The title is a reference to a Jimmy Buffett song because going to my first ever Jimmy Buffett concert was supposed to be my reward for passing my commercial checkride. But the weather had different plans. In fact, the weather had different plans from day one of working towards getting my commercial rating. My logbook shows that my first commercial lesson was on October 21, 2013, and that lesson was only after having to reschedule for weather. I wish I had counted how many lessons were cancelled due to weather. I remember at one point keeping track for about a month and it was 8 out of 10. Since a commercial rating is not one that requires many specific hours to complete (I already had many more than the required 250 hours total time and 100 pilot in command time), it’s not usually one that takes very long. After many attempts at lessons only to be cancelled because of bad weather (this was the winter when New Orleans actually had ice for like a week, so you can imagine the rest of the winter was also not so peachy), I told my instructor, who is a young 72 years old, that I’d be lucky if I had my rating by the time I was his age! It truly felt like that many times when we had a whole month in between lessons, and certainly not for lack of trying.
So you can understand why the words of the Jimmy Buffett song “Weather with You” often came to mind throughout these past seven months and change.
I didn’t want to take the weather with me. And it seems like we went directly from that hellacious and hopefully only once-in-a-lifetime winter to an already-stormy and pilot-unfriendly summer. So, granted, the weather issues that cancelled flight lessons changed drastically, as if Mother Nature (and I swear just as I typed the “M” in Mother, thunder echoed) were trying to show off her vast and humbling repertoire. The actual rating itself was completely overshadowed the entire time by weather. I always took the weather with me, like it or not.
I even tried to cull favor with the Trim God by finally installing something in my airplane that I had been meaning to for years: a dashboard (in this case, instrument panel) hula boy. And not just any hula boy but a bobble hula boy so that he shakes his thang in turbulence. The stronger the turbulence, the more shaking. He’d also do a short bump and grind when you had a hard landing. I figured that: A. the Trim God likes anything tropical because he’s just fly like that and B. if a hula person is good enough for the Blue Angels’ Fat Albert (their hula is a girl, natch), it’s more than good enough for Orion. My hula boy had decidedly mixed reviews: the women loved it and the guys hated it. Well, it’s my airplane and I do what I damn well please with what little money is left after paying for the thing! In fact, the cost of the hula boy was the perfect representation of the amount of spending money I have left over once all the airplane bills are paid.
Back to the commercial training. The commercial rating, in addition to the total time requirements discussed above, requires: 1. passing a written exam, which I got a 92% on back in September when I figured I’d whip this rating out by the end of the year; 2. at least 10 hours in a complex airplane, meaning one with a retractable landing gear and a controllable-pitch propeller; and 3. passing an oral exam and what’s called a checkride, which is a flight test. Each checkride for each rating has different items you have to perform within certain parameters (altitude, heading, airspeed, etc.), and, of course, those limits get more and more strict as you get higher ratings.
I think everyone who I told or who knew I was going after my commercial rating asked if I was doing it because I want to do it for a living, and that’s a fair question. Most people who go for a commercial rating do it as one of the many steps necessary to become a professional pilot, whether they intend to be a flight instructor, airline pilot, or corporate pilot. But, as that’s never been my intention as long as I can keep my day job in finance, for me, it was not a means to an end. The sole reason I wanted it was to know that I had the skills necessary to get it. I won’t say it’s an easy rating, but I’ll say that it was definitely easier than the instrument rating, and most pilots I’ve talked to agree with that. It was also, in my opinion, more fun. With the instrument rating, you spend most of your time with a hood on so that you can’t see outside, and one of my primary reasons I fly is to enjoy the unparalleled view that so few get to enjoy. The commercial maneuvers are totally new and can be fun (and often tricky, too), and, best of all, you’re constantly looking around outside enjoying the view.
While you still are required to perform some things that a private pilot has to learn, like steep turns, slow flight, and stalls, there are many maneuvers that are new and unique to the commercial rating. A chandelle is a maximum performance climbing 180 degree turn. Put another way, you perform a U-turn in the air while climbing from near cruise airspeed and end up at minimum controllable airspeed, so you’ve just turned in a pretty small radius and gained precious altitude, something you may need if you find yourself in a tight spot. Then there’s the lazy eight. Picture the letter S laid horizontally, but the loopy ends are higher than the part in the middle. You climb while you’re turning left, hit the 90 degree point near minimum controllable airspeed, dive back down while slowly taking out the bank, then when you hit your original altitude and airspeed and are wings level, you start it in the opposite direction. Some compare it to a rollercoaster, but it’s not that harsh (if done correctly). Next, the steep spiral simulates having an engine failure and needing to spiral down directly below you, like if you were above a valley with high mountains or cliffs on all sides. For this one, you have to factor in wind direction and speed so that you can stay over your point on the ground without letting the wind push you away from it. You perform three 360 degree turns over your point and roll out on your original heading, and since you’re at idle engine power during this maneuver, you have to clear the engine by advancing the throttle once every 360 degrees, which can throw you off your trajectory if you’re not paying attention. Finally, there’s the famous eights on pylons, which is a ground reference maneuver. You pick two landmarks about a half a mile apart and do figure eights around them, but the catch with this one is that you have to figure out what’s called pivotal altitude, the altitude at which, given your airspeed, which of course changes constantly from the wind direction, makes it look like the wing is attached to the “pylon” on a string. This is one where you can’t bust an altitude restriction as you are constantly climbing or descending to make it look like the wing is pivoting around the pylon. I truly don’t know why, but this is the one that, every time we went up in practice, I nailed it. So I’d say that was the one thing I wasn’t worried about on checkride day. They’re all fun, but they can all turn to very stressful on checkride day when they have to be performed within specific limits and you know you’re not your best when you’re nervous.
Which brings us to checkride day. It was set for Friday, May 30, the day before the Jimmy Buffett concert in Austin. This is what I woke up to on checkride day when I looked out my front door towards the airport, and keep in mind that typical summer weather in the South means that those towering cumulonimbus will just get bigger and meaner as the day gets hotter, and this was at 6:00 in the morning.
Not a good sign. Mind you, we had a low pressure system parked over us, but it was in its third day here, was supposed to be slowly dissipating, and the forecast had been incorrect for the past two days when they said we’d have storms on and off all day. But, given my disfavor with the Trim God of late, of course the forecast for storms on and off on checkride day proved to be true. Still, since the storms were widely scattered, my FAA designated pilot examiner (DPE) agreed to come by the airport in the hopes that maybe it would be clear enough to go forward with my checkride.
A checkride starts with the oral portion so that you can discuss the flight he gives you ahead of time to plan, the weather along the route, and then any of the other thousands of questions that the examiner can ask. It usually lasts about an hour and a half to two hours. But since it became increasingly clear during the oral portion that we were most certainly not flying that day, mine was almost three hours. Whew! That was a lot of questions! I felt confident the entire time, but on one question, when we disagreed about my answer, I respectfully said I still stood by mine versus what he thought it was. I could feel the sweat break out. Boy, this would look really bad if it turned out he was right! Please please please let me be right! We both went looking it up in the pile of books I brought for the exam, giving me a library of information at my disposal, but the trick was always knowing where it was in the pile because you could also look bad by fumbling around for it. BAM! I found the answer, and I was right. HUGE sigh of relief! It also restored my confidence, always a good thing when you’re nervous.
In case there was any doubt, it started to thunder and lightning as we were finishing up the oral portion of the exam. Sigh. I had already lost enough sleep leading up to this. I didn’t want more sleepless nights until we were able to fly. I had been having weird dreams about the exam. Like the night before, my dream was that the examiner came to my parents’ house, where, for some reason, it looked nothing like my parents’ house and I was there with just my mom. It was a nice, sunny day, and he showed up with a few suitcases packed full and proceeded to pretty much move in. He was also getting really friendly with my mom, chatting her up about her garden, and mostly ignoring me. Finally, he went into the bathroom and turned on the shower, came back out to unpack some more while the water warmed up, and was putting his stuff up on shelves. Getting frustrated by now, I finally asked him “Aren’t we going to do my checkride?” He replied “Yeah, sure, just as soon as I take a shower and unpack.” He had pointed the showerhead so that it was spraying outside of the bathroom and was getting stuff wet all over the house, including the wall across from the bathroom. But I didn’t want to be rude and tell him to move it. Then I woke up. So you can see why I was ready to have this over with. I was also looking forward to being able to read non-study books and not feel guilty any time I did something other than studying for the oral exam or going over the flying maneuvers.
We finished up the paperwork for the continuance of the exam due to bad weather and agreed to try again on Sunday after I returned from Austin and by which time the weather was forecast to improve. Well, I figured at least the Jimmy Buffett concert could be a half celebration for passing the oral exam. Still, it’s not the same.
Driving to my parents’ house for dinner that night (the real house, not the dream one), I narrowly avoided two accidents when someone pulled out right in front of me and I had to slam on my brakes. My nerves were already taxed from the exam, and this was only making it worse. Then, once in the safe, quiet neighborhood where I grew up, I was jamming to a Jimmy Buffett song in my car when about 10 feet in front of me, a huge tree branch fell with a thud to the ground. I hadn’t actually seen it directly. I saw tree leaves rustling and just figured it was the now gentle breeze after the storm had passed or a bird flying away. But I had seen movement in my peripheral vision and the deep thud made me look that way in time to see the branch bounce and come to a rest on the side of the road. I don’t think it was big enough to have killed me had it hit me, but it certainly would have caused major damage to me and my car. I was only a few blocks away now from my parents’ house, and I wondered now if I would make it there in one piece! I wanted to go home and curl up into the fetal position in my bed with the covers pulled all the way over my head and suck my thumb!
We had a pleasant dinner together, and I made it home unscathed. My parents had to get some groceries after I left their house, and they drove in the other direction from the grocery store to see if the branch was still there, and they texted me that it was bigger than I had guessed when I told them the story. Gulp.
I did actually sleep well that night, knowing that I’d have a good time over the weekend at the concert in Austin. Of course, every few hours, I’d check the forecast for Sunday, and it wasn’t looking promising. After enjoying an amazing tailgate (sans the one celebratory drink that I was going to allow myself if I had passed my checkride on Friday) and concert, as I was headed home Sunday morning, I texted the DPE that it looked like there was no way we’d be able to fly, and he agreed, so we postponed. Again. This time to next Thursday as I was starting a new job on Monday and traveling to Florida for three days to be in the office. More sleepless nights going over maneuvers in my head. More fretting over the weather. More wishing this had been over last week as now I had the added mental pressure of starting a new job. This was getting old.
Fast forward to Thursday. Forecast was looking very promising, but that morning had a different picture from the forecast. There was fog in some places around the airport, and the cloud deck was getting thicker and lower. Please no! Not again! But we texted back and forth and said we’d give it a shot.
Tune in next week for part 2 of the story, my actual checkride, when everything started to fall apart. Literally!