My Private Pilot Exam

Today I took--and passed--my FAA practical test for my private pilot certificate. Now I'm a pilot. My first logbook entry is dated 10/18/99, and as of right now my last one is today, 9/1/00. In the intervening ten months I've accumulated 94.5 flight hours, 12.1 of which I spent alone in the plane, and 335 landings. And I've probably spent about $10,000. Many pilots earn their license after far fewer hours (and correspondingly less money), but I suppose there are other pilots that take even longer--and I know I shouldn't compare myself to others, anyway. The problem is, I'd had this fantasy when I began taking lessons that I would be one of the school's brightest and fastest students, learning to fly exceptionally well and in unprecedented time. After all, I was highly motivated and reasonably intelligent, and shouldn't the combination make me unstoppable?

Well, I don't know. But I made it, didn't I?

I would have taken this test a few days ago, on Tuesday (today's Friday), but the weather changed suddenly and unseasonably. It rained, can you believe it, rain in August! This never happens in L.A. It's hard not to get superstitious when this sort of thing happens on the day you've spent the past ten months preparing for.

And I'd certainly gotten superstitious, as my flight exams loomed closer. I didn't want to do anything to offend whatever gods of flight might be watching over me. I'd bought an issue of Private Pilot Magazine at Border's the other day, but I hadn't read any of it yet, because I wasn't a private pilot yet and I didn't want to jinx myself.

So for whatever reason, these gods of flight didn't want me to fly on Tuesday, and they sent a freak rainstorm to underscore the point. Which was maybe all for the better, since I was still a little worried about my soft-field landings. On the Saturday before, I'd flown with Greg on my pre-exam checkride, during which I'd been able to perform every maneuver he asked for with confidence and accuracy. I'd been so proud of myself that day! Steep turns, turns around a point, power-on and power-off stalls, simulated emergency landings; I felt like the master of the plane through all of it. All of it, that is, except for my soft-field landings.

A soft-field landing is a special procedure for landing on an unpaved runway, like a dirt or grass airstrip. It's a special concern because you don't want the wheels to get stuck in the dirt as you touch down, particularly the nosewheel; so you have to touch down especially gently, and keep the nosewheel higher longer. When I'd been studying with Brian, we had touched on soft-field landings without really dwelling on them, and it had never seemed critically important to me--a useful skill to have, perhaps, but plenty of time to develop that before I would be brave (or foolish) enough to actually try to land on a grass airstrip. When I reviewed all of this material with Ciro over the past few days, he'd noticed my soft-field landings weren't so hot, and he went over the procedure with me: keep a little extra power in as you cross over the numbers, so the plane will float for a long time, but you'll come down gently. With Ciro, I did that all right once or twice (although admittedly not great) before my checkride with Greg.

When I flew with Greg last Saturday, though, I botched the soft-field landing altogether. I put a little extra power in, as Ciro had shown me, just as we approached the runway, and Greg fussed at me for putting the power in already! "If you keep so much power in, you'll float and float and float. Just make a normal approach, and add extra power just before you touch down." I was a little rattled as I tried to juggle all the controls while digesting this and dropped the plane hard onto the asphalt.

So I promised Greg I'd work on my soft-field landings. (It is one of the required completion standards for the practical exam, after all.) On Sunday, I took a plane up by myself and flew 22 touch-and-goes--quick landing exercises--in the space of two hours. Some of my landings were acceptable, but none were good soft-field landings. Anytime I tried to add extra power just before touchdown as Greg had suggested I just ended up bouncing down the runway, the plane barely within my control. I just couldn't get it, and I felt so ashamed. On Monday, I had a scheduled lesson with Ciro, and he helped me work through the new procedure of putting power in just at the appropriate time. Under Ciro's guidance, I made three quite nice soft-field landings in a row, and we called it a day. I felt good about that, but it's one thing to do it correctly when you have someone sitting next to you telling you when to add power and when to flare, and another thing to do it all on your own.

So then Tuesday came, the date of my scheduled exam with Greg, and it wasn't a good day for flying. I was both distressed and relieved by this. Greg did give me my oral exam, at least, and I felt secure and confident as I answered his questions. I knew the material, and I knew I knew it. I almost wished he'd asked me more so I could keep showing off! (There were a few questions I couldn't answer right away, but Greg was in a forgiving mood. He'd prompt me until he got the right answer out of me.)

Greg and I rescheduled the flight for the following day, Wednesday, but when Wednesday came, it wasn't a good flying day either. We rescheduled for Saturday.

On Thursday, I took a plane up by myself again (Greg and Ciro were both unavailable), and tried to polish off a few more soft-field landings. It was horrible. Of course, the winds were terribly gusty, blowing me all over the runway, and it was all I could do to maintain the centerline, let alone put it down gently. But it didn't fill me with confidence. I taxied back after only a handful of sloppy touch-and-goes, feeling glum.

But then today came, Friday, and Greg had had a cancellation, and the weather was acceptable, so I decided to get this thing over with sooner rather than later. Besides, who knew what the weather would be tomorrow? It helped that I'd had lunch with Story Musgrave, the veteran astronaut who now works at Disney. (He and M.K. had joined us at our table while we were eating at the Big D.) Remember what I said about being superstitious? Well, what could be a better omen than swapping jokes with that most supreme of pilots, an astronaut?

So after lunch, I was off to Van Nuys, to put this thing to rest. The weather, as I've said, was acceptable, but not the greatest: although visibility was good, there were scattered or broken clouds from 2,000 to 4,000 feet above ground level all over the Valley. That meant we'd have to be careful to avoid the clouds wherever we went.

It started out well enough. Greg told me that once we cleared the Burbank airspace (Van Nuys airport is underneath part of Burbank's airspace) we'd climb to about 4,000 feet and fly direct to Fillmore VOR, then cross over the mountains and fly out over the Pacific, where the air should be smooth and clear, and then make a couple of landings at Oxnard. He asked if I had a California Pilot's Guide, and when I said that I didn't, but I used the A/FD instead, he seemed dismayed and implied that a properly trained pilot would have purchased a Pilot's Guide long ago. He got a copy of the Pilot's Guide and showed me the page for Oxnard, and I do have to admit it told me a whole lot more about how to land there than the A/FD did, but no one had ever told me I should have bought one of these for myself before.

The preflight was unremarkable; everything seemed to be in order. I reflected as I went over the plane, inspecting the ailerons, checking the oil, and straining the fuel, that no one had ever questioned, or even watched, the way I preflight the plane, since the first day Brian showed me how to do it. Everyone just assumes I know how to do it correctly (and it's all just following a printed checklist, after all). It is a little inconsistent with the message that a correct preflight is essential to a safe flight, though.

Greg joined me in the plane, and we taxied out. He asked for a soft-field takeoff, which unlike the soft-field landings, I could do easily. A soft-field takeoff involves keeping the nosewheel high until the plane lifts itself off the ground, then skimming along just a few feet above the ground until the plane is flying fast enough to take it into a full climb. I did this very well, I thought; until I reached the end of the procedure and went to raise the flaps, and discovered that they were already up--I'd forgotten to lower them before I began. Oops. The procedure calls for lowering the flaps by ten degrees before you start, which is supposed to give you a bit of extra lift and make the whole thing go a little smoother. Did Greg notice my mistake? Is he waiting to see whether I even noticed I missed something? Better not take chances.

"Oops, I forgot to lower the flaps," I said.

"Oh, you didn't lower the flaps?" Greg asked, surprised. "Well, it worked very well anyway." This was high praise, indeed, coming from Greg.

You see, Greg has this way about him. He will only criticize. I have never heard Greg say a good thing about my flying, ever, at least not to me (although both Brian and Ciro have let me know that he told them, at least, that he was impressed with me). But he never has a shortage of faults to find in me. Fortunately, I was aware of this proclivity of his, from past experience. The first checkride I flew with him, before my first solo, was humiliating. I was convinced I'd done everything horribly wrong and he was going to send me back to Brian for remedial training, if he didn't recommend I be expelled from the school altogether for gross incompetence. Then I saw Brian, all smiles, and he told me that Greg had approved me for solo and that he'd said I'd done very well!

So we continued on our way after my soft-field takeoff. There was quite a bit of turbulence, and Greg fussed at me (correctly, I must admit) for failing to slow down to maneuvering speed to avoid possible damage to the airframe. Add it to my list of things I mustn't forget.

Soon we were on our way to the Fillmore VOR, as planned; I dialed it in and started tracking to the signal. This was part of the test, of course: do I know how to use a VOR transmitter to navigate? I was eager to demonstrate that I do. (A VOR is a special kind of radio tower on the ground that broadcasts a signal that airplanes can use to determine their position. A network of VOR's around the country makes up most of the airway navigation system, although the technology seems a little dated in the modern GPS world.)

The clouds ahead of us seemed to be getting lower, and I suggested to Greg that perhaps we should fly a few hundred feet lower than the altitude he'd asked me to hold, to avoid entering the clouds. I felt an irrational surge of pride as he concurred, and we descended accordingly. Soon, however, the clouds between us and the VOR grew too thick and dark to even consider coming near, so Greg had me alter course, and we followed the 118 freeway instead. Greg knew I could track to the VOR anyway, since he'd seen me do it several times before, but I admit I was a bit disappointed that I couldn't continue to demonstrate these little things that I can do well.

The clouds, however, were astonishingly beautiful. I'd never seen it like this before, with dozens of little puffy cumulus clouds all around, just five hundred feet above our heads. This is incredibly unusual in L.A. The sunlight was playing on and through them in ways I'd never seen the sunlight do. I almost felt like we were one of the clouds ourselves.

Eventually we made it out past the shore (it took a while, what with our slower maneuvering speed, and a bit of a headwind we were flying into), and the clouds and turbulence vanished, exactly as Greg had predicted. Greg had me demonstrate the usual battery of airwork exercises: steep turns, slow flight, power-off stalls, power-on stalls. Although I felt somewhat less confident doing these than I had the previous weekend, I think I did them all well. Greg, of course, made no comment, which I took to be a good sign.

We flew in towards Oxnard, and I had a bit of trouble locating the airport at first. I saw something that I took to be the airport, further ahead, and starting making towards it; after a minute or two, Greg startled me when he suddenly demanded if I was ever going to turn downwind, as I simultaneously realized that I was close to being directly over the airport already!

"Er, right, I'm turning now," I said, as I set myself up to enter the traffic pattern. We were fairly close to the runway now, closer than one would normally fly a traffic pattern, but not unreasonably close, so I just entered the pattern where I was.

"You wouldn't fly this close to the runway at Van Nuys, would you?" Greg demanded. I couldn't tell if he was being rhetorical or direct.

"No, no, of course not," I assured him. It was a big mistake on my part not to spot the runway sooner, and maybe I should have widened out my downwind instead of just flying the pattern where I was. Recognizing an airport from the air is sometimes surprisingly difficult, especially in the middle of a highly urban area; it's a skill that I'll have to continue to work on.

Greg asked for a normal landing, and I delivered one; a fairly good landing, I thought. "Don't stomp on the brakes when you touch down like that," was Greg's only comment. We taxied off the runway and I dialed up ground control.

I stared idly out the side window as I called up on the radio. "Oxnard Ground, Cessna 23841 is clear of the active runway, ready to . . ." I began before Greg punched me to get my attention. He pointed at the radio which I'd left on the wrong frequency; I was transmitting to SoCal Approach instead of to Oxnard Ground. "Watch the radio when you talk!" he berated me. Oops. I switched it to the correct frequency and tried again.

At the end of the runway, when it was time to ask tower for takeoff clearance, I began again, looking down the runway at the plane taking off ahead of me. "Oxnard Tower, Cessna 23841 ready at the end . . ." Greg punched me again, and he pointed out I was still on the Oxnard Ground frequency. Damn!

I corrected this again, and we got our clearance and took off. Greg wanted me to circle the runway and come back for another landing, this time a soft-field landing. Surprisingly, my heart didn't leap into my throat, and I set myself up for the soft-field landing calmly. I felt ready, even though I was growing increasingly rattled by my little mistakes.

I came down in final approach and it just felt right. I flared at just the right height above the runway, and added just the right amount of power at what I knew was just the right time, and felt the joy of watching the plane settle ever so gently onto the runway. I knew before the wheels kissed the ground that I had done it. Then, while I was silently congratulating myself, the plane started to lift off the runway again. "What are you doing!?" Greg demanded. "Why didn't you pull off the power as soon as you were down?" Damn, damn, damn!

Well, nothing to do for it now. I had the plane back under control by now and solidly down on the runway, so we taxied back for another takeoff, and we said our goodbyes to Oxnard.

Greg had me do some turns around a point, which I did well enough, I think, although not as well as I'd done the previous weekend. Then we did some S-turns along a road, which I did less well, but still within tolerances. I wiped the sweat off my palms as I finished those exercises and we flew on. How much more of this could there be?

Shortly thereafter Greg pulled the throttle back to idle and told me we were simulating an engine failure, and even helpfully pointed out a likely "landing strip" below us--an abandoned dirt road. No problem; I've done this lots of times. Pitch to best glide speed (65 knots), go through the cockpit checks to try to restart the engine, then announce your situation on the radio and set yourself up for an emergency landing on your chosen field. "Don't fly too close in to the landing strip, like you do everywhere else," Greg told me. Yeesh. When it looked like I would make it, Greg told me to put the power back in, and we were out of there.

But we weren't done yet. He handed me a pair of foggles, a special pair of glasses that restrict your view of everything but the instrument panel, so you can practice flying under instrument-only conditions. This is something that I've always found fairly easy, but today I was having some difficulty holding my altitude as Greg gave me various headings and altitudes to fly. But I think I did well enough. He then gave me a couple of unusual attitudes to recover from, which means he asked me to put my head down while he put the plane into a steep dive or climb or sharp bank or something, simulating what might happen if a novice pilot accidentally flies into a cloud and then tries to navigate visually for a minute or two before finally deciding to look at the instruments. The exercise is to recover the plane to a straight-and-level flight as quickly as possible, solely with reference to the instruments. I did this well enough, with no comment from Greg.

He gave me more headings to fly, and then he kept me flying in a straight line for a long while, still under the foggles. I had no idea where we were going, or whether he was even still testing me. When he finally told me to take the foggles off, I recognized where we were--right at the edge of the Valley with Van Nuys directly ahead of us--and he told me to return for landing at Van Nuys.

Normally, when you are inbound for landing at a towered airport, you call up the tower and tell them something like "Van Nuys Tower, Cessna 23841 is inbound at the Newhall Pass" or "over the college" or "abeam the Encino Reservoir." But if you don't know exactly what it is you're over, it's acceptable to say something like "10 miles to the northwest."

We were over a clump of buildings that I knew had a name, although I couldn't remember that name today. So I pushed a few buttons on the GPS unit, and it told me we were 7 miles due west of the airport. "Van Nuys Tower, Cessna 23841 is inbound at 7 miles to the west," I reported.

"Don't you know the Warner Center?" Greg asked, and I remembered that was what these buildings were called.

"No," I admitted, since I hadn't known that confidently enough to report that to the tower.

"Well, if you'd had a Pilot's Guide, you'd have known that," Greg grumbled. (Actually, I checked this later: the Pilot's Guide doesn't mention the Warner Center, although it does identify several other visual checkpoints.)

Returning to Van Nuys filled my heart with relief. This would soon be over! Then Greg asked me what direction the wind was coming from, and to my chagrin, I couldn't tell him. I should have known, because I'd just heard it on the ATIS, but it hadn't stuck in my brain. Damn, damn, damn. He told me the wind information, and pointed out that there was a crosswind. Actually, that was an understatement. There was an incredible crosswind--eight knots worth, blowing almost exactly perpendicular to the runway.

That's really unusual wind. At Van Nuys, the wind is almost always blowing directly down the runway, or at the most at a 30 degree angle. I'd never seen the wind blowing 90 degrees to the runway like that. I'd certainly never landed in that much crosswind, ever; as a student pilot, I'm not even allowed to try, by the Flight Center policies.

It didn't dawn on me yet the significance of this much crosswind, until I started setting up for my landing and realized I was being blown sideways off the runway centerline. Right! Crosswind landing! Let's see--I need to crab into the wind to maintain the centerline, like this. All right, this looks pretty good--the plane is now facing off to the right at an alarming angle, but we're flying straight toward the runway. Now, let's see. As I approach the runway and prepare for my flare, I need to straighten out the nose, because I can't land the plane at this extreme crab angle--the wheels don't turn that way. But that means I need to simultaneously put the right wing down, into the wind, so I don't drift off the runway while I flare. Oh boy, here goes.

I flared early, too high. "What are you doing!?" Greg hollered. He was right, of course; flaring high is bad because it means the plane will drop suddenly onto the runway unless you do something about it. You could damage the landing gear or worse. Greg was clearly nervous, and twitched as if to grab the controls, which would have disqualified me. "I've got it," I said, hopefully with confidence, as I corrected the problem, adding power to guide the plane to a controlled landing. Greg relaxed but was clearly unhappy. "Why did you flare way up there?" he demanded.

"Well, I did see the problem and knew what to do to fix it," I said in a small voice. A weak excuse, to be sure.

Greg scowled. "We need to taxi back and do that again. I want to see something better than that."

So we did, and I came back for another crosswind landing. This time I didn't flare too high, although I was having difficulty keeping that right wing down, and we drifted a bit off the centerline. I was also nervous about my flare--am I too high? too slow?--and put in a bit of extra power as we were touching down, for good measure. Just to make the touchdown more gentle, in case it was thinking about being hard. The irony didn't escape me: here I was, using the soft-field technique that had eluded me for so long, just to smooth out a regular landing. The touchdown was, in fact, gentle, although I did fight with the plane a bit to maintain directional control as I applied the brakes.

At least we were finally done. Did I do well? Did I pass? It's impossible to tell, with Greg. Back at the parking space, as I was securing the plane, Greg told me, "You see, in the flight exam we don't give second chances. But if the examiner has any doubt you can ask to do something again." Enigmatic, isn't he? "Well, I'll see you inside," he told me, and he was gone.

When I brought the fuel slip in to Julie behind the front desk, I saw that she had the plane's Hobbs book, so I knew she'd talked to Greg. She looked up and saw me, and her smile broadened. "Congratulations!" she said, sincerely. I melted inside. So I'd passed! Greg must have told her I'd passed. I tried hard to act cool, not to show any surprise, although I don't know why that mattered. "Thanks," I told her.

Back in Greg's office, I waited while he got out his manual typewriter and started typing a few forms. Tap tap tappity tap. He had two little books of certificates, which he had shown me last Saturday. The first one was full of white slips of paper labeled "Temporary Airman Certificate." You get one of these when you pass, he'd explained. The second one was very similar but was full of pink slips of paper labeled "Notice of Rejection" or something equally disheartening. Today he noncommittally pulled out a couple of slips from the white book. Then he reached into his desk and pulled out the pink book, and I froze. He pulled a fresh sheet of carbon paper out of the pink book and returned the book to his desk.

"Just three more days of working and then I'm gone," Greg said conversationally, as he put the white slips into his typewriter and began filling them out. He was referring to his imminent vacation.

"Where are you going?" I asked him, to be polite.

"Oh, Thailand," he said, and then grinned at my reaction. He proceeded to tell me all about his buddy, with whom he'll be spending part of his vacation, who has an electric bicycle business that's doing extremely well in Asia, and who's always flying back there to handle his business affairs. And about Thai Airways--he showed me a postcard of a Thai Airways plane in flight--which charges only $600 for a round-trip flight from LAX to Bangkok. On the other hand, you can't get into a resort in Cabo San Lucas for less than $2,000, he pointed out. And then he went on to explain to me the secret to commercial air travel: dollars per mile. You see, he explained, the average cost of air travel in the U.S. is about fourteen cents per mile. Now people think this Southwest deal, for instance, L.A. to Las Vegas for $79, is a great deal, but it's only 200 miles away, and that works out to 40 cents per mile! This Thai Airways flight, that's about 3 cents per mile. Dollars per mile, he told me again with a sage nod. (At about $90 per flight hour for a rental Cessna, my own flights will cost me about 75 cents per mile.)

Finally, he was done with the typing, and asked me to review all the forms. Everything looked right; there was my name and address, and my birth date, and other stuff that looked right. I wasn't really seeing it, though. He pointed to places for me to sign, and then he handed me the carbon copy of the Temporary Airman Certificate. "Ten thousand dollars later and now you have this piece of paper," he told me with a self-conscious grin. I grinned back and tucked it away in my logbook.

So just like that, with no formalities, no ceremony, I was a pilot. What does it mean? How does it feel? I didn't really feel any different than I had a few minutes ago. Greg shook my hand and I was free to go.

I started up my bike and rode home. On the way, I reflected to myself: so I'm a pilot. I've worked so hard for this, and now I've got it. The power of flight, as I've read somewhere, is no less than humankind's greatest dream. Shouldn't I feel something more? I thought about it. The amount of money we've spent on this flight training has whittled down our savings considerably. For the same amount of money, we could have bought a new car. Or put it towards the down payment on a house.

But money spent on acquiring a new skill is a special kind of investment: I'll have this skill forever. I'll always be a pilot, now; there's no such thing as an ex-pilot. Oh, sure, if I don't keep flying, I'll lose currency--you have to get a biannual flight review to remain current--but that would just make me a non-current pilot.

When I got home, the first thing I did was pick up the phone and call Dawn, to tell her the news. "Am I talking to a pilot?" were the first words out of her mouth. A hummingbird flew up to the patio door, held my gaze for a long moment, and then flew just as quickly away. I smiled. The gods of flight were proud of me.

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