The checkride part 1

The last month has been a whirlwind.

Every year at springtime it seems the demands on my time from my various interests and responsibilities increase to the max. Don’t get me wrong, most of the time I’m enjoying what is keeping me busy, which is all that’s important I think.

This year is only different in that I’ve added even more interests. One, of course, is flying airplanes. The other, unexpectedly, is a new girlfriend.

So like everything else my quest to get my private pilot’s license reached the final hurdle in the springtime. I inched over the minimum 40 hours of training with my last training flight to complete 4 night landings in mid-April. My teacher scheduled my checkride for April 22nd at 3pm, giving me just over a week to study and prepare…and fret over the weather forecasts.

For the first few days, long range forecasts called for partly cloudy skies with winds from the East at 10-15 kts…not perfect conditions but definitely “go” weather.

This forecast didn’t change until three days before the checkride. Partly cloudy with winds from the East at 10-20 kts. I was starting to worry.

Winds from the East 15-20 kts.

Winds from the East at 15-25 kts.

This isn’t looking good.

The day of the checkride was beautiful. Bright clear blue sky with scattered clouds. Then I walked outside and was stood up by a strong gust of wind that nearly pulled my car door from my hand. I looked up and noticed those scattered clouds looked like cotton balls being ripped apart. Not a good sign. I drove to work expecting any minute to get a call from the Designated Pilot Examiner or the airport saying we’d have to reschedule.

At about 10am, sitting at my desk at work, my iPhone rang, it was “Princeton Airport” and my heart sank.

“Hello?”
“Hi this is Chris at Princeton Airport…”
“Bad news I guess?” I asked.
“Um…no…just calling to say that the Examiner is here and willing to go early before the weather gets bad.”

I looked out the window and noticed the small flowers from the nearby trees in bloom were flying by the window horizontally at great speed. The weather isn’t bad now? I thought.

“OK I can be there in 30 minutes,” I said. I knew then I wouldn’t fly in that wind but something inside compelled me to go to the airport. I think it’s the same thing that makes me a pilot. Any tiny possibility that I could get my license today forced me to go try.

I arrived at the airport and watched one of the training airplanes struggle to make a landing. The windsock was pegged, but the wind was straight down the runway. I started to hope.

I walked in the office and met an older gentleman, one of the old guard of aviation. It turned out he was my check airman.

We walked upstairs to the flight training room to sign in and begin the oral portion of the checkride. My instructors were all there, of course. I silently pleaded with them through my eyes to help me make the go/no-go decision. I desperately needed some words of encouragement that they thought I could handle the conditions even if it was on a high-stress checkride.

I think they knew I needed help and they were all very stone-faced. They knew it had to be only my decision. My examiner called me over.

“Now, before we can begin, there has to be a decent chance that we will complete the flight portion of the exam,” he paused, “have you checked the weather, are we going to fly?”

Decision time.

“Take your time,” he said as I paused to think about it. I hope I didn’t look as scared as I felt.

“Let me go check the weather again,” I said, quickly leaving the room and heading to the lounge where I could see the windsock and check the TAF and METAR for KTTN once more.

The windsock was somehow even more pegged than before. The current METAR was calling winds 080 at 14 kts with gusts to 22 kts.

The TAF called for winds at 16 gusting to 25 in two hours.

It’s just too much, I thought, my heart sinking. Ive never even flown in winds like that, let alone practice performance takeoffs and landings or maneuvers, let alone do them on a checkride. It was the longest walk back to the training room, knowing what I faced.

There was the examiner, a nice old man and ultra-experienced pilot that drove all the way from Pennsylvania today for my checkride. There were my instructors who have seen me do my best and my worst flying. And I had to admit that, on a sunny day, I didn’t want to go flying because the winds were too high.

And that’s what I did. Talk about swallowing my pride. We rescheduled for May 2, another 10 day wait. Tail between my legs, I got in my car and drove back to work.

In a few days I’ll write the post about May 2, and why it was worth the wait to take my checkride.

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Mistakes

With just a few more flight hours left before I can take my checkride, I can’t stop thinking about my future life as a pilot. I daydream about where I will go and what I will see. And I think about my cousins and future nieces or nephews, relatives, friends. I can’t wait to see their faces as the tires lift off the ground and we fly over their house or along the Hudson River Corridor next to Manhattan or on a trip down to Cape May or to see more distant relatives down the East coast. I can’t wait to be set loose as a pilot.

But at the same time, I’ll be set loose.  There is no doubt that I will have completed all of the requirements set forth by the FAA, and generally breezed through training, and I will be legally capable of flying a single-engine land-based aircraft almost anywhere my heart desires, almost anytime, with passengers. I think back to my cousins and future nieces or nephews, relatives, and friends sitting next to me or right behind me in a 172. And the sheer joy I can imagine on their faces, and on mine, is tempered a bit by the heavy weight of responsibility placed on the pilot’s shoulders. On my shoulders.

I want to be the best pilot I can be. Of course, this involves more training and a hell of a lot more practice, which I will dive into immediately. But meanwhile, I will be set free to the skies. Although I am glad to be near the end of the FAA-mandated 40 hours of training for the PPL, I don’t think those 40 hours equip me to handle all of the situations I might face. I find myself scouring NTSB reports and evaluating how I would handle the situations in the “Aftermath” and “I Learned about Flying from that” sections of Flying magazine. Richard Collins’ book The Next Hour, which I plan to discuss in a later post, was full of situations for me to imagine myself trying to confront. I often have two immediate reactions: first, that I would never allow myself to get in a similar situation. Second, that the people in the NTSB reports probably thought that they would never allow themselves to get in that situation.

We are humans, and therefore we make mistakes. I make mistakes occasionally in my job as a biologist. Sometimes the workload is large enough and the tasks difficult enough that an error or two will creep in which sabotage a part of or a whole experiment. I’m also a very active concert violinist, and I make mistakes in music too. Sometimes the stress of performing in front of an audience or the extreme precision and technique required for certain passages of music can cause a lapse in concentration, and the error rate will start to increase. In all cases, I hate making mistakes; I am a perfectionist and always very hard on myself when it happens. But the best scientists I know and the best musicians I know make mistakes sometimes. I have to assume that even the best pilots can make mistakes. We are human.

I am forever intrigued by the human brain and how it works. I found the following video very interesting describing how our brain handles information between two “systems”.

Of particular interest to aviation was the fact that we can become “effectively blind” when we fully engage our “System 2” brain. I can imagine so many possible times during flight that we might unknowingly become focused on one problem/task/goal that we suffer from this type of effective blindness. I remember early on in flight training I often felt that I was “behind” the airplane during simulated emergencies. Once during a simulated engine out my CFI changed the Comm 1 frequency to the wrong CTAF. I was amazed when after the few seconds it took me to change it back to make the position calls, I found I had lost situational awareness for long enough to fail to turn the base leg at the proper moment, and undershot the emergency approach.

It was a mistake, if it had been a real emergency I would have been in trouble. It was a difficult lesson. But thinking about it, a lot of the NTSB accident reports are probably the result of some seemingly innocuous decision or lapse in concentration or slight fixation on a problem. It happened to me on a clear (though hazy) day with no wind. Add in clouds and darkness and I can imagine the number of mistakes can start to increase rapidly if you’re not prepared to handle the situation. Although it is a scary thought, I think for me it is also the challenge of it all that drives me to be the best pilot I can be. To train and practice and study and plan (and follow checklists) to mitigate the risks of making the right mistakes at the wrong time.