I got to the airport around 8:15. I was just starting my preflight when the examiner approached the plane. We chatted a bit and he asked a few questions while I went through my preflight. We were also checking out the cloud situation as the entire flight would have to be conducted under visual conditions. With the cloud deck getting thicker, making it harder to find a hole to get through to get to the clear above, I was staring to doubt we’d be able to finish today.
I was still walking around the outside of the airplane and had only stuck my head inside for a second to lower the flaps and turn on the lights to check them, so I hadn’t paid too much attention yet to what was on the inside of my airplane. My examiner, who often gives checkrides to other people in my airplane and therefore knows it well, said “Oh this is a bad omen.” Let’s ponder this for a second here. Probably number one top thing you don’t want to hear your DPE say is “You failed.” Probably number two and not a distant one is “This is a bad omen.” I tried to discern what he was looking at when he said that, thinking maybe it had started to storm off in the distance again or something. I didn’t see anything so I asked nervously, “What? What? What’s a bad omen?” “Your hula boy is gone.” I gasped! Hula boy! I looked up at the top of the instrument panel where hula boy usually bobs gently as I climb around the plane for preflight. No hula boy. I immediately ran to the pilot’s door so I could look around the inside of the plane. Surely he just fell off his perch? We both scoured the inside of the airplane, under the seats, in the side pockets and seat pockets. No_hula_boy. I’m not joking when I tell you I very seriously considered cancelling the checkride right then and there. We pilots are a superstitious bunch, and he was right: this didn’t bode well for things to come. But then I thought of how many times we’d already had to reschedule and all the sleepless nights leading up to this. Extremely reluctantly, I decided to press on.
We got in my plane, and after going through the checklist for starting the plane, it was time to turn the key. Crank crank crank crank. No start. Sigh. Okay, so we’re going to be like this today, huh, Orion? Orion has never liked a hot start. And lately he’d been getting worse to the point that, the day before, one of the instructors had to call out a ground power unit to help start it before he ran the battery down by cranking it too much. So this, at least, was not a surprise. And I’ve had trouble hot starting it in the past. I just figured it was a matter of trying different throttle and mixture positions before it would catch. Both of us tried and tried to get it started. No go. Oy. Stress level now approaching maximum. I looked at where hula boy should have been and wondered if the “bad omen” was turning out to be a bad checkride.
Well, at least by this time, the other plane that I needed to use for part of the checkride, since part of it had to be conducted in a plane with retractable gear and controllable-pitch propeller, had arrived. So we agreed to go use that one first, do what we needed to do in it, and hopefully by then my engine would have had enough time to cool down so we could get it started. The examiner said “Well, this’ll definitely give you something to blog about!” Two observations here: 1. He knew me too well, something that could be dangerous and 2. I was less than amused at the time, but clearly he was right.
So far, not so good. What else could go wrong than not getting my own airplane started? We walked over to the Cessna 172RG that had been flown down from the flight school in Hammond, the closest place that had a 172RG. Quite unconsciously, apparently, when I’m preflighting my own airplane, I lean my lower leg back on the wheel pant for support while I sump the fuel from each wing. It is truly one of those things you do without thinking about it until something happens to force you to think about why you do it. Well, since these movements are all so ingrained after hundreds of preflights, I did the same thing on the RG. The only problem is that this RG did not have wheel pants. But it did, as I discovered, have a very hot disc brake that burned the crap out of my leg. I jumped off it when at first I thought something had electrocuted me. That’s what it felt like. I looked at the instantly red spot on my leg and back at the wheel and realized what I’d done. Imagine burning yourself and normally having a notoriously unclean vocabulary but being in a setting where you are really trying not to curse. That may have been the hardest part of the checkride! And you have to play it off like it ain’t no thang, so I’m limping around saying “I’m okay! I’m okay!” while also trying to convince myself. Again, the missing hula boy haunted me. And this was only what was happening on the ground! Would it be just as bad in the air?!?
We agreed that I’d do the soft and short field takeoffs and landings in the RG and then return to my plane for the power off 180 degree accuracy landing and all the maneuvers. The things that worried me the most were the short field landing and the power off 180 accuracy landing, and here’s why: for the short field landing, you pick out a spot on the runway that you communicate to the examiner, and you have minus zero and plus 100 feet to land the airplane from your chosen spot. Ya’ll, that ain’t much. Like it moves past in about a second at landing airspeed. And for the power off 180 degree accuracy landing, when you are on downwind in the traffic pattern abeam your agreed-upon touchdown point, you pull the power to idle and have to nail your spot minus zero and plus 200 feet. Keep in mind that no two landings are ever the same. There’s wind speed, wind direction, pockets of air that raise or lower you, air density that affects airplane performance, and weight differences in the airplane. There is no way to have two landings exactly the same. So you can practice and practice and practice these landings, and they’re still all unique and have to be done on the fly, pardon the pun, and based on the conditions right then. Wind is normally the biggest factor. Is it pushing you toward the runway on downwind? Away from it? And how strong is it? Is it so strong you need to turn directly to the landing point or do you need to fly downwind a bit more? Then you have to judge your sink rate and, therefore, when to lower your flaps. If you’re high, you can “slip” the airplane in to increase drag, but you can’t do a damn thing if you’re coming up short.
Considering all this, those two landings gave me the most sleepless nights of all the stuff I worried about. But, as I was relieved to see, the missing hula boy curse did not extend to my performance in the air. I’d never had an issue with the short field and soft field takeoffs, so those were fine. And the landings were within limits. But I still had the power off 180 degree accuracy landing to do in my airplane. Still, I had shown myself that not everything was falling apart as I taxiied the RG back to the ramp.
Stay calm now. I got through some of the stuff that had worried me before. I can get through the rest.
We hop in my airplane, still sans hula boy, and I go through the checklist to start the plane. Crank crank crank crank. Still not starting and not sounding like it will. We tried a few more times before we decided to call out the ground power unit so we didn’t run down the battery. I was trying to remain calm after all the crazy stuff that had happened this morning. Truthfully, I wasn’t succeeding at that whatsoever, but it sounded like a good and responsible thing to say.
It took some trying even with the ground power unit hooked up to my protesting plane, but we got it started. I hoped that was the end of the problems I’d have. Again, during the flight, I zoned out all the other stuff and flew like I know I can fly. It was actually the worst I’d ever flown all the maneuvers except my always-loyal eights on pylons, but they were all still within limits. Just goes to show you how much being nervous can affect your flying! And he said I couldn’t have done the eights on pylons better, and that was my last maneuver before heading back to the airport. All that was left was the power off degree 180 accuracy landing. Gulp. I knew that could make me fail the checkride after I had done all the others landings and maneuvers just fine.
The examiner asked if I wanted to do the accuracy landing right away or do a normal landing and then stay in the traffic pattern for the 180. I said I wanted to do a normal landing so I could at least get a feel for what the wind was doing and if there were any bumps on final approach so I could plan for that with my accuracy landing. I made a soft touchdown on 18L and poured on the coals for a touch and go (which I just recently learned the British call “circuits and bumps”, and because that’s so cute, I will heretofore refer to touch and gos as circuits and bumps). So I was circuiting and I was bumping (but not too hard), and this was it! The last landing of the checkride! I told him my aim point was the top of the numbers. Of course, in the weeks leading up to my checkride, the airport staff had been slowly repainting that runway. Without runway markings like centerlines, figuring out length that I had flown past my point was really just guessing. But wouldn’t ya know it! They had painted centerline markings right before my checkride, leaving no guessing to figuring out distance as each centerline is a certain length and has a specific length space before the next one. Drat. No fudging now.
I took a deep breath as we approached the point on the downwind leg where I’d be abeam my aiming spot. I pulled the throttle control to idle. As the winds were not too strong, I continued downwind for a few seconds before turning back toward the runway. I definitely didn’t want to come up short. But I soon realized I was going to end up too high, so I dumped in full flaps and put the airplane into a slip. I was starting to think I’d really blown it and that I’d still be way too high, but I kept the slip in until safety dictated that I straighten out for touchdown, and, with little float, I touched down not too far past my aiming point. CHECKRIDE OVER!!!!
I taxiied off the runway at the first turn and kind of held my breath. The examiner had been pretty quiet the entire time except for telling me which maneuver to perform next. He said “You passed.” I made nervous small talk on the way back to the ramp. Once parked, he headed inside to finish the online paperwork while I secured the airplane. There was no one else on the ramp to share my news with. And no hula boy to talk to. The whole thing seemed so anti-climactic after all the preparation that goes into it. Oh well. I guess my celebrating could come later. I did my postflight ritual: I bowed to my airplane to show respect and kissed its spinner and headed inside to join the examiner. He printed up my temporary paper certificate (a plastic one to follow hopefully in the not too distant future in the mail) that confirmed it. COMMERCIAL PILOT was printed in all caps. Damn that looked good with my name on it!
Postscript: you’ll be happy to know that hula boy didn’t blow away or go west permanently. Whoever found him when he fell off his perch had kindly put him in my cubby at the flight school. The sticky on the bottom had completely melted off in our lovely summer heat. Now we’ll see how my super glue holds out. Maybe the Trim God will smile upon the more permanent installation.
Post postscript: Orion went directly into maintenance after my checkride to see if they can fix this ridiculous hot start issue. I had forgotten to take a picture of myself by the airplane after passing my checkride since I was in such a hurry to get to work. So I went out the next day to visit it in the maintenance hangar and to take my official commercial pilot checkride passing picture!