August 30, 2014
Total Hours: 56.7
This week I passed my private pilot checkride! Yes, that’s right, I am now officially a pilot. It took just over two months, which I’m told is fast, and just over 55 hours of flight time, which I know is right on the average. Regardless of these facts it was a huge accomplishment for me personally and a gigantic relief to take my first step toward a new career as a helicopter pilot. I never truly doubted my ability to become a pilot, but nonetheless it isn’t real until it is, and this certificate has already proven to be a wonderful affirmation. In this week’s post I’ll write a little bit about my checkride.
What is the checkride? The checkride, also called the practical test, is broken down into two parts. The first part is a session of oral quizzing by the examiner where they ask questions about all of the material covered throughout the private training. These questions are scenario based as much as possible. The second part of the exam is a flight with the examiner. The student is required to perform maneuvers within a set of test standards. The oral quizzing continues throughout the flight as the examiner checks the student’s ability to multi-task and deal with distractions in the cockpit.
The night before my checkride I was told to prepare for a cross-country trip to Maui. I already knew that we would not actually make the trip to Maui. Instead the trip would set the stage for a scenario that could be used for questioning during the ground portion of the practical. To plan for the trip I had to come up with navigation points, estimated times and headings, look at potential weather, and learn as much as possible about the route and the airports along the way. I put a lot of effort into preparing for the ground session because I knew that was the part I could control reasonably well. While there is no expectation of perfection I wanted to perform as well as possible because it would give me a mental and emotional boost moving into the flight portion.
When we sat down in the classroom I actually felt very calm. Indeed, much calmer than I had felt during any of my stage checks. To me this was proof that the stage checks had done their job and I was thankful for that despite how excruciating they had been. My examiner quizzed me on some of the Federal Aviation Regulations before having me pull out the flight plan and sectional chart. At that point he moved into questions about how I had come up with the route, where I got weather, and how to interpret the weather sources I had chosen. Then there were many questions about airspace and chart symbology. Most of these questions are not of a pass/fail nature. Instead they are designed to probe the understanding of the student and to eventually find the limitations of that understanding. In fact most of the practical test is about the instructor gauging the students ability to make safe decisions and act as a competent pilot. We all know that a good understanding of theory does not ensure good decision making in the field. Furthermore, even if private pilots had twice the flight hours before becoming certificated they would still be very inexperienced in the big picture. And so the examiner must make sure that a proper foundation and good habits have been set for all the learning still to come.
The hard work preparing for the ground session definitely paid off. I was able to easily handle most of the questions and scenarios that the instructor threw at me. Of course he still areas where I lacked either some knowledge or could still develop a deeper understanding. Once we had finished up I felt calm and confident about the rest of the exam. After a pause for a bite to eat we headed out to the helicopter for the remainder of the checkride.
The tough thing about flying maneuvers is that almost any one of them could go poorly on a given attempt. And of course we only get one try at each one. I still did not have enough experience to be confident about nailing every one perfectly but thankfully perfection is not necessary. The standards for each maneuver at the private level are not easy, but they are more forgiving than commercial and instructor standards. An example of the type of standard I’m talking would be completing an approach within four feet of the intended spot. The approach could be flown a little fast or a little slow, a little high or a little low, and still end at the spot and pass the standards. This is what I mean by perfection not being the required. Most of the other standards pertain to maintaining heading, altitude, and/or airspeed within a given range while performing maneuvers.
I was confident that I would not perform as well as I would like since I tend to be a perfectionist. Because of this my main concern was about becoming frustrated and having that prevent me from performing to the standards of the test. In anticipation of this tension a large part of my preparation for the practical was focused on relaxation techniques. For these I borrowed from my climbing experiences. I found the two techniques I use in climbing particularly helpful for flying as well. These techniques involve relaxing the grip and breathing slowly and deeply. While flying I tried to make grip a part of my scan and when I noticed that it was firmer than necessary I would relax my hand and re-grip the control lightly. Usually a good deep breath followed this.
As predicted I did not meet my personal expectations for several of the maneuvers and there were times I was not sure if I had met the test standards. But I am proud to say that these shortcomings and doubts did not get to me. Each time I was able to keep moving forward and handle the next scenario. By design the testing process requires that if a student performs a maneuver poorly enough to fail the examiner must immediately notify them. This helped me because each time the examiner gave me the next assignment I was able to leave behind whatever concern I had about the previous one and focus solely on the task at hand. Overall the checkride was an incredible experience, the culmination of a very long period of work. While it is true that I have only been training at Mauna Loa for two months, and flown only 56 hours, I started my training back in Antarctica a year ago and the dream was hatched the year before that. Throughout that time I have put in countless hours of research; online, on the phone, and in person, along with hundreds of hours of self-study. Finally becoming a pilot was the fulfillment of a childhood dream, but the earning of this certificate was made more meaningful because of the time and energy I had put into it in the last two years. And while it is only the first step toward my goal of becoming a career pilot every journey begins with a first step, and this one was huge.