PPL – Done and Dusted!

I really have been horrible about updating this… but I promise I have not been idle!  Last Monday, 1st of September 2104 to be exact, I finally took and passed my flight test for my Private Pilot’s Licence!  More on this in a little bit.

Since my last update, after earning my Controlled Airspace Endorsement, I did what is called a Pre-licence Flight Test.  This was a long cross-country trip where I had to go through all of the paces from startup to shutdown and everything in between.  It was much like the test I did for the Recreational certificate, and much like that one, I found that at close to 3 hours of flying my brain was fried and I had trouble with some of the basic things.

In a nutshell, we went north via the Lane of Entry to Parramatta > Patonga > Warnervale and Cessnock where we did some touch and goes and engine failures.  I got a little discombobulated on the circuits and it took me awhile to get into the groove of it.. I also am finding that after a leg of straight and level, my brain takes some waking up to get back into the procedures of circuits.  So that was one area that needed improvements.

We departed Cessnock and on the way to the defunct Aero Pelican strip (YPEC) on the outskirts of Lake Macquarie we did our steep turns, stalls, incipient spins.  I found YPEC with no problems, and of course Chris pulled an engine failure on me right there…  no problem, from 3500 feet I had all day to get to the strip.  We just did a go-around and I began the trip back via Warnervale.

Before I could get back up to height, Chris threw in a line of hypothetical angry low clouds between us and I had to get down to 1500′ and get us to Mangrove Creek reservoir.  Luckily, I could see Warnervale from where I was, so I estimated my position, drew a line to the new waypoint, eyeballed the degrees for the track, subtracted 12 degrees for magnetic variation, a bit more for the crosswind, and determined a new heading.  Once I got us pointed in that direction, I worked out ground speed and an estimate for time.  Now it was just a matter of waiting the time, and looking for clues along the way.  I ended up very close, within a mile or less, and within a minute or 2 of my estimate.  Not bad for low level and being unfamiliar with the landmark.

We pointed back south so I could look for the Brooklyn Bridge and hop on the Southbound Lane of Entry back to Bankstown.  On the way we did another .2 hours of instruments – turns, descents, climbs, standard stuff.  We made it back to Bankstown and this is where I mentioned earlier the circuits started to really fall apart.  I did them OK I guess, nothing to write home about for sure, but neither Chris nor I were happy with them, especially knowing that I have done much better in the past.  

We then spent a few hours going over all of the knowledge items I should brush up on for the oral test before the flight test – Chris is a real trooper, they do not pay him near enough I am sure!

So I made a booking to do more circuits and a bit more practice in the training area, just to make sure I had stalls and steep turns down.  That was a very busy weekday, and workload was even higher – even had a runway direction change in the middle of joining on the arrival procedure – I had read about that but never had to do it!  Talk about pressure!   But, I just did what the tower told me and was now doing circuits on runway 11L instead of 29R.  After a couple of those, the tower moved me over to runway 11R (having me cross all the way over on a long crosswind leg).  For the final landing, I did request 11L so I’d be closer to the taxiway back to Schofield’s.  That was done as a short field landing, and we came to a stop before the first taxiway intersection.

We were much happier with the procedures and I had been working on the knowledge items, so we were happy to start thinking about booking me with a Testing Officer to do my official flight test!!

Of course, it immediately started raining for the next several weeks which is never helpful when you want to strike while the iron is hot.  After a couple of weeks, Bill rang me and scheduled Monday the 1st of September at 9 am as it looked like it was going to be the only decent day for weeks on either side (which more or less turned out to be the case).

This actually gave me quite a bit of time to study all of the items I missed on my PPL written exam, which would need to be discussed during the oral exam, as well as all of the other items of general aviation knowledge I needed to brush up on.  He wanted me to plan 3 different scenarios, and depending on the weather we would pick the best one on the day.  I even bought new charts so I wouldn’t risk adding confusion with my already well-loved charts.  I always donate my old charts to the flying school, they are good for new students who will need to learn how to read them but won’t need to buy them for awhile yet.  Pay it forward…

When the day arrived, of course I was out there bright and early (before they opened of course) and got myself settled with some coffee and looked over all of the area forecasts.  I decided I would have the best chance by choosing option 3, which was up to Cessnock again then to Singleton, Denman, then Mount McQuoid, Calga, and back.  Winds and cloud cover was very light in this direction, and I had recently done most of it during my pre-test, so it should be familiar enough.  Why make it hard on myself, right?

Did the weight and balance and performance charts, finished out my flight plan, submitted my notification, called for full fuel then grabbed my wad of papers and went in to get Bill.  Without going on too much about it, I feel like I did very well on the oral exam portion, definitely felt well-prepared (thanks, Chris!).  

I went out and did a preflight-inspection on trusty old INH and before long, I was starting up the engine with Bill in the right seat with his testing officer hat (and glare) on, and the dreaded Clipboard.  Now Bill has been doing this for longer than I have been alive, and he just oozes authority.  Think back to when you were 17 and taking your driving test – and now imagine your grandpa (who is also the sheriff and a former race car driver) is the one giving the test, and I think you’ll get the idea.

Anyway, the flight itself was much like the pre-licence flight so no need to bore with those details.   Mistakes were certainly made, and nerves were at an all time high.  But in the end, it appears that they are mostly interested in whether you recognise and correct your mistakes, and whether you are safe.  I am not sure I would have passed myself, but I must have done OK because he passed me!

We did a very long debrief session afterwards where we went over everything I did wrong, what I did right, what I could have done differently.  He had me listen to some recordings and checked my comprehension so that he could tick the box for “speaks English” (whatever…).  Then he extended his hand and said “Congratulations”.

So now I am just waiting for the paperwork, reflecting back on a long and circuitous path to this point, pondering what is next, and scheming my first trip!  I now have almost 85 hours in the logbook, and it took only about 16 hours in the Piper with the Recreational Certificate behind me – I would suggest however one’s mileage would vary widely – some might do it quicker, and some might take significantly longer.  In the end, I feel like I had a very solid grounding in piloting and navigation, thanks to Brett over at Sydney Jabiru, and that my skills were sharpened and my confidence increased thanks to Chris at Schofields.  I have been very lucky to have been put with some very bright and talented instructors, and only hope I can emulate their examples.  

I am just beginning to be broadly aware that I don’t even know what I don’t know, and will be learning aviation for the rest of my life!  For now, I just plan to enjoy the privileges and sharpen my skills through experience.  Who knows where this will take me – the sky is the limit; and it turns out the sky is a very big place!

First Navigation Exercise

This weekend, I took my first navigation lesson.  I had actually taken the 4 hours of briefings back in January in anticipation that I’d be doing those at the time.  The plan was to do those flights and work the required solo time into them so that I could end up with my Cross Country and Passenger endorsements at the same time as achieving the certificate.  But after about 4 rained out attempts, I switched gears and went somewhere else to do my solos (thanks Bruce!) and recently wrapped up my certificate (thanks Brett!).

Now that the weather is starting to get good, it was high time to put all that knowledge into practical use.  Up to this point, flying has been all about doing laps around the aerodrome, or practicing maneuvers in the nearby training area.  So now, I am learning and practicing what it takes to get from one aerodrome to another using only a map, watch and compass.  Sure, GPS is available and can be used as a secondary source of information, but it is so important to know how to navigate by reference to the map and ground features – what happens if the battery dies or the GPS satellites go out??

The first exercise was to get from Bankstown to Wollongong and back.  This first exercise is to put into practice the concepts learned in the breifing.

I would estimate 90% of this is in preparation.  Well before the flight, you need to ensure a current copy of all necessary charts.  Plot a course from point A to point B – but this won’t necessarily be in a straight line!  You have to make sure you are clear of controlled airspace or restricted areas as well as making sure you select an altitude that will be well clear of any obstacles or terrain, but that is not too high for the airspace you are in (as depicted on the chart).  For this exercise, we chose to fly at 4,500 ft.

Continuing the preparation, you have to measure the direction of each track in degrees as well as the distance for each segment.  You pick a speed for the aeroplane to fly, we selected 90 knots.

Now True North (as depicted on the chart) is different from Magnetic North (as read by the compass).  There is a variation that is different depending on where in the world you are – its -11 degrees for me here. so without getting into too much technical detail, all directions in the plan have to be converted to degrees magnetic so you can read directly from the compass in the aeroplane without having to think about it.

On the day, you get a weather report – not just any weather report, but the one for your specific area as provided by http://www.airservicesaustralia.com.  This gives aviation-specific weather reporting and forecasts for the area and aerodromes, as well as any important items to be aware of – Notices to Airmen (NOTAMS).  These are important – for example, one NOTAM stated that the automated weather service for Wollongong was not available. So knowing this, I can plan not to try to get it over the radio but instead plan to fly over the airfield at 1500′ to determine the wind direction.

With the weather report, you also get information regarding cloud cover, atmospheric pressure (QNH), turbulence in the area, and winds at various heights.  This is important, because in the flight plan you need to account for the wind direction and strength.  You may need to fly to a point East, but if the wind is blowing strongly from the North, then your heading will actually be somewhat into the wind to compensate for this.  Where the aeroplane is pointing and where it is going are often two different things.  Similarly, the amount of ground you cover in a given time might not be the same as the speed you think you are going. I might be indicating 90 knots of airspeed, but if I am heading into a 10 knot headwind, then my track over the ground is actually 80 knots.  That is important because speed and distance are used to calculate time.

Time is calculated for each segment of the trip.  This is important because you are following a track on your map and you need to have an idea of what landmarks you will expect to see at a given time.  For example, if I’ve calculated it should take me 15 minutes to reach Camden, I should also be able, at 5 minutes, to start seeing landmarks that are roughly a 3rd of the way there.

It’s all very complex (to me at least) so I won’t go on about it.  Here is a snapshot of some of the tools used:

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Sunday morning was perfect, so I got to the school about an hour early, spread out my gear, got the weather report and finished filling in my flight plan.  The flight plan is the result of all the planning – it is like an itinerary, and tells you exactly which direction to travel, for how long, at what speed, and when to turn.  Sticking to the plan is fairly straight forward – occasionally note the time, figure out where on the map you should be (based on the plan), then look at the ground to verify or adjust.  If you are off or a little fast or slow, you can make a correction to the estimate as the winds are seldom exactly as stated in the report. Brett did ask me when I got the winds, and I said “pretty much right after lunch”.  Not sure if he got it or not.

The plan took us to a point (small lake) 11 miles to the West of Bankstown at 2,500 ft. After that, a turn to the South for Camden and a climb to 4,500 feet.  Any time we approach an aerodrome or airfield, I’d make a radio call just to let them know I am in the area – common courtesy.  Overhead Camden, I turned to the South East to fly over Wedderburn before finally turning more or less South towards Wollongong. since the NOTAM advised that the automated weather service was out, I descended to 1,500 feet and flew overhead to have a look at the windsock before letting down to 1,000 ft to join the circuit for runway 34.  We did two circuits and an overhead departure back the way we came.

I was pleased that my planning was pretty solid because we made it overhead Wollongong within 1 minute of my plan.  On the way back, I think the winds died down a bit so as a consequence I managed a much faster groundspeed than planned for and reached Bankstown about 5 minutes early.  In subsequent lessons, I’ll learn how to refine that ‘on the fly’ so to speak, but I was pretty happy with this first one.

Upcoming lessons will cover diversions (in case the destination can’t be reached due to weather, low fuel, zombie attack), lost procedures, and low-level navigation.  After all that time running uphill to get my certificate, it is amazing to think that I am just a few more lessons away from being able to go cross country!  I am hoping to have that and the passenger endorsement wrapped up by the end of the year, but for now I have a little over a month to absorb what I learned on this trip – what worked out, what didn’t, and what adjustments I need to make.

Next time I will be sure to take some great pics!

Well, It’s Official…

Just an update to say that I have received my Pilot’s Certificate in the mail!  It took less than a week, which was surprising to say the least.  I was beginning to feel like a kid again; you remember when you ordered something from the catalogue and then took up a position in the house where you could observe the postman-shaped airmass in front of the box in case you missed him after the first 30 or 40 times you checked?  And things always took “6 to 8 weeks”…

So yeah, its official, I can go rent a plane now!  Though of course it’d need to be of the same type and characteristics of the ones I’ve trained in.  And if I go somewhere unfamiliar, there’d be some logbook scrutiny and a checkride involved.  But cool, hey!

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The type “A” means a 3 axis, single engine plane with ailerons, rudder and elevator for control (as opposed to a zeppelin or hot-air balloon or hang-glider).  HF means I have passed a course on the all-important Human Factors (basically keeping the Pilot from being the Problem…), HP means High Performance – cruise speeds over 80 kts, not high-performance as in a Lear Jet or anything…  NW means Nose Wheel (as opposed to the more traditional style with the steerable wheel in the back) and R means Radio, so I can hear and be heard.

Before long I will be starting my Navigation training (which will give me an X on the card and allow me to go cross-country).  I’ll also be working on gaining the extra hours (5) and concepts required to take a passenger (PAX on the card…).

THAT’S when it will start to really get cool, when I can take people up for scenic rides to take pictures, or simply absorb the experience of sitting in a chair in the sky.  Can’t wait!

Now THAT might take more than 6 to 8 weeks.

The Day Is Mine!!

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 🙂

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Rust Never Sleeps

I really thought I had it in the bag. Since my Practice Test almost 2 months ago, I have had 3 attempts at the real thing. One booking was cancelled due to maintentance, another was rained out (see previous post) and the next one was an exact repeat – rained out on the first circuit! So although I haven’t done much flying since the practice test, I have gotten a fair bit of practice in mentally preparing for and beginning a test. Which is something.

I prepared relentlessly, once again reviewing videos and reading material. I came up with some inventive ways to drill myself on procedures to try and effectively burn them into my memory. Using my old savior Flight Sim X, I went through the entire test sequence from takeoff out to the training area and back for circuits, performing all actions on the test. I kept it as realistic as possible, using my checklists, making the radio calls at the appropriate time, and even actually going through the motions of reaching for the knobs or switches. So I felt very confident and well-prepared.

4th time was not a charm.

Oh, the day started out really well. Had a great breakfast and coffee, practiced a little more on the flight sim, got on the most comfortable clothes I own and headed out to Bankstown. I left plenty early, to avoid the debacle that occurred on my practice test where the traffic was snarled and I was late and got flustered. I even made mock radio calls under my breath while driving.

We did the preflight inspection and all the taxi and runup stuff, all very much by the book and professional. However when I got to the holding point before entering the runway, I misheard an instruction and Brett pointed it out and that just put me right back inside my head… suddenly, everything I knew how to do and had done a zillion times was like trying to make a sentence out of alphabet soup.

Plan was to do the circuit portion of the test first so we did that – first a Short Field takeoff and landing which was not bad on the takeoff portion, on the landing I floated almost the entire length of the runway – so much for “Short Field”… so i just added power and did a go-around. The next one was not any better, and I could tell Brett knew I was flustered, so this time we did a simulated engine failure and glide approach. I did all of the checklist items correctly, but again was just too high and close and was not able to get it down.

We both knew at that point whichever demon it is that chooses to visit when I am taking a test was present and accounted for, so switching gears we called for a departure to the training area to go over the rest of the test.

On the way out West departing from Bankstown, a few small things were forgotten but overall I started to get my groove back and before long we were at 3500′ and going through the slow flight, steep turns, stalls, and forced landings. Admittedly it took me a few tries to get the forced landings down, mostly as a result of forgetting just how long and far these things will glide! The little Jabiru just wants to fly, and I think nothing short of anti-aircraft artillery will bring it down before it wants to!

Arrival procedures were good, as I descended to 1500′ over Prospect Reservoir and called the tower to let them know I was inbound. When I got closer and entered the downwind leg of the circuit, I let them know I was there and they cleared me for visual approach. Of course, since I wasn’t burning up my last remaining neurons overthinking the circuit procedures (though I was in one), it went just fine and I managed a reasonably fine, by-the-numbers landing.

So there it is, I have a partial pass on the flight test and don’t have to perform the training area stuff again. We’ll have time to brush up and practice those when I start Navigation lessons, but he is happy with the standard.

Circuits are the highest workload portion of flying, as you more or less have to consolidate everything you know about flying into a 6 minute lap around the aerodrome. Add to that the pressure of the examination and the accumulated rust from not having done them for awhile, and it is not surprising that I sought refuge inside my head and my constrant stream of thought and analysis; consequently things got away from me a little bit and things that are normally routine became surprisingly slippery.

Imagine a routine drive to the grocery store and back. Then imagine it with a driving instructor and a clipboard, and you’ll get the idea… surprising how you forget things when you are trying to think of them.

So, I am that much closer. All I have to do is demonstrate a few more circuits. To that end, we’ll go up on Sunday for some “remedial training” and once I get rid of whatever is tripping me up, I’ll do them for real and glide back down to earth once more.. a Pilot.

Well, This is Cool…

Now that I have worked my way through the syllabus, racked up enough dual and solo hours, the next step is to take a practice Flight Test.  In fact, CFI Brett emailed me last night to see if I wanted to schedule the flight for 1500 on the 19th of May, so not this Sunday but next.

Whoa.

Or course I said, “hell yeah!” so now I will need to really study up on all the finer points.  I feel pretty comfortable with flying so that is one worry out of the way.  Main points to focus on are:

  • Departure to the training area
  • Steep turns
  • Stalls
  • Practice Forced Landings
  • Arrival from the training area
  • Flapless circuit
  • Normal circuit
  • Go around
  • Glide circuit
  • Short Field Takeoff and Land (STOL) circuit

…and of course, the million-and-one details that comprise each.

However, as it turns out, it is well-within the rules to have any reference materials I need with me so you can bet I will be putting together a handy reference sheet for all of the little reminders I might need (laminated of course)… nothing too detailed, but perhaps some of the acronyms, radio call reminders, transponder codes, etc…  As well as a chart of the area so I don’t get lost on the way back, which could be embarrassing…

Presuming I do well on that, then the next flight could very well be my Certificate flight test!

It.  Better.  Not.  Rain.