Saturday, November 15, 2008

Checkride, Part 1: Well, I'm half a pilot now

Mother Nature apparently decided today was not the proper time for me to become a Private Pilot. Thankfully half of the test is an oral exam, which I was able to complete with the examiner over the course of about two hours. Unfortunately, the flying part had to be rescheduled for next Saturday. So it'll be at least another week until I'm fully certificated. Until then you'll have to amuse and entertain yourself with my (long) play-by-play of today's oral.

Umm, yea...

KMGY 151953Z AUTO 30014G18KT 5SM -RA BR OVC007 02/02 A2969 RMK AO2 RAE17B49UPB17E28SNB1855E1859B28E49 CIG 005V011 SLP056 P0007 T00220017
At 2:53pm the winds were from 300 degrees at 14 knots, gusting to 18. Visibility was 5 statute miles. There was light rain and mist, with an overcast layer at 700 feet above the ground. The temperature was 2 degrees C and the dewpoint was 2 degrees C with the atmospheric pressure at 29.69 inches of Mercury. Rain ended at 2:17pm and began at 2:49pm, unknown precipitation began at 2:17pm and ended at 2:29pm, snow began at 1:55pm and ended at 1:59pm, and snow began at 2:28pm and ended at 2:49pm...
I made it to Wright Brothers - by car - on time, although the delightful weather resulted in a nice big accident at a major intersection I had to drive through on the way. Good thing I left early or I would have been late to my appointment and that's not the best way to start a checkride. Upon entering the building, I walked over to the front desk and the examiner saw me, came out and introduced himself, and then we walked over to his office.

The first thing he did was ask for my paperwork, consisting of the FAA application form (8710-1) and the printed report I received for passing the knowledge exam, and photo ID. He spent some time reviewing these and entering his information where required. Then he asked to see my logbook and went over some of the flights and endorsements with me. We talked about where I flew on my cross-country flights and my experience using ATC, and also some of the maneuvers I have practiced, namely spins. I'll come back to that in a bit. The whole process was very relaxing and it felt like he spent half the time telling me flying stories and other useful tidbits of information. Dave had told me he was likely to spend a lot of the time teaching me things since I know all the regulations and other information so well and that is exactly how it went.

Below are some of the more interesting points we discussed, and pretty much everything I can remember from this afternoon...
  • The first thing we did was review the cross-country flight I had planned to Clarksburg, WV. I didn't feel great when his first reaction was, "whoah that's a lot of checkpoints!" In training, I have been placing them about every 10-15 miles and he said that's likely because instructors want to keep you looking out the windows. But a consequence of that is more time spent looking inside writing things down on the chart. Plus, a 30 second difference in time enroute over a short distance can result in large errors when extrapolated out as ground speed. He said to use points closer to 40 miles apart for calculations (so errors will be averaged out) and simply use intermediate points as visual references - don't write them down on the nav log. Not a big deal in the end, and I'll adjust my plan accordingly for next weekend.
  • I didn't call for a weather briefing today since it was clearly not a day to fly, so he pulled up a standard briefing on the computer and we discussed the elements. He asked what type of system I would expect with the weather we're having today (low pressure, which pulls air inward and upward to produce precipitation) and we looked through the METARs and TAFs. Friendly reminder to other pilots: don't forget that TAFs recently increased to a 30-hour forecast and now include the date in with the time codes, i.e. 150400 meaning the 15th day of the month at 0400Z. We didn't discuss NOTAMs much and he also didn't have me spend any time going through the antiquated weather charts we have to learn for the knowledge test. We did, however, look at some color frontal depiction charts and radar pictures on the computer.
  • On to maneuvers, he said he's not really a fan of taking initial students up for spins like we do at Stewart and was very surprised I have spun the 150. The reasoning being that it's not representative of how they usually occur in accidents. Statistics have shown the FAA's spin recognition and avoidance training have resulted in a marked decrease of such accidents. In Canada, where they still require spin entry and recovery training, their accident rate (for all pilots, not just students) as a result of spins is actually 5 times higher than here in the U.S. So the statistics point to avoidance training being much more effective, something I did not know before today. The most interesting part to me was that he said spins result from three conditions (when stalled, as you have to be stalled to spin) that occur in this order: 1) adverse yaw from aileron deflection, 2) p-factor from the propeller, and 3) rudder. We practice them by kicking in a ton of rudder, yet that's the least likely scenario in which they occur. Now, I still think they're fun and useful to have practiced but it was a very good lesson in what really causes most stall/spin accidents in the U.S.
  • On the topic of stalls, I know all the book (read: FAA) definitions about how they work, angle of attack, chord line, and other technical terminology. The examiner said that's all nice but really wanted the practical answer. Thus, he was happy when he (after some hinting) got me to say that, "in order to stall you have to pull the stick back." He went on to teach me that studies have shown most stalls actually occur when the airplane is pitched nose DOWN, which is contrary to how we usually practice them. It's easy to see how you can be in what looks to be a stable descent with plenty of airspeed and keep slowly pulling back and all of a sudden be stalled. As always, if you pull back to stall then you push forward to get out!
  • We got into airspace and weather minimums and sort of covered the entire gamut while discussing the cross-country flight plan plotted on the sectional chart. Dave had correctly cautioned me the way to answer was that there are two kinds of airspace - controlled and uncontrolled. Yes, there are different classes of controlled airspace but the important distinction is between the two types. The examiner asked if I could fly the cross-country on a day like today (legally, not safely mind you) and I said that since it's uncontrolled (Class G) up to 700 feet agl we could putz along since the ceiling was about 700 feet and the minimums are 1 mile visibility and clear of clouds. Not a smart thing to do, and it would be tricky as we would have to avoid any densely populated areas since those require that you be 1,000 feet above the nearest structure. But this is how it went overall, talking more through scenarios than a direct question-and-answer format.
  • Continuing with the visibility requirements, we talked about flights above 10,000 feet. The legal minimums are 5 miles visibility, 1 mile horizontal from clouds, and 1,000 feet above/below clouds. Why is this? I answered that it's due to faster traffic, which is the correct response. But he went further to explain that it's particularly due to the closure rates at high speeds. At 210 mph (roughly two Cessna 172s flying at each other) and 5 miles visibility you have 85 seconds to see each other and react. Speed things up to 600 mph closure (think a 150 and a jet) and you are down to 30 seconds. If the visibility drops to 3 miles, you have 18 seconds. One mile away and it's 6 seconds, barely enough time to flinch let alone avoid a collision. Quite simply, you need all that visibility to have a chance of avoiding other aircraft at such speeds.
  • Transponder usage was an intriguing part of our airspace discussion as well. He asked where we had to use them (Class B, C, above 10,000 feet, under Class B shell) and why, to which I responded, "so ATC can see us." Wrong. The reason we squawk 1200 when we're up there sightseeing is so they can click a button and REMOVE us from their radar screens. Otherwise, it would be a cluttered mess and they would have trouble working all their IFR traffic. Hence the reason we need to squawk a discrete code when on flight following; so they can actually see us! They have no responsibility to deal with VFR aircraft and don't even have to inform IFR traffic when we're close by, he told me.
  • On to navigation, we talked a bit about pilotage and dead reckoning. Pilotage is where you look out the window and use landmarks, dead reckoning is where you calculate a course factoring in the winds and fly that compass heading. Basically, he told me that dead reckoning is kind of useless since winds aloft forecasts are mostly unreliable and inaccurate and we have to make continued corrections (by referencing landmarks on the ground) to stay on course. Plus, a magnetic compass is a very imprecise instrument and is easily swayed by magnetic fields induced by electrical equipment and the magnetos in the engine. He said that the main reason for holding a compass heading is knowing what heading has kept you on course and then maintaining that heading when flying over a long stretch of relatively featureless terrain.
  • While we're on the subject of the magnetic compass, there were a couple other good points made that I hadn't ever thought of before. We were discussing instrumentation and emergencies and what would happen if the alternator died and the battery ran out. Obviously we'd lose radios, electric flaps, and the turn coordinator, I said. Right, and wrong. The magnetic compass would indicate differently now because magnetic fields from the electrical system would disappear. He also said that when flying IFR approaches, switching on the landing light has caused enough compass variation to force him off course such that he had to go missed. The remedy was to set the directional gyro (heading indicator) before turning the landing light on and then use that to fly the approach. Crazy interesting, at least to me.
  • Back to flight planning and navigation, we had a somewhat theoretical chat about wind effects. Many pilots presume it takes the same amount of time to fly a round trip on a day with no wind (which admittedly happens as often as you or I win the lottery) as it does on a day where you have a headwind one way and a tailwind the other. Not true. Say it's 100 nautical miles one-way, it takes you 2 hours total, and you land with 30 minutes of fuel remaining. That makes for 100 knots ground speed. Now assume a 40 knot wind parallel to your route. You're going 60 knots with the headwind on the way there, which is 1 hour and 40 minutes. On the way back your speed is 140 knots with the tailwind and it takes 43 minutes. Total time is 2 hours and 23 minutes, meaning you have 7 minutes of fuel remaining. Apparently many pilots have run out of gas as a result of such false assumptions so I consider this a great lesson for everyone out there!
  • So what are the required VFR minimum fuel reserves? 30 minutes for daytime and 45 minutes for night. Why longer at night? My answer was that it's harder to find a safe place to land should something happen. The examiner told me nearly everyone answers it that way, but that's not entirely accurate. We looked at the sectional chart (see the map below) and he said to assume it's nighttime and you realize near Nelsonville, the black marker on the chart, that you don't have enough fuel to reach the destination with the required reserve. Where do you divert to? Well the closest airport is Ohio University to the south but a better choice is Parkersburg to the east. Why? Well it's a busier airport, has a tower, and fuel is likely to be available 24 hours a day. And therein lies the distinction - at night, it's going to be a lot harder to find an airport that's open (we're discounting self-service pumps here) for you to refuel so you need a longer reserve. Never knew that before, but makes complete sense to me.
A portion of my route for the cross-country
  • Engine systems were another topic we spent a few minutes on and most questions related to the carburetor. I was asked the expected questions on carb ice (what it is, how to remedy it) but he also taught me some things here. He said that, contrary to what we're taught in the books, an RPM drop is not usually the first sign of carb ice. It happens gradually and the usual pilot response is to think the throttle slid out a little (as it's prone to do, especially in Cessnas) and push it in to maintain the RPM. You keep doing this until it's in all the way and still not developing full power. So what you really notice is a decrease in airspeed, as less power (throttle/RPM) results in a slower airspeed if you're maintaining altitude. He also said that it's not the venturi action that's responsible for most of the decrease in temperature in the carburetor. Instead, it's really the vaporization of the fuel. Just as alcohol on your hands evaporates quickly and feels very cold, fuel vaporizing in the carb can cool the air temperature by 50 degrees or more.
  • Lastly, and I'm sure I've butchered the order of all this by now, we talked about aeromedical factors. It's cold out now so he asked what to do if it's chilly in the plane. Turn on the cabin heat, of course. But what is one of the dangers? Carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning, since the heat is taken from air flowing around the exhaust manifold. While we can buy devices that monitor CO levels, he wanted me to be very clear on the actual symptoms you would notice if getting CO poisoning. Specifically headache, drowsiness, and dizziness - in that order. He pointed out that things in the AIM are listed like ingredients in food, the most important first and the rest in order. Good to know. See AIM 8-1-2 and 8-1-4 for reference on the symptoms. My favorite part was his description of CO poisoning vs. hypoxia, which was a comparison to a night of drinking. As he said, hypoxia is like the night of the party (feelings of euphoria, belligerence, lack of judgement) and CO poisoning is like the hangover the day after. Funny, surprisingly accurate, and an easy way to keep the two straight.
I know this post was ridiculously lengthy, but I know a bunch of fellow pilots read this and are getting ready for their own checkrides so I hope it will be useful. If nothing else, it's a record of all the things I learned today that should serve me well into the future. The examiner was great and the entire time really did feel like a conversation. Even if I slipped up here or there, he seemed to realize I knew the material and would give a hint or say "are you sure that's all?" and allow me to give the complete answer. So for those of you stressing over the oral - don't! I know all examiners are different, but I think it should be a good experience for anyone who's prepared.

Weather- and work-pending, I might try and take the flying portion of the checkride on Thursday or Friday. The examiner said to give him a call if the weather looks good any afternoon next week, but I'm out of town until Wednesday. Otherwise I'll be back at MGY next Saturday to hopefully conclude the long road towards my certificate.


  1. Well here's an enthusiastic 1/2 woot for you, sir!

  2. Great job! Hope the weather clears up, it's quite depressing.

  3. Thanks!

    If either of you read even half of that, you get a full woot yourselves!

  4. Thanks for the help! I'm still trying to figure out the math on why the windy round trip takes longer. You're correct, I just have to figure out why. Good luck on the checkride.

  5. Great work, Steve! Good post about it as well. I don't mind a long post as long as it's interesting! People say that blog entries should always be short, but I think that's because most people's blogs are lame. Yours is not! Good luck on the flying part when the weather clears.

  6. Tony,

    The gist of it is that you're flying longer (time) at a slower speed with the headwind and therefore the total time is longer. Even with the decreased return leg (with the tailwind) it's not fast enough to make up for how much the headwind slowed you down.


    Thanks for the kind words - glad to hear I haven't bored you completely to death!

  7. Nice job on the oral exam. Thanks for the writeup, very helpful to other pilots, CFIs, and examiners out there. No, it wasn't too lengthy. If you think that one's bad, check out my instrument & commercial writeups at :-D


  8. Steve,

    Congrats on passing the oral, you will do just as good on the flying portion. The flying is the fun part, just show that you are safe. Looking forward to your post check ride write up.

  9. I'm almost glad you didn't fly, otherwise we wouldn't be blessed with such a detailed briefing on your oral exam. Good material - thanks for taking the time to write it all down.

  10. I'm really glad this has been so helpful to all of you - it means a lot to hear y'all saying such kind things. Seriously, thanks!

    So far the weather looks good from Wednesday thru Sunday so, barring something crazy, this weekend looks promising for the finale.

  11. Awesome Steve! I too learned from your Oral. I consider myself lucky I did the written version, but feel too I missed out on learning more about the stuff I knew.

    If you're anything like me, you'll rock the hands on. I was told repeatedly "Flying is the easy part", which it was. Consider him your first passenger. You'll do great!

    Break a leg!!!!

  12. Hey Steve! You got the hard part behind you now... Good lock on the flight! Nice write-up.