Practical Test

The last time I posted an update on my flight training, I had just completed my Cross Country Solo Flight and was ready for my Practical Test with just a week and $260 left in my time and cost budgets.  That was over 2 months ago.  Right now I imagine African tribal villages where hundreds of children are crowding around the only computer for 100 miles in anticipation of finally hearing about how my Practical Test went.   Wait no more, children.

To ease some of the tension, I successfully achieved my Sport Pilot Certification, and did so only slightly over my initial 3.5 month and $3.5k budgets for the mission.  To put some of the tension back, it most definitely did not go as expected and was nearly catastrophic for my budgeting hopes.  I’ll pick up the story right where I left off.



The Practical Test is split into two portions:  an oral exam and a checkride.  At the time of my Cross Country Flight, it was clear to my instructor Larry that I was not ready for the oral portion of my Practical Test, which we had scheduled for the next week (on top of this, my flying wasn’t so hot that flight either).  At some point during the flight training, my studying had slipped big time, so I had to crack down.  Larry lent me a couple good study resources to go with the books already had:

-Rod Machado’s Sport Pilot Handbook

-Paul Hamilton’s Sport Pilot Checkride DVD

-Gleim’s Sport Pilot Maneuvers and Practical Test Prep

-Gleim’s Pilot Operating Handbook

-Rans S-6 Pilot Operating Handbook

The Gleim Books along with the Rans POH were the ones I already had, and they contain all the physical information you need to pass the Practical Test.   Rod Machado and Paul Hamilton definitely help make the material digestible though.  I put in a solid 2-3 hours a night that week, and felt pretty good by the time my Oral Exam came.


The Oral Exam:

What to bring to the Oral Exam:

1)  Your books and notes (especially the FAR/AIM and your Pilot Operating Handbook)

2)  A check for the cost of your Practical Test (usually $350-$400)

3)  Sectional Maps with your pre-assigned cross-country flight mapped out

4)  Your Driver’s License

You are allowed to bring whatever textbooks and study guides you’ve been using into your Oral Exam – it is open notes.  You can even use a smartphone or a tablet, which is real nice since there are a ton of good apps you can buy instead of books, such as the FAR/AIM and an Airport Directory.  Obviously the goal is to look as little as possible at your notes during your exam (unless you are told to), but they are a nice cushion have in case you are stumped or blank on a question.  I also made a cheat sheet of the big things I thought I would be tested on, which was good as both a study guide and a condensed source of information to look at during the exam if I needed to.

My exam went for about 2 hours, and focused heavily on navigation.  We went over my cross-country assignment in gory detail.  I’d say we probably covered every possible landmark and symbol that existed in my sectional map.  Outside of the heavy navigation focus, there were no real surprises.  I was asked what the privileges and restrictions are of having a sport pilot license, what the performance limitations and emergency procedures for the Rans S-6, what radio frequencies to use in different situations, what constitutes VFR conditions, what weather reports are available and where to find them, and I was asked about a few of the aeromedical factors in flying.

The whole thing was super low key and definitely gave the vibe that as long as you put an honest effort into studying, you’re not really in trouble of failing.  Larry confirmed this, saying that in his entire career he only had 1 student fail, and that student had taken a week vacation before the exam without studying.  Thankfully, I was not the second of Larry’s students to fail.  The Designated Pilot Examiner (DPE) gave me the A-OK after the test and said we were ready to fly.


The Checkride.

THIS is when things got interesting.  And not in the way you might think a checkride flight would get interesting.  More interesting was the fact that the checkride ever even happened, which is a small miracle.

The scheduled checkride was the first flight in my short flying career that had to be postponed due to weather – 40 mph winds to be exact.  At the time this was no big deal since we could easily reschedule, but I wasn’t thinking about that fact that I had stockpiled my next month and a half with various excursions around the country.  The next time I was in Utah was the 7th of July, and this was only for a week.  The week after this, while I would be away, Larry’s flight instructor insurance was going to lapse (when I picked Larry as an instructor, it was with the understanding that I was his last student and that we would need to be finished by mid-July when this would happen).  So we had no option but to do the checkride that one week I was in Utah.  Of course, that week happened to be an awful week for the DPE, who was booked with work throughout.  Larry must have slipped him a $20 or something, because after a few back-and-forths, the DPE moved aside his Friday morning appointments and scheduled my checkride for the morning of the 12th.

We arrived at West Desert Airpark on the 12th to this:

It was the first rain Utah had gotten in months.  Adding complication to the situation, West Desert wasn’t even where I was flying my checkride.  We were meeting the DPE down at Nephi Airport, since Nehpi’s nice 6,000×100 foot runway is where I had practiced all my landings in training.  It was raining where we were, but the clouds looked even worse between us and Nephi, so we chilled for a while hoping it would pass.  As we sat there, we contemplated the consequences if we were not able to fly.

Larry:  “Well, you wouldn’t be able to fly my plane when you got back from your trip since it wouldn’t be insured anymore, so you’d have to find another airplane.  That probably means getting a new instructor to take you up a few times to get you used to the plane…”

On top of this, I was under a 60-day discontinuance to finish my checkride before my oral exam became invalid, otherwise I would have to repay the $400 for the Practical Test and take the whole thing over again.  We were looking blowing my budgets by about 2 months and $1,500.  Things looked BAD.

Larry wasn’t about to let that happen though.  He called the DPE, who had already driven over an hour to get to Nephi, and had him drive another hour and a half over to West Desert Airpark to do our checkride there.  We would just have to hope for a window of no rain long enough to fly in.  This meant I would be doing my landings on West Desert’s 2500×40 foot runway.  For reference, the street that you live on is almost certainly wider than this runway.  This was definitely an added layer of difficulty especially since I had never landed there by myself, although I had landed it dozens of times before with Larry.

When the DPE got to West Desert, there had been a lull in the rain for a few minutes, and the ceiling and visibility were alright, so we went for it.  The conditions wound up being phenomenal for the checkride.  As it turns out, cool air is much nicer to fly in since I didn’t have to deal with any thermals that are usually shooting up from the desert floor.  I got to do my S-turns, stalls, steep turns, and turn around a point on easy mode.  My landings were mediocre, with one go-around needed when I overshot the runway, but they worked.  After the final landing and taxi back to the hangar, the DPE congratulated me on being the world’s newest certified Sport Pilot.

He then immediately hatched me in on his plan to make Larry think I had failed the test.  Larry had been under considerable stress to make this whole ordeal work, so I was reluctant, but opportunities like this only come by once in a blue moon.  I stepped out of the plane emotionless as Larry walked over from the clubhouse with a concerned look on his face.

Me (to Larry):  “Hey, do you think you’ll be available this afternoon to go through another practice flight?”

DPE (to me):  “Yeah there’s just those couple maneuvers you’ll need to work on, then hopefully I can get back over here tonight before sunset.”

I could see Larry’s heart plummet into his toes.  He might as well have been walking into his house and finding his dog dead on the floor.  We let that one simmer for a solid 5 seconds before breaking the good news.  All was well except that Larry vowed revenge so now I sleep in fear.

Nothing beats the feeling of driving home with a Pilot’s License.  All the sudden cars seemed so stupid, and I laughed at the other drivers that I sat behind in traffic.  Don’t they know there’s another form of transportation that is infinitely better than what they’re using?  What were they thinking?  Legend has it the horse I rode home that day was 40 meters tall.

Here are my finally tallies for time and money spend learning to fly:

Time (total):  17 weeks

17 / 15

Money (total):  $3,720

3720 / 3500

Flight Hours Logged (total):  28.2


Last but not least, here is a picture of Larry and me in Victory Handshake Formation after the checkride:

 Sport Pilot Victory Handshake Formation