Saturday, February 22, 2014

Its Hard to Fly

I found out today how hard it is to fly with tears in your eyes and a throat choked by emotion. It is possible, but it is not easy and I wouldn't recommend it. As a matter of fact, next time, if there is a next time, I have to fly to a check ride I think I'll bring another pilot. Just in case.

I was hoping by now to be a newly minted commercial pilot. Instead, right now I feel like a newly minted two time failure. I did my Commercial Check Ride on Feb 20. Just as planned. The ride, the oral, the preflight, briefing, slow flight, stalls of all types, performance maneuvers (we did lazy 8s and steep spirals), emergency decent, simulated emergency (engine fire was chosen), ground reference maneuvers, specialty take offs and landings, go arounds were all great. Right up til I had to do a power off 180 and ended up going long. It was the second to last maneuver, and I blew it. I did a go around, which the DPE said was the right choice, but I failed because a Power Off 180 is supposed to simulate an engine failure, so there is no "go around and do it over" for that maneuver.

Even after I failed the check ride I flew the plane back to RHV and, when I was told to do a short field landing and put it on the numbers I put the plane exactly in the middle of the numbers. In spite of being upset. The DPE was just as sad as I was about me failing it seemed. I was bummed but very happy with my performance for the rest of the flight so I figured I would fix my problem and pass next time.

So today, I went back up again, to do one maneuver and pass the check ride and earn my commercial license. Just the Power Off 180. I rented the plane for the day and practiced power off 180s at three different airports, ending at the airport that I'd be doing the test at, South County. At each airport I did a power off 180 well within spec. I did it on my first try at South County. I parked the plane for a couple hours and spent time with my friends. I met up with the DPE, did the required paperwork, paid the retest fee and off we went.

Take off, climb upwind to pattern altitude, turn cross wind, turn downwind, pull power abeam the numbers, glide to a landing, short. 20' short of the threshold. Failed again. Taxi back, get a second notice of disapproval in 3 days. Ask the DPE how many times people are allowed to fail before they can't try anymore. He said he didn't know of any limits. The lady working at the front desk of the FBO was sad for me. Some guy walked out of the FBO and saw me with the DPE and said "Success?" and I said "No." "Oh... " and he walked away. The DPE shook my hand, said to let him know as soon as I was ready to go and he'd work with me to get this done ASAP. He was very encouraging.

I left a voice mail for my CFI with the news, texted my friends who were all waiting for the good news and watched the DPE fly away in his plane. Then I had to fly myself back to RHV. The FBO was closed for the day so I sat on the bench and refocused on the task at hand. I figured I should get back before it got later and more dusky and, therefore, harder to land. I shut down my phone for the trip so I could focus and not have to listen to text messages come in.

Waiting to take off from E16. Headed home.
I was alone now. I pulled the plane out from its parking place so I wouldn't get the cars parked behind it sand blasted with the prop wash. I sat down in the plane and closed the door. Then I used the checklist to ground me into the moment. As I went through the checklist I was able to forget, just then, what happened. I started the engine easily (hot starts are hard in that plane but I have a trick). Then taxied to the run up area. After I did the run-up, using the checklist to center me, I had to sit and wait for two twin engine planes and an experimental to land. That allowed me to think again.

I decided to prove to myself I can still fly to commercial standards and set the flaps for 25 degrees. When the three planes landed I announced my intentions in a choked voice and took the runway for a soft field takeoff. I executed it almost perfectly, I probably let the plane come up about 2 feet higher than perfect, but it was very good. Even better than my check ride. I was flying again and I was able to forget until I leveled off and got the weather for RHV. Then I had a couple minutes to think.

I loaded the instrument 31R Zulu GPS approach for RHV into the GPS and practiced intercepting and tracking the final approach course to keep my mind busy. I hadn't done that in a while but the old skill came back easily. It was getting dusky/hazy at my home airport and the extra GPS info was nice to line me up perfectly with the runway.

I was cleared to land and landed well in spite of the haze. I didn't worry about doing any "special" landing that time, I just landed. But it was good, light and on the center line. That's one thing that comes naturally for me now, after years of practice, I land on the center line almost every time. The tower switched me to ground and I pulled clear of 31R and did my after landing checklist carefully. I switched to ground and taxied back to Squadron2 hoping no one would be there to see my face and ask "Success?".

After I finished shutting down the plane and carefully putting it away and making sure I had everything together I went into the club. A pilot I vaguely recognized was there checking out the plane. He saw the look on my face and said nothing. We ended up chatting briefly about his planned flight. He was flying down to Van Nuys. I told him how nice Bob Hoover Aviation at that airport. That was the FBO I visited last summer. That's where he was going. It was good to talk about flying in general. It reminded me why I'm doing this.

Tomorrow I'm going to fly. Not to practice, just to fly. I'll go with my daughter and my friend and fly to Castle Air Force Base. There is an awesome air museum there that I haven't seen in 4 years. It will be good to just fly and, once again, remind myself of why I'm doing this. I need some extra motivation to keep going.

It will be very hard to face my CFI, and all of the people at the flight club that know me, they almost all do because I'm always there flying. It is a blow to the ego to fail a check ride, it is a huge blow to the ego to fail twice. And now I'll be facing the question over and over from people wanting to know how my check ride went.

I know eventually I'll look back on this as a valuable lesson. Eventually I'll probably be one of the best power off 180 accuracy landing pilots around. But right now, it is very, very, hard. It's hard to even imagine a path forward from where I sit. I'll sleep on it and hopefully tomorrow, I will be ready to move on.

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