Monday, May 14, 2001

D-Day: Check Ride!

Today's the big day, my check ride down at North Central Airport in Lincoln, RI (SFZ). I got up around 0520 after a very restless night. I got to the Worcester airport (ORH) a little after 7 and waited for Mario (stopped for coffee). Checked the fuel in N4669L – it had flown 0.6 hours after me so Mario called for a top-off which took a long time. Preflight was good. Mario also checked my flight planning and scared the crap out of me when he told me that I had screwed up in planning a VOR-to-VOR flight, it was supposed to be direct, and he had told me this based on his talk with Ray! Oops. I figured I would fess up with Ray and offer to re-do it on the spot. This stuff delayed my takeoff, and by the time I landed on 33 at SFZ (OK, bit low in pattern), it was just about 0900 – no time for more practice landings.

I secured the plane (including chocks), grabbed all the stuff, and went in the FBO to meet Ray Collins. He’s a 50-something guy, gray hair, very airline-pilot-like (he flies MD-80’s for Continental). Serious but not stern or scary, nice guy. He had some standard “jokes” which were not all that funny (not jokes as much as “patter” I guess – putting me at ease?). He described the plan for the test, looked over my paperwork (no comment on my 98% written), and began the oral drill. He said he gives a very straightforward private exam, no silly stuff like leaving his seatbelt off and busting you if you don't notice. He had a few regulation things, what can you do as a private pilot (pro rata share, not for hire, etc.), and how high must you fly over congested areas (1000 feet above any obstacle within 2000 feet). He asked a bunch of chart questions (what’s this symbol, tell me what this symbol tells you about Keene airport, etc.). Some right-of-way diagrams, along with runway/taxiway diagrams for some incursion questions – landing here, departing here, ATIS says this, ground says “taxi to 24,” can you cross 15? Tricky, it is active despite ground instructions, so you can’t cross it – I was concerned but not perfect on the response (he said it would be a bad clearance but could happen if controller were rushed). He liked the questions to teach lessons, not just test you. Some airplane system questions. Overall, pretty easy, and he said I had no really weak areas – “OK, let’s fly.”

Oh yeah, somewhere in there he reviewed my cross-country planning and weight and balance calcs. He said he did NOT prohibit VOR/airway navigation – even GPS would be legal if it were in the panel. But he reserves the right to say that the VOR or GPS has failed in flight, so navigate without it. So my stuff was fine – VOR-based but with plenty of visual checkpoints.

He watched the preflight, more or less, then asked me a couple of questions like “what’s this?” (fuel vent) and “show me the static port.” There was one thing he asked that I didn’t know – “me either” (ha ha), but he did, it was an air vent for the avionics (behind the panel). We squeezed into the plane and I followed checklists to start the engine, get ASOS info, and taxi out to runway 05 (telling North Central traffic each major move – winds were shifting so it could have been 05 or 33). I was careful to stop short of 33 and look for traffic before crossing, and after my run-up, I spun the airplane around to visually check all parts of any patterns for the two (really four) legal runways.

Ray said “short field takeoff, pattern, soft field landing.” My wind correction was poor on both of these things – I did not hold the centerline very well, plus there were those damn sky divers floating down on the airport. Second climb-out was better but I was not accurate on holding 1440 MSL in the pattern – I was high and low by at least 100 feet. “Regular landing. Good cross wind procedure” was better, not mint, but OK (I blame it on the shifting, gusty winds – he later said I was tense on landings and advised me to “walk the rudder” back and forth on my next few landings to loosen up my feet). Then I was off to Lebanon, NH – I started my timer for the first leg (only 4 minutes away by my plan, plus 6 minutes allowed to depart the pattern, climb, and get on course). I think I made that one within one minute. I had also tuned and ID’d GDM (Gardner VOR) and intercepted the 341 degree radial I had planned. I spotted and pointed out #2 ahead (Whitinsville), and he broke it off. “Take me to Boston VOR,” and he gave me the frequency. I centered the needle with “TO” and turned to the indicated course. OK, he says "my airplane, put on foggles!" (actually it took me a few minutes to get stabilized at the altitude and heading he wanted before this, due to the bumpy air and perhaps some PIO since I was no doubt pretty tense). It looked like Ray was in a hurry to get back.

I was thankful for the 0.7 hours of IR practice with Mario the day before. It was bumpy and I used up most of my 200 feet on the maneuvers, but I kept it in pretty good control overall (didn’t lose it like I had done with Mario). He gave me one unusual attitude recovery, a nose-low left turn, pretty mild – I saw black and pulled power, leveled the wings, and recovered quickly with little altitude loss. Then he had me do some slow flight (50 knots) including a mild turn – I was not accurate on the altitude holding. Then it was a power-off stall and I forget what else – maybe nothing. Back to SFZ (inbound checklist). I think he HAD gotten a radio call (Unicomm) about meeting someone, so I think he really was in a hurry to get back.

So what did I miss? A lot – no ground reference maneuvers, no steep turn, no simulated engine-out emergency, no power-on stall. I could have done all these things though my recent steep turns have not been things of beauty, and my ground reference session with Mario was only fair. Ray talked me through the 45 degree entry for runway 33 (not needed, but OK), and he reminded me that I was getting low in the pattern before final – not holding TPA, a bad thing. I did an OK landing on 33, catching some drift at the last minute (he even said “you just caught that one”). I used the first turnoff and reported “clear of active” to North Central traffic. Ray said, well, I’ll tell you now, you passed, you’re a private pilot (very matter-of-fact), but I do want to discuss a few things with you. HUH? IS THAT IT? Yup, I guess so! After 26 years of doing this, I guess he knows that you're anxious for the verdict!

The things he wanted to discuss were holding altitude in the pattern (a problem I have seen only at SFZ – not at ORH or the quite tiny Southbridge – “a likely story”) and my landings. He said I seemed very tense on landings and didn’t use the rudder aggressively enough to stop drift (true). He suggested walking the rudders my next few landings. He said you can certainly fly the airplane, but pay attention to these things. He also said “it WAS bumpy up there, but if you wait for perfectly smooth days you won’t fly much” – I was OK with the bumps except for the worry that they would bust me on limits (but he cut me slack on this apparently).

Then in the FBO, I was shocked to see my brother Glen! He had been there the whole time (not in Pittsburgh as I thought) with digital camera in-hand. Cool to have those check-ride-day pictures. Ray completed the paperwork, I wrote him a $200 check, and he wrote me a temporary airmen’s certificate. He also gave me the customary congrats and hand shake. Glen says Ray rushed out while I was in the men’s room after the paperwork.

I hung out with Glen and busted his chops over his weight – not to be cruel, but for W&B for a possible “first victim” ride. But at 240 pounds, I still had too much fuel on board to be under max gross with Glen – sorry Bro, sometime soon in the Piper Warrior! Gotta call up Bernie and schedule a couple of lessons and really focus on getting the procedures and landings down cold for that plane so I can solo it soon. That's the next phase – after that, who knows? Maybe the instrument rating in a year or so?

Final numbers for the private include 88.1 total hours, of which 63.5 were dual, 24.6 solo (does not include 2.2 PIC hours for the check ride and ORH-SFZ flights). If I estimate the cost as $80/hour dual and $55/hour solo, this adds up to about $6500 for the private training (not including supplies, books, etc. which probably added another $1000 or so, not counting Betty's contribution for my transceiver and vitally important leather flight jacket!). I think I heard that the average for total hours for private is something like 70, so if you consider that my first three years were basically false starts (18 hours total time before June 2000), I'm right on the average (about 70 hours total June 2000 to May 2001).

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