look promising for the afternoon, with partly cloudy skies predicted, but those winds just weren't looking to relax. George called around 10:00 and felt that it was still doable. If he has confidence in me, than I'll try to agree. But I still had memories of Saturday's bump-a-thon, and I wasn't looking forward to the same for my checkride. Back at home, I logged on to the AOPA/Jeppesen Online Flight Planner (highly recommended, by the way) and got a fresh weather briefing. My theoretical destination (KMPV) was under marginal VFR condition, due to snow and low visibility, but locally, things were nicely VFR. I noticed with some concern that a NOTAM indicated that KBAF's runway 15/33 (the closest to the prevailing winds) was closed. I updated my cross-country navigation log with the latest wind forecast, and printed out an updated flight plan form. Herb (my examiner) had approved of both yesterday, but I wanted to have the latest information reflected in both.

I arrived at the airport early, put the space heater in the cockpit to warm it up, and listened to the ATIS over the hand-held transceiver while I waited for George. ATIS called the winds at 310, 15 gusting to 29, which was worse than the 14 to 19 in the METAR from my earlier briefing, but thankfully I noticed that 33 was in use after all. George showed up soon, and we discussed the winds. He felt confident that I could handle them, and I tried to lean on his confidence. He was going to call the ASOS number on his cell phone when it rang. It was Herb, and he was on his way.

George drove back to the office while I fired up Papa Tango to taxi over to the terminal. Sitting in the cockpit, I noticed the wind buffeting the plane around. It wasn't as bad as it had been on Saturday. I took some comfort from that.

Back at the office, George and I killed some time while we waited for Herb. While we talked, we kept an eye on the wind sock, which seemed determined to helpfully point out all of the compass points that were not associated with actual runway headings.

Herb showed up shortly, and after reviewing my updated flight plans, we went out to preflight. I was careful to follow the checklist while under his watchful eye, even to the point of observing that there were no tie-down ropes to remove, (Papa Tango lives in a hangar and is rarely outside unattended long enough to warrant tying down) and that the oil was due for a change (George was planning on doing this after our flight).

Once we settled down in the cockpit, I noted the updated ATIS, and after organizing and adjusted everything that had need, we started up. Ground initially gave us runway 2, but quickly reconsidered and gave us taxi clearance to 33. It was a long taxi, and I was careful to apply the correct control positions for the quartering tailwind. (I'm starting to sound like the guy in the Jeppesen manual.) After runup I called the tower and received clearance to take off. The tower helpfully provided the latest winds which were, for once, right down the runway.

On the runway I paused to set the heading indicator again, and started the timer (the one thing I had constantly forgotten to do during my test prep lessons.) As soon as we started to roll, I could tell that the wind had another heading more to its liking. The airspeed indicator came alive, and in short order, we were airborne.Papa Tango immediately wanted to veer to the right, but I leveled off, and crabbed leftward into the wind while trying to hold attitude for 80 mph. (Papa Tango was born before knots were invented.) At 1000 ft., I turned to my calculated heading, and went under the hood.

Herb had something different in store compared to what I had been told to expect. Instead of having me climb to me theoretical cruise altitude (5,500) he asked me to level off at 2,500, while reducing power to maintaining climb airspeed. I understood this to mean that he wanted 80 mph until we reached the spot on the chart where we would have normally reached cruise altitude, so after six minutes on the timer, I went to cruise power. What he had really wanted, was for me to maintain 80 mph until reaching the first checkpoint. Once we cleared up that confusion, I slowed back down and went back to work trying to hold heading, altitude, and airspeed, while the wind tried to defeat me in all three areas.

After nine minutes on the timer, I looked up and noted that we had just crossed the first checkpoint, (Route 9 at Northampton) on time, and maybe a mile or so east of the plotted track. The rest of the hood-work covered unusual attitudes, and given the turbulence, Herb was a little more conservative in setting these up than George had been on Tuesday.

After the hood, we cleared the area and did slow flight (clean, no flaps) and departure stalls. Papa Tango has a healthy heart for a climb, and you can almost hang on the prop at full power. Herb had me do a second departure stall at 2,000 rpm, something I had not done before.

We did one steep turn, which earned me a "well done" from Herb, and then the power came off and we looked for a theoretical emergency landing spot. A plowed field, with snow, ice, and standing water was the only decent choice, so I set us up for a left pattern. The furrows were right into the wind, but I let that wind carry us a bit to far on the downwind leg. After turning final, Herb powered back up and I observed that I probably would not have made the field.

I wasn't happy with the turns around a point, either. The wind was strong, and with the turbulence coming off the nearby hills, I had trouble keeping the altitude within the standards. Herb had me tune the Westfield VOR while in the turn, and after rolling out on the appropriate radial we headed home.

The tower directed us for a right base approach to 33, and I noticed a very strong downwind drift as we crossed the ridge east of the field. Turning final I was at a loss trying to determine the wind's direction so that I could apply crosswind correction. It wasn't the most precise approach, and I was struggling to hold airspeed and glide path when a gust of wind knocked us well to the right of the runway centerline. AT this point, I was ready to go around, and announced my intentions to Herb. He had more confidence in our situation, and taking the controls, he brought us down to the runway in perfect control. As I called to tower to announce our go-around, Herb took us back up and entered a left pattern for 33 again.

Under the reign of Herb's fifty-plus years of piloting, Papa Tango behaved herself, and after setting us up on final, Herb gave the controls back to me.

We crossed the threshold well enough, but as soon as I flared, the wind caught us again and we had a good amount of rightward drift when the wheels met the runway.

It was probably the worst landing I have ever done.

The PPL Photo Op I felt pretty low as we taxied back to the terminal, and I was preparing myself for the worst, and already looking forward to the chance to do it all again on a better day, but George met us at the terminal with a big grin, and Herb had a big grin, and when George brought out the camera, Herb gave no indication that photos were not in order. After the pictures were taken and handshakes exchanged, he said: "Let's go inside and finish the paperwork."

(Herb's the one with the glasses. I'm the one with the bump on my head, from hitting the lowered left flap during preflight. It still hurts.)

So, that's how I became a Private Pilot, after six month and ten days, and with 71 hours (25 of that solo) in the logbook. Honestly, I wouldn't have passed myself on this flight, but Herb apparently saw enough of my ability in the things that I did right to convince himself that I was capable.

"Any monkey can fly a plane in good weather.." he told me, before digressing to the story of an air force pilot who, rather than stand endless watches on the tarmac in his P-51, dressed a monkey in a flight suit and put it in the cockpit. (The monkey, according to the story, was eventually promoted to general and landed a job in the Pentagon before anyone caught on.)


Posted by Blogger Head in the Clouds at 4:48 PM, June 03, 2008  

I just came across your blog and was reading a few back issues. I'm always interested in checkride stories! Mine (almost a year ago) is very similar sounding to yours. I too, thought for sure I had failed (and even told the examiner that) on my first landing. He was great about it, and allowed me to compose myself before we went back up for the additional 3 landings and a go around that he wanted to see.

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