Daily Pilot's Journal

Read the complete day-by-day flight log of an actual student pilot, from the first takeoff to the signing of his private pilot's license. Written promptly at the end of every flight, each entry is completely unedited - detailing the successes, failures, and mistakes we all encounter along this long road.
Day 33 - My FAA Checkride - Oral Exam
Tuesday, 8/22/06 7:00am - Clear skies, no wind. Today marks exactly three months since I began flying. Although it's only been 90 days it seems like I've been flying forever. I slept well, skipped breakfast, and headed down to the ramp where I met up with Stan, his mom, and her dog. He'd called me the previous night, asking if it would be cool to charter his mother one-way to Schenectady, to spend time with his sister.

The skies were awesome. It was a blue, clear, windless day. Forecast was a high of 82 degrees, and little or no convection. I'd called at 6am for a weather briefing, and it all looked good. After loading the plane with everything I thought I'd need for the day, we took off runway 1 and glided into a ridiculously smooth sky.

Flying to Schenectady took nearly two hours. We picked up a gentle headwind after crossing the Sound. From the coast of Connecticut we could see clear upstate to the Berkshire Mountains. The visibility was unbelievable. The trip took a while, but we chatted about what would be expected on the flight test while taking in the scenery. Stan's mom and her little dog were so silent, I didn't even remember they were in the seats behind us.

Stan worked Albany approach and I guided us around the left of the Charlie airspace arc. Radioed Schenectady tower and came in on a long final for runway 4. The airport was big and pretty, but the taxiways were all chopped up. They were doing construction on almost all of them, and cones were placed everywhere. I glided to a featherlike landing and was instructed to back-taxi down the runway and turn right on 28, and at that point the tower operator guided me to Richmor Aviation.

Stan's mom smiled and thanked me for a smooth ride, telling me I did a good job and making me feel like the captain of an airline. Richmor was an impressive flight school with two floors' worth of flight instructors, classrooms, lounges, and a simulator room. On the stairwell, there was a really cool wall made of corkboard with the words "First Solo" written above it. On it were all different fabrics of cloth shaped into pilot's wings with a name and a date beneath each one, dating all the way from the summer of 1975 until the present. I realized these were pieces of the person's shirt on the day they made the solo.

Richmor Flight School at KSCH... if you look closely you can see the room where I spent 3 hours sweating my ass off.
We were about an hour early. Stan's sister pulled up after a few minutes, and they waited around with me for the FAA examiner. He showed up about 45 minutes after we got there. Al introduced himself, shook hands with us, and then Stan was off to breakfast with his mom & sister, leaving me alone to take my flight test.

Al was a nice enough guy, a little subdued and very professional. He took me upstairs to his office and offered me something to drink. He went over paperwork, forms, and requirements. Then, the oral portion of my test began. From what Jerroll and Stan told me, this part would take one and a half hours. Instead, it took three.

Al asked me everything. He didn't just touch on subjects - he delved into them. When he asked me questions that I got correct, he moved on. When I got something wrong, or didn't fully understand it, he explained it thoroughly. Not just a textbook explanation either... no, he spent time completely fleshing out the reasoning behind each topic and made sure I completely understood it before moving on. It was obvious this guy was a teacher, and he was a good one. Although I was listening intently to everything he said because he was an FAA examiner and this was the oral portion of my exam, I also found myself listening because I was genuinely learning from him. I knew the mathematics of weight and balance but he made me understand the logic and reasoning behind the stability of the airplane. I knew the basics of the flight instruments but he made me comprehend how they worked, why the worked, why they failed, and what to do if they failed. It was intense, but it was also enlightening.

By the end of the interview, I was mentally drained. I realized I was becoming physically drained, too. His office was a hundred degrees because the room was lit through giant windows overlooking the airport. During the whole oral portion of the exam, I'd seen a grand total of two planes land. But I'd also seen the windsock go from completely limp to having picked up some direction. Silently I wished he'd finish quickly so I could take the flight portion of my exam as soon as possible - before the winds picked up.

We finished by 1pm. He declared my knowledge of aviation 'satisfactory' and asked me to recalculate the first few legs of my flight plan according to the current wind and weather conditions. Then he led me down to the first floor, where I could access a computer and find out what the conditions were. I finished quickly, and he asked me if I wanted to stop to eat or drink something. No thanks. I was far from hungry and I just wanted to fly.

My FAA Checkride - Flight Test
In the hallway I saw Stan again, and he handed me a Gatorade as I left for the ramp. He looked concerned that I was fried, but I told him I was cool. Headed out for the preflight, where I sumped the fuel tanks and did everything on the checklist. Al made me sump the fuel pump drain (I didn't even know there was one) and even had me test the stall horn by turning on the master switch and making sure it sounded. Holy shit. This guy wasn't screwing around. Silently I cursed Jerroll for having gotten the easier examiner. Frank hadn't even been on the ramp when Jerroll did his preflight... this guy was making me do everything but check the tire pressure.

Thankfully, since the airport was chopped to pieces and my airport map was next to useless, Al offered to help with the taxiwork. He spoke to the tower (who knew him by the sound of his voice) and guided me through taxing down to runway 28. Stopped at the run-up area along the way, and right about then radio 1 died. Not good. The examiner fiddled with it for a while, trying to figure out why it was stuck in transmit. Eventually I suggested we turn it off and switch to radio 2, which was satisfactory by him. But then, he began playing around with the seat. Stan's original seat was in the shop, being welded, so in the meantime they'd installed a temporary seat yesterday. The temporary seat sucked too. I hurried through my run-up and hastened to take off before Al could find the airplane unworthy and make me taxi back to the ramp.

Took off runway 28 into some decent wind. For a split second I bit my tongue as the stall horn sounded, but quickly lowering the nose I gained enough speed and altitude to clear the trees and headed for my cruising altitude of 6,500 feet. Not having passed 3,500 feet before in all my flying experience, I knew this would be very interesting.

View of Schenectady Airport
The climbout seemed to take forever. We had a 10 knot headwind, but at least the visibility was good. I explained that at 13 minutes I'd look for my first landmark, maybe a little longer due to the climb. The examiner seemed satisfied with this. He asked me why I hadn't turned the fuel pump off yet, and I told him I usually wait until I reach cruising altitude. At about 4,500 feet he told me I could level off if I wanted to, or I could climb higher if I needed the altitude to better see my landmarks. I was thankful for that, as I really didn't want to go any higher. After leveling off I remembered to lean out the mixture, which I'd never done before so I was pretty much just winging it.

At about 15 minutes into the flight I spotted my first landmark - Fulton county airport. It was nestled right at the bend in the river that I'd looked for on my map. The examiner nodded approvingly that I'd spotted it and pointed it out to him. He then told me that we'd abandon the rest of the cross-country trip and I should land, at my discretion, at Fulton county. And here's where things went a bit crazy...

I began my decent toward the airport, but realized I was very high. Increasing the angle of decent helped me lose altitude quicker, but it increased my speed considerably (in retrospect, I should've killed the throttle). The airport was coming up rapidly, and I was going too fast for flaps. It was a single runway airport and the wind was blowing straight down runway 28, so I told the examiner I would land in that direction. This was a mistake. Proper procedure was to cross over the airport at 500 feet above pattern altitude and look for the windsock. Not that I really needed the windsock, but this would've also shown me which way the traffic pattern moved...

Switching to Fulton's Unicom frequency I announced my intentions to land... but didn't know what runway to announce. I had no airport diagram for this field. Looking at the runway numbers I thought I saw a 22 but the examiner helped out me by telling me it was 28. I tried to tune the airport into the loran but it would take way too much time. I was on top of the airport and still too high, I had no idea how far I was or what leg to enter traffic on, and to make things worse, a helicopter was taking off just as I got there. Not thinking, I made right traffic. Halfway around the pattern, the examiner reminded me that all non-tower controlled airports make left traffic, unless specifically stated otherwise. Shit. I turned around and made left traffic, talking to the helicopter, stuttering on the radio, announcing all my legs until I was on a final approach for runway 28.

Thank God I made a smooth landing. After taxing off the runway, Al told me: "That was a big mistake you just made. I haven't failed you yet, but you're going to have to do the rest of your test perfectly if you want to pass". Talk about pressure!!!

Sadly, this is the best photo of Fulton County Airport
that I could find. It was also the only photo.

JFK it is certainly NOT.
Taxing down to runway 28 he tried to get me to relax a bit. He seemed to realize my nervousness had contributed to things. He also explained to me that I wasn't adding in for the elevation of the airport when coming to pattern altitude. Flying on Long Island all this time, where everything was flat, this was something I hadn't considered. Not to mention that in 130+ landings, I'd only made one landing at a non-tower controlled airport (East Hampton). Damn, this was something I wish Stan had done more with me. Not to mention we probably should've done a trip to KSCH before taking my flight exam. A long ride maybe, but it would've been a good idea.

Al told me the sky was 'clear to the right' as I taxied into position on runway 28 for my short-field takeoff. Two notches of flaps, feet on the brakes, throttled up and held the nose center of the runway for the takeoff. Made a nice liftoff without any hint of stalling, dropped the nose slightly and accelerated to over 60 knots before bringing the flaps up. Suddenly I became a bit more relaxed. I appreciated that this guy realized I was sweating the flight test, and that he'd shown a little compassion for my unfamiliar situation.

At this point, we did maneuvers. I remember doing slow flight, and getting that correct. He never asked me to do stalls, but when he asked me to do turns about a point I once again forgot to factor in the altitude differential for terrain. I corrected this with some guidance and picked a farm silo to do my turns about. They were acceptable, and he asked me to do steep turns next. I knew enough to climb, so I suggested 2,500 feet. He suggested 3,000 feet would be better, and so up we went. I climbed slowly to 3,000 feet without noticing I wasn't at full power, so he gently reminded me of this and I corrected that also. I was flying the aircraft okay, but it just seemed I was one step behind.

"I'm making a clearing turn to the right", I announced, and he responded by nodding and saying "Okay". Once clear, I made my first steep turn to the left and winced as I lost about 150 feet. Not too awful, but not within the limits. He asked me to 'try again' and this time I kept the nose up. "Good, now to the right", he said. I made my right steep turn without losing any altitude at all. He wrote something on the clipboard and we proceeded on.

Foggle time. I reached for the foggles and of course, they weren't there. It was like one nightmare followed the next. Before we took off they'd been in the pocket right next to me, but they must've fallen onto the floor. Thankfully he offered to take the plane while I looked for them. Ten seconds of frantic searching later I located them under my seat. I put them on and took back the controls. I also realized I hadn't turned the fuel pump on for my maneuvers, so I sneakily flipped it when he had his head turned out the window.

I totally rocked unusual attitudes. Al made me close my eyes and go through a series of blind turns in order to lose my feel for the horizon. He then placed the plane into an attitude I really couldn't feel (being disorientated from all the blind turns) and then told me to open my eyes and recover the aircraft. Immediately I glanced at the airspeed indicator and knew we were diving. Cutting the power I gently banked right and raised the nose back to the horizon, adding just the right amount of rudder pedal. "Very good" he said approvingly. Whew.

On to VOR tracking. After having me track the Albany VOR the examiner asked me which radial we were on. At first I thought he'd asked how to get TO the station, but he was asking FROM. After realizing this, I knew the answer and identified us as being northwest of the beacon (he made me show him on the map). "Good", he said. "Now let's head back to Schenectady".

KSCH was still on my loran, so I knew the heading. I didn't need it, however. I could see the airport about 10 miles ahead and to the right. I switched to the AWOS to find the active runway but with it coming up fast I didn't want to wait for the whole recording. I radioed the tower for landing clearance and was told to report right downwind for runway 28. This time I remembered to add elevation and came up with correct pattern altitude of 1500 feet. I throttled down to 2100 RPM's and began trying to pick out the runway. I would only get one shot at this. If I entered the pattern from the wrong leg or in the wrong direction I would immediately fail and I knew it.

My airport map saved me. Knowing I was coming from the north I flipped it and looked at it upside down. The map aligned with what I was seeing on the ground in front of me, and so I picked out runway 28 and was relieved to know I was on a direct course to enter the right downwind at the customary 45-degree angle. I vectored in and reported. The tower cleared me to land. The examiner asked me to do a soft-field landing, and I nodded. He reminded me again as I turned base, just to make sure I'd heard him.

Throttling back to 1700 and turning base, I could see Al watching my airspeed like a hawk. He stared at the airspeed indicator so intently, I thought it was going to pop off. Nosing down to keep at least 70 knots at all times, I made sure I didn't dip a single knot below that speed. Once on final, I raised my third notch of flaps and mentally reminded myself to keep the control wheel back during landing. Speed good, crosswind countered by the rudder, I slipped into the center of the runway and flared at exactly the right time. Hovering just a few feet over the runway, I eased gently back on the yoke and sighed with great relief as the back wheels touched down with the nosewheel still in the air. I rode the plane down the runway in a type of wheelie before softly letting the nose drop to the runway. It was the best soft-field landing I'd ever made.

Taxiing back to the ramp, past all the rubble of the chopped-up airport, I parked in the same spot I'd left from. Did all my post-landing and post-flight checks, killed the engine, and flipped off the master switch. Then I removed my headset.

"How do you think you did?" he asked me.

"Well, I could've done better" I told him. "But I think you gave me some leeway, for being in unfamiliar territory and terrain".

Al smirked a little. "Yes, I did. Congratulations, you passed".

Thank GOD.

Relief flooded through me as I realized I was now a pilot. I listened as he explained to me some of the mistakes I made, and how not to make them in the future. He told me I needed more experience with non-towered airports, and that I need to practice entering the pattern on those types of fields. "But you fly safely", he added. "You can handle the aircraft, you know how to fly it, and you know how to land".

The Aftermath
Back at Richmor, Al stopped to talk to someone downstairs as I headed up to the room I knew Stan to be in. He was sitting on the edge of a couch in the lounge, looking completely nerve-wracked. As I walked in, he glanced at me expectantly. Exhaustedly, I gave him the thumbs up sign. He let out the biggest sigh of relief I've ever heard. Then he smiled, got up, and shook my hand to congratulate me.

After a post-flight review in the office with all three of us, I was given my temporary private pilot's certificate. I should get the real one within 120 days, which is funny considering it took me only 90 days to get my license. Al wished me good luck. "Fly safe", he told me. I assured him I would, thanked him, and then we were off. Back at the plane Stan and I did a quick preflight, hopped in, and I taxied us back to runway 28 again. Stan requested a southbound departure, we got cleared for takeoff, and I flew the plane as a fully licensed pilot for the first time.

You can't fly on Long Island without becoming friends with the Northport Stacks
We had a tailwind for the flight home, and that only made it better. I did all the flying, Stan did all the radio-work. I told him all of the things I did on the test, and we laughed about how I hadn't been required to do an emergency landing. "That was the one thing I was worried about", Stan said. I shrugged. There were so many open fields out there, I didn't think it would be much of a problem. The cool part about flying home was the feeling that something had changed. Stan was treating me different - he was treating me as an equal. I was a pilot now, and no longer his student. He told me he was proud of me, and that he took me to KSCH because he knew I "wouldn't crack" under pressure the way some of his other students would. I don't know about that, but he was definitely proud of me. Flew past the stacks - this time about a mile north of them, heading directly in on runway 19. Came in smooth, and stuck another awesome landing. Then we tied off the plane and he drove me back to my car.

"Congratulations again", he said to me.

"Congratulations to you too", I told him. I couldn't take all the credit - although he wasn't the most thorough CFI, Stan had taught me to fly a plane in only three months. That's just bananas. After wishing each other a good night, I told him I'd call him next week. And that was it. We drove off in different directions.

Flying hours today: 4.9       Total: 47.1

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