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.

152 in a spin

How did that happen?

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.

Checkride congrats

Welcome to the club – an unforgettable feeling.

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!

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13 replies
  1. Charley
    Charley says:

    “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.”

    Two things: Hauled back on the yoke? That seems a bit drastic… Full right aileron? Shouldn’t opposite rudder be used to level the wings post stall?

  2. Graf Hilgenhurst
    Graf Hilgenhurst says:

    Oh, so you think HAULING back on the yoke might have contributed to the spin? Well, all I can say is that there used to be a column called “I learned about flying from that!”… and I guess that I learned about flying from that!

  3. dan
    dan says:

    60 knots is slow flight in a 172. That is almost Vy. Need to have the stall horn blaring as you do 90° heading changes back and forth. Only need a little bit of bank…

  4. Stephen Phoenix
    Stephen Phoenix says:

    It wasn’t clear; had you had spin recovery training or spins demonstrated to you before you entered the one in the 152?

  5. Graf Hilgenhurst
    Graf Hilgenhurst says:

    Well, there is a first time for everything, and this was my first spin. Hopefully if I do another, it will be an INTENTIONAL spin. I had good training in the simulator, though, and although it took me 1/2 second to remember the drill, at least it all came back to me. There is an aerobatic school in Sewanee, TN that teaches spins and recovery in a 152 Aerobat, I think it’s $780 for the day. Maybe I need to do that!

    • Jon Sanders
      Jon Sanders says:

      Spin training should be taught to all students prior to solo, in my opinion. Good job on getting out of it unscathed. And you could probably get good spin training done in 2 hours or less, so keep that in mind and don’t let them steal your money.

    • Stephen Phoenix
      Stephen Phoenix says:

      That’s a good testimonial for simulators; I’m impressed. I had a student do the same thing, enter a spin from a power on stall except I was on board(well ok, I helped the airplane with a touch of rudder at the stall; he was overconfident). He also hauled back on the wheel, only he held it there and rocked the ailerons back and forth. After a couple of turns he looked over at me and yelled, “Well, what are you going to do to save us now”? We finished lesson practicing numerous spin recoveries.

  6. Jim G
    Jim G says:

    When I was a student at 18 I was in my 2nd or 3rd solo flight and did a power on stall in my usual 152 and the left wing dipped like a brick. It shook me up for awhile and I haven’t been able to replicate it in any piper or 172 I’ve flown. I never had that problem in dual 152 training.

  7. Graf Hilgenhurst
    Graf Hilgenhurst says:

    Now that’s a thought. Dropping the left wing in a 152 with me in the LEFT seat. No wonder it never happened with an instructor present!

  8. Kathy Mullins
    Kathy Mullins says:

    I enjoyed this article and could relate. The memories of my flight tests with my examiners, Rudy Glover and Tom Cassidy are treasures I will always remember. Stalls are a common problem maneuver when learning to fly. Mr. Hilgenhurst is far from alone in having challenges with stalls. I remember learning about stalls and finding that I had a much easier time after I went up in an Aerobat, and learned how to recover from spins as they were just starting, which helped me greatly. I learned how to act quickly and correctly in stall recovery so that a spin would not develop. I believe that this type of training as a student is a must-have. Blue Skies!! :-)

  9. seth conner
    seth conner says:

    I think maybe the CFI should explain exactly what a spin is to the student and practice spins. Spins should be avoided close to the ground obviously but if it is treated like a secret, it’s recovery method will also remain a secret at the moment of truth. My point is just like stall recovery, a spin recovery is simple and thankfully for students, you have to try to get 152/172’s to spin. However, when everything is done correctly to enter a spin and it was not intentional by the student, it can be a little surprising. Get the stalled wing flying again and the spin is over. Full opposite rudder and nose down will do this, no power needed. Ailerons to level the wings but if you are waiting for them to reverse a spin, hope you have a lot of altitude and time to spare.

    • Graf Hilgenhurst
      Graf Hilgenhurst says:

      …and in this case it took me one second and 600 feet to realize that ailerons were not going to help me!

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