I finally did it. After eight months of training, I took and passed the Airplane Single Engine Land Private Pilot Practical Exam in one shot. Back when I started I shuddered with fear whenever I thought about the oral exam and the check ride, but as the day approached and I continued training that fear wore off. In the end it was actually a ton of fun, and for the benefit of those still sweating the check ride I wanted to talk about my experience and draw back the curtain of what’s going to happen.
Let me start by repeating something my flight instructor told me and really helped me calm down a bit: there are no secrets. You can see exactly what is on the test in the Practical Test Standards (PTS) pamphlet, and the answers to every question are written down somewhere in the FAR/AIM. Both documents, by the way, are allowed to be brought with you into the test and you can look up whatever you want to answer the examiner’s questions — it’s completely open book. There are no “trick” questions, everything is laid out in black and white if you know where to find it..
My check ride was originally scheduled for early November. For the longest time San Antonio has been without a DPE (Designated Pilot Examiner) in the area to administer the practical test, so examiners from the surrounding areas have had to fly or drive into the city to give the test. It’s annoying for all involved, and means that there isn’t necessarily someone available when you’re ready to go. As my luck would have it, a brand new examiner had recently started working in the city and I would finally be able to take my test.
But there was a catch.
The DPE for San Antonio was brand new. So new, in fact, that he was still being checked out by the FAA. Which means that for my check ride, there would be a daisy chain of examiners: I would be examined by the new DPE, and the new DPE would be watched like a hawk by someone from the FAA in the backseat. It was a recipe for disaster, at least in terms of the ability for the DPE to show me a little wiggle room in the PTS standards. Nevertheless I was undaunted, and we scheduled the check ride.
That particular check ride never happened. I was in the car en route to the airfield when I got a text from my CFI. Apparently the FAA guy had taken issue with the maintenance on one of the planes in the fleet (not mine specifically) and they had pre-emptively grounded the whole lot. The check ride was off for the day. It wasn’t until nearly a month later that I would actually take the test. With a completely different DPE.
The check ride started the day before the scheduled flight. I got a text from my CFI with a profile that the DPE wanted me to plan.
Be prepared to fly [from KSSF] to MFE with the DPE, his friend and dog. Plan as if you owe him a favor.
Short, sweet, and right to the point.
I spent about three hours that afternoon sitting in the flight planning room at Stinson Airport plotting the route. The straight line distance is about 190 NM, which is perfectly reasonable for a Cessna 172SP at max takeoff weight. Even with the zig-zagging plan I plotted to follow highway 281 down, we were well within limits and had time to spare with a full tank. The problem was that when I added his friend and a dog, I needed to take some fuel out to get everyone to fit under the takeoff weight. Unless his friend was Paris Hilton and the dog was a Chihuahua, there was no way we could make it in one shot. I did the math, figured out the weight we had to spare if only adding enough fuel to make the trip, and thought through the possible scenarios for the following day.
When it came to plotting my flight, I started out on Garmin Pilot to get an idea of what I want to do. I spend about 30 minutes just plotting and re-plotting to different points, and figuring out what landmarks I could use for checkpoints. I eventually settled on a plan that almost exclusively used VORs for navigation and airports as checkpoints, and set about to put the whole thing on paper.
If there’s one recommendation I have to student pilots looking to take the PPL practical test, this is my advice: plot your flight on paper. The check ride will cost hundreds of dollars in airplane rental fees as well as examiner fees, and adding $18 in new charts really isn’t that big of a deal. This was a little tricky for me as I needed to plot a flight across the seam between two sectionals, but it was well worth the effort. I’ll explain why in a little bit.
Once I was happy with my route, I transferred the entire thing to an ASA flight planning pad sheet, calculated the wind correction for the forecast winds aloft, and went home. I strapped the flight plan along with the two plotted sectionals to my kneeboard, made sure that all of my documents were in order, and made sure to get a good night’s sleep.
The morning of the check ride I arrived about an hour early. I spent 10 minutes going through the maintenance documents for the airplane flagging the important bits with some sticky notes (A1TAPE) and updating my flight plan for the current winds aloft (I was close, but not close enough for my liking). When the examiner arrived, I was ready to go.
While I was ready to go, the weather was not cooperating. The forecast had initially called for clear skies and light winds a week out, but as the day approached the TAF for the local airport was predicting clouds overcast at 900 feet throughout the entire check ride. With Christmas coming up this would be my last chance for a check ride before the end of the year, and I could definitely feel the “get-there-itis” creeping into my decision making processes. The meteorologists had been similarly skeptical about the previous day’s weather, but a forecast of 1,500 overcast miraculously turned into clear skies and unrestricted visibility around 10 AM. I was concerned, but hopeful.
My expectation of the oral exam was that it would be more or less free form — my instructors had cautioned me to go into it with a plan of how to cover everything that needed to be discussed, or else we might find a small crevice in my knowledge and spend an hour plumbing its depths. So I had a plan, and the DPE busted it the second he sat down. Much like everything else in aviation, the DPE had a checklist of things he wanted to discuss and we were going to follow that checklist no matter how hard I pushed to get back on my schedule.
The first 30 minutes of the oral exam was all about documentation. Not only did he want to see the hours listed properly in my log book, he wanted to see remarks in the logbook confirming the training topic for each day. My flight school had a syllabus that it used which described the lesson plans in depth and corresponded to the lesson plan noted in my log book, but he made a good point that should I go somewhere else for additional training they would want to see the specifics noted in my book and not on some other piece of paper. Luckily my CFI was on hand to update any notes in the log, referencing the syllabus for confirmation. We leafed through the maintenance logs (he was sufficiently impressed with my prep work that he didn’t dig much deeper), double checked my endorsements, and then pivoted to the flight planning.
As soon as we started discussing the flight plan, I knew I had made the right call to plot everything on the chart. Instead of having to refer to the paper flight plan and point out the route, everything was marked on the chart and easily identified. I had made a point to indicate heading, distance, and fuel burn for each leg on the chart, and those indications made discussing the plan a breeze. The DPE could instantly see my plan and my checkpoints, and he didn’t have many questions beyond the basics.
There were two questions that threw me for a loop during the oral exam. The first was where the information for the MOAs and Alert Areas was posted, and I forgot that it is written on the side of the sectional chart. I spend so much time with Garmin Pilot these days that I completely forgot that the paper charts have that info right on them. The second was a question about anti-collision lights and whether they are required, and a quick look at the FAR set me straight on that.
We briefly discussed the “friend” situation, and my determination was that the friend and the dog would have to stay on the ground. That answer seemed to satisfy him, and we finished off our chat.
In general, that’s how I would describe the oral exam. It wasn’t so much a grilling as an enjoyable chat between two pilots. We each shared our stories, discussed the upcoming flight, and waited for the weather to lift.
By the time we were finished with everything on his oral exam checklist, the weather had improved to the point where we could complete the check ride. I had been up practicing the maneuvers earlier in the week, but I was still a bit nervous about the short field landing and the steep turns. What my DPE did next didn’t help those fears.
During the pre-flight brief, I went over where my landmark was on the runway for the short field landing. My instructor had me practice the short field using the thousand footers (the big white stripes) as the touchdown point, since it gave me a bit of a safety buffer if I happened to come up short. When I explained this to my DPE, he wasn’t happy. “I want you to land on the numbers,” he said, “I want to see a real short field landing. We should be stopped by the thousand footers, not landing on them.”
There were two big reasons why this made me a little nervous.
First, the airport we were going to use for the short field landing wasn’t exactly Edwards AFB. We would be landing at Pleasanton (KPEZ), a delightful little non-towered airport south of San Antonio. While the environs are indeed bucolic, the runway is not ideal. I would have a 75 foot wide strip of asphalt instead of the 100 feet I was used to, and that meant a smaller margin for error. Add in the fact that there was a nice steady crosswind at the time and I was slightly concerned that I wouldn’t be able to put it down exactly in the middle of the road.
Issue #2 stemmed from that bucolic nature, namely a power line. Due to the way that the wind was blowing, we were going to be landing on runway 34. Just short of runway 34 is a nice set of power lines along a small rural road. My biggest concern was that a gust of wind would catch us unawares, and I would find myself entangled in the power lines. On the plus side, I wouldn’t be left in the dark about whether I had passed or not I suppose.
In the end, the DPE wouldn’t budge. He insisted that I land on the numbers and stop before the thousand footers — a “true” short field landing. Who was I to disagree? It wasn’t impossible, and I figured that I could just set some guidelines for myself and be ready to go around at a moment’s notice.
When we took off from the airport, I started out following the flight plan I had laid out. I used the SAT VOR for navigation, and arrived at my first checkpoint exactly on time. From there we did the ground reference maneuvers (I nailed ’em), then headed into KPEZ for the special landings.
I id a soft field landing first, to get a feel for how the wind was blowing and make sure I could put the plane down where I intended. It went smoothly, and we took off for another circuit around the airfield. As we were in the downwind leg I asked again whether the DPE would accept a landing on the thousand footers instead of right on the numbers, and he didn’t budge one bit. I set up for a little longer final than usual, and made sure to watch out for the power lines as they passed below (I actually added a touch of throttle at that point). In the end I put it down perfectly on the numbers, stall warning horn blaring as the wheels touched the ground. We were stopped by the time the nose wheel kissed the thousand footers.
To be honest, I had an absolute blast on my check ride. My DPE was knowledgeable and generally a pleasure to talk to. I knew what I needed to know, and nailed all the maneuvers. And, to top it off, there was no FAA administrator in the backseat. There were four big factors that contributed to that positive outcome.
- Know the PTS Standards. Everything you need to do is in that booklet, and there’s really no excuse for not knowing the standards.
- Plan your flight on paper. The tablet apps are fantastic, but you need to be able to plan your flight without the fancy computerized stuff. Plotting everything on a sectional (or two) makes discussing the flight a ton easier than simply having the ASA flight planning sheet filled out.
- Put what you did in the logbook. There might not seem like a lot of space in the remarks section, but make sure that your CFI lists what you did for each lesson. Also make sure that you list the airports you land at, if other than your home base.
- Bookmark your FAR/AIM. I spent about three hours just putting little tabs into my FAR/AIM at critical sections, just because I knew that I wouldn’t remember everything and I wanted to be able to quickly look that information up. Like the day VFR minimum equipment list — ain’t nobody got time to memorize that. Just tab it, read over it, and move on.
I had a ton of fun getting my private pilot’s license, and I can’t wait to start IFR training.