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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.
In our previous article, Swayne Martin describes how he prepared for private pilot check ride oral, and how it helped him pass without any real bumps.
In this article, Swayne describes how he prepared to for his private pilot check flight - and what happened with the examiner.
On your private pilot check ride, you'll demonstrate many of the maneuvers you've learned during training. You'll start off on a cross-country; demonstrate slow flight, stalls and steep turns; execute a ground reference maneuver, and perform normal, short field and soft field takeoffs and landings. Plus, the examiner will throw some emergencies and distractions into the mix.
So, what does Swayne feel the most comfortable with?
"I feel pretty comfortable with ground reference [maneuvers] and steep turns. I soloed really early, with 4.5 hours of flight time, so I had a lot of time to practice. I think I have 12 or 13 hours solo."
How about takeoffs and landings? Short and soft field operations can often be a challenge on the check ride. "I'm comfortable with short and soft field takeoffs," says Swayne. "We took a prep flight towards the check ride and went out to a little airport that has a 2,500' runway."
I ask Swayne what's his favorite takeoff. "You know, I like both short field and soft field [takeoffs], but they're pretty different. I like short field because you have all of the power in, and you accelerate and climb out super fast."
"I like soft field because it's a challenge. The Tecnam flies like a glider. It doesn't want to stay down; it doesn't want to drop. It just tries to climb. So, with a soft field takeoff, I'll have the nose up and it lifts off right away. But then I have trouble keeping it down in ground effect. That's a challenge, but I enjoy it."
What's his favorite ground reference maneuver?
"I like s-turns a lot. I like the challenge of correcting for the wind on different turns, using more or less bank depending on where the wind's coming from."
Sometimes, making the go/no-go decision on a check ride can be difficult, and pilots find the wind's too high for them to fly ground reference maneuvers. I ask Swayne what his limits are. "You know, I don't know my max - I haven't experienced that. The most I've done is probably around 20, 23 knots of wind."
Swayne seems really comfortable with ground reference, so I ask him about stalls and slow flight. What's his favorite stall to execute?
"I like power-on stalls, especially in the Tecnam, because it doesn't stall. You pull all the way back, and it's still hard to make it stall. The second you stall, you release back pressure a tiny bit and it's out."
Is the Tecnam hard to keep coordinated during a stall?
"It does take a lot of rudder pressure, and that's something that I'm not as comfortable with," says Swayne. "It takes so much rudder pressure that I end up trying to use aileron - which is not what you're suppose to do. It wants to yaw a lot."
Swayne points out a common student error - correcting with aileron during a stall. When you try to lift a stalled wing using aileron, you increase the wing's angle of attack. The stall can get even deeper and the wing drops. But Swayne knows not to do it, and as GI Joe said in the '80s (one of my favorite shows at the time) - "Knowing's half the battle."
I ask Swayne whether he would rather demonstrate a stall while turning or while flying straight. "Straight," he quickly replies. "I get nervous doing a turning stall. I feel like if the wing drops, I could end up in a spin. It's more of a challenge to do a turning stall, I think."
Which stall does he think is more likely to happen in real-life? "I think a turning stall," he replies. "They could occur on base to final, or downwind to base - those are the most critical times when people get into stalls."
Examiners throw in a variety emergencies and failures during a check ride. They can be as simple as a popped circuit breaker, or as serious as an aircraft fire.
I ask Swayne what emergencies he imagines the examiner giving during his flight. "It could be a number of things," he says, "weather related, a sick passenger, an engine failure, or other systems failure."
How does he feel about handling an engine failure?
"I'm comfortable with picking a good spot to land. I'll verbally say 'pitch for best glide,' but sometimes I end up focusing too much on where I'm flying versus holding my airspeed. I end up realizing I'm 10 to 15 knots above best glide speed. That's something I need to focus on more." Cue GI Joe - "Knowing's half the battle."
Swayne points out a great way to work on maneuvers, without burning gas and money. "I gave a 'how-to' speech in my public speaking class on emergency landings - what happens in an engine failure. That actually was good practice for me to go through it step-by-step."
Talking through a maneuver is a great way to practice a procedure - and it's cheap. The plane's a very expensive place to figure out a checklist.
A private pilot check ride can include normal, short field and soft field landings - plus go-arounds. I ask Swayne what landing he thinks is the most difficult. "For me, it's the short field," he replies. "In the airplane I'm flying, it's hard to keep it from floating."
Swayne easily knocked out his oral, which we detailed in Part One. After he finished, the examiner had him update his cross-country planning and preflight the airplane.
"One thing I didn't expect on the preflight," says Swayne, "is that when the examiner came out, he looked at what I was doing but he didn't quiz me. I expected him to follow me, asking 'What are you looking for here,' or 'What do you not do here?'"
After Swayne completed the preflight, they started up and taxied out.
I ask Swayne if he taxied out slower than he normal. "Oh yeah. Definitely. Our plane idled faster than normal. Sometimes you had to ride the breaks just to make sure it wasn't going too fast."
At the runway, Swayne set up for his first takeoff.
"We did a short field first. There was a lot of traffic in the pattern - more traffic than I had ever seen at Hanover. The wind was about a 40 degree crosswind at seven knots - not bad. The takeoff went perfectly."
"We climbed up to 3,000' and turned on course," says Swayne. "We talked as we flew out to our first checkpoint. The examiner talked about moving to Virginia, and how he felt like a 'born-again' Virginian. It felt more like a conversation than I anticipated. Everyone says it's a conversation between two pilots, but until I actually had that experience, I didn't realize that's pretty much what it is."
After Swayne crossed a couple of checkpoints, the examiner threw in a diversion.
"He asked me to plan a diversion after we passed our second checkpoint," says Swayne. "He said, 'There's a line of storms ahead of you - what can you do?' I said we can return to Hanover or go to Chesterfield [another airport in the area]. He asked me to divert to Chesterfield, as Hanover would be too easy."
"I used a piece of advice from M0A.com and filled out a ground speed card before the flight. You calculate your ground speed for each direction in 45 degree increments. I told the examiner we'd need a heading of 140 degrees and that it would take 10 minutes to get there."
How close was he? "I entered Chesterfield into the GPS," says Swayne, "and it said to fly 142 degrees and reported 10 minutes enroute. That was awesome - Nailed it."
With the cross country out of the way, the examiner moved on to instrument operations.
"We exchanged controls," says Swayne, "and I put my hood on. We did a climb, a descent and two turns. He had me put my head down and he gave me an unusual attitude. We were in a climbing left turn, so I added full power and leveled the wings - that was easy."
Swayne started upper air maneuvers with slow flight - which went perfectly. They quickly moved on to stalls.
"We did a power-on stall first," says Swayne, "and then a power-off stall. Both were straight."
How did they go? "As I was going through the [power on] stall, I felt that it wasn't deep enough," says Swayne. "I asked the examiner if I should do it again, but he said it was fine."
With stalls and slow flight complete, the examiner threw in an engine failure.
"He pulled the throttle back to idle and I found a pretty big field and entered a downwind [leg]. I did some s-turns to get lower - we went down to to about 150' AGL, and then we went around."
After the emergency approach to landing, Swayne's examiner asked him to fly turns around a point. Swayne picked a barn and knocked out the maneuver. "We didn't have much wind - 10 knots I think. I nailed that, so we moved on."
With most of the check ride behind him, the examiner had Swayne head back to Hanover for takeoffs and landings.
Swayne crossed Hanover midfield to enter the downwind for his first landing. As he arrived, Hanover was still busy.
"There were a bunch of people in the pattern. Two were on downwind, one turning base-to-final, two holding short to take off, and one departing the pattern. There was a lot going on."
As Swayne prepared to enter midfield downwind, he decided that there wasn't enough room between them and another airplane turning onto the downwind leg.
"The one issue the examiner had with the check ride was an aeronautical decision I made. It was the right choice, but it could have been avoided."
Swayne turned right and flew upwind to sequence behind the aircraft turning downwind. "He told me afterwards that was the right decision, but it could have been avoided if I had crossed the airport further upfield." Swayne continues, "it's not safe to fly the opposite direction [of traffic] in any instance."
As they arrived at Hanover, the examiner asked Swayne to set up for a short field landing.
"It went well," says Swayne. "I had to extend the downwind because of traffic, a little bit farther than I normally would. I aimed for the 1000 footers, and the wheels touched down right in the center of the markers. It felt so great - I hadn't had a short field landing that good before. That was really awesome to have happen on the check ride."
"We taxied back for a soft field takeoff," says Swayne. After a couple of arrivals, he was ready to go.
"I explained that normally, we wouldn't stop so we wouldn't get stuck. We taxied on the runway and I had the stick all the way back. We rotated pretty quickly and stayed in ground effect, then climbed out and stayed in the pattern for a soft-field landing."
With nearly all of the check ride behind him, how did the last landing go?
"There was one moment - it was a moment that stood out to me. I knew that I had done everything well so far. I was on final, everything's lined up and I thought, 'Ok - let's not mess this up. Let's get this landing done and do it right.'"
"We're coming in on short final; everything seems perfect. Right when I'm feeling comfortable, there's this little gust of wind and it drops us ten feet. I have to apply a lot of back pressure to keep it soft, so we don't hit hard."
"It was almost like the wind was telling me, 'You need to stay on your toes, even when you're feeling comfortable, because that's when accidents happen.' We laughed about it afterwards - you get through the whole check ride and there's this little gust of wind that tries to mess you up on the last landing."
So, did he have any doubts as he taxied in? "I knew I had passed - I didn't think I had messed anything up. We taxied back and shut down. He didn't say anything, but he gave me a handshake."
The check ride had clearly gone well, and I ask Swayne what he thought made the difference.
"I think the real reason I did so well on the check ride is that I made sure to explain everything to the examiner as I was doing it. I made sure he knew what my thought process was."
This is a great tactic, but not necessarily an easy one. Even CFI applicants often struggle to explain what's happening on their check rides.
With certificate in hand, I ask Swayne who he'll take on his first flight as a private pilot.
"I'm taking my grandfather," says Swayne. "I don't have anyone in my family who flies, but both my grandfathers really got me into flying from an early age - going to air shows. The one I'll take with me builds model planes. He has these huge models, and those have been on my ceiling since I was two. So, I grew up with that surrounding me."
How about his parents, are they excited to fly with him?
"They've both flown with me before, though I've had an instructor in the front. They're ok with it. It's kind of nice with them not having anything to say to you about what to do, because they don't know anything about it."
Keep following Swayne at swaynemartin.com.
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 email@example.com.