My first FAA checkride
With my Private Pilot checkride two weeks away, things were looking pretty good. My usual routine was to sign out a Cessna 172, take it up to 3500 feet, put myself through a series of stalls, slow flight and steep turns, followed by a simulated power out, rapid descent, and then some ground reference maneuvers.
On this particular day, the 172s were all out, so I grabbed a 152 (having been signed off on it a few weeks earlier). For the most part, they are similar aircraft, with the obvious difference of no back seats, and a pitifully slow rate of climb. Less obvious is that it is a shorter, lighter aircraft with nearly the same “swept area” of control surfaces, which makes it more twitchy at the limit.
I was about to find this out.
I went through my usual paces. Good on the steep turns, fair at slow flight, now for a stall or two. I entered a power-on stall at 60 knots, pushed the throttle up to 2200 rpm, and hauled back on the yoke. As I watched the airspeed fall, I remember thinking I was having trouble keeping the left wing up. Stall horn on, shudder, sudden break, and the left wing was definitely falling. Full right aileron did little to correct this, and application of full power made it worse.
In short order, I had a windshield full of the Great State of Tennessee… and then things started to get blurry! At some point, my good training came back to me, and I thought, “Why not retard the throttle to idle, push briskly forward on the yoke, and apply full opposite rudder?” The blurriness went away, I did a nice 2 g pullout at the bottom, and found myself upright and level, but on an opposite heading, about 600 feet lower than I started out. That really got my attention!
In fact, I began to have dreams about falling out of bed. I practiced and practiced, but any maneuver that involved looking out the left side window was accompanied by a sensation of falling to my death. And here is the thing about flying. It’s all about what you think is going on. If you think you are mushing along at 60 knots in one of the most stable, forgiving airplanes ever designed, it’s all good. If you think you are falling out an open window at 3000 feet, it’s not good! And I was definitely having trouble. My instructor said, “Man, that spin really spooked you!”
I was banned from the 152. My checkride got postponed. My instructor gave me some advice. “Practice on the simulator. Practice until the stall horn comes on. Practice until you get a buffet. Leave the ailerons alone. Learn to use the rudder.” I did all these things, but still had flashbacks of falling out of the sky. Finally he made me porpoise around the sky nose high at 60 knots for a full minute to convince me that with proper rudder control, a 172 will not fall out of the sky under any circumstances.
So now it’s checkride time. I got my way through the oral (which took forever). I figured if he still wanted to fly with me, I had a 50/50 chance. I had my flight plan, checked the weather, performed weight and balance and wind triangle calculations. That was never a problem. But here’s the thing: if you are a musician or performer, there is always one bit that you want to get done with as soon as possible. Maybe it’s a song with a high note that you can’t always hit. Maybe it’s a guitar solo that you mess up the fingering on. Once it’s done, the rest of the show is a piece of cake. Meanwhile, you can’t let them see you sweat.
We worked our way through steep turns (good to the right, marginal to the left), slow flight, under the hood maneuvers, and unusual attitude recovery. So far so good. Then he said, “Set up for a power-on stall, entering at 70 knots, 3500 feet, heading 180 degrees.” Never let them see you sweat, I thought. I entered the maneuver, pulled up the nose, got a clean break, recovered losing only 200 feet, and was still pointed due south. “Forget to clear the area again and your ride is over! That was your one freebie!” Fair enough, I thought, and he didn’t see me sweat. After that we did short field takeoffs and landings (which I actually enjoy), a “balked landing,” and then he said, “Take me home.”
At that point, it was over, one way or the other. He asked a few questions about my wife and kids, and I thought it was still 50-50. The steep turn to the left wasn’t great, and the simulated power out was not my best. Still, I came within 5 knots and 50 feet everywhere in the pattern, which must count for something.
As we landed, he said, “Well, you are one!” which I took to mean either you are a PILOT or you are a REAL SOB. Best not to ask, I thought. We walked back to the FBO, where my flight instructor was pacing like an expectant father. “Well, he is one… he’s one of us!” my examiner said. Finally, I could breathe easy. I made it!