Private pilot checkride

On March 8, I took my private pilot checkride at the San Gabriel Valley (El Monte) airport. This is the final exam that you must pass in order to get your pilot’s license.

I got to the airport an hour early so that I could check over the plane and see if it needed fuel or oil. The oil was fine, but I did order more fuel and then busied myself doing a pre-flight inspection of the rest of the plane while I waited for the fuel truck to arrive. Everything checked out fine. I was a little anxious about the weather, since we had had a big storm the day before, but so far it looked clear, and I was prepared to deal with whatever runway the winds would dictate, although I really hoped for our standard west/south-west winds to align with runway 19.

Five minutes before noon, I knocked on the door of Alan Johnson, DPE. He welcomed me in and we sat down to deal with preliminaries – my photo id, medical certificate, and logbook experience. He noticed that I had done a spin training lesson and approved! We also went over the airplane’s logbooks, which I had borrowed from the mechanic for that purpose. I showed the entries that indicated that the airplane had had its required inspections. Then we both logged in to the IACRA site on his laptop to confirm that the checkride was happening, and we were ready to start.

I really liked how organized and structured Alan was. He gave me an overview of how the exam would be structured and how long it would take and then carefully explained the order in which everything would go (including elements of the practical exam, so that I could organize my cockpit accordingly). He reminded me of the precision requirements for the landings and asked if I wanted to review any of the other maneuver limits.

We then started the oral part of the exam, which took a little less than 2 hours. We began with my planned cross-country flight to KSBP (which he’d assigned to me when I scheduled the checkride). I had filled out a navlog, marked the course on my charts, and printed out all of the weather products. We went over all of that and it gave us the basis for discussing weight and balance, weather, terrain, airspace, chart markings, etc. He asked me to show how I computed distance, heading, and time for one leg of the plan (plotter and E6B!).

We moved into a series of questions that went right through all the topics listed on the PTS (Practical Test Standard). Almost all of the questions were very familiar ones. The only question that was new to me was that he asked whether my airplane’s engine was direct driven or geared. I said I didn’t know, but would assume it was direct driven for simplicity. He said, “Yeah, you’d know if it had gears.” One other surprise was that he didn’t ask about the question I had missed on the knowledge test last November (but I’m told it is good to brush up on those item(s) since they usually do ask!). For some of the questions, he gave me scratch paper and asked me to draw diagrams. For others, he had a little toy plane that we could use to point to parts or hold it in the air and talk about stalls, etc. I really felt like the practice oral sessions I’d done with my regular instructor, David Werntz, were perfect preparation for this.

Next we took a 5-10 minute break (I ate some yogurt) and went out to the plane for the practical test, which also took about 2 hours. He watched me do pre-flight, and I talked him through it. Then we got in the plane, and he said to pretend he was a first-time passenger, so I gave him a passenger briefing. We then did a regular takeoff and flew the first leg of my planned flight to KSBP.

We got about halfway to the first checkpoint (DARTS) when he said “Ok, divert us to KCNO” (Chino). So I set up a holding circle and started calculating. I got an estimate of 24 nm and a heading of 100. Then I went to the GPS to confirm it and could NOT find CNO on the list of “nearest” airports. I tried twice, then decided I was spending too much time on a non-essential item and just moved on to the fuel and time calculation. Much later, at the end of the test, he pointed out that I could have just plugged CNO into the “direct to” function. I couldn’t find CNO because it was too far away! Silly mistake.

Maneuvers were next. He gave me my choice of practice areas so I headed up to Altadena at 3700′. We started with slow flight. I managed to FAIL to keep my heading within 10 degrees of what was specified (?!) and he commented on it. I corrected and he didn’t say I had failed the exam, so I kept going. I got through the steep turns, power-off stall, and power-on stall. Next he had me put on my “view limiting device” (so I could only see the instruments but not outside the plane). We did level flight and turns. I had some trouble maintaining altitude but when I commented on it, he said “It’s gusty today, I’ll factor that in.” Then we did two exercises in which I had to figure out how to fly direct to a VOR station that he specified, and then we did unusual attitudes (dive and climb – one of my favorite parts!).

I took the hood off, and he said “your engine just died,” and I set up my 80 mph glide, looked for a landing spot, and ran through my mental checklist to try to restart the engine. I failed to then confirm it with the paper checklist. Ooops!

We returned to EMT to do pattern work. First we did a regular landing and then taxi’d back for the required PTS landings. The wind had picked up to about a 10-kt headwind with a slight crosswind component, plus gusts. That makes it challenging to do precision landings, but I was very fortunate in that the last time I’d gone flying, two days before, the conditions were about the same.

  • Short field takeoff and landing (must be within 200′ of the landing threshold, which let me tell you is not a lot when you’re going ~60 mph)
  • Soft field takeoff and landing (no distance requirement but must keep the nose high as if you were landing on grass or dirt instead of asphalt)
  • Regular takeoff and no-flaps landing with slip (must be within 400′ of the landing threshold). This is the one I find most difficult. No flaps means you have to land at a higher speed to avoid stalling. That means you have a lot more energy, and it is very easy to float too far and miss your desired landing point. Thank goodness for that headwind, which reduces your ground speed and effectively telescopes your landing! (By this point the winds were from 220 at 11 kts, gusting to 18 kts, for runway 19. I added a few mph to my final approach speed to compensate for the gusts and adjusted my heading throughout the pattern to deal with the crosswind, with rudder to slip/align for the final landing.)

At the end, Alan said that I passed! I said, “Seriously?” because I made many mistakes! The one that loomed largest for him was me failing to check my engine-out checklist during the simulated engine out. In general, I felt that all of his critiques (including this one) were completely deserved and fair. He said I did an excellent job on the oral and that my landings were very good “in challenging conditions.”

And now I’m a pilot! I can’t wait to start flying to new places and exploring the world from the air :)


1 of 2 people learned something from this entry.

  1. Matthew Harris said,

    March 11, 2016 at 1:57 pm

    (Learned something new!)


  2. Jim said,

    March 11, 2016 at 6:39 pm

    (Knew it already.)


    Congratulations again. Truly, truly awesome and a great write-up.

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