Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Planets Align and a CFI is Born

We Have a Date

Tuesday, December 1 - I drive to work extra early to avoid traffic. I'm sitting at my desk working and my cell phone rings - "No Caller ID" it says. Normally I don't answer "No Caller ID" calls, but this time I did. The caller asked for me by name and identified himself as the Aviation Safety Inspector for the San Jose FSDO. He was calling to schedule my CFI check ride!

Private & Commercial Lesson Plans
I was thrilled to hear from him and I think he could tell. We agreed to schedule the ride for Wednesday, December 9 at 7:30 AM at the flying club. He picked the date. I was willing to move any meeting I had to in order to do this ride but I had no meetings scheduled that day. We had a very pleasant chat as he told me what to expect and asked if I was endorsed and ready to go. He started to explain how it's OK for people to download lesson plans from the internet but if I did that he'd make me write one out in front of him. I told him not to worry, I had lesson plans I'd written from scratch. He seemed pleasantly surprised about that.

I texted my CFI, Scott, with the exciting news. Then I told my husband, Jeff, what was coming. I made him swear not to tell anyone else. I'd had the unfortunate experience of going up for a check ride with the whole world knowing and failing the ride. I didn't want to have that happen again when I was going up for the most difficult check ride of all. Lastly I checked the forecast for the my check ride date. The weather looked clear for most of the mid week.

Preparing for the Ride

I had a week to do any final preparation for my CFI check ride. Looking back I think I spent it exactly the right way. I had already planned to fly on the 1st so I did that. I practiced performance maneuvers, soft field take offs and landings, emergency descents and emergency approach to landing. Later that evening I flew again to get night current. Three trips around the pattern with a full stop landing for each. That was all the flying I did.

My work remained extremely busy. So I didn't have much spare time to worry about my ride during the week. The weekend before the ride I volunteered as Race Control for the 25 Hours of Thunderhill. As a result I got to spend time with my racing family and I had something to do aside from pace and worry all weekend. During my downtime at the race I reviewed my lesson plans and studied the finer details of how magnetos work.

I met with Scott twice... once on the 1st to just calm down my spinning brain and discuss what we'd have to do next (complete the IACRA form online and some final paperwork). The second time was because, as usual, I came up with a couple more questions. The second day we met was the morning of the 7th. I had a small window I could step away from the office and he had a small window in the middle of his corporate flying day. The weather was not cooperating but Scott was his usual professional self and flew the instrument approach back into RHV to meet up with me. I think we talked for about an hour and that was it. The weather forecast for the rest of the week did not bode well. Low ceilings were forecast for the entire week.

Monday night I gathered everything I needed for my check ride. My private and commercial syllabi and lesson plans and all of the materials I needed for all of my private and commercial lessons (I didn't know which ones I'd be asked to teach). My reference materials: the 2016 FAR/AIM, Airplane Flying Handbook, Pilots Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge, Aviation Instructors Handbook, sample POH for both C172 and Piper Arrow II. My iPad with useful videos and even more reference material. My pilot certificates, medical and knowledge test results. Both of my log books (so I could prove I was properly endorsed). In the end I had three bags of books plus my laptop bag and my flight bag. I looked at the mass of materials and reflected on the time I'd spent with them all to get where I was. Somehow the mass seemed appropriate.

I was ready. I didn't need to do extra preparation that week between scheduling and the actual date. I had spent the previous year and a half preparing for this ride. There was no last minute thing I could do. So I didn't. Tuesday, the 8th, I left work early and reviewed my notes one more time. Then I went out to dinner with my husband and relaxed for the rest of the evening. I checked the forecast before going to bed and it was getting worse. The ceilings were going to be below 2000' most of the day it seemed. That was one thing I couldn't control so I didn't worry about it. I figured at the very least I could get the oral portion out of the way.

The Big Day

I got up at 5 AM and checked the TAF nearest to my airport. The forecast hadn't improved. It looked like I would be doing the oral only. I was disappointed but I looked forward to getting that out of the way. I knew the oral portion of the CFI ride could be 4 hours or more and that, in itself, would be a long day. When I left the house at 6 AM I told my husband my intent was to pass the oral today at the very least. He wished me a sleepy good luck.

I drove the mountain roads towards the valley and airport. My route takes me past a view of the Monterey Bay. When I reached the highest point of my drive I looked out towards the bay in the pre-dawn light. I thought I saw stars above the bay. I tried not to get my hopes up. It was very normal for clouds to hover low over the Silicon Valley when it would be clear above. I mentally rehearsed my "we won't be flying today but let's do the oral anyway" speech for the ASI. It wouldn't be the first time I'd have to split a check ride that way.

I proceeded down the mountains and could see the valley lights. That surprised me... I could see the lights, and as the pre-dawn light increased in the sky I could see the outlines of high cirrus clouds but nothing low. It was still quite early though and it was common for clouds and fog to engulf the valley later in the morning.

I stopped at a nearby Starbucks for coffee and something to eat for breakfast. It wouldn't be good for me to attempt this on an empty stomach. As I pulled into the parking lot I realized I forgot the Private Pilot textbook I intended to use with my syllabus. It was an hour drive back home so that wouldn't work. I texted my CFI who lived about 10 minutes away and asked him if he could bring his. He could. Crisis averted.

I had 45 minutes before the ASI would arrive and I needed to get the aircraft log books and prepare them for review. I was told to expect the ASI to bring the maintenance safety inspector with him to inspect the aircraft so I was ready for a major focus in this area. The club's owner (and A&P AI), Mike, let me in to the office to get the log books and reviewed them with me briefly.

It was 7AM and the inspector, Jeff, walks in the door alone. No maintenance inspector in tow. 30 minutes early. I shook his hand and told him I was getting ready and asked him to make himself comfortable as he chatted with Mike. I continued to prepare the log books and lay out my materials. It was about this time I realized I left my CFI PTS at home with all of my notes in it. I had a copy of the PTS on my laptop but that would hurt. Oh well, if that was the worse that happened I'd be thrilled.

About 7:15 Scott walks in the door with the Private Pilot text in his hand. He was surprised to see the ASI and told him that he arrived early deliberately to get here before the safety inspector did, but it didn't work out that way. They knew each other rather well so they started talking and I told them both I'd use the next 10 minutes to eat my breakfast.

Proving Eligibility

It was 7:30 and time to start. Scott and Jeff (the ASI) and I closed the door to the office and we began. The first thing we had to do before the ride could officially start was verify my eligibility. First, a little background about my situation... My CFI, Scott, is also a Designated Pilot Examiner (DPE) performing check rides in this FSDO for the last year. He's also been instructing and flying full time for the last 14 years. As an understatement, Scott knows his stuff. The ASI, Jeff, knew it. I knew it too. And between Scott's expertise and my "detail oriented approach" I was fully confident I had everything required. The best way I could describe this portion of the experience was a dance. We all knew the moves we had to make and the next move that would happen.

The ASI took my log books and asked me to prove I was eligible, which I did. Then he started flipping back through my log books to look at my Commercial, Instrument and Private training and endorsements. Normally this is an area where the ASI or DPE can identify problems with previously issued endorsements - not to invalidate the candidate but as a scenario to test the candidate's application of the rules around endorsements. What happened next was funny.

"Scott did your Commercial?" "Yessir" "Don't call me sir, that's my dad." 
"He did your Instrument?" "Yes" I see the beginning of a grin on Scott's face.
"And your Private?" "Yes" Scott's grin gets bigger.
"That's no fun then!" Jeff said with a sigh and a laugh and he hands my log books back to me. Scott and I laughed.

Jeff knew my endorsements would be correct because he knew the caliber of the CFI that did them. I hope to someday be just as frustrating for anyone trying to find errors in endorsements in the future!

Next was IACRA and ensuring what was in the computerized system matched (roughly) what was in my logbook. The numbers in IACRA didn't look right to Jeff and he questioned how/why I had so many more hours in IACRA than the "amount forwarded" total in my log book. I opened my laptop and pulled up a quick calculation of the hours which proved the correctness in IACRA. Scott pointed out I was using an application he wrote, on a Mac, for this.

Soon the verification was over, IACRA was electronically signed and the ride began. Scott shook my hand and patted my shoulder as he left the room. It was up to me now.

Normally I go into great detail about the my check rides in my blog. This time I won't. For one thing the ride was close to 8 hours long and I'm sure people are getting tired of reading at this point. For another I wrote up 5 pages of notes about the ride for Scott's benefit and the benefit of anyone else going to take a CFI Initial Check Ride. The notes are posted here. Feel free to review if you'd like to see what a CFI candidate has to do on a CFI Check Ride. In the mean time I'll share more the internal experience of what it was like. 


Going into the oral I was confident I would do well. As Scott told me once, he knew I know my stuff and he'd never seen knowledge fall out of my head. My confidence went down rather quickly though. I was asked about the CFI privileges and limitations and I knew what they were but I couldn't recall which regulation, specifically, set those privileges and limitations. Part 61 of the FARs was not good enough. Jeff pressed me for the specific regulation and, at the same time, offered up more questions that confused me further as I tried to look it up. I was flustered but I finally found the regulation and proved myself correct.

I let that go and continued to answer questions. The next set of questions were all about learning and teaching theory. This is where my PTS with notes would have been very helpful but I didn't have it. I knew the concepts and a couple of the key terms for each topic but I didn't have them all memorized. The good thing was, the ones I did have memorized where the most important and most relevant to aviation training so we were able to move past them. Maybe my very high score on the FOI written test helped with this. I felt I did very well when talking about the CFI's responsibility in the training process. Endorsements (again) and limitations, how to teach and why.

We moved on to technical subject areas, aerodynamics and the like. Sometimes I struggled with the intent of the questions and the way the ASI jumped around in his questioning but I kept going and did well. I felt particularly strong on stalls and spins, which he touched on many different ways during the questioning. It took me forever to recall what makes an aircraft turn - it's the horizontal component of lift. I'll never forget that again!

Then we talked about systems. Explain the fuel system. That stopped me cold. I knew the fuel system, I had a lesson with fuel systems embedded in it but I wasn't ready for that answer. I started to explain the fuel system but I went into too much detail and was very awkward. That wasn't going well. So we paused for a break. I came back and said I'd try to explain it like I'd explain it to my daughter. He was pleased when I said that... so I tried again and it was better. Then explain the electrical system and a couple more. I was definitely weak there compared to everything else but not so weak that I had to stop.

Topics switched again for National Airspace and VFR weather minimums. That I could teach! It was something I'd taught many times before for student (and even commercial pilot) candidates I've worked with to prepare for their check rides. As I went through the lesson Jeff said I was the only person he tested that didn't have a problem on one of the loopholes for class G night VFR weather minimums. I felt better after that one.

We covered many, many more areas between 8AM and 11:45 when we broke for lunch. Finally I knew I had passed the oral portion of the check ride. Jeff and I looked out the window and the skies were, by some miracle, clear. He said we didn't have to complete the ride today if I didn't want to. It was a long day after all. I told him I'd check the weather and let him know after lunch. Then we agreed to meet at 12:30 to start back up.


I was definitely feeling the early start and the previous four hours of questioning and teaching. I put away some of my materials and the aircraft's log books. Then I wandered around the club a bit in a daze. Finally I took my iPad with me to Jamba Juice to get something to eat. I couldn't imagine eating anything more solid than a fruit smoothy at that point. The skies were clear and the wind was calm as I drove to get my food. I looked at the skies in disbelief, watching for signs that the air would be turbulent above. Part of me wanted to have a good reason to delay the flight. I was tired. Maybe I needed more practice.

At the restaurant I checked the weather - sure there would be an AIRMET for turbulence if nothing else. No AIRMETs, no PIREPS indicating the weather would make the flight difficult. The Santa Clara Valley was clear and calm and ready for my flight. This was probably the best weather I'd get all month and I knew I didn't actually need more practice flying. I decided to go for it and texted Scott to let him know. His response was, "The planets are aligned. Go for it!" I didn't know that Scott and Jeff had already talked and Scott assured him I was going to fly.

I headed back to the club to make sure the extra fuel I requested for the aircraft was onboard. Jeff told me our flight would take 2 to 2.5 hours. The last thing I wanted was to run out of fuel on a check ride so I added to my reserve.


We walked out to the plane to start the flight at about 12:30PM. As we walked towards the plane I started to describe how I would teach pre-flight. After a minute or two he stopped me and told me to go ahead and preflight the aircraft and he would ask me question as we went. The first things I did was hand him the airworthiness certificate and registration to inspect. I also showed him the weight and balance data. (Which, of course, led to questions about the max gross weight of the aircraft).

As I went about my preflight he observed and asked questions. I enjoyed this part. I'd spent a lot of time getting to know this plane and while I didn't recall off the top of my head the 3rd component of the structure of a wing (that would be the rib) I knew everything I needed to. After a while it seemed like a game of question and answer where I felt in my element. At one point he asked me, "Why is the sky blue?" Huh? I felt like I was in a Robin Williams routine so I quipped, "Because of the atmosphere". He actually said the answer was because the atmosphere reflected blue wavelength or something like that. At that point I laughed and told him he was worse than my CFI, Scott. Scott would never ask a question so far from left field like that. Not unless he was giving me a hard time anyway.

Once again I'm not going to go into major details about the flight portion. You can read about it here.


Before we boarded the plane I gave Jeff my standard briefing including briefing what we would do in the case of fire, failure or loss of control on take off roll, take off or climb out. Then I briefed him on the route we were likely to get on taxi.

We pulled the plane out and started up. We started to taxi with me on the controls. As I taxied I was asked about how I would teach radio com. I found I fell very easily into teaching mode in the plane. Splitting my awareness between taxiing safely, monitoring the aircraft and answering his questions and making sure my "student" didn't cause any issues.

I did have one surprise. I had not done any flying from the right seat under the hood before and I had to do it on the ride. I found it much easier to do than expected. Which was good because that was the start of the ride. I was happy that I got to do soft field take offs and landings because I had spent so much time working on that skill. I got to do a Lazy 8, another favorite maneuver and hard won skill. I even had to do a Power Off 180. The Power Off 180 was my commercial check ride nemesis but nemesis no more due to the hard work, expert instruction and learning I'd done since that first check ride failure. I was very comfortable doing the stalls and teaching them.

As always there was one maneuver that wasn't stellar - this time it was the commercial steep turn. I performed that maneuver worse than I had done in months. However, I heeded Scott's advice and taught my way through it as I kept the plane in spec (barely). I nailed the maneuver immediately after that. As I did each maneuver I didn't let anything before color what I did next.

Even better, I felt completely comfortable playing the role of CFI in this plane. I found myself naturally monitoring what my "student" was doing and correcting him when he was off. I was able to observe and critique the nuances of my "student's" performance and I always started with the positive. My main problem was figuring out when he was being a student vs an examiner but eventually I decided I'm supposed to be PIC so if I saw something wrong, even when I was being debriefed on my own check ride as he flew, I called it out and got it corrected. I didn't figure out that he was asking me to do a self critique when he asked me how I was doing. But that was OK.

Check Ride Over

As you can guess, especially if you read the detailed notes. I passed this check ride. First try. The hardest check ride there is. After the ASI announced the check ride was complete my mind kept repeating, "Holy Shit! I'm a CFI!" over and over. I was elated and relieved. Me! A CFI! who-da-thunk-it? I was stunned and totally unsurprised at the same time. I helped get access to a printer so I could get my temporary airman's certificate. Jeff, the ASI, was grinning broadly the whole time. He seemed happy for me too. When I talked with Scott on the phone later that day he said something I will treasure forever. He said something like, "You cannot see my face right now but I'm beaming with pride."

One test over a very long day and all of my work was rewarded. In a way it was redemption for my Commercial ride, especially that successful Power Off 180. In a way it was the culmination of over 750 hours of flying and 4.5 years of flying with one of the best damned CFI's around. I feel like I was training for this flight since my first pinch hitter flight in 2010 when I flew, in the right seat - scared to death but in love with the feeling of flight - with the same flight instructor that trained and endorsed me for this certificate.

Me and the ASI, Jeff, after my successful check ride.
A new CFI is born. 
If you know me at all you know my passion for aviation. If you've been reading this blog for a long time or if you know me extremely well you may have some grasp of the demons I had to face and conquer in order to get to and be successful on this particular check ride. Not only did I have to learn how to fly the aircraft from both seats to commercial standards. Not only did I have to learn how to teach and how to prepare lessons and Federal Aviation Regulations and all of the technical subject areas of knowledge it takes to take a brand new pilot to where they need to be. I had to learn how to be PIC of myself; to let go of my fears and the days and moments when I'm not perfect and turn those moments into opportunities to experiment and learn more.

I am incredibly grateful that my husband decided to get his pilots certificate back in 2008 and that he happened to train with the same CFI, Scott. I'm grateful that Scott made such an impression on him that I decided to trust this particular CFI to take me up and teach me just enough to safely crash land a plane if my husband had a heart attack. I am extremely grateful that Scott had the availability at the right time to take me on as a student, multiple times, to train me for all of these certificates and ratings and the wisdom to send me off on my own in between so I could really learn.  I was given the gift of flight and now I am certified to give that gift to others. What gift could be greater than that?

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