Saturday, April 8, 2017

A New Pilot is Born

What is the ultimate accomplishment in aviation? Is it earning your own certificates and ratings? or is it giving the gift of flight to someone else? I really don't know. However, I can tell you this... going through a check ride from the CFI's seat is much more stressful to me than doing a check ride myself!

On Wednesday, April 5th, 2017, I presented my first ever candidate for a Private Pilot Certificate to an FAA Designated Pilot Examiner. Ty, my student, found me in Squadron 2 one day shortly after I earned my CFI certificate and asked me to train him. I didn't know him and he didn't know me. However, I think the experience was very beneficial to us both. He turned out to be a real pleasure to train and fly with. And, according to him, I was a great CFI. While we got along great and I was confident in his abilities, I was not prepared for the extreme stress of presenting a candidate for a check ride. Especially when my instructor told me many months ago that, statistically speaking, the first person a CFI puts up for a check ride will fail.

Examiner, New Private Pilot, CFI (aka me!)
My instructor was also the DPE for this check ride. Some would assume that would give me a special advantage and perhaps leniency from the DPE for my student. I knew better. I've seen him fail candidates from other CFI's he's trained. He'd already warned me that my candidate was likely to fail.  And I know, no matter how much it would sadden him, he would absolutely fail my candidate if he could not demonstrate he will be a safe pilot and fly to standards. So, no, I expected no handouts from this particular DPE. However, I couldn't think of a better examiner to validate (or invalidate) that my student was ready to operate as a Private Pilot.

Because I do know this DPE I was comfortable enough with him to validate that my student was, indeed, eligible before the check ride (he would do that for any CFI) and ask if I could be there for at least the start of the exam. His response was funny to me. He said, "Yes! Absolutely! Present your candidate!". I had this bizarre vision of putting a bow around my student and handing him over to the examiner as a present! 

The big day arrived and I was up early to let my student, Ty, into my office so he could prepare his flight plan. I told him from this point forward I couldn't help him unless he specifically asked for it. He was on his own. I worked on lesson plans for my CFI-I training while he did his flight planning. Then the examiner arrived at 9AM. Right on schedule.

He went through the paperwork and pre-amble explaining the ride and the potential outcomes. He re-validated that all of the endorsements and time were correct in my student's log book and verified the airworthiness of the aircraft. Then I was politely told to leave the room so the test could begin. 

Now I knew I had, if things went well, at least 5 hours to wait before the outcome of the test was known. Fortunately I had two students to fly with to distract me from waiting anxiously. Around noon I got a text from my student saying he would lock up my office when they were done there. But he didn't say if he'd passed the oral or not. When I taxied back to the club after my first lesson I saw Ty. He gave me a grin and a thumbs up. So that meant he had passed the oral. 

Time for my next student. I met up with him in my office and then we taxied out to the run-up. There I saw Ty was in the plane in the run-up with the examiner. My thought was "he made it to the run-up!". Then I saw them take off, "he made it to the take off!" Then I had to focus on the flight at hand. I had a great flight and was back at the club a little after 3PM. Then I had to wait. 

As I waited I got more and more stressed. My husband was there with his camera to capture the moments and tease me. At one point I told him and another friend that I would much rather be taking the check ride than waiting! Finally we saw Ty's plane taxi up to it's parking spot. I knew it was possible to fail even now and I sat so I couldn't see Ty or the examiner. I just couldn't take it. 

Finally they were done securing the plane and walking towards us. Ty looked grim and shook his head. The examiner looked stern. As they walked up to us, the examiner said, "You know, statistically, the first candidate a CFI puts forward fails.... but you never were one to stay in line with statistics!" Then he grinned broadly. Ty gave me a huge grin and a thumbs up! "You Passed!?!" I said. "Yep!" 

My first student passed his check ride. First try! I had given the gift of flight. It was amazing! 

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Engine Roughness after Take Off

The only real emergency is a situation you haven't been trained to handle. 

My CFI told my daughter that many years ago when she interviewed him for a school project. The only real emergency is a situation you haven't been trained to handle. That phrase has stuck in my head for many years. Especially now that I'm training other pilots and future pilots. As I train them I try to make sure my pilots don't have a real emergency.

One of the situations I commonly train people to troubleshoot and handle is a rough running engine with some power loss. This is much more common than complete power loss. Once I'd experienced a engine that seemed to be running a bit rough with no power loss. However, I'd never experienced a severely rough running engine and major power loss. Fortunately, my training, and the training I've been providing, did prepare me for the situation when it happened today.

This afternoon I was in a Piper Arrow with a commercial student. We were planning on doing Chandelles and Emergency Descents, maneuvers Commercial Pilot candidates must master. We taxied out to the run-up area and he did the run-up checks. Everything, including all magneto and propeller checks, seemed fine. He requested take off and off we went.

On the take off roll my student commented he needed more right rudder than he expected. I thought the engine seemed to be running strong but the climb out performance wasn't as good as expected. He brought up the landing gear and it seemed to take forever to get to 500ft AGL. I kept checking my student's airspeed but he was climbing at Vy, which should have given us at least 800fpm climb rate. Just as we gained enough altitude to turn crosswind the engine started running rough, rougher than I'd ever felt before.

"The engine's running rough!" the young man said. I told him to turn downwind and not change anything until we got over 1000 AGL. Our climb rate was down to 100fpm, with occasional increases to 500 fpm in an updraft. My initial thought was the propeller was somehow out of balance because I felt vibrations throughout the plane. I told him to keep climbing and then turn off the fuel pump and pull back on  MP and throttle to "25 squared" after we were abeam the numbers. This was deliberate because I knew I could do a power off approach from that location and altitude without issue. He did and the roughness seemed slightly better, though the climb rate was still pathetic. Time to troubleshoot.

We continued downwind, climbing slowly away from the airport. We both checked the oil pressure and temperature, fuel pressure, everything looked good. I was thinking now this was a magneto issue. The magneto check on the ground, just minutes before, was good, but I couldn't think of anything else it could be. With our climb performance so poor I didn't know what else would happen and I didn't want to climb away from the airport any further to attempt an airborne mag check. At about 2000ft MSL, I told the student to request a return to the airport to land.

We were cleared immediately to make a 180 degree turn and come back in to land on 31L. I told him not to change any other power settings until we knew we could make the runway if we lost complete power on our return to the airport. Once we were sure he slowly reduced the throttle and pitched for lower airspeed so we could slow down, get the gear down, and land. 30 degrees of flaps and a loooooong forward slip later we were back on the ground at RHV. The tower asked us if we wanted to stay in the pattern. We requested to taxi to transient to see if we could figure out the problem (perhaps a suddenly fouled plug?)

In transient we did a magneto check again and this time there was a major difference between left and right mags. Left mag ran smooth, right mag dropped 500 RPM and ran extremely rough. Just in case the spark plugs were fouled we ran up bit longer at high RPM and leaned aggressively. No difference. This was something we couldn't fix. We taxied back to parking and shut down the plane.

The problem could be a bad magneto, plug wires or a spark plug I think. In any case, it wasn't an emergency, even though it was quite disturbing for my student. For my own part I didn't feel nervous at all. It was a situation I'd been trained to handle.

As we debriefed on the event I told my student what my daughter was told that day, "The only emergency is a situation you haven't been trained to handle." That gave him pause as he realized even with his private pilot training he was trained to handle that situation. At the same time, he said, he was really glad I was there with him.