A brief history:
As my friend Lou would say; ” So Mikey, why are you getting your commercial pilots license?”
The first answer that comes to mind (from the right brain) is that I have always enjoyed providing the service of air transport –even if it was just me and a few friends-. The second answer, (from the left brain) is that I have come to realize that I need to find another way to keep this flying habit going, while still providing for my family. Now, that doesn’t mean that I won’t be flying on my own dime, but I wanted to fly more often and not break the bank.
How I got started:
I had been talking about getting my commercial pilots license for quite a while but I hadn’t taken any action. As we all know, you won’t get anywhere without action. So my first step was to enroll in the 3 day Commercial Pilot Ground School at American Flyers. I studied the material beforehand so I would be ready for the test. The first class started like my previous classes (private and instrument). Frank, (the instructor) gave a speech about how we shouldn’t plan to take the test right after the class because “you will not do well”. Well, long story short, I took the test on the final day and passed with a 95%. I would have done even better if I didn’t make two stupid mistakes (I wrote the correct answer in my notes, but chose the wrong answer on the test) go figure. My advice; just study ahead of time, follow up each night with the practice quizzes, and you will do fine. That said, if you haven’t studied, take Frank’s advice and wait. Click here to read more about the written exam.
Hurry up and wait:
Here I go, all ready to “get this done” but then life got in the way. Other financial and family priorities started to gang up on me. First, the flying club sold our 182RG that I intended to use for the test (inexpensive to fly) and then our finances took a hit (the reason why I haven’t written as much on the site) but thru it all, I kept my eye on my goal.
Fast forward to February of 2013, I decided to start lessons at the same FBO where I originally earned my private pilots license back in 2002. It was an hour away from work and home, but it was the most inexpensive single engine complex airplane in the area. The first few lessons didn’t go well, I had become rusty during the downtime, the weather wasn’t good and I just didn’t feel like myself in the airplane. After a few lessons I decided to wait for the weather to improve before continuing with my training.
On to the spring of 2013: I picked up my training where I left off, but opted to fly my club airplanes vs the more expensive 172RG. My friend (CFI Dan) was even nice enough to help out and give me some free instruction, but without a complex airplane, I would have to get back to the school. During this time, I got pretty good and at one point thought I was ready for the test, but after my first flight in the RG it became obvious that I needed more work. Eyes OUTSIDE not INSIDE!
Check ride V1: 8/2013:
The first check ride is well documented in my previous post, basically, I had not completed two required DUAL flights outlined in part 61.129, even though my CFI had reviewed my log book that morning and assured me that I was qualified. In the end, I ended up paying for a check ride that never happened. This exhausted all of my training funds (and confidence in my training).
Queue another prolonged delay. I needed to re-group. I owed the flying club money (from the Oshkosh flight), work was getting busy and family life was starting to get busy. Not much flying going on except for some flights by myself or with friends just trying to keep the rust from building up.
OUT OF TIME!
My written exam was about to expire, so unless I wanted to re-take the test, I needed to complete the check ride before the end of March. I actually set MY deadline for the end of February and never even looked at the written expiration date. In the end, I am glad I did it this way. It kept the pressure on, while affording me a bit of a buffer.
Back to the airport:
I drove up to the airport one day to set up my next lesson. They were willing to work with me and set me up with the same instructor that I started with back in March of 2013. We booked a lesson for the following Saturday but agreed that we should touch base beforehand to check on weather.
I called the airport to confirm my lesson and left a message. A few days later, I received a call back. The airport was closed for the next week or so due to a bad ice storm that blew thru during the previous week. Something needed to change. The FBO had provided very good training, but with the distance, scheduling issues, and now the weather, it didn’t look like I would be able to complete my goal at that pace. Something needed to change.
I called American Flyers and explained the situation. We agreed to set up an evaluation flight to see where I was at. The day wasn’t ideal due to an inbound snowstorm, but we decided to try to get done what we could. I took off and completed some of the required maneuvers before picking up some ice and running home. I flew well and the CFI agreed that it shouldn’t take more than a few hours to get me ready. In the end, it only took 3.7 HOBBS hours and two and a half weeks to get it done –including the evaluation flight-.
The check ride V2:
The original check ride was scheduled for Saturday 2/22. I checked the TAFs the night before and saw something I didn’t like. The surface winds were gusting to 23knots with 3000 foot winds at 40 knots, this wasn’t looking good. I called the DPE the next morning and found that she was already on her way to her first check ride. I voiced my concern that the conditions didn’t look good, but she convinced me that we should wait until later to make that call. I headed to the airport, completed my flight plan, weight and balance calculations and went thru everything one last time. My CFIs words helped me a bit “you are a professional now, a little wind can’t ground you” but I still had my concerns. The PIREPS were reporting “severe” turbulence at just about every altitude below 6000 MSL, but what the heck; I might get away with a sloppy check ride. J Then she called. I could tell right away that she was dead tired. The previous check ride went long due to the “terrible conditions” and she wanted to get home (Peggy fly’s from upstate NY in her Bonanza). I was somewhat relieved that I would be spared the bumpy ride, but at the same time we needed to get this done ASAP (unless I wanted to pay for more flight lessons $$$). We agreed to book the next check ride for the following Friday morning.
Check ride V3:
Could this be the end? In a word, yes!
The original check ride was moved from the AM to the PM slot due to a CFI initial check ride with the FAA in the 172RG. I was happier with this arrangement as I have learned that early morning check rides aren’t my cup of tea. That morning I went to work and left early at noon.
Once I arrived at the airport I started working on updating my flight plan with the latest winds. It was a bit of a mad rush but I got it done in time.
Peggy arrived at about 2pm; we sat down and engaged in casual conversation while she grabbed a bite to eat. We discussed some of my previous trips and I made a point to include my decision making process. Things like evaluating your equipment, your health, the mission, the weather etc. She talked about her years of flying for United Airlines (something that I was looking forward to from my last check ride) Peggy is somewhat of a legend in her own right and I truly enjoy spending time with her. Her passion for aviation is downright contagious. The oral exam reminded me of a job interview. It was as much about substance as it was about the core of who I am with regard to aviation. We talked about my trips, my experience with hypoxia, (2010 flight to Oshkosh) how I responded to it and what I now do to avoid it. We discussed my flights over Lake Michigan and what safety equipment I bring along including checking lake temperatures via NOAA etc.
At that point she pulled out her checklist. One by one, we checked off the required items, application, aircraft log review, check for Peggy, my log book review etc. At this point she asked me to show her how I was qualified to take the practical exam. I started going thru my log books a little out of order, at that point, I got the hint that I better pull out the FAR/AIM and flip to 61.129. I read the entire part checking off each item one by one. I said something to the effect of “we aren’t doing that again”. She smiled and said that I will make sure my students never go thru what I did. She is 100% correct. We continued with the interview and reviewed my planned flight. She did not like my choice of routing (I opted to fly a little south to the SBJ VOR before heading west). After looking at it a second time, I agreed that we could have saved some time by flying direct to the BWZ VOR. Other than that, she was happy with the plan. Afterwards, we continued with the oral exam.
On to aircraft systems (one of my stronger subjects), if I recall correctly, she started with the constant speed prop. Her question was something to the effect of “tell me about the constant speed prop”. I gave her the “book” answer and offered to elaborate, she smiled and said “are you sure you want to do that” I replied, yes. I discussed the inner workings of the propeller system from a pilots’ perspective. Prop, governor, fly weights, piston that pushes prop to high pitch low RPM, why and how does the prop return to low pitch / high RPM etc. She seemed impressed; she told me a brief story about how she had failed a few applicants for not understanding the aircraft systems. Questions like “where does the fluid that controls the prop come from?” I was waiting for her to ask me… She did. I think she liked my answer “the crankcase, the oil is delivered via a small hole in the crank case alongside the crank shaft”. I took this opportunity to discuss an engine-building workshop that I attended at Mattituck a few years ago (stick to your strong subjects). We moved on to the landing gear system, flaps etc.
I did the same thing with the landing gear as I did with the propeller. Again she was impressed. She asked me “what would happen if your flaps failed?” Me: Up or down? Her: Up, my answer was that we would land with “more speed” and would avoid short runways. She asked me “how much more speed?” Time to break out the POH; the correct answer was something like 9knots faster and 35% more landing distance (according to the information manual in front of me).
We discussed the importance of planning as a “professional” vs. “amateur” things such as turbulence avoidance, top of decent planning etc. She asked me to calculate (in my head) the top of descent that I would use on our planned flight to Latrobe PA. I admit that I stumbled a bit but was able to give her an acceptable answer. Math under pressure isn’t my strong subject (it gets even worse once the aircraft engine starts so I like to use round numbers). Cruse altitude 6500, pattern altitude 1500, = altitude to lose 5000, 500 feet per minute descent = 10 minutes to target altitude. Speed 120knots (2 miles per minute). Distance to top of descent, about 20 miles. She mentioned that she normally plans on 300 feet per minute for passenger comfort so we could start down at let’s say 25 miles. After that, we covered some basic items such as taxiway / runway markings and some of the regulations with regard to commercial pilot operations. With that, the ground portion was complete.
On to the flight test:
Peggy asked me to preflight the airplane and to let her know once completed. I gave her a quick status of the aircraft as we walked across the ramp (full fuel, 6qts of oil etc). The sun was setting quickly, so we skimmed thru some of the items that I would normally spend more time on (passenger briefing etc). As we taxied out, I made it a point to do everything right and to explain my actions, eyes outside at all times when the aircraft is in motion, sterile cockpit operations, don’t touch anything during taxi and so on. I kept my mind on safety and pointed out little tricks that I have learned over the years, like turning on the strobe lights when crossing runways etc (tip from CFI Dan). We taxied to the run-up area and were instructed to call ground control once completed. This is where I almost made a mistake. I was so eager to get going that I nearly forgot to call ground. At this point I said (out loud) “Mike, relax and take your time”. With that done, we were soon cleared for takeoff. I asked her what type of takeoff she would like; she requested soft field. The takeoff went well but as I accelerated I noticed that I forgot to turn on my ANR headset (I hate it when I do that). I just dealt with the horrible audio until we were at a safe altitude.
As we started off on our planned cross country trip I completed a quick time check and noticed that I had bumped my stopwatch during the takeoff roll. I restarted the timer and made a mental note of the approximate time difference. As we approached our first checkpoint 10 miles out, I could tell that the winds had changed. Our forecast headwind was now a tailwind (takeoff time was much later than originally planned) and we were about 3 minutes ahead of schedule. I was able to improvise and discuss the difference in time and heading with the examiner. I used external check points and a VOR radial to cross check my position as we continued. Time to queue the next issue, as I flew along, I noticed that it was getting increasingly harder to see my check points due to the setting sun. I picked new checkpoints to my left (east) but at the same general distance as my original checkpoints. As I approached my bottom of climb checkpoint -Summerset airport- I announced my position and started the planned climb (clear of the class bravo). After a minute in the climb, Peggy reached over and pulled the power and asked me to land. I opted to spiral down to a key position at first aiming for runway 17 but decided to switch to runway 35 as we got closer to pattern altitude. We joined downwind; I made my calls and kept it in tight on the turn from downwind to base. The turn was a bit too tight and I ended up slipping it all the way to the runway (literally flying the left main wheel all the way to touch down). I let my airspeed get away from me a little bit during the last 100 feet so I ended up landing long. She was happy with my landing but mentioned that she wanted to see better speed control during the next one.
Up next: She asked that I perform a short field take off. This went very well, exactly to PTS standards. We flew the pattern and she asked for a 180-degree power off accuracy landing. This time, I opted to take it out a little further on the downwind leg. This worked well. I ended up turning final in a good position. As I got closer, I decided to put in 20 degrees of flaps. Honestly, I don’t know what I was thinking; I was right on glide path and on speed (nothing extra) just enough to make it to my spot. I got a little lucky and eked it out and touched down right on the spot. As the wheels kissed the numbers I said “YEAH” followed by a meek “well I was almost short”. She replied, you didn’t need the 20 degrees of flaps.. Yeaaah, aaaabount that. Pew, that was close.
Next up: Get me out of here. The next takeoff was “normal” (normal takeoffs feel like specialty takeoffs at this point). We climbed to pattern altitude and flew north to find a spot to perform eights on pylons. The wind was calm so it made it almost too easy.. I picked two houses under construction (nobody home) and flew ON the first pylon. I was a little far out but was able to hold the pylon well. I actually made more work for myself by overcorrecting a bit (I am not used to doing these with calm winds). As we approached the next pylon she asked that I keep it in tight. I did and she responded, “now that’s much better”. That’s a good thing! As I rolled out of the turn she told me that she wanted me to climb on a heading of north for some stall work. I asked her “are you sure?” “Why?” She asked. “Aren’t we getting close to the bravo?” Yes, she responded, don’t you know where you are? Queue slight panic. Of course… Well, I knew where we were (in general). The eights on pylons had me a little fuzzy on our “exact” position. In the end, I opted to not argue with the DPE that had 1000 times more experience than me.
She requested a power off stall to start. The Commercial PTS differs from the Private Pilot PTS in that you are to perform the stall to the “first indication”. I slowed the airplane in landing configuration and once the stall horn sounded, I recovered. This isn’t incorrect, but I could feel her say to herself “REALLY?” I responded, do you want to see me fly it further into the stall? She said that was fine (and up to PTS standards) but for the power on stall I want to feel the buffet. I flew a PERFECT power on stall. Deep into the buffet but not too far (nose didn’t drop), I lowered the nose just enough to regain my airspeed and continue the climb and announced that the maneuver was complete. She was very happy with that one, heck, so was I.
Next up, slow flight. It was a perfect evening, and I was quite practiced at flying the airplane hanging on the prop. So by this point, this was EASY! It couldn’t have gone any better!
Next up Chandelles:
During my first chandelle I picked a poor reference point (into the sun) and lost it for a second. I reverted to looking at the DG and she caught me. “Eyes outside Mr. Bennett, I want to see that again” she reached over and covered the DG. I explained that I had lost the….. Never mind, just show me… I flew a beautiful chandelle! Quite possibly my best. With that, she asked that I take her back to Morristown.
I ended up completing another spiral since we were now at 5000+ feet along the edge of the 3000’ veil of the NY class bravo airspace. We reported the Rockaway Mall inbound with alpha and were instructed to enter the right downwind.
As I approached the field I set up for a wide downwind for spacing with traffic. I reduced power; the gear horn sounded, and I brought the gear down… Wait a second, nothing happened. I started a quick flow check while monitoring the traffic; at this point I was thinking that we had a “real” issue when she said, “don’t touch that breaker”. I explained that I would “normally” take it out away from the field, but in the interest of time, would you like me to complete the emergency gear extension procedure when entering the pattern? She approved and I completed the procedure. With the gear now down and locked my next landing was a soft field landing. It went well but I was a little off of the centerline (not like me). I said, that’s not like me. She agreed, I requested a taxi back from tower thinking that she wanted to see more, but she said, nope, that’s it. Take me back… Really?!?! Woo Hoo! I did it!
All of the preparation paid off. I not only passed a check ride, but I became a better pilot. When I started, I flew mechanically, do this, now do that etc. It’s true what they say; learning the commercial flight maneuvers really makes you a better pilot!