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Swayne Martin is a private pilot based out of Hanover, VA (KOFP). Through his blog, "From Private to Professional Pilot," he's profiled his own flying career, plus the experiences of student, recreational and professional pilots throughout the world. If you haven't read it, you need to check it out. He's inspirational - and his experiences remind us of why we love to fly. You can reach him at @MartinsAviation on Twitter.
Swayne Martin's been training under a glass canopy. Not the Maverick and Goose F-14 type of glass canopy, but the "I'll blog everything that happens to me along the way to my flying career to inspire others to fly" kind of glass canopy. And that's a real clear canopy - Windex clear.
So, last week he went up for his private pilot check ride. True to the profession, he was weathered or canceled for maintenance three times. Swayne, you may not realize it now, but you're already living the life of a professional pilot. All you need now is a crew meal and a late hotel van...
So - what am I writing about? Good question. While following Swayne in the lead-up to his check ride, it reminded me of my expectations for my check ride - and what expectations hit and missed.
This is a before and after piece. Swayne took time to interview with me before and after his ride (no small feat considering he took his check ride at 17 and had to manage studying for the certificate and for school).
His expectations and concerns hit home. If you're working towards your pilot certificate, or dreaming of it, you'll one day be in his place.
A private pilot check ride has two parts: an oral and a flight. Technically, they're all one thing - but often students think of them separately.
The oral covers ground knowledge - including rules and regulations, systems, weather, and navigation charts. The flight covers navigation, upper air maneuvers like slow flight, stalls and steep turns, lower altitude ground reference maneuvers, emergencies, and takeoffs and landings.
Before Swayne's check ride, I asked him what topics he felt the most comfortable with.
"I was asked to plan a cross country from Hanover to Ashville, North Carolina," he said, "and I'm feeling pretty comfortable with the flight plan. Navigation and charts I feel pretty good about - you could put your finger anywhere on the sectional and I'd know it."
How about weather? "At first, I had trouble understanding Zulu time and remembering when forecasts were valid, but I'm feeling pretty good with it now." Swayne did have some good prep on weather reports - he had used our Aviation Weather Products course to master text reports and forecasts.
If you feel comfortable with charts, airspace, and weather, what areas feel questionable?
"I have some trouble with regulations every now and then," Swayne said. "Not necessarily the actual regulation, but if someone were to ask me what part or section the regulation was from. Sometimes airspace requirements are confusing - one of the four questions I missed on the written had to do with airspace."
Swayne also picked out a common difficult area - systems. "Aircraft systems and mechanical aspects of the airplane are something that I have a little bit of trouble with, just because I don't have a mechanical background."
I dug a bit and asked Swayne what he thought an examiner would look for - focusing specifically on the aircraft's electrical system. "If your electrical system were to fail," said Swayne, "he'd want to know what would continue to run and what wouldn't. What's electrically operated - stuff like that."
So, what do you do if you don't know the answer to a question? "Everybody always says don't make up an answer on the spot," said Swayne. "The examiner wants you to say 'I don't know' and to look it up. That's what I would do."
I asked Swayne how comfortable he felt with aircraft certificates and documents. "I understand everything that needs to be in the plane and where to find it. I've only opened the aircraft mechanical and engine logs once or twice - so I've been using some sources on-line to see what to look for in a log."
I asked Swayne what he would do if an examiner threw him an aircraft logbook - what would he look for? "I'd look for compliance with AD's, and for the most recent annual and 100 hour inspection [which is always required for the Tecnam P-92]." As luck would have it, this area would be a hot spot during the check ride.
After Swayne's check ride, we discussed what went as expected and what didn't, and what was easy and what was difficult.
Swayne said his examiner had quite a bit of experience prior to giving his check ride. He had been a career FAA Safety Inspector and became a designated examiner after retirement.
"The thing that surprised me the most about the oral, and the check ride in general, was that from the moment I met my examiner I felt a lot more comfortable than I thought I would. He told me at the very beginning that if there were a handful of questions that I did not know the answer to, I could use my library of resources to find the answer."
What else was surprising? "What I ended up finding, and what is apparently pretty common on a check ride, is that when he asked the first few questions and I nailed them, he would move on."
I asked Swayne if he was unsure of any of his answers. "There were only two times that happened," he said. "On one question, we were looking at an uncontrolled airport, and there was an 'L' at the bottom of the information block. He asked me what that stood for and I said 'left traffic.' He said, 'Are you sure about that?' and I said, 'In all honesty, no.' We looked at the sectional chart legend and found that it described the airport's lighting."
"He also asked me to look at two different prog [forecast] charts, and he pointed to a line and asked me what it meant. I should have said I didn't know, but I thought that it had to do with cloud cover. It was actually an isobaric pressure line."
So, did the examiner ask any questions that surprised him?
"There was one thing that I was surprised about - it was a very general question. In preparing for the oral, I had gone into so much detail on different subjects that I didn't pay attention to one very basic thing. The examiner asked, 'What kind of weather do you expect with a cold front - Stratus clouds or Cumulous clouds? I answered 'Stratus clouds,' which is wrong. That was a basic question that I should have known an answer to."
I asked Swayne why he thought the examiner didn't fail him on that one question. "He told me at the very beginning that this isn't an exam to make sure you're perfect, said Swayne. "It's an exam to make sure that you're safe."
Before the check ride, Swayne had felt very comfortable with airspace. I asked if he did as well as he expected - and Swayne said it went great. So, what was the trick?
"The reason I was 100% sure on every airspace question is that I opened up the sectional the night before and would close my eyes and put my finger down. I read aloud everything about the airspace - from the surface to 18,000'."
I asked Swayne how his logbook prep worked out on the check ride.
"The examiner asked 'What do we need to fly today?'" said Swayne. "I started going through the logs and found all of the inspection dates were from November, 2013. Since the airplane had just gone through an overhaul, that didn't make any sense. And, we would have been over our [Tecnam required] 100 hour inspection. The examiner told me that I did exactly what I should have done - check the logbooks, caught an error, and had the mechanics fix the error."
Swayne easily completed the oral portion of the private pilot check ride. While there were some surprises along the way, he quickly convinced his examiner he was a safe pilot.
What happened on the flight? Check out Part 2!
Aleks is a Boldmethod co-founder and technical director. He's worked in safety and operations in the airline industry, and was a flight instructor and course manager for the University of North Dakota. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.