Monday, September 23, 2002

Who's Afraid of the Big, Bad DPE?

The Final Lesson - September 19, 2002

With the Cessna 150's cowling pressed to the horizon, we climbed skyward for yet another lesson. It was almost exactly one year after my first solo. As a pre-solo student, I had routinely over-controlled N9327U into nauseating fits of pilot-induced oscillation. But now I wore the airplane like an old, comfy shoe and could make it do my bidding with a smooth familiarity that I never imagined possible a year before. I keyed the microphone and broadcast my intended departure to the south while my hands and feet turned the airplane in the desired direction.

While leveling off at 3000 feet for some maneuvering practice, my instructor, Bill, casually noted, "there's a checkride appointment available on Monday." Then he raised an eyebrow. "Want it?"

This was all Kent's doing, of course. Nicknamed "Lima Bravo" by Dave (for reasons that do not bear repeating in this narrative), Kent started flight training before I did. Not surprisingly, he met each milestone ahead of me - the first solo, cross-country flights, you name it. I had been playing a languid game of catch-up, despite the efforts of mutual friends (ok, just Dave) to make a competition out of it. Consistent with past performance, Kent beat me to the checkride - endgame for the private pilot trainee. Unfortunately, his moment of truth was delayed by rotten weather. Bill had reserved Monday, September 23, 2002 as a rain date without knowing that Kent would be out west on vacation. And so the slot became available to me.

I pounced on the opportunity immediately. "Good," Bill said. Then he grinned, noting that it was time for me to finally "one-up" Kent. That evening, we ran through the repertoire of private pilot maneuvers as a check on my readiness. My ability to hold altitude during turns around a point was still not quite spot on, but everything else looked good. I promised to practice turns around a point on my own (and did) in what little time remained before Monday.

Overzealous Imagination - September 23, 2002

Sunday night, I lay in bed, my mind whirling with all things aviation. Beyond the expected anxiety, I also worried about the designated pilot examiner, Cliff.  Because he operated out of the airport in Elkhart Indiana, I had never met Cliff and knew very little about him beyond rumors floating around my home airport in Three Rivers, Michigan.  The stories painted a picture of a crotchety old curmudgeon who would pounce on the slightest mistake, sending the aspiring private pilot back to his or her instructor for more work. Images of airplanes and demonic examiners danced through my mind in a waking dream that never yielded real sleep.

Nevertheless, 8:00 am Monday morning found me at Three Rivers and running on a lean mixture of adrenalin and oatmeal. Bill checked-over my flight planning (Cliff had requested a flight planning exercise from Elkhart, IN to Saginaw, MI), gave me a pep-talk, then departed on a cross-country flight to Tawas. Outside, I could see that someone was cleaning the windshield on my steed, N9327U. I was quite surprised when I realized that the industrious line boy was actually John Conrad, the owner of the FBO. From my early days as a student to the purchase of my first airplane, John always took good care of me. John's simple act of cleaning the windshield that morning was more meaningful than any verbal "good luck" would have been.

At 9:00 am, I folded myself into the familiar cockpit of 27 Uniform. Ten minutes later, the wheels separated from runway 23 and the Cessna climbed eagerly into the cold morning air.
The flight to Elkhart was a brief one, but my level of trepidation rose as I neared the airport. Throughout my training, I was uncomfortable communicating with air traffic control.  Elkhart was a simple class D airport, but my previous encounter there had been with a controller whose rapid-fire delivery suggested delusions of working the tower at O'Hare. This time, my interactions with the tower were flawless and I was soon shutting the engine down in front of the Indiana Flight Center. I was 30 minutes early for my appointment.

As I waited in the cozy pilot lounge, I began to stew over meeting Cliff. Before long, he appeared and invited me to a classroom that we would occupy for the rest of the morning. 

We began with the oral part of the exam. During the course of our discussion, I learned that Cliff had 65 years of flight experience, starting at the age of 13. He was surprisingly patient as my nervousness interfered with my ability to provide answers to his questions. He also shared a lot of knowledge that was beyond the scope of our discussion, such as an in-depth explanation of how wet-bulb dewpoints were measured. Digressions aside, the three and a half hours of questioning were more grueling than my doctoral dissertation defense three years earlier. 

Over the course of the exam, Cliff's demeanor finally put me at ease. Contrary to my overzealous imagination, he was no ogre. Unfortunately, relaxing meant that I lost the adrenalin edge that had so handily compensated for my lack of sleep. At the conclusion of the oral exam, it was 1:00 (Michigan time) and I was more relaxed, but also extraordinarily tired and hungry. And it was time to fly. Looking out the window, I could see puffs of cumulus clouds hovering over the airport, marking thermal activity that had begun in earnest under the midday sun.  It was going to be a bumpy ride.

Fortunately, I had the foresight to throw some peanut butter and crackers into my flight bag that morning. While Cliff took a smoking break, I quickly devoured all the edibles in my flight bag. I was still hungry, but at least the snack helped to keep my blood sugar levels up.

Saddle Up

With his diminutive size, Cliff is one of the few people I have ever met who could sit with me in a fully fueled Cessna 150 without any concerns for exceeding the airplane's 1600 lbs gross weight limit. As he settled into his seat, he coughed with the gut-wrenching rattle of a lifetime smoker.  Please don't die on me, I thought. It was a terrible thing to think, but he looked dreadfully old and frail.

Once 27 Uniform's little Continental was humming a pleasant idle on the ramp, I pulled a 2002 Michigan Airport Directory from my flight bag. The directory is published yearly by the state of Michigan and contains highly detailed airport diagrams along with AFD-type information for every airport in the state plus nearby facilities in bordering states. I tuned to the Elkhart tower frequency and set the book on my lap.

"What's this?" Cliff said, snatching the book. Inwardly, I groaned. I should have used an AFD - an official FAA document - but had forgotten to buy a current copy before the checkride. Looking mildly annoyed, Cliff flipped through the book.

"Oh, it's one of those cheater books."

He flipped a few more pages. "Actually, this is really nice - but it's wrong. It doesn't list the Elkhart ground frequency. Where might you find that?"

As I uttered "AFD" into the intercom, Cliff nodded emphatically and wrote the ground control frequency for Elkhart into my book and motioned for me to continue.

My negotiations with the ground and tower controllers (ok, they were the same guy) proceeded without incident and we were soon airborne and pointed toward Saginaw. After the first nine miles of my planned cross-country flight, Cliff pointed at a nearby town and asked me to identify it from the sectional chart. When I did, he said, "great! What's our groundspeed?"

At that, I checked my watch and set to work on an aluminum E6B flight computer. The E6B had been a present from a former neighbor who had abandoned flight training when his children were born. Cliff's face lit up at the sight of the circular slide rule. "Ah ha, a whiz-wheel! Thank you for not using one of those digital calculators!"  Score one for me.

The Aeronautical Titan

"Let me show you something," Cliff said. I was delighted that Cliff was trying to teach me something during the checkride, but I cannot honestly remember the demonstration or the point he was trying to make. What stayed with me, however, was the way 27 Uniform responded to his skillful touch. As I watched him fly, he radiated passion and skill tempered with a lifetime of experience.  From that moment on, Cliff seemed neither old nor frail to me.  An aeronautical titan occupied the right seat of my rental Cessna.

Next came a battery of maneuvers - steep turns, stalls, and turns around a point. At his request for turns around a point, my stomach tightened a bit as this had always been my weakest maneuver. After descending to 1000' AGL, I chose an intersection of two roads as my point and made a downwind approach. Abeam the point, I rolled the Cessna into a 45° bank. Despite thermals popping up under the afternoon sun, I handily completed two turns around the point within a tight altitude box that was well within the test standards. It was my best execution of the maneuver to date and probably my best ever.

Back at 3000', Cliff pulled the throttle out. "Dead engine," he proclaimed. I established best glide speed and looked around the surrounding cornfields, noting one long enough for landing. As I set-up for landing, Cliff commented, "that one's no good, you'll be landing with a crosswind."
Instead of searching further, I argued back. "If I land into the wind, I'll be going across the corn rows and risk flipping over. I would rather land with the furrows, cross-wind or otherwise." Cliff did not like my answer.

"In a soft field, you'll probably flip over anyway. That other field over there is a better choice," he said.

"I'm too low to reach that field. We're going to use this one." I set up to land in the field and, a few hundred feet above the ground, Cliff restored full throttle. "Ok - let's go back to the airport."

Cleared for the Option

Back at Elkhart, we were promptly cleared for the option by the tower. "Cleared for the option" means that we can use our discretion to do a full stop landing, abort the landing ("go around"), or do a touch-and-go.

 The wheels of the main gear had just started rolling when Cliff looked at me pointedly and said, "go".

Go? Go where? We continued to roll along, nose high.

"GO, GO!" Cliff said. Then it clicked. He wanted me to go around. Oh! Flaps up, carburetor heat off, full throttle. The Cessna leapt back into the air. Cliff had wanted me to abort the landing at the most difficult phase - right when the wheels started rolling. I did not respond as quickly as he wanted me to, but my brain refused to process "go" as being the same as "go around".

The next circuit resulted in a standard landing. After that, Cliff requested a simulated soft-field take-off, then added, "but I will control the throttle." We taxied back to the beginning of the runway. While taxiing, I added 10° of flaps and, without stopping, turned the Cessna around for take-off. Cliff opened the throttle partially, producing an anemic amount of thrust.

"Soft fields cause drag on your tires," he explained. "When you get that nosewheel off the ground, I'll give you more power."

The airplane slowly picked up speed and, as the elevator became effective I pulled the nose up.  This action was immediately rewarded with additional -- but not full -- power from Cliff.  Our speed began to increase at a more reasonable rate and I finally got the airplane into the air, leveling off in ground effect.  Cliff immediately granted full throttle. It struck me as a clever way to simulate soft field performance on 6500 feet of paved runway.

Once in the air, Cliff asked me if I had ever done a no-flap landing. Sheepishly, I responded that I had not. "Well, you're going to do one today. What are you going to do differently?"
"I'll use a slip on final," I said.

He nodded. "That'll work." I turned downwind and was cleared for the option by the tower. Cliff cleared his throat. "Ok, actually, I'm not going to make you do a no-flap landing because it's not part of the testing requirements. But you should try them sometime soon on your own. Let's do a precision landing." He pointed to the 1000' foot markers on the runway below. "Land within 400 feet of the beginning of those marks."

This was something else that I had never tried to do. I was good at short field landings in the Cessna, but was used to aiming for the end of the runway. Somewhat discombobulated, I brought 27 Uniform into ground effect over the runway numbers and added power to keep us floating about a foot off the ground. Upon reaching the 1000' markers, I pulled the power and flared, easily planting the wheels in the predetermined zone. "Good enough," Cliff commented.

As we rolled-out, my blood sugar hit rock bottom. I really needed some food and wondered how much longer the exam would continue. As if reading my mind, Cliff asked me if I could make the next taxiway turnoff. As we departed the runway, he simply looked at me and said, "ok. You pass."

Cliff later explained that my performance on the exam was not perfect. He did not like my choice of landing site for the simulated engine out.  But ultimately, he felt I was a safe pilot and that was his primary concern.  He signed my temporary certificate and noted that it was a "license to learn" as he handed it to me. It was the only cliché I heard from him all day and his point was well-taken.

Bill, Two Seven Uniform, and a newly minted private pilot.  Photo by John Conrad.
 Ready For My Close Up

At 3:30 that afternoon, I re-entered the traffic pattern at Three Rivers as a certified private pilot. As I announced my entry into the pattern, Bill's voice crackled in my headset, "I'm with a student about ten miles west of the airport. Don't go anywhere until I get back."

Bill and his student landed five minutes behind me in N8082F. I recounted the day's adventure with Bill. Moments later, John Conrad appeared with a digital camera and photographed Bill and I posing with 27 Uniform. When the congratulations were over, I made a beeline for food.


The next time I spoke with Bill, he commented that he met Cliff personally for the first time a few days after my checkride.  According to Bill, Cliff made several nice comments about my piloting abilities.  In my short time with Cliff, I developed a lot of respect for his knowledge and skill and, as a result, I still hold his comments to Bill as some of the most meaningful compliments I have ever received.

A week later, Kent returned from his vacation. After describing his adventures out west, he asked what was new with me. "I passed my checkride a week ago," I said nonchalantly. Kent was shocked, and while this would have been an ideal time to rub-it in, I resisted the temptation.

But I did tease him once.

Shortly after my checkride, a group of my colleagues gathered to watch a video from a coworker's Tiger cruise on the USS John F Kennedy. The carrier was sailing from one port to another and our friend's brother-in-law was an officer on board. Tiger cruises are meant to generate positive publicity for the Navy and essentially turn into floating air shows. As we watched camcorder video of F-18s doing touch and goes on the deck, Dave opined, "big deal. Kent could do that in a Cessna. Right, Chris? Don't you think Kent could do that?"

"Sure," I said, "but I think he would need a logbook endorsement from his instructor before trying anything like that." Fortunately, Kent found the remark so funny that he told Bill about it during his final lesson.

Kent passed his checkride about a month after I did. I made sure that he showed-up in Elkhart with a current AFD rather than a "cheater book". More importantly, I dispelled the myth of Cliff being a crotchety monster. I hope this meant Kent was better rested for his checkride than I was.