The Other Checkride

Copyright © 2001 Ginny WIlken

Chances are, if you were lucky like me and had a proper examiner, your private pilot checkride was a devastating affair. Everything you did went worse than ever before in your short career. Luck, weather, traffic, and the examiner conspired to make this the most nonstandard ride you’d experienced, and you ended up back on the ground demoralized, thrashed, and absolutely positive you would never deserve to fly again-and then you were handed a piece of paper with which you were entitled to go out and redeem yourself, one flight at a time…

Sometime later, a flight was to occur that would convince you that, yes, indeed, you WERE a pilot, a flight that threw at you its own combination of stuff to test your skill, decision making, and maybe even your fear factor. This is the flight that justified your having gotten that certificate after all.

For me, it was on an exceptionally windy day, especially by student pilot standards. I opened my hangar and fooled around with my plane, watching students in stubbornly airborne 152’s bump and grind their way to full stops. I pulled the plane out and felt its eagerness to fly, although not necessarily in any particularly useful direction. I pondered those wind limitations in my logbook, conscientiously entered by instructors who presumably knew me better than I knew myself, and realized that whether I risked smashing my pretty little airplane was now entirely up to me. I pushed the plane back into the hangar, and walked out onto the ramp, still not sure. Seeing a couple of big twins land without a wobble, and mindful of my plane’s extra power and rudder deflection, I decided to go up after all.

My first clue that It was a bit unusual was when the airspeed indicator said “time to rotate” as soon as I started the roll. The plane leapt into the air and took the stairway to Heaven straight up as I fought for trim, standing on the right rudder pedal. I made my way to the practice area, bouncing about so that, when I could bring myself to let go of the yoke with one hand, I couldn’t adjust the knobs and radio buttons because they kept moving too much to grab. I seem to remember laughing a lot in between radio calls.

Well, I went up and did the only things it made sense to try in heavy winds, precision maneuvers, MCA into the wind, and so forth. Then I reluctantly turned towards home, buzzing along at my usual pokey 100 mph IAS, contemplating the landing I knew at best would be, shall we say, highly instructional, or at worst, a debacle from which, one way or another, I would never recover. Going along with the strong northwest wind, I came to a great awakening, a veritable, “well, duh!”, when approach control asked me to reduce speed by 20 knots. I pulled almost all the power to comply, and felt as though I were tumbling along like a sheet of newspaper blowing down an alley.

I asked for and got clearance for the short, into-the-wind runway, thinking about how to descend further without blowing halfway to the next airport. Then the tower asked me to extend my downwind. This took me past our usually advised barnstormer approach, required to avoid lapping over into the big runway midfield. Still extending, I heard the tower communicating with a whole flock of approaching aircraft, and wondered where, exactly, he was planning to fit me in.

“Ahhh, 439, could you possibly do a 360 for spacing?” “Yep, 439 can do that.” Under pressure, my casual at best radio manners deteriorate further, it seems. As I circled at 600′ over the numbers of the big runway, there were aircraft on short final, one mile final, and one beyond me landing where I had wanted to go. I asked the tower, “Tower, 439, would you like me to do another one of those?” “Oh, yes, would you, please?” The next instruction was, “439, see that Duchess right underneath you? Follow him to 33 and don’t land on top of him!”

I threw the little airplane into some weird kind of slip, having given up completely on the airspeed indicator and relying solely on an instinct I didn’t know I had to sense if there was air under the wings, and flew down the big runway pointing a full 60 degrees to the right, at my intended runway. Somehow I got there at a perfect altitude, flew straight ahead, dialed in a bit of flaps, and waited for the plane to get tired of flying. The touchdown was so gentle we were down before I realized it. As I caught my breath the tower said, “439, thanks a lot for your help!” “You’re welcome, and that was the weirdest approach in MY short career!” I said, and he came back with a nice compliment. As soon as I was off the radios I whooped and hollered unprintable things all the way to parking, knowing that this had been a checkride, too, one that proved to me I did indeed have a pocketful of skill and instinct to take me onward. Yep, the examiner was right, after all. And I’m sure that as long as I fly, I will always remember these two rides, the actual checkride, and the one where I checked myself.