Good Luck, Tina!

At last, Tina is ready for her checkride. But if you think it will be a piece of cake, you've not been paying attention - and that's before she even gets to the airport! AVweb's series on primary flight training concludes (?)as we ride along with a brand-new student during her private pilot checkride.


Everyone I told about my upcoming checkride wished me “Good Luck.” Why did I need luck? Luck is for the incompetent. I only needed their blessing for good weather, because I was trained to fly “good.”

Maybe if I keep telling myself that, I will start to believe it.

In trying to remain confident, my mantra had become, “If Johnny says I’m good to go, I’m good to go.” Over and over again I chant that line. John’s not going to put his reputation on the line by sending an unprepared student. Why allow my nerves to become Pilot In Command, when so much of it is mind over airplane. I am ready for my checkride, darnit. Johnny says so.

It is amazing how important a tool the mind can be, how a good attitude can overcome just about any obstacle. I should have learned that lesson during my weight-loss journey. I did not fail to lose weight because I lacked willpower, but because I lacked the confidence in my willpower. I did not believe I could lose weight, and until I did, I could not become the loser I am today.

I would not fail my checkride because I was not capable of flying, but only because I didn’t believe in myself. If I lacked confidence, I could not be PIC, an attitude as much as anything.

Early on Tuesday I wake up rested and ready to go. Much to my surprise, I slept like a rock that night. No fretting, no worrying, no fussing about the upcoming day. Armed with an aura of quiet confidence, I begin preparing for my checkride.

Into my office I go to log online to start taking practice FAA written exams, aiming for 100 percent before I quit. I just want one test with all questions answered correctly before I move on, and I have that soon enough. Up one notch on the confidence meter.

Some Family Concerns

Dawn with C152 Ready to Go
Dawn with C152 ready to go

Time passes and the rest of the family starts waking up. Here is where my concerns begin, having so many life issues to deal with in addition to the important things, like flying. My checkride is scheduled from 10 to 1 in Westfield, Mass., (KBAF), about a 30-minute flight from Ellington (7B9). My eldest son gets home from school at 2:30. Ok, he has a key to the house in case I am late getting back home; there is no problem here. Next I have to make sure someone is home for my younger son. I set up with a neighbor to get him off the bus should I be late for him also. Things are starting to look up.

Before I know it, it is 8:35 in the morning. I want to get to the airport as soon as possible to go over my materials, preflight the airplane, and get off the ground by 9:15. I don’t want to be rushed or concerned about time. I gather all my things, and head to the bank. Now my concern is about the money. What if the ATM won’t spit out enough cash? I need $200 for the examiner’s fee, more for the airplane rental. I’m getting nervous as I drive to the bank. What if there is no money? All the banks are closed at this hour, what will I do?

I stick the ATM card in the slot, punch in my PIN, and wait for what feels like an eternity to hear the sound of the machine counting out the bills. Whew. $200. I have Herb’s fee. If nothing else, I have Herb’s fee.

I pop in a request for another $200 and it counts that out too.

Now I’m calm. All my big worries are taken care of, the boys and the money. Now for the easy part, taking my checkride.

I get into the Jeep and I hear a song on the radio that I heard the day I took my discovery flight. I don’t know why I remember these things, but I do. It’s an omen, I tell myself. A good omen. No, pilots aren’t superstitious, not at all.

I drive to Ellington Airport, singing along with the song and park my car. There’s Johnny, cleaning the windshield of N6420L. He’s going into work late so he can meet with me this morning; and since we had gone over everything the day before, he was here for moral support only. And perhaps to make certain I had not forgotten anything.

The airport is as quiet as can be. There is nothing flying except for the birds. A weekday morning, even one so perfect for flying as this, and there is nothing happening. That is all right by me, it is just one less thing to concern me this day.

After a bit of time in the office with John, I ready the airplane for the flight up to Westfield. I’m not nervous, not one bit. “If Johnny says I am good to go, I am good to go.”

Flight to the Examiner

Rear View of Takeoff from Ellington Airport
Takeoff from Ellington

Fire it up, line it up, and take off to the north. Everything goes smoothly. I call Bradley Approach (BDL) and get flight following up to BAF. As I am approaching the field, I call up BDL, thank them, and change frequencies. First the ATIS, then Westfield tower. So far, so good; all is well.

“Report right base for 2,” says the controller.

Oh my. Right base? Ok. I can do this. I have only flown right traffic a time or two before, and never solo. There was great benefit for me training at Ellington, a small, non-towered field with a lot of activity. I had it all there: a short runway, helicopters flying right traffic, skydivers littering the sky, and ultralights with no radios. What Ellington didn’t have was a tower. Without that, there was not as much right traffic experience as there might be at a towered airport.

It is a little late to worry about right-base entry now; besides, I ought to be able to handle this if I’m going for my checkride. “Report right base for 2, 20L.”

I putter along until I am at my reporting spot and call in. They ask me to “Stand by.”

Soon enough, “20L, cleared to land runway 2.”

I set up for a nice, stabilized approach to landing, and I land. The landing was “acceptable.” Not my best, but by far, not my worst. At least I didn’t need to check to see if the ELT was set off when making contact with the earth.

“Taxi to Echo, monitor ground 121.7.”

I taxi over to Charis Air and line up the airplane right on the marks on the pavement. Looking for a tiedown rope, I find one way too short to do anything with. So I chock the airplane, gather my belongings, and head inside.

I walk into the building and a tall man greets me and says, “I’m Barnes.”

“Hi Herb, I’ve been looking forward to meeting you!”

He points me to the ladies room and waits for me to return. We then head upstairs and the fun begins.

The OralExam

I pull up a chair next to his desk and open my flight bag, a bag that must weigh 50 pounds with all my books and flying paraphernalia. We begin with a review of my “gotta haves.” Do I have a driver’s license? Foggles? Filled-out application form? FAR/AIM? Current charts? $200?

I get out the FAA Form 8710-1, the “Airman Certificate and/or Rating Application,” and I hand it to him. He looks at it for a second then says, “Shouldn’t this be all filled out?” I look it over and, not thinking anything’s wrong, I tell him, “That part doesn’t apply to me.” Then it hits me; I gave him the wrong form. John had me fill out an extra one with all my times to keep for my records. I gave him that one. The one that was not all filled out.

Let’s start the oral exam by being dumb, shall we? I explain to him that I’m just getting my errors over and done with early on. He is not amused.

Then we get down to business. I don’t know how he knew it, but he zeroes in on the exact item that is giving me fits. Weight and balance. Sure, I had learned all about it in ground school but I had not done much with it since. John and I can fly my C152 with full fuel and no W&B issues. I never had to give it much real thought. Because of that, my weight and balance brain muscles must have atrophied, because it seems that I have forgotten how to calculate it. It may also be that it has to do with math, not my best subject in school.

Certainly, John and I went over everything briefly before launching, but it didn’t stick all that well. Just like old Murphy and his laws, the first topic on the oral exam is W&B, my Achilles Heel.

I muddle through that well enough.

Next we talk airspace issues. Herb points over to Albany and asks what that’s all about.

“It’s Class C.”

“B?” he asks me.

“No, Class C. I mean, Charlie.” I tell him what is required for that airspace.

“Ok, what if I flew over here at 4,500 feet.” I check the ceiling all around and find it to be 4,200 feet.

“You don’t need to talk to them, but you do need a Mode C transponder,” I proclaim.

Good. “What if I flew through here at 1,800 feet,” pointing to the outer ring, five to 10 miles out.

“You don’t need to talk to them, although I do.”


“And? Oh, a Mode C transponder.”

Go read the chart, Tina. I get up and go to the chart to find that, underneath the airspace, a transponder is not needed. I should have known this, because 7B9 lies in that same airspace, and folks buzz around in ultralights without transponders all the time.

No. I will not let this shake me. It’s not a huge error. I’m learning from Herb here. It is his job to find something wrong.

Next we go over some night flying issues because he will not be flying with me at night. He says, “Everyone gets this correct because I ask everyone the same thing.” Darn, he knows this. I can’t impress him with the correct answers when he knows I have prepared them ahead of time.

He draws a nighttime scene on the white board. Asks me to label the lights: beacon, approach and departure ends of the runway, runway lights, taxiway lights, and position lights on the airplane. I have no problems doing that task. Of course, everyone passes that part, remember?

Next stop on the oral checkride, we go over the aircraft maintenance records. ADs. What are they? I know this. Airworthiness Directives. What does that mean? I tell him. Then we look through the logs and he asks me to find a recurring one, one that comes up every 100 hours. Ok, I find it on the directives, now he wants me to find it complied with.

Darn Ted the A&P and his awful handwriting; in purple pen, no less. I eke through this part, and Herb explains the importance of keeping informed as to whether or not ADs are being complied with. Yes, I put a lot of faith in Ted and the airplanes that I have rented from him. Partly out of trust, and partly out of not knowing any better.

Now I know better.

That pretty much concludes the oral part of the test. He ends up by outlining what we’ll be doing and how important two items were: #1, checklists; and #2, clearing turns. Failure to do either is grounds for failing the test.


I gather up my flying belongings and we head downstairs to the ramp. I do a thorough preflight, explaining each of my items along the way. And I use my checklist.

I must be doing a good job because his daughter shows up and he introduces me to her. He continues to talk with her as I continue my preflight. Perhaps it is a distraction technique and he is trying to trick me. His daughter is in kahoots with him. What a sly dog, he is. No, no, I am not paranoid. Am I?

Well, I finish up the preflight and he says, “Did you find anything wrong with the airplane?”

My reply?

“What did you do to my airplane?” Paranoia the destroyer. I guess I have grown to be suspicious. Although my flight instructor never played any tricks on me, I have heard about those who would put tape over the static port and other such tomfoolery in an attempt to catch a student who had not done a thorough preflight.

Herb did nothing, however, and I find nothing, so into the airplane we climb. I let him pack his tall body into the 152 first. I brief him on passenger safety, seat belts, doors and all. Then he asks me, “What else should I make my passengers aware of?”

Uh-oh, what else?

Um, “That if I need concentration and call for quiet you must listen to me.”

“Yes and what else.” I am having a brain fart, here.

“Don’t touch the controls. Don’t touch anything. Not the buttons, not the switches, not the rudders.”

Ok. I will remember that.

The CheckFlight

Barnes/Westfield Airport Aerial View
Barnes/Westfield airport

I dial in and get the ATIS, writing down the controller’s comments. Call up the tower with the proper information after practicing “off mic” before keying so that I know what I am going to say before saying it over the airwaves. Herb is known to be a stickler for not using up too much airtime.

As we head out, I ask for a progressive taxi. It can’t hurt to show him that I know my way around an airport. We taxi up, run up, and fly up.

On the climbout, he puts me under the hood. I climb nicely, though it is a little bumpy up here. Holding Vy, holding heading, using rudder for minute changes rather than aileron deflection.

He levels me out at 3,000 feet rather than all the way up to 5,500 feet. I continue to fly until I reach the time for my first checkpoint, whereupon he tells me to flip up the foggles to see if I know where I am. I do so, peeking out the right window, hoping that I have done well and my top-of-climb checkpoint is there waiting for me.

Guess what.

It is. I am very glad that I flew the course with John on Sunday, because I immediately recognize my point rather than just “hoping” I would find it.

Foggles down, left turn off-course directly into unusual attitudes under the hood. The first he puts me through is a low-power left-turning climb, which I recover from nicely. Then a right-banking dive, again I have a good recovery. Having done well at those, there are no more, and Herb directs me straight ahead into some “slow flight.”

I do a GUMPS check. Next I pull the carb heat on. Then I slow the RPMs to 1,500.

“Recover the airplane. Do that again and you fail.”



Oh man, he caught me already. That’s not going to happen again any time soon.

I don’t let it shake me, however. I remain pilot in command. Mostly.

Next we do a bunch of other PTS-type things. My power-on stall is right on the money. In fact, he compliments me on my rudder work. Power-on stalls used to give me the willies. I am not sure why, but any time I had to perform that maneuver, I would shake, dribble and drool with fear. One session with the best pilot I know took that fear clean away. He taught me to control the airplane with authority, reducing my fear to just respect. Power-on stall, completed satisfactorily.

Downwind Pattern
Downwind pattern

Just then the engine quits. (Simulated, of course.)

He pulls the throttle. I establish best-glide while looking out my window for a landing spot. I glance out his window toward the right for a suitable spot. Why did I look toward the right? Experience. On an earlier flight with a CFII, we were preparing for a landing. He reached over and said, “You just lost your engine.” I looked out to the left, as I had always done, and tried to find somewhere to land. As I struggled to find a spot he said, “How about that runway out here to the right?” He did this on purpose. Being an experienced flight instructor, he knew this student would not look towards the right, and I lived up to his expectation. But I learned, and that is what it’s all about. There is so much this man will teach me.

Back to my checkride, and out Herb’s window I look for the emergency landing spot, but before I have a chance to say anything, he lowers the nose and points out a spot. Obviously he has my emergency all planned out. Wouldn’t it be nice if it were always that way?

Ahead there is a long, grass airstrip snuggled into the trees. Ok, I’m fine with this. I check the indications to see why the engine quit, ignoring the glaring indication of his hand on the pulled-out throttle. Gas is on, mixture is rich, carb heat is on, key is on both, and master is on. Danged if I know why the engine quit, except for that hand-on-the-throttle thing.

I tell him I would dial in 121.5 and declare an emergency. Squawk 7700. Open the doors in case of a hard landing that could buckle the airframe. I tell him I’d shut the fuel off to avoid fire.

I say this all as I am descending and lining up on a downwind-type entry for this field. Here is my next error. I didn’t circle the approach end. I flew it down as if I had power and was going to come in for a “normal” landing. Every other emergency landing has been spiraling down to a nice field. I didn’t see a “field” here, I saw a runway. Runway habits are hard to break, and I ran out of energy before I ran into a good spot to land. Herb is yelling, “What are you doing? We’re dead. You’re taking us into the trees. You’re going to kill us.” Nothing like a little peace and quiet-contentment on an FAA private pilot checkride.

He takes the plane, climbs us out, and shows me what I should have done.

I’m thinking, “That’s it. I’ve failed. I have to go back, tail tucked, and face the failure music.”

Then he gives me the plane and has me climb to 1,500, whereupon we move into another maneuver.

Right into another maneuver? If I’d failed, he’d have to tell me, right? I’m brightening. I’m feeling pretty good here.

I nail all the other tasks he asks of me.

And for my final landing, right traffic no less, I do a beautiful full-stall landing right on the money. I clean the airplane up and taxi back to Charis Air, chitchatting all along the way.

The Big Question

Tina and C172 after Checkride

We get back, deplane, and we’re headed inside. I look over at him and give him “The Look.” Nothing, there is no response from Herb. Then I say, “So?” along with giving him “The Look.”

“So what?” he replies.

“So, did I pass?”

“Well, I usually leave the debriefing until we get upstairs and I talk to the pilot. But I would have told you if you had failed.”

I’m jumping up and down on the ramp and straight-out laughing! My goodness, I’ve passed. I AM A SOON-TO-BE-CERTIFICATED PRIVATE PILOT!

Holy moly. Holy cannoli. Holy whatever you’ve got, I’ll holy it. I did it!

We head upstairs and he tells me to go get a soda or something while he finishes the paperwork. I decide to make some phone calls. First call?

No, my first call was not to my husband. But you expected that, didn’t you?

Johnny and his Chest
Johnny and his chest

My first call was to Johnny.

I call his cellphone and get his darn voice mail.

I leave the following message: “Get to the airport, remove your shirt, and wait for me on the ramp. Another of your students has earned her wings.”

Now, if you have followed the saga of Tina and her quest for Johnny’s chest, you will understand that message. If not, I’ll fill you in. You see, my flight instructor is also a rock musician who has lots of tattoos; tattoos that are always covered by T-shirt sleeves. When it came to solo time, I asked him about them. And he dangled this carrot, “When you solo, I’ll let you see them.”

Well, after my first solo, he rolled up his sleeves and let me see his arms, I mean, artwork. He began to show me one on his chest and I say, “Wait. Save that as incentive for my checkride. If I pass, I get to see the chest tattoo.”

Well, I passed.

It’s of a ship.

And I am a pilot.

Editor’s Note:

Additional articles in this series by Tina Gonsalves include: