I had spent years immersing myself in aviation and finding the means to pay for my PPL, months studying and training for it, weeks preparing and now, I am in the final hours and minutes – the PPL Check-ride – Part Two.
We had only been in the air for about an hour but I was already tired: I’d arrived at the school six hours early with nothing to do but nibble my nails. And after a bad start with delay after delay, I was relieved to be in the air at last on the way to Beaufort West.
The last leg through the mountain wave turbulence had taken it out of me and the terrain ahead was getting more difficult to read. But I had at least one win already when I spotted a shrivelled up dam hiding in the dust below – one of my checkpoints.
Now, I was about thirty miles east of Ceres VOR and entering the desert. All land features save faint roads had dried up. And I could forget about finding an aiming point. The brown lumps of land simply got lumpier until they merged into shapeless mountains on the horizon. The chart was also bare, with only a thin web of minor roads, and non-perennial rivers – which were an utter waste of ink.
So I did the safe thing and just kept my heading until I could find a known point. The ground below was scored with a mess of dusty lines– probably all those dried rivers – and somewhere tangled in them lay the gravel roads for which I was searching.
I desperately needed my next point and soon.
I checked the roads on my chart, and then looked back at the ground. Nothing seemed to match. Then Dick said that on his side, two roads met at roughly a 30 degree angle. I looked for it on the chart – and found it. With our position finally re-established we were ‘safe’ again..
I was also still waiting tensely for Dick to give me the diversion scenario – part of the test. (I had been tense for most of the flight because I knew it could come at any time). At a surprise time, Dick would give me a weather scenario and I would have to make a new plan, fly that plan without getting lost and get us safely to an alternate landing place.
The sky ahead was a drowsy blue and all was quiet when it came: The scenario was a wall of solid cloud a few miles ahead, too wide to navigate around. I couldn’t go over and I couldn’t go under. If I didn’t turn around soon I would be ‘VFR into IMC’.
And so the real test began..
There wasn’t much time to decide what heading to steer before I would hit the cloud, so I did an immediate 180 and backtracked to give myself time to look at my options without flying off into the blue and getting lost.
I picked Worcester as my alternate. It was roughly in the direction of home and about two thirds of the way. All I had to do was join the N1 somewhere ahead and follow it to Worcester – and the town of Touws River by the dry dam that I had spotted earlier marked the spot.
As soon as I had confirmed that the gap in the mountains ahead really was Touws River, I changed heading and scribbled it down along with the time. I was confident with this route because it would be difficult to get lost once we got to the N1 – so I thought. I worked out an ETA for Touws River and jotted it down.
I was hot and tired and the stress earlier hadn’t helped. I looked at the two chocolate-covered snack bars calling to me out of the side-pocket, but decided against having one – I was too busy to be snacking now.
As we approached the town, Dick told me to check my ETA and see if it corresponded correctly. It didn’t. It was too far out. Confused, I looked at my analogue local time watch, my digital set to Zulu time, and my paper. It was obvious I’d made a mistake, but I was sure that this was Touws River – yep, there was the dry dam. I picked up the road – nice and thick – and turned south-west to follow it.
Quick geography lesson: Two valleys that come in from the east make an apex roughly at Worcester. One runs north-east to Beaufort West, the other south-east to Swellendam. I’d done one of my cross-country flights down the south-east route along the R60, crossing Worcester, Robertson, and finally landing at Swellendam. Going north-east along the N1 you reach Worcester, De Doorns, then Touws River. That was the valley down which we were coming.
Still following the N1, I saw the town of Robertson sparkling in the sunshine not far ahead now, and past that would be Worcester – almost a straight shot home. When we passed overhead, Dick asked if I wanted to check the map again just to be sure. But with the road below me I knew exactly where I was – and so I assured him.
Now if you were paying attention in the last two paragraphs, you should be utterly confused as to where we were. If you weren’t paying attention, then you’re in the same boat as I was: I woke up and suddenly realised that we weren’t over Robertson at all, we were over De Doorns! My head was in the wrong valley! I updated Dick. He’d known all along, but had let me make my mistake and figure it out for myself – lesson learned.
Back to the flight: We continued past ‘Robertson’ towards Worcester, and plunged back into the tumble-dryer. Updrafts after downdrafts upset the applecart. I had to slow right down to max safe turbulence penetration speed, but worse still, I was in constant danger of blowing through the test’s altitude discrepancy limit.
It was getting hard to stomach, when at last it stopped as we came out the other side of the mountain pass. I did a steep descent into Worcester, where we did a few circuits – one with a simulated electrical failure. We also did an engine out after take-off scenario and a few other exercises I can’t remember.
We could finally continue West and over the mountains. I was so tired, but Dick wasn’t quite done with me yet.
To my dismay I remembered that I still had to do a forced landing, stalls, and a few other manoeuvres before we could go home. And so it was over the mountains and through another tumble-dryer to the Franschhoek area. Dick had ‘saved the best for last’ – I was at my weakest.
Exhausted from the three hour flight, I slogged through stalls, turns, and then wearily executed a forced landing from high altitude.
At last we could head home. Out of the whole three and a half hour flight, I’d have to say the final thirty minutes were the most gruelling. We seemed to be creeping towards Morningstar at an agonizing pace. Eventually, I saw the welcoming sight of Koeberg Hill peeping through the evening haze ahead. The flight had been tough and the only thing between me and handing control over to Dick was the thought of how disappointed I would be if I gave up so close to the end and had to do it all over again. So I kept my focus for a little longer.
Chirping on the runway had never felt so good.
I taxied to the hangars and shut down. I wearily lifted myself out of the seat. My head was spinning. Then a weird wave of disappointment hit me – I felt like I hadn’t done well in the simulated forced landing. I started packing up. The two chocolates were still in the side-pocket – those stashes of energy had been sitting there within easy reach for the whole flight and I hadn’t touched them.
Dick and I went back to the school where he debriefed my instructor and myself … and then… signed me off! Their beaming smiles parted the dark clouds and I also then joined the ‘smile group’.
After they’d left I stepped outside into the cool evening, gratefully clutching my flight-bag with its precious papers under my arm as I waited for my Dad to collect me. PPL training was over, and I had earned the right and the ability to rent an aeroplane and go fly somewhere. I was, at last, a pilot.
I’ve been sharing my road through PPL training with you for almost a year now and I hope that I haven’t given the impression that it’s all smiles, sunshine, and rainbows – because it wasn’t. But that night as the sun set on Runway 20 at Morningstar, for me, it was definitely a sunshine and rainbows moment.
Author’s Note: These stories of my road to my PPL were dedicated to the special people who helped me along the way – you know who you are.