You study hard, fly dozens of hours, watch the days, weeks and months crawl by, spend a lot of money, and then finally the day arrives. Your Checkride ! I didnít think the day would ever get there. I felt like I had been ready for weeks, but when my CFI (certified flight instructor )scheduled the checkride with the FAA examiner, I felt like I wasnít nearly ready. However, my CFI assured my that I was ready. I had done several "dry-runs" with him and another CFI to make sure that I knew my stuff.
At this point, Iíd like to say that I used both the King Schools Private Pilot and Checkride videos to help prepare, and they were outstanding.
The day prior to the checkride, my CFI told me that the examiner wanted me to plan a cross country flight to somewhere call Possum Kingdom ! Assuming this was some kind of test to find a tiny dirt airstrip in the middle of nowhere, I broke out the Airport and Facilities Directory and started searching. At least I had been told that it was in Texas. Lo and behold, there it was, due west of Fort Worth. I had assumed that there would be some kind of routing problem hidden in the task, such as dealing with Dallas/Fort Worth's Class B airspace. But much to my relief, it was far enough west to fly directly to and avoid the DFW airspace.
The next day I arrived early at the flight school (United Flight Systems) in preparation for the checkride. The examiner, like many FAA examiners, was not actually an FAA employee, but was what is called a DE,or FAA Designated Flight Examiner. Usually highly trained, extremely experienced instructors. My DE was a guy named Dan Jones, a local fixture at David Wayne Hooks airport. Dan is an easy-going guy who kind of reminded me of that psychiatrist who would make frequent visits on the TV series, MASH. He drives a big, bright red, 60ís vintage convertible. To help break the ice with Dan, you should ask him about his successful gear-up landing in a twin-Cessna. Made front-page news in a small Colorado town, and heís got the paper and picture to prove it.
After the paperwork formalities, the first thing he glanced at was the score I made on my written exam. In my case, it was a 98 thanks to John and Martha King. After that the oral part of the exam was short compared to what I had heard they took. Mine took just under an hour. I think he asked me a few key questions just to make sure that I understood what I had learned, and not just remembered that the answer to question #76 was B. The vast majority of the oral was done in a conversational manner, which was quite relaxing. He would pose theoretical situations and ask what you thought might be the best solution. We also spent a lot of time going over the sectionals, talking about various symbols and areas. Before I knew it, we were ready to fly.
The first takeoff was a short-field takeoff. He had told me that we would try to combine as many of the maneuvers together as possible, in deference to time and money. We started out by flying the flight plan that I had planned the night before. The primary goals here are to make sure that you know how to open your flight plan, and properly execute your flight plan, such as timing your travel to your checkpoints correctly. We did this on the first leg of the trip, which in my case was from Hooks to Navasota. At this point, he did the traditional thing which was to say that for some reason we could not make our destination, and that we needed to divert to a new and closer airport. I chose Conroe. After making rough calculations of distance, time and required fuel, I determined the new heading and started towards Conroe. Those things were the whole point of the diversion exercise. Make sure you can find a different airport, and make sure you can get there.
After he determined that I did what was necessary to divert, he gave me a new heading, leading us out to what is informally know as "The Practice Area". If you look at a map, this area is roughly a big box around Highway 290 with its upper left corner in Waller and its lower right corner around the intersection of 290 and the Sam Houston Tollway. This is where a LOT of your basic training takes place. Straight and level, turns, slow flight, stalls, emergencies, you name it. And we basically did all of those. About 15 minutes of the test were done "under the hood", basically just on instruments with no outside reference.
My primary fear about the whole FAA flight exam process was that I had heard if you made one mistake, then the checkride was over and you had failed. While I believe this to be true to the general extent, I found that the examiner was generally more interested in your ability to fly safely than to perform specific maneuvers within low margins of error. An example of this was the stall maneuver. He had me do a power-off stall. As the stall occurred, my recover was sufficient, but not great or even good. The examiner said that he didnít think the stall broke sharply enough, and asked me to do it again to see my recover from a more pronounced stall. In essence, he gave me a second chance to improve on a sloppy maneuver. Likewise on the S-turns across a road. It was a little windy and I knew that my S-turns over the road were not perfect, and I stated that out loud. Iíd like to offer a bit of advice at this point, that ties back to the instructorís desire to determine more if you fly safely than if you fly perfect maneuvers. During the entire flying portion, I constantly told the examiner what I was doing, or was going to do, or trying to do. The examiner complimented me on that at the end, and stated that he felt that even if my maneuvers werenít great all the time, he knew that I was aware of the situation and not just flying obliviously. Another great advantage of always talking is that it really reduces your amount of nervousness and fear.
After we finished the aerial maneuvers, he had us head back to Hooks airport. He had me do a touch and go that began with a soft-field landing and ended with a soft-field takeoff. The wind was right down the middle of the runway, and in my heart I felt that I had never done a more perfect landing. The instructor turned to me, grinned and said, "I guess youíre pretty proud of yourself on that one. Nice landing." My spirits soared to a new level. He told me to go around the pattern one time and do a short-field landing, and we would be done. I couldnít believe ! I was one landing away from be a licensed private pilot. I knew that everything had been OK up to that point, because if you do anything during the exam that would cause you to fail, the examiner is required to state that whatever maneuver you had just performed was unsatisfactory and you would not pass that day. You have the option of continuing on at that point to the remaining maneuvers and he would grade them accordingly, but you would have to come back another day to re-execute the failed maneuver(s).
I kept thinking to myself that this short-field landing would be a cinch, especially with the wind coming head-on down the runway. As I came around to final, I added my last notch of flaps for a full-flaps landing. I was really crawling along now. It was at this point, in retrospect, that I made an error. All of our landings were being done on the big runway at Hooks, 17R. 17R has a very big threshold, or area before the marked landing zone. In other words, as you approach the runway there is a lot of pavement from the actual beginning of the runway up to the point where the start of the landing zone begins. 17R is about 7,000 feet long, and about 1,200 feet of that is the approach threshold. I had picked the area just beyond the threshold as my touchdown point, because I wanted to be able to stop in as short amount of runway as possible. Beyond the touchdown point are several exits. The first is exit D, or what they call the high-speed exit. It basically branches off to the left from the runway at about a 45 degree angle, about 1,200 down the runway from the beginning of the landing zone, allowing light planes to exit at higher speeds than on the exits that intersected the runway at 90 degree angles, like the next exit, which was exit E, about 2,500 down the runway from the beginning of the landing zone.
I had it in my mind that I needed to get the plane stopped or off the runway by the first exit, D. This is not difficult in a small plane like the Cessna 152, and my instructor and I would do this frequently. With the headwind, it should be a cinch. As I began descending towards the runway, I became fixated with slowing the plane and getting it in the right mode to make a short landing. What I did not become aware of was that the wind had slowed my approach to a such a point that I actually touched down just inside the threshhold, just a few feet prior to the beginning of the landing zone. I landed firmly and brought the plane to a quick stop, certain that I had performed a perfect short-field landing. As I exited the runway on the high-speed exit, the examiner looked thoughtfully at the sky and asked me if I thought it was OK to land inside the threshold. I realized at that moment what I had done, and quickly replied that I knew I had landed a few feet inside the threshold, but the wind had gusted and I was more concerned with a safe landing. He said that he would have to study the FAA regulations on that one concerning my test. I felt my stomach drop. He then told me two things that I should have considered when making the approach. He told me that he considered a short-field landing to be anything short of the E exit, the next one about 1,200 feet further down from D. I realized that I had done all of my short-field practice up at Conroe, and the instructor had used markings on the runway there to designate the stopping distance for a short-field landing. I realized then that I had never done a short-field landing on 17R at Hooks, and hadnít properly judged the required landing distance. I should have asked the examiner what he felt my stopping-marks should be for the test prior to attempting the landing. The second thing he told me was that if I felt that I wasnít going to make the landing within the required distance, I could always abort the landing and go around. There is no penalty for that.
I felt that he really agonized over what to do, and spent a good 30 minutes digging through the FAA regulations. But they clearly state that in a non-emergency situation, you are not allowed to land within a runway threshold. (Although the Hooks control tower frequently allows it and does not enforce the restriction.) I was disappointed, but felt that he was a very fair examiner, and had given me the benefit of the doubt on many of my maneuvers. Then he had to write out the dreaded "Pink Slip" which states that the student had not satisfactorily passed all of the required maneuvers, and required remedial training with an instructor before retrying the failed maneuver.
We (me, my instructor and the examiner) all agreed that I could do short-field landings. ( I had just done one, but TOO short !!). The examiner felt that verbal instruction from my instructor was satisfactory (basically to restate that you should not land in a threshold), and that we could go again when I was ready. I wanted to go right then! However, the examiner had to leave and would not be back until later in the week. I was disappointed but also very relieved that all I had to do was one easy landing. A few days later the examiner and I went back up, circled the field once, and I made a perfect short-field landing. As I exited the runway he turned to me and said, "Congratulations, youíre a Certified Private Pilot." It was nine months total, including 72.1 hours of flying, and $3,654 dollars, since the day I started.
It was darn well worth it.