A Tale of Two Checkrides

I was determined to get my instrument rating. I mean, I had thought about not much else since the flight back from my Private checkride, and that had been over 15 months ago! I had read every book, subscribed to every magazine, watched every video, visualized approaches and hold entries in the shower, shunned the GPS my wife had gotten me for cross-countries in favor of the quivering ADF needle, lost sleep for a week because I had dared to miss three questions on the written (easy ones at that!), trained with no fewer than six instructors and been intentionally grilled by four of them just to make sure I was really ready, and had at last gone back to the CFI who had trained me for my Private (I still think he's the best instructor I've ever met) to finish my training. I insisted on using a plane with DME, because I wanted to show the examiner that I could fly an arc! I asked my instructor to put me through everything he could think of; heck, I even had spins under the hood in my logbook! I wanted to be the best instrument pilot there ever was, because, hey, don't we all, way down deep, expect nothing less from ourselves? Does the art of flying deserve any less? Not for me, it didn't.

I was ready. I had a new job which allowed me the financial freedom to fly enough to prove it to every CFII could get to fly with me, but there were problems. With a new baby due in a little over a month, weddings and graduations to attend, other people's vacations at work to cover, and conflicts with my examiner's schedule, there was no question in my mind that now was the time. I had my signoff, and I was going to take my checkride next week, while I could still take a day off (without pay) to go and do it. The only problem was, when? Weather had been lousy, and I spent a lot of time that weekend watching The Weather Channel. I couldn't use the plane I had trained in (the turn coordinator was inop), so I scheduled planes at three other airports, and checked out with an instructor at a fourth to get a plane there, too. I had a plane for every day of the week, just in case. On Sunday, it looked like the best weather prospects would be with me on Tuesday, so I made up my mind. It had to be Tuesday, because next week was out, and after that it would be difficult for the examiner and me to mesh schedules for the rest of the month. We had already had to cancel twice because of weather, and he had told me any day this week would be OK. A call to his answering machine, and we were on.

Monday at work, I was nervous. No problem there, I always get a little anxious before I fly, at least until I crank the engine, that is. But then, I got the call. My examiner's Sunday appointment had rescheduled for Tuesday, and he hadn't gotten my message in time to get me in that day. I was determined, though, and after twenty phone calls, I had lined up two other examiners who would see me the next day, even on such short notice. The fact that they were both over a hundred miles away didn't phase me, either - just a few more cross-country hours!

Then, more bad news - the plane I was to use that day had some mechanical problems, and they weren't sure they'd have it up by morning. So, a couple more calls, and I not only had another plane reserved, but I'd persuaded my original examiner to see me Tuesday afternoon, after his first examinee. More calls to cancel the other examiners, and I had a checkride! I didn't really know which plane it would be in (I'd much rather have used the original one), and it had taken five hours on the phone, but I had my checkride! Pretty slick work, huh? At 5:00pm, they called to tell me my original plane definitely wouldn't be ready, so I geared up to go with my alternate. I still needed to drive home 30 miles to get my kids, and then another 70 to check out my new plane, get the paperwork, etc. So, it was 9:00 before I finally got home for the night. I examined the plane's records with a microscope for two hours, and went to bed.

The next morning, I had to see my instructor at 7:00am, as his schedule was socked in for the day. So, I was up at 3:30 to get ready and drive all that way again to pick up the plane. It was a beautiful morning, except for the ten-foot-thick layer of advection fog that had developed. I watched a commercial pilot's approach in a 182, and was a little put back by the way he had "felt" for the runway in the last few feet. No problem, though - I waited until the last possible minute for the sun to heat the ground as much as it could, and when I felt it was safe, I went.

Are you beginning to see a pattern here? Already, the astute reader should have spotted at least ten red flags waving right in front of my face, telling me to wait as long as it took for everything to be just right. My checkride could have waited, but I couldn't. I felt great, I was ready, and this was going to be my day! Read on; it gets better.

The flight to see my instructor was beautiful. Expertly handled, expertly flown, with an on-schedule landing that had to be one of the "greasiest" I'd ever done! We went over a few things, and he found a small, completely overlooked, technical glitch in one of my signoffs. A call to the examiner told us it would be no problem, and so, I said good-bye. I was off to an intermediate stop to perform a VOR ground check, and again, a beautifully handled flight. Perfect communication with the tower, a greaser landing, and two perfect VORs! My notation of the check in the plane's logs gave only the required information, but I bet if you read it today, you'd still be able to see my puffed-out chest and swelled head. This was going to be my day! Off to my checkride! It was 10:30 when I took off, with the destination 20 miles away, and my checkride scheduled for 2:00pm.

(How many more red flags did you notice? You can bet I didn't see any of 'em.)

The airport where I was to take my checkride is a small one, with one long runway (which never seems to be aligned with the wind) and one inhumanly short one. It's also right in the middle of a forest of what seems like Redwoods from the air, with trees in every spot of ground that they didn't pour concrete! It's tough, and the wind had picked up enough that it was swirling everywhere. Not strong, but squirrely. My call to Unicom had noted westerly winds, and the windsock confirmed that, so I lined up for 31. At two feet AGL and 60kt, I felt the wind pick me up (I swear I didn't flare too much!) to about 30 feet, losing airspeed fast.

I whipped into action on instinct: Firewall the throttle, level flight, gain airspeed, retract flaps, climb above those trees at the departure end, stabilize at pattern altitude, call Unicom again. The wind was now from the southeast, I was told (oh, by the way, thanks, I just noticed that). The Unicom operator didn't know whether that guy in the pattern had landed or not. I still remember the conversation we had: "That guy" in the pattern was me, and I'd had to go around. Not a good way to go into a checkride! "That's OK," he said, "a lot of guys do that." "Yeah," I said, "but this is my
instrument checkride!" He was laughing a lot harder than me at that point, I'll tell you.

Oh well, stuff like that happens to everybody, and I'd done exactly what I'd had to, when I'd had to, just the way I was trained. Again, a red flag, but I took it in stride with all the rationalization I could muster. In fact, I was complimenting myself for my obvious lack of machismo in acting so quickly to reject a landing so close to the ground. That's a good thing in flying, right? It's the safe thing to do, and safety is always more important than ego.

As an aside, let me tell you that as I read the story to this point, the problems jump out and grab me. How could anybody with any judgement at all possibly continue on, with all I'd been through? It seems odd, but as it was happening to me, I didn't see any of it. I didn't even think to worry about it; in real time, it seemed like just another normal day of flying, and there was nothing unusual about it. I think of myself as a safe, cautious, conscientious pilot, but I honestly didn't see any of it. I was like a starving man in a burning house, trying to make my way to the refrigerator at all costs, all the while completely oblivious to the walls crashing in around me. Looking back at everything like this, it truly amazes me. But it wasn't over. I still had three hours to wait before my ride.

I'd been to this small town a number of times, and there were a lot of memories here for me. I took the airport's courtesy car, and drove around town a little bit, ate lunch, and tried to clear my head. When I got back to the airport, I had only blown an hour and a half. It was hot, I was tired, and I still had to wait. I read some FARs from the copy I had borrowed from the FBO (I had left mine in my car back home), smoked a few cigarettes, and waited. The previous examinee's plane was on the ground, and I figured they were almost done. Then, they came out of the building…and got into the plane! He had been late showing up for his ride, and they were just now taking off! The examiner asked me if I was OK, and told me he would hurry as much as he could. He was just being polite, though; in no way did I expect him to do anything differently than he would've if I hadn't been there, and I told him so. I was getting pretty nervous at this point, and I was tired.

Two hours later, the first examinee was a Private Pilot, and I was sitting in the examiner's office, ready for my turn. I was as ready as I thought a person needed to be for a checkride, but you would be paying me a serious compliment to say I blew it that day. If the examiner had asked me my name, I'm not sure I'd have come up with the right answer. I sat there and listened to myself tell him things I knew weren't true, then immediately correct myself, and end up looking like a total idiot. I could see the doubts on the examiner's face, and he could see the frustration in mine. I was starting to wonder what in the world my brain was doing to me! How could I not be able to find that in the approach plates? How could I not know what that symbol on the chart was? What am I doing? I know all that stuff!! Did I actually just tell him you don't need a turn coordinator for IFR flight? That's why I'm in a different plane, for God's sake!!

Have you ever felt panic and confusion to the point of resignation? It was all over in five minutes.

The examiner was understanding. He told me that today just wasn't my day, that I was just tired, and if I got a good night's sleep, I'd be good to go, and all that, but I didn't want to hear it. I was hot. I'd had four instructors whose judgment I trusted tell me I was more than ready, and my grandmother could've done about as well as I had! After all I'd gone through to get this done, to know that I'd have to come back and face this guy again, who's right now wondering whether he should have an FAA safety crew follow me back home! And, oh yeah, I still had to make the flight home!

I made it home OK, but I was so mad, I didn't talk to anybody for three days. My wife finally told me to get over it or get out; I was driving her crazy! I heard all the usual stuff: Nothing to be ashamed of, lots of people bomb their instrument, etc., etc. None of it helped. I was infuriated that I could've let myself down like that. I was honestly almost ready to quit flying.

Within a couple of weeks, I got over it enough to talk to my instructor about it, reassure him that I definitely did know my stuff, fly a few more times, and figure out exactly what had happened.

I didn't notice all those little red flags as they happened because I chose to accept each one of them as just "a normal part of flying." None of them by themselves amounted to much, but together, they wiped me out. I really felt good enough to go even when all the signs were pointing toward staying on the ground. The same things that can piecemeal themselves together until they snowball out of control and ruin an otherwise perfectly good flight were working to do the same thing to me on a larger scale - they ruined any chance my brain had of being able to conduct me safely through the very difficult mental exercise of instrument flying. I never had a chance to prove I was ready, and along the way, I refused to see it.

I've thought many times about the FAA's five negative personality traits, and after reading this, you probably already know that the one I have to fight all the time is impulsiveness. I never thought I had any problems with the other four sets of rules, but in this one episode I managed to break them all! I was macho in being proud of my go-around and the day's previous landings; I was anti-authority in taking it on myself to go through all that I did to schedule my own ride, and not allowing my instructor to pace me through it. I was invulnerable in thinking that I could do an instrument checkride on little sleep, after waiting and stewing all day, without knowing for sure what plane or what examiner I'd be going with, on a day when my mother-in-law would be having cancer surgery that night (did I forget to mention that one earlier?). Impulsiveness is a given with me when I don't shut it down tight in its little box, and it got me, too. The only thing left was resignation, which, believe me, I felt every bit of as I struggled to think of how to describe a cruise clearance…and just couldn't! If my checkride had been a flight, I'd be an NTSB case number right now, and my plane would be in a box in Washington, D.C.

The story has a happy ending, though. I got my "remedial" instruction, and consciously decided not to do any of the things that had hurt me before. No impulsiveness allowed this time! I made one phone call for the examiner, got one plane for one day (a weekend when I had nothing else going on). I got sleep, I didn't cram. I took the attitude that if I got it, I got it, and if I didn't, I'd just come back. Sometimes, when you allow yourself the opportunity of failure, it takes the pressure off you just enough that your real ability has a chance to show through.

Of course, mine didn't; I still made a bunch of mistakes on the checkride. But I was always ahead of the plane, I knew where I was going and what I was doing, and none of the mistakes I made would've killed me. They were just mental lapses. I knew better, and the examiner knew that. It was a terribly bumpy day, and instead of getting mad at my little 150-foot altitude excursions (throttle off, climbing at 120kt, then full throttle descending at 80! I kid you not - that happened) and calling me a throttle-jockey, he told me I handled the plane well! That amazed me, but it was a tough day. Anyway, I got my ticket, 32 days after I'd made a complete fool of myself. Different day, different attitude, different me.

The only problem I have with aviation right now is deciding what I want to do next! (Tailwheel, glider, multi…?)

© 1998 Dan McGlaun