You’ll notice on my Milestones and Progress page that a new item has been added. You might even have noticed on the About page, another item has been ticked off the ol’ Aviation Bucket List.
Yep, that’s right… on Sunday July 14, 2013 I finally passed my Pilot Certificate Test!
It would be difficult for me to overstate how happy I am to finally achieve this goal, which for some time oscillated between ridiculous and unobtainable. Anyone who knows me would probably disagree and say I have overstated it plenty.
Two years ago, after I had first started my current position, I took a couple hours day trip with a coworker and friend, Alex, in his flying club’s Cessna 172. This was the first time I had ever been up in a light single-engine plane, but I was hooked on the feeling of freedom and precision. The pictures I took were breathtaking and to top it all off, Alex wasn’t some fancy airline captain or military fighter jock… just a normal bloke like me.
So this seed was planted and continued to germinate in my brain. I found myself staring out the window at the blue skies and paying unnatural attention to the weather. I started looking up ultralights and other aviation-related videos on YouTube, and did a bit of research. For the type of flying I wanted to do at the time, it seemed that the Recreational track was the way to go – this was relatively inexpensive and supposedly quicker to achieve, and if I decided I really liked it and wanted to pursue it, I could always parley that experience into a Private Pilot’s Licence which allows larger, heavier, faster aeroplanes with more options – more seats, more engines, night flying…
At any rate, that was almost 2 years ago and 37.1 flying hours ago, most of which has been chronicled right here…
Over the last few entries I have talked about what is involved leading up to and taking the Flight Certificate Test. In a small way the frustrations associated with the test pretty accurately mirrored the pitfalls and frustrations involved over the whole cycle of syllabus – weather delays, instructor conflicts, my own rustiness and confidence issues – all played out over a compressed cycle. But all that said, I had passed the portion of the test which takes place in the local training area, and Brett was nice enough not to make me have to go through that again – time is money, and also wear and tear on the aeroplane, so that needs to be minimised where possible.
I got up on Sunday morning, 6:30am for an 8:30 start. I didn’t want to make any noise, so I didn’t run the coffee maker or bother with breakfast; instead I just stopped and got an Egg McMuffin and a coffee on the way to Bankstown. I arrived a few minutes early and Brett was still debriefing his previous student, so I took my time and got my things in order, and went and did a nice leisurely Preflight Inspection on the Jabiru. I’ve mentioned before, but I really find this ritual soothing and it helps me get my thoughts focused.
There was hardly a cloud in the sky, it was brisk but not cold, and the windsock was pointing to the ground like there was a brick in it. Could not have been any calmer.
Brett and I chatted a bit about what happened on the last attempt and what I thought might have been the cause and what could I do to improve. I said that fundamentally I let the aeroplane get ahead of me. This is what happens when you fail to anticipate the sequence of events and end up reacting to them rather than being in control of them. You end up being too close, too high, too fast and generally imprecise. What I could do to improve was to not get so inside my head with checklists and everything going on that I forget the basics – use reference points, fly the airplane, use trim to reduce the workload so I can concentrate on anticipating the finer points.
With that discussion and a plan of action, we taxied out to runway 29L, facing to the West, to do a quick brushup lesson on advanced circuits. Using the feedback from last lesson, as well as 2 weeks of practicing on the flight sim and writing in my notebook, I made sure to anticipate any tendency to drift close to the parallel runway. Flaps up at 300′ and gentle turn at 500′ onto the crosswind leg. Here is where we discovered the first of my weaknesses – I didn’t have a good ground reference for this turn. Most of my circuits have always been in a different direction (11R) so left hand circuits were still tenuous for me. But we got that sorted. Fuel pump and light switches off at 750′ just in time to level off at 1000′ and discover the next point for improvement – I had been turning more or less after reaching 1000′ – somehow it always seemed to work out OK before but in this case I was turning too close to the runway. So with the proper spacing sorted out, Brett again demonstrated a proper Short-Field landing.
On the second go-round, I did everything pretty well, but another item showed up turning on base – I have a tendency to leave too much power on. This has the affect of making the base leg too fast and descent rate too low resulting in being way too high on final. If you are too high on final it is difficult to keep it slow and shallow enough to land at the very beginning of the runway – which you definitely want to do if it were really a short airstrip!
We did this a few more times and really got it down nicely. We then did a glide approach, where he cuts the engine to idle in the circuit and I have to properly glide it back to the runway.
Since the test has to be a separate flight, we landed and taxied back to the school for a toilet break, a cuppa and a quick debrief. Overall he was happy with the circuit work so we just went over a few more scenario questions to test my understanding of things (as opposed to my ability to memorise them). He seemed happy with that, so back out we went.
One of the things I always try to do is maintain the highest possible professional standard while on the ground, as I believe this is an accurate predictor of how I’ll fly. Brett is a stickler for high standards, and trains his students to the standards required for Private Pilots rather than Recreational. Not that the recreational standards are slack by any means, but he does believe (and I agree) that good habits start early in training.
So this means taxiing right on the yellow line, observing all markings and signs and watching for other traffic, and considering the wind direction. It means keeping radio communications crisp and precise. It means a thorough runup check and preflight briefing.
Again we lined up, and this time I have to say I was utterly and completely “in the zone” like almost never before. That little brushup session was just what I needed to boost my confidence and brush away any cobwebs or rust. We did one short field landing which I planted right on the spot. We did two emergency glide approaches. On the first one, he cut the engine just abeam of the threshold on the downwind side. Training kicked in like so many times before – set the best glide attitude, restart checks, mayday call (simulated) then glided it in and planted it right where I wanted it with room to take off again. The second time he threw me for a bit of a curve and cut the engine closer to mid-downwind. But again here is where staying ahead of the aeroplane pays off… just let the training kick in and methodically work through the task at hand. He was very impressed that even with that added difficulty I still planted it exactly on the aimpoint on the runway.
I knew that was the last item we needed to test, but as I touched down he said “go around”. I gave it full throttle, got us airborne, and he said “you passed – this is a victory lap, land however you like!” I was so elated, that it almost – not quite – felt like my first solo. Here at long last I had achieved something that at times seemed insurmountable, and even at best seemed like it was actively resisting me. I played it safe and did another short field landing, not wanting to add any opportunity to screw up.
So there it is – done and dusted, as far as I know the first in my family to earn a pilot certificate! There is always much more to know and learn, and other phases to conquer, but for now I am happy to bask in this. I started out wanting to learn to fly, but I learned so much more. I learned about aerodynamic principles, human factors, radio, aircraft systems, navigation and meteorology. I learned how to conquer fear and hesitation.
Most of all I am eager to keep progressing through my list! I’ll update when I get my card in the mail. Meanwhile, here’s a picture Brett took to mark the occasion – he wanted me to do the ‘jump in the air’ thing like the old Toyota ads, but dignity and restraint prevailed 🙂