(Part 2) – With only one more flight lying between me and a Blue Book, I strapped myself into the seat for the last time and prepared to take on the CPL Checkride.
THEY WARNED ME that the examiner didn’t speak much – unless something was wrong of course. Although disconcerting, according to them it was nothing to worry about and just the way he was on a test. The thought of a stern, seasoned captain scrutinising my every move was unsettling. But a silent one was downright frightening.
A few deep breaths as I did my seatbelt. While I was at it, I tried to work up some gob in my bone-dry mouth before I’d have to talk, but to no avail.
The intention was to have tested in a Cessna 172 (we got on quite well). Unfortunately it had been sold just a few days earlier, so I now found myself back in the Sling. The upshot was I had done far more forced landing practice in the Sling than the 172 and knew its glide much better. After the navigation exercise, the test would no doubt include a forced landing or two along with all the other air work.
After stuttering through the crew briefing I started up and taxied to Morningstar’s Runway 20. I said all my checks and everything I did out loud. The designated flight examiner (DFE) sat silent and watched.
Breathe in… and out… full power.
“Airspeed alive… temps and pressures in the green…. 50kt, rotate.” In Sling fashion we sprang into the air in a Vx climb until clear of the simulated obstacle at 500ft. So far so good. I departed the circuit to the north and set the nose on my first aiming point en-route to Saldanha.
‘I knew the inreresting stuff was still on its way’
I settled in for the nav – this was the first portion of the check flight, but I knew the ‘interesting’ stuff was still on its way.
Sure enough, eventually the DFE informed me that the navigation part of the test was now over and told me to chuck my nav-log in the back. Stalls, steep turns, and spin avoidance were next on the agenda: I managed to pull these off well within the required tolerances I had practically memorised from the test forms. But the real test was still to come – the forced landing.
A few days earlier I really stuffed up a simulated forced landing when I went up with an instructor for some test-prep (you may have read about it). I asked him to throw every trick in the book at me before I tested for real, and the forced landing was a given. He had explained that when the DFE ‘failed’ the engine, he’d want to know exactly what my descent plan was – fair enough.
But when we practised it, my instructor tried to get the plan out of me while I was still coming up with one. The result was a lot of backwards and forwards between us over the choice of field, while the aircraft gracefully floated closer and closer to the earth… until it decided for me.
The solution, we discussed in our debrief, was that I should have the plan clear in my own head before it could be communicated to the DFE… I just hoped that he would give me the time I’d need. I mean, if I couldn’t pull off a forced landing, I was sure to be deemed unworthy of a Comm.
Back in the air, I rolled out of the last steep turn the DFE wanted me to do. Then I heard the engine wind down and felt the accompanying forward lurch. This was it.
He had failed the engine in literally the worst place on the route he could have. Floating powerless over the Atlantis sand dunes there was almost nothing but thick bush in all directions, well beyond our best gliding distance. This however turned to my advantage.
Few choices are sometimes (I say again, sometimes) better than having too many. I had often felt lost and unsure of where to go when surrounded by a patchwork of fields. But with limited options less filtering was required and I found it easier to narrow down on the best one. So, with the area void of cultivated fields or ‘aeroplane-friendly’ surfaces, I had three options to work with: The Delta 200 airstrip 5nm away, a tar road, and the beach.
Now his silence was welcome: he didn’t interrupt my thoughts or push for answers – he just let me get the hell on with it till I was ready to talk.
The airstrip was tempting – very tempting. Five miles was probably doable… but the thought of stretching the glide to almost the horizon must’ve triggered an alarm circuit somewhere in my brain, because I soon found myself scanning around for a better spot. Not to mention when I saw the double row of power lines running between me and the airstrip, I knew that if the headwind was only slightly stronger it was tickets.
Again, the coast was too far to judge properly – and were there people, rocks? It was a stretch too. The only place I was sure to make was the road. There was no traffic, and it ran straight for miles and miles. I was basically lined up with it on a long final already. All I had to do was make S-turns to lose the height.
Feeling much calmer now, I performed the emergency drills and engine restart attempt, dummy Mayday call, and passenger briefing. I briefed the DFE on my descent plan and he was satisfied. But, he told me, in real life if there are cars it’s a no-go.
Of course, being an active road, we couldn’t go through with the exercise fully. So he switched things up and told me to head for a dirt off-shoot road that appeared on my right. Once again I made the plan and joined on a left down-wind – just like a normal circuit. The ‘KISS Model’ just works so beautifully sometimes: Keep It Simple Stupid!
With the ‘field’ made, my most dreaded exercise was finally over and soon we were on the climb again. The climb was cut short though as the DFE told me to level off at 1000ft – a simulated low cloud base. I knew what that meant: time for a precautionary landing.
This time, with engine power, I could go for the Delta 200 strip. I set the Sling up in a low safe cruise configuration at 80kt and first stage of flap. I set course for the airstrip, still about 5nm to the south. But as we approached, I realised those power lines were taller than they looked. Even at 1000ft they were still an obstacle to be reckoned with.
I started searching for a safe place to cross. I aimed to fly directly over the pylon, instead of the cables. Even though the cables were lower, they can be extremely difficult to see until it’s too late, and I’d read too many accident reports to try it. So by flying over the pylon I could safely cross, knowing that that was the highest point on the whole line.
We finally made it to the airstrip where I did a high pass and low pass field inspection, followed by a touch and go. After a surprise simulated engine failure after take-off I was relieved beyond words to hear that we could head home. After landing and the debrief he asked me if I had any questions. I had only one.
Did I pass?
In disbelief that I somehow passed a CPL Checkride I found myself shaking hands with the DFE and signing the papers. I had expected to feel a wave of elation upon passing, but funnily enough it didn’t come – it was more like relief that it was finally over. But over the next few days the stress of being under constant scrutiny slowly relaxed its painful grip and I allowed myself to unwind. One of the most exhausting parts of this whole thing was the constant self-scrutiny: How were my forced landings? How was my knowledge here? And was my radio work up to scratch? This constant ‘self-checking’ was a tiring but essential part of my Comm at every stage. But it was finally over.
A record three days later, the CAA had processed the CPL and soon I was on my way to the flight school to collect my Blue Book.
The feeling was indescribable.
I owed so much of it to the people who had gone out of their way to see me succeed, and especially my mentor. Owen was a tall, grey “aviation Gandalf” if you like, and had been with me every step of the way. Since then he had ‘flown West’ into the wild blue yonder leaving the last bit to me to figure out – but he had left me the tools too.
There are so many people out there with a lifetime of experience and knowledge who would like nothing more than to help a newbie find their feet in flying. If you’re one of those who haven’t got it all figured out (join the club!) find yourself a mentor – someone to give you a nudge in the right direction where needed, and who’ll look out for you.
Aviation is hard, and never straightforward – which is one of the reasons I’m ending this column. I haven’t got it all figured out, and I don’t know what more I could tell you. In fact, I probably have more questions now than I did when I just started learning to fly! But such is life: the more you know, the more you realise you don’t know.
The hardest part is to get the snowball rolling. But once it is, the answers will come. And when you finally do pop out the other side, you’ll have made some friends for life. Don’t worry too much about everything: If you’ve started the journey, learn to savour and enjoy every moment – wherever in that great adventure you are.
Thank you to all the special people who have helped me along the way. You know who you are.