Part of the reason I’ve been so quiet lately is that I’ve been preparing for the check ride for my private pilot’s license. I’ve written before about the requirements for the check ride; just as with your driver’s license, to get a pilot’s licenses you must demonstrate competency by passing a practical test. Before you are allowed to take the practical test, you must pass a written exam and meet some minimum requirements for the amount and kind of training you need. I have met all the minimums– including flying at night and flying without outside visual reference, using flight instruments alone– and have a check ride scheduled for next week. Since early September, I’ve been practicing various maneuvers and studying the body of knowledge that the examiner will expect me to demonstrate competence in. About a month ago, I got the nod from my instructor: “It’s time. Call the examiner and schedule your check ride.”
Of course, I did so immediately and was crushed to find out that she couldn’t schedule me until mid-December. Undaunted, I took the first available date and kept on studying and learning. One big focus area for me was landings. The practical test standards require that the applicant demonstrate four kinds of landings:
- the “regular” kind
- power-off landings: at a point on the downwind leg of the traffic pattern, you pull the throttle to idle and glide to a landing on the selected runway
- short-field landings, in which you must pick a point on the runway and land within a specified distance after (but not before) it. This simulates approach and landing to a short runway, or over an obstacle such as a tree, crane, or tower in the approach path. The key to making great short-field landings is airspeed control: if you are going too fast when you cross the runway threshold, your airplane will float on seemingly forever, causing you to miss your touchdown point.
- soft-field landings, which you might use to land on grass, sand, a plowed field, or other non-paved surfaces. The key here is to land the airplane as softly as possible, which requires quite a bit of finesse (not to mention excellent airspeed control) and to use aerodynamic braking instead of the wheel brakes to slow down.
For extra fun, you can combine these– imagine, for example, that you need to land in a plowed field after an engine failure and you have a power-off soft-field landing. And, of course, there are short- and soft-field takeoffs, too. Being able to do these consistently is critical, because each type of takeoff and landing has characteristic speeds and distances that the examiner will evaluate. I can honestly say that my landings have improved beyond the point I thought possible– if you’d told me a year ago that I could land my airplane safely in 500′ of runway I wouldn’t have believed it.
FAA check rides are supposed to be based on realistic scenarios. Here’s the extent of the guidance I got from the examiner:
I’m planning on meeting you at 9am (traffic permitting). You can plan xctry to KPRB, calculate takeoff and landing distances over a 50ft obstacle and I’m 120lbs with no bags for weight and balance. Go ahead and preflight and assure fuel is as desired.
I have a destination and I know how much payload I need to haul (in this case, right about 300 lbs). Other than that, the route, fuel on board, altitude, intermediate stops if any, and every other aspect of the flight are up to me as the pilot-in-command (PIC). This nicely reflects the common uses for light aircraft: go to a specified destination with a passenger, with all the other factors being subject to the PIC’s judgement. To meet the requirements for this scenario, I need to be able to show the examiner a solid flight plan, taking into account weather, terrain, airport availability, and any other considerations that might impact my ability to get us safely there and back. (The only slightly unusual aspect of this plan is that my flight plan needs to include obstacle clearance; there currently aren’t any obstacles at Palo Alto or Paso Robles, but the FAA requires that applicants show that they know how to plan for obstacle clearance, so thus it shall be.) I need to show that I can file a flight plan and deal with air traffic control (ATC) as we fly, including canceling the flight plan when we divert and dealing with any instructions that ATC may give us en route.
Before we get to that point I have to prove that the airplane is airworthy, which I’ll do by showing that its maintenance records are up to date and that any required inspection or maintenance has been performed. This is really part of the oral exam, which is more or less continuous: the examiner will be evaluating my knowledge from the minute I shake her hand and say “hello” until she signs my temporary license. The examiner can ask anything she likes about any aspect of what private pilots are supposed to know, and I’d better be able to answer correctly. She is also expected to create what the FAA calls a “realistic distraction” to see how I handle it; this means she can try to distract me by talking, dropping an object and asking me to pick it up, or anything else that a passenger might reasonably do in flight.
Will we actually fly to Paso Robles? Nope. At some point along the route, the examiner will divert me to an alternate destination, simulating a change in weather at the destination or perhaps a passenger who has to go to the bathroom RIGHT NOW I MEAN IT. The examiner will also simulate an in-flight emergency that requires a simulated emergency landing. She can also fail, or simulate failure of, anything else in the airplane, including navigation and communications systems. I’ll also have to demonstrate the maneuvers called for in the PTS, which will be done somewhere along our route of flight.
There’s a surprising amount of paperwork that has to happen first. The FAA uses a system called IACRA to process applicant paperwork. I had to fill out an application in IACRA, then my flight instructor had to log in to IACRA and approve it; along with an endorsement in my logbook, this signals the examiner that I’ve met the skill and knowledge requirements to attempt the practical test. Updating my logbook and completing the IACRA paperwork took me a couple of hours, but I finished it this morning. All the paperwork is done, so all I need now is a good night’s sleep on Monday and good weather on Tuesday!