At last, after a full year of flying, studying, and exams, I was ready for my PPL Check-ride. But it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows – I was feeling the butterflies, big time.

No use denying I was excited. But my excitement was mixed with a full measure of apprehension as the clock ticked down to zero. To give you a brief update of where I was; Thomas my instructor, and I had spent the last few days before the test drilling our way through simulated forced landings, stalls, touch-and-goes, you name it. I had a neat 45 hours or so in my logbook, and every exam passed. There was nothing more to do. 

It was time for the test. 

Fortunately, I would not meet my examiner for the first time on test day, I had done the radio course with Dick a few months earlier, and we had flown together once or twice – so that was one less item on my worry list. 

The route took us from Morningstar to Beaufort West: A whopping two and a quarter hour trek across jagged mountains and featureless karoo – well, whopping for me. But as part of the test, Dick would give me a scenario and I would have to divert – but I didn’t know what or when. So as instructed, a few days before the test I planned the route halfway and then took some fashion advice from Thomas: I put on a white collared shirt, black trousers and shiny shoes to add the finishing touch. Now I was ready. 

Judgement day arrived. I was edgy. My flight was booked for 14h00, but being… well… me, I showed up wide-eyed at 08h00 sharp. It was the first mistake of many that I made on that day. 

I got the latest weather, then checked the booking system (again) just to see if everything was still in order and I could green-tag everything I had checked. After one more hard think, there was nothing more to do at the school, so I headed to the Morningstar clubhouse with my planning stowed safely under my arm in my flight-bag. 

I plonked down at a quiet table at the back and set my bag on the table. It was heavy; full of anything and everything I could conceivably need: whizz-wheel, whizz-wheel guide, handbooks, extra flight-plan forms… even a digital watch set to GMT. You get the picture. 

I completed my flight-logs, calculating distance, time and heading. And when it was all done and dusted, all that was left to do was wait for 13h00. I took out a book and began revising radio procedures for the oral test. Slowly, an hour passed. I looked up at the clock. I had been so uptight earlier that I hadn’t been able to get breakfast down, so I ordered a sarmie and continued revising. The hours were painfully slow – one more slogged by, and my eyes were already tired of reading. 

I spotted Dick at one of the other tables happily chatting away over lunch without a care in the world. And here I was gnawing through my nails up to knuckle level. 

I went back to the school to worry there instead. 

Test time finally came. Strangely, I have very little recollection of doing the oral test, and none of what happened immediately afterwards – I guess that’s what a straight six hours of nothing to do but worry does to the memory. 

Anyhow, after the briefing I filed the flight-plan and time went back to ticking away at a normal pace. 

I pre-flighted the plane and stowed all my stuff. I slipped two chocolates into the side-pocket for extra energy and made sure I could reach my water. 

We wanted full tanks for the flight, so I 

taxied over to the fuel bay, filled up and we were just about to jump in and go, when I realised I had forgotten to sign one of the many required pieces of paper. A little annoyed, I hurried back to the school, up the steps, signed the bit of paper, went down the steps, and hurried back to the plane. Minutes remained before the filed take-off time. But just then I was stopped in my tracks yet again: two planes taxied up to get fuel, and we were in the way. 

Things were piling up. 

Hot and bothered, I helped Dick push the plane across the apron and got in. I collapsed into the seat red in the face and in a huff – with the shoulder-strap buckles in my back, but I didn’t care. I hadn’t even got off the ground yet and already we were off to a bad start. I activated the flight-plan and started up. 

I took off at last from Runway 20, noted the takeoff time, and turned east onto heading. I picked my aiming point in the Limietberge and got settled in (as much as one can on a check-ride) for the long flight ahead. 

As the first line of mountains loomed up in front of us, Dick suggested that instead of going straight over them, I should approach at a 45 degree angle, which reduces the climb rate required and, if we hit bad turbulence, it would only be a 90 degree turn to get out of it. We passed over the mountains with no problems and were now heading about five miles or so south of Ceres, past the Matroosberg. 

That was when we entered the tumble-dryer. 

The test requires that you maintain heading and altitude within accuracy tolerances – which shouldn’t have been a problem. Right from the beginning Thomas taught me to fly using attitudes and sight-pictures for cruise, climb, and descent. And the occasional glance at the altimeter was normally enough to maintain accuracy. But unfortunately for me and my sight-pictures, the type of turbulence Dick and I were getting into threw all of that out the window… 

Mountain waves. 

The wind that poured over the ridges created huge waves of up-going and, on the leeward side, down-going air–sometimes crested by lenticular cloud. The waves were invisible to the eye, but not to the stomach. As we flew into them, an updraft shoved me down in my seat, so I counteracted firmly with the stick and held altitude. But then a minute later it switched and thrust us down. This time I added power vigorously and pitched up for climb just to maintain altitude. Then we hit another updraft. All my careful fuel and time planning was out the window. My attention was focused on the altimeter – it had to be; I didn’t want to fail for not being able to fly straight and level. 

We finally popped out of the worst of the turbulence – and at least I didn’t have to aim one eye constantly at the altimeter. With both eyes comfortably looking forward we passed over the Matroosberg and into the desert wasteland beyond. Slowly the land features dried up and it became empty. I could see a lot less on the ground than the chart said I should. I saw thick red roads winding their way over the paper, green nature reserve borders, airspace markings, and countless rivers. But when I looked down at the ground all I saw were muddled mountains formlessly flowing in and out of one another in the emptiness. 

According to my chart, we were to pass a few miles north of a dam near Touws River. I looked over the right wing but still saw the same brown nothingness. Hoping to catch a sparkle or a glint of water I looked some more. Then I saw a sliver of ground, slightly darker than the rest, way off the right wing-tip. I had a “Duh, you idiot!” moment as it hit me that the Cape was in a drought and the dam would be dry. I excitedly pointed the dam out to Dick, and flew on. 

In retrospect, there were bucket-loads of things that I would’ve done differently if I could do it again: from technical points to plain old common sense things; like not showing up six hours before my test with nothing to do. Now that we were in the air and had left those problems on the ground, things were better – or at least I felt better. Having crossed the mountains and found the dam I was mighty pleased with myself. 

But the PPL Check-ride isn’t sunshine and rainbows. As far as the test was concerned, I think Dick was just getting started. 

More on that next month.