A Commercial Pilot Check Ride Story

Presented herein for your amusement, is an account of the check ride for my Commercial Pilot Certificate, which I passed on December 4, 2006. Like the story of my Instrument Rating check ride, I wrote it primarily as a personal diary, but am posting it in the hopes of helping others prepare for their own check rides (this time with flashy graphics and visual aids!) Feel free to skip my whining about the stress of getting ready, waiting on weather, etc., and jump right to the Oral Exam and/or Flight Test parts of the story.

Prep... and the waiting...

My check ride was originally scheduled for November 27, 2006 with Jack Taylor, owner and chief instructor of The Flying School (a.k.a. Colorado Contrails), located at the Fort Collins Loveland airport (KFNL). Jack is the same examiner I used for my Instrument Rating, and I'll admit I chose him again primarily for the comfort of familiarity. Having learned my lesson about the perils of an early morning check ride from my Instrument Rating experience, I scheduled this session for 1 p.m.

I awoke to low ceilings and marginal visibility that morning, but the forecast was calling for it to burn off around 11 a.m. By mid-morning, the skies were clear over Vance Brand airport (KLMO), where my trusty Mooney M20F is based. But Fort Collins was still reporting a 400 foot overcast and less than two miles visibility - way below my personal minimums, even for shooting an ILS. I called Jack and we agreed to delay my start time in the hopes things would improve. As noon passed, the weather at Ft. Collins crept up to 800 feet, broken, with better than 6 miles visibility, and I considered flying the Runway 33 ILS to get there. But arrival was only part of the puzzle - we still had to fly the commercial maneuvers, and executing them through the overcast would have been frowned upon. :-) We probably could have departed KFNL on instruments and flown south to VFR conditions for the maneuvers. But that strategy sounded suspiciously like the beginning of an NTSB report, not to mention the instrument flying and fading daylight adding stress to an already stressful event. I called Jack one last time, and we agreed to simply try again another day. I rescheduled for December 4...

...and then proceeded to go flying! The skies over Longmont were clear, and an updated briefing said they were forecast to stay that way. I figured I could use the practice, and I was curious what things really looked like to the north over Ft. Collins, given the lousy weather reports. Once airborne, I headed north a bit and sure enough, there was a benign little flock of clouds sitting right over KFNL. Reminded me of those cartoons where it's only raining over one person in a crowd.

I flew several of the commercial maneuvers, mostly to PTS standards. But I had trouble with my steep turns, in one case losing over 250 feet. I resolved to work on those during the next week, but mainly I resolved not to get all worked up and "over-prepare" for the next attempt. I did fly once more that week, cleaning up my steep turns considerably. Other than that, I didn't prepare much - just tried to relax, occasionally reviewing some notes I'd made from the ASA Commercial Oral Exam Guide (which I see is listing the 6th edition as of December 2006 - guess the 4th edition I bought in November of 2006 had been sitting at the FBO a while...)

December 4 dawned bright and clear, and the only weather concerns for the day were far to the north. They were no factor for the actual check ride, but did affect the pretend cross-country trip I'd been asked to plan, from KFNL to Rapid City, SD (KRAP - great identifier, eh?). There was a frontal system running from northeastern Wyoming down across South Dakota, accompanied by multiple cloud layers, and high winds. Ceilings were better than 1000 feet, and surface winds were roughly aligned with the main runway at my destination. But the freezing level was at the surface, the ADDS icing charts were showing a probability of icing directly over KRAP, and there were AIRMETs for icing along the route. This cast doubts on actually reaching the destination in my non-FIKI airplane, and in real life, I would have postponed the trip for at least a day; but I went ahead with planning for the check ride, given that the cross-country flight is just an exercise for discussion. I planned a direct route, VFR, but I also plotted a backup route along airways, picked an alternate, and got all my low level IFR charts and approach plates ready in case the examiner wanted to discuss the flight in IFR terms (not sure if that's kosher on a Commercial Pilot check ride, but I wanted to be prepared).

Looking at the weather, planning alternates, getting the approach plates in order and so on occupied the bulk of the morning. I did have a little time to review my oral exam study notes one more time, but predictably, nothing from that last-minute effort came up with the examiner (the standard advice about skipping any last-minute cramming is sound stuff). Before I knew it, it was time to gather my things and head for the airport. I tried to relax and take my time during the drive and the preflight, as it would have sucked to have a car wreck, or leave the gas caps off the airplane! Startup, taxi, and runup were uneventful, aside from a little extra time at the hold line waiting for the oil temp to come up. I flew a normal takeoff and departure, and headed north for KFNL.

Enroute to KFNL, I flew a simple constant-rate turn at about 1500 feet AGL to check the wind. As the ground track below shows (downloaded from my GPS), there was a significant westerly wind at that altitude:

Winds aloft were forecast strong out of the west, so this wasn't a big surprise. However, I encountered no turbulence on climb out, and thought it a little unusual for there not to be a shear layer given the strong west winds at just 1500 feet AGL, with calm to easterly surface winds. I made a mental note of the situation and proceeded north to Ft. Collins. I held about a 10-degree crab angle on downwind at KFNL to compensate for the west winds at pattern altitude, but approach and landing were otherwise uneventful.

I tied down at the Ft. Collins Loveland jetCenter FBO - which shares a building with The Flying School - and told the lineman I was there for a check ride and wouldn't need any fuel. He wished me luck, and I headed inside. I was a little early, so I checked in with the staff and then balanced my fluid levels with a shot from the water cooler and a bathroom break. Jack was on his way back from lunch, so I had a few more minutes to sit in the briefing room and try to relax before getting started. When Jack arrived, we dived into the paperwork right away. I used the IACRA web site for my 8710, and I had all the other relevant documents ready in a folder. In addition to my written test report, certificates, etc., I brought a document detailing each of the flight experience requirements detailed in FAR 61.129, and exactly how I met them (how many hours, what dates, etc). Jack seemed to appreciate this and it definitely saved time.

So far, so good, and with the preliminaries out of the way, we began the oral exam.

The Oral Exam

The oral began with Jack getting the weather from the KFNL AWOS. He wrote down the winds (160 at 7), temperature (+4C), and the altimeter setting (30.24"), and asked me to use my POH to compute our takeoff distance and initial rate of climb under those conditions, as well as the density altitude. This was a nice way to begin: a "real life" problem, with "real world" numbers.

The POH for our Mooney was designed before the AFM format was standardized, and its performance tables are a little different from those in the written tests and the typical Cessna manuals. Rather than using density altitude, it indexes data to "standard altitude" (pressure altitude), across selected temperatures. As shown below, it also don't provide a formula to adjust for winds:

I used my "whiz wheel" to compute a density altitude of 4800 feet, and gave a general explanation of how winds affect takeoff distances (emphasizing that tailwinds hurt you worse than headwinds help), but explained to Jack that I wouldn't directly use either density altitude or wind in my computations, due to the way my POH tables were written. He seemed satisfied with that, so I pressed on with the calculations.

A pressure of 30.24" at KFNL's 5016 foot elevation corresponds to a pressure altitude of 4696 feet, and I converted the +4C temp to +39F. The POH tables for takeoff performance have an entry for 41F at 5000 feet, and I just used that line, pointing out that the relatively small error would be on the conservative side in this case. I interpolated for our exact weight of 2360 lbs, and calculated a takeoff roll of 963 feet, with a total distance of 1620 feet over the mythical 50-foot obstacle (feel free to check my math). Jack did a quick sanity check of my numbers as compared with the table data, and pronounced them reasonable, so I moved on to the rate of climb calculation.

The POH charts for rate of climb are even more troublesome, as they don't account for nonstandard temperature:

I explained that since standard temp at 5000 feet is +5C, and the current temp was +4C, it was reasonable to disregard temperature correction for this particular problem. Using a pressure altitude of 4700 feet, and our actual weight of 2360 lbs, I used bi-linear interpolation to compute an initial best rate climb of 986 ft/min. Again, Jack sanity checked my numbers without actually repeating my mathematical calculations, and pronounced them reasonable.

I then proceeded to violate a cardinal rule of oral exams by volunteering that we wouldn't see 986 fpm on initial climb out due to the fact that the POH tables specify ram air on, and that those tables represented a brand new airplane with a factory test pilot at the controls. This piqued Jack's interest and he said something to the effect of, "Why wouldn't we get the book numbers in your airplane?" [ignoring ram air for the moment].

I said, "Well, our engine probably doesn't produce as much power as when it was brand new. And small amounts of 'hangar rash' make the airframe a little draggier than when it was brand new."

"Does your airplane get annual inspections?"

"Of course." Hmmm... this is getting uncomfortable...

"And do those annuals include a compression check on the engine?"

"Yes."

"Have you ever done a speed test, like a 3-way GPS track measurement?"

"Yes."

"And how close were your numbers to book numbers?"

"Actually, they were within a knot or two."

"So don't you think that maybe this 'tired old airplane' argument is a bit of a myth?"

"Well, yes, I guess it is." Never disagree with the examiner... :-)

Jack went on to explain that he had a Cessna with over 8000 hours total time ("considerably older than your Mooney", as he put it), and it still made book numbers to within measurement error. He said there was really no good reason to adjust performance numbers to compensate for a "tired old airplane", but that one should just use a healthy overall safety margin when computing adequate takeoff/landing performance and climb gradients.

In the days since, I've thought more about the "tired old airplane myth". I still believe a brand new airplane is going to perform a little better than an older one. But it's reasonable to argue the difference is often lost in the noise. Also, with respect to rate of climb, I've only recently realized how sensitive the Mooney is to exactly nailing Vy, as properly adjusted for altitude and actual weight. I'm sometimes guilty of rationalizing away that computation: e.g. in a Cessna 172, published Vy is 72 KIAS at sea level and gross weight, and I used to target 70 KIAS in climbs, figuring it was "close enough", that I probably couldn't hold airspeed to within 2 KIAS anyway, and how much difference could it really make? Using the Mooney as an example, however, the published Vy for a typical density altitude in Colorado is "about" 105 MIAS at gross, and that's what we've been flying on climb out. But at a pressure altitude of 4700 feet (actual conditions on the day of my check ride), the exact value of Vy is 108 MIAS. Adjusting for an actual weight of 2360 lbs yields Vy = 108 * sqrt(2360/2740) = 100 MIAS. That's a 5 MIAS difference vs. the approximation, and yes, it makes a measurable difference in climb rate! The difference appears to be particularly sensitive in the Mooney vs. brand 'C' and 'P' airplanes, given its laminar flow wing, but to be professional about it, the computation should be done for any airplane.

So in the end, I'm glad I volunteered the "tired old airplane" conjecture without being asked about it. Maybe it goes against the standard advice on not volunteering information during an oral exam. But as a result, I was forced to revisit my understanding of the performance tables and their sensitivity to actual conditions, which is a good thing. I've learned something significant in every check ride I've taken, and as stressful as those experiences may have been, I've never busted the ride because of them, and I've come away better educated.

Next, Jack asked how long a runway would have to be for me to safely make a takeoff. The answer he was wanted was, "50% longer than my calculated takeoff performance". Well, I wish I'd said that. Instead, I launched into a long-winded, rambling answer about how the worst-case published takeoff distance in the POH tables is less than 3000 feet at gross weight, under conditions that correspond to a density altitude of about 10,000 feet; and so the typical runways around here of 5000+ feet have plenty of margin, but that some places like Glenwood Springs and Leadville are outside those parameters... blah, blah, blah. Jack eventually came back to the 50% number, and said he used to think maybe he could decrease that number as his skills improved; but that over time, he's never found a good reason to do so. My take away was that I could stand to be a little more formulaic about takeoff (and landing) distance computations. The values from the POH are reproduced on the back of our custom preflight checklist anyway, so the hassle in doing so is minimal.

The discussion of performance wound up with some brief questions about different types of airspeed: indicated vs. calibrated vs. true, which all were pretty straightforward. Jack offered his rule of thumb that you can get a pretty good approximation of TAS from IAS by using a "two percent per thousand foot" calculation. The rule sounded very familiar as he was explaining it, and I'm sure I've read it before, but it just hasn't stuck in my memory for some reason. I do know that at typical cruise altitudes in Colorado of 8-9K, true airspeed in knots is about the same as indicated airspeed in MPH (the math is left as an exercise for the reader).

Next up for discussion was the cross-country to KRAP. For all the time I spent planning it, Jack's commentary was brief. I had planned a direct route, and he pointed out that an airway route was only a few minutes slower. He also said GPS direct was fine, but that without GPS, you would probably arrive faster via VORs, given that pilotage and dead reckoning errors would likely introduce route variations larger than the direct vs. airway difference. This wasn't news to me, but I didn't mind having it reinforced. I did mention that sometimes an airway route takes you over a VOR at a controlled airport, and that I've been detoured around the airspace at least once in my career. Jack suggested that maybe I wasn't being assertive enough with the controllers. :-) I went on to explain my concerns about icing and winds over South Dakota, and Jack acknowledged them without further questioning. He then printed out the latest METARs and TAFs for our route, and asked me to translate/interpret them, which I had no trouble with (note to other candidates: study the native format, Jack didn't offer me the luxury of "plain English" translations).

From cross-country planning, we moved on to VFR charts and airspace. We focused on class D airports, which I'm guessing was for essentially random reasons - just something interesting to talk about. Jack had me read the information box for a particular airport and asked me to explain the terminology: airport name, field elevation, longest runway and traffic patterns, lighting, etc. The airport in question had a part-time tower, as evidenced by the star next to the tower frequency, and I explained we could look up the hours of operation in the margin of the sectional. I also noted the * by the 'L' for lighting, and explained we would have to look up the lighting limitations in the A/FD for details. Jack said this almost always means the lights are pilot controlled (presumably meaning after hours, I've never seen a towered airport go dark during operating hours). Finally, he asked what the unicom frequency at a towered airport was for, and I explained it was used for non-urgent communication, e.g. calling for the fuel truck, setting up rental cars, etc.

Since the airport we were discussing had a part-time tower, Jack asked what happened to the Class D airspace at that airport when the tower was closed. I remembered that it reverted to a Class E surface area and said so, but he asked if that was always true. Well, I thought it was... So I tried reasoning through it, and fumbled my way through some out-loud thoughts about how to separate VFR and IFR traffic after the tower closed. Jack didn't comment on this, he just handed me an A/FD and asked me to look up the airspace notes for Casper and Gillette. I knew that meant my answer was wrong or incomplete. Sure enough, the AF/D notes for Casper said the Class D airspace reverted to Class E after the tower closed, but the notes for Gillette said the airspace reverted to Class G. Jack explained you have to look in the A/FD to be sure, and there are complex criteria for determining which is the case. He said one requirement for Class E is that the airport be "attended", even when the tower is closed. This gives ATC someone to call if you forget to close your IFR flight plan, and allows them to re-open the airspace to other IFR traffic if an attendant can confirm you arrived. What I found interesting about this is it explains one reason why Class G VFR cloud clearance requirements go up at night: it gives IFR traffic shooting a low approach into an airport like Gillette a little more breathing room when the tower is closed.

From there, we moved on to FARs - always my least favorite part of every oral exam I've taken. Jack began by asking about VFR minimums at airports with controlled airspace down to the surface. I explained you need 3sm visibility (standard for controlled airspace near the surface), but then got brain lock and couldn't remember if the special ceiling requirement was 1000 or 1500 feet, and said I'd have to look it up. I did offer that airports typically light their beacon if weather is below these minimums during daylight hours, although you're not supposed to rely on that. Jack emphasized that you can't rely on that, and pointed out that the beacon at KFNL is frequently on during the day, because the photosensor that turns it off is unreliable.

Jack didn't mind me looking up VFR ceiling requirements, and gave me time to start searching. But about 3 seconds after I turned to part 91, he gave me specific directions, i.e. "Look at 91 point blah blah blah subpart XYZ, and then 91 point blah blah", etc. I've had this happen in other real and mock orals, and it's always demoralized me a bit - I can't help but wonder if the CFI/DE is thinking, "I know exactly where this is defined and what it says, why doesn't this guy?" I suppose it's more likely they know you'll find it eventually, and just don't want to wait, but it's still disconcerting. Anyway, I found the relevant section in 91.155(c) with Jack's direction, and showed him where it says you need at least a 1000 foot ceiling to go along with the 3 miles visibility in this case.

From there, Jack asked what documents we needed to fly today, both for the airplane and myself. I explained about the ARROW documents for the airplane and that I personally needed a pilot certificate, medical, and photo ID. He then asked about required inspections for the airplane, which was a pretty easy question for me since I track them in our airplane partnership: an annual for private operations, a 100-hour for commercial operations, pitot/static for IFR operations (Jack pointed out this is only necessary to fly IFR in controlled airspace), and the required ELT and transponder inspections. I mentioned the transponder inspection last, and Jack followed up by asking if we could fly anyway if it had lapsed. Hmmm...

I knew there were conditions under which you do not need a transponder (no electrical system and outside certain types of airspace), and that you can get ferry permits if your transponder is out of inspection, but I said I'd have to look up the detailed answers. So I got a repeat of the previously described "uncomfortable FAR lookup experience": about 3 seconds after I turned to part 91, Jack directed me to 91.215(c) and 91.413. What he wanted to show me, interestingly enough, is that 91.215(c) says each person shall operate a transponder maintained in accordance with section 91.413 [...] and that 91.413 is where the 24-month inspection requirement is set out. According to Jack, if you let your transponder inspection lapse, then the FARs require you to turn off your transponder when operating in class A/B/C/etc airspace. I don't think I'd really do that without talking to ATC about it first, but I couldn't find any holes in his reasoning.

Side note: I wasn't surprised to spend a lot of time talking about the painful details of the transponder regulations, as that was the third or fourth time in a series of actual and mock orals that the DE/CFI spent a lot of time on the subject. I don't really understand why this is such a hot button issue. While I know that some airplanes don't have (and the owners don't want them to have) a transponder, every airplane I've ever flown had an operable one - including some gliders - and they don't seem to fail or malfunction with any greater frequency than other avionics. One theory I have is that I understand the transponder requirements were pretty contentious when they were initiated in the mid 1980s. Every CFI and DE I've dealt with was flying before then, so maybe there is some residual frustration and good-natured interest in how to hypothetically "beat the system". My other, more rational theory, is that the transponder regulations are simply a good test of a candidate's ability to look up and interpret complex FARs. They are referenced (and cross referenced) in several places, and the regulations themselves are lengthy and not very straightforward.

Lending credence to my second theory, Jack finished the conversation on transponders by explaining that "reverse logic" is often a good way to understand complex FARs. i.e. ask yourself, "What happens if I do not comply with 91.x.y(z)?" This forces you to read further and see if there are exemptions or exceptions to a given subpart.

The transponder questions concluded the FAR terrorization - and the oral exam as well - and it was time to go fly. Overall, it went about like I expected. It might have been my best performance on an oral exam, though as always, there were places I wish I'd been sharper. There were a couple of things we somewhat surprisingly did not discuss: one was FARs 119 and 135. I was sure Jack would ask something like, "What can you do with a Commercial Pilot Certificate?", and explore if I understood you can't just charge people to ride in your airplane, without an Operating Certificate and all the requirements that go with it. This is something that seems to get newly minted Commercial Pilots into trouble, so I figured it would be a point of focus. I also was not asked to produce the logbooks for my airplane to show where and when the various inspection requirements had been complied with. The prep guides all seem to discuss the importance of being able to do this, but I've never been asked to do so on an actual check ride.

The Flight Test

We took a short break between the oral exam and the flight test, so I had time to check the fluids (the airplane's and my own), and get situated. As on my Instrument Rating check ride, I had a little time to just sit in the cockpit and take a few deep breaths before Jack came out to load up. When he arrived, he started with some humor: letting him leave his spare glasses in the airplane would be an automatic bust. He also said whenever he slid his legs into the foot well of a Mooney, he couldn't escape the feeling that it fit about like a coffin... :-)

Startup, taxi, and runup were uneventful, and Jack asked for a short field takeoff. Per Cleon's advice, I asked to skip holding the brakes at full power to minimize nicks in our newly overhauled prop, and Jack said that was fine. I taxied to the very edge of the threshold, stopped briefly to ensure everything was in order, and firewalled it. All the gauges checked out on the roll, so I rotated at 70 MIAS, climbed over the mythical 50-foot obstacle at Vx, then lowered the nose and gradually cleaned up the flaps for a Vy climb. Our initial course on the pretend cross-country was almost exactly a 45-degree turn off runway heading, which corresponds to a recommended pattern departure in the AIM, so I turned on course at about 700 feet AGL. Jack asked me to level off at 7500 feet instead of our planned 9500-foot cruise altitude, so I did so and cleaned up the airplane for cruise. Shortly after that, we broke off the pretend cross-country and proceeded eastbound for the performance maneuvers, which Jack asked me to begin with steep turns.

My steep turns, chandelles, and Lazy 8s are shown in the following plot:

I began with a couple of 180-degree clearing turns, while setting up for 120 MIAS (5 MPH below maneuvering speed at our weight). When all the gauges looked good, I rolled in, and proceeded through one set of left and right 360s at about 55 degrees of bank. I pushed up the throttle at the beginning of the roll-in, but not quite enough, as our airspeed was down a little from the initial 120 MIAS at roll-out. Otherwise, they went well: I held altitude to within about 50 feet, and managed to fly through my own wake on completion of the second 360, which is always satisfying.

Next up were chandelles, one to the left, then one to the right. I had some problems during my recent practice sessions with finishing these a bit fast (i.e. getting the stall warning horn, but not really getting all the way down to MCA speed), so I tried to be a little aggressive on the pull-up. Predictably, I wound up reaching MCA a bit early, and got little pre-stall buffeting through the last 10 degrees of the turn both times. But I was able to ease off the back pressure at that point without dropping any altitude, and Jack seemed to like my execution - I recall him saying something like, "OK, those were good."

We finished the chandelles at about 8500 feet MSL, which was not quite high enough for Jack's plan to do a steep spiral next. So we moved on to Lazy 8s instead. These are my favorite commercial maneuver, so I was looking forward to them, even in the context of the check ride. Jack asked me to just keep continuing course reversals until he said to stop, and we eventually did four. My first Lazy 8 was coming out a bit high compared to our entry altitude, so I "milked" it through the bottom and into the second entry; but everything went smoothly after that.

As the ground track shows, the westerly winds were blowing us to the east throughout the Lazy 8 sequence. So when Cleon reads this, he's going to scold me for not initiating them perpendicular to the wind as he trained me to do. I'd like to say I was just following Jack's directions, but I was the PIC, and I'm sure he would've let me turn north before beginning the sequence if I'd asked. At the time, I really didn't think about it much. I used some high terrain way off in the distance as my 90-degree reference point, and it didn't "move" much through the maneuvers, despite our easterly drift. I've gotten fairly comfortable with how the visual horizon appears as the nose falls through the 90 degree point anyway, and I was relying mostly on the section lines to determine when to let the nose come down. In any case, Jack was satisfied, and he asked me to set up for slow flight and stalls.

Jack asked for slow flight at 80 MIAS, which is not really "slow flight" in the Mooney, even in the clean configuration. Not sure if he did that on purpose, but I said we'd need to be much slower if he wanted the stall horn to sound. He then asked for 70 MIAS, and we subsequently worked down to 65 MIAS to get the buzzer. We did a couple of clearing turns at that speed and I managed to hold altitude well - no more than about 30 ft. of variation. From there, I was asked to select full throttle and execute a power-on stall. That was interesting because I had previously been instructed to do these with less than full throttle (my POH says, "For power-on stalls, the FAA recommends about 65% power"). In retrospect, it would have shown good judgment to have a conversation with the examiner about his request. But the truth is that I just went ahead and did as instructed, reasoning that at that altitude, our airplane only makes about 70% of rated power anyway. Full throttle did produce a more extreme deck angle than I had experienced before, but I just stayed coordinated using the ball, and kept coming back with the elevator until the break, which it did with the usual slight roll-off to the right. I corrected with rudder as I lowered the nose and completed the recovery. Jack then asked for a power-off stall in the landing configuration, which was comparatively a no-brainer. After cleaning up from the landing stall, Jack asked me to hold a Vy climb for a bit, and we proceeded up to about 9500 feet for a steep spiral.

The ground track for my steep spiral is shown next, and this is where the ride got a little interesting:

In training, I was taught to execute steep spirals by picking a specific point over which to spiral down, flying to a location about 1/4 mile off of the point, reducing power and rolling in at best glide airspeed, and then adjusting bank to manage ground track. The ground track shows me entering from the northwest (traveling southeast) toward an intersection across CR-43. Just prior to crossing CR-43, I rolled out on a westerly heading, and then began the spiral right as I passed over the road. As the ground track shows, the first 180 degrees of turn was a little shallow as I eased in toward the intersection I selected for my reference point, and then my turns tighten up. The center point of the next two turns is a little west of the road, due to a less-than-perfect correction for the westerly wind on my part. The GPS track looks a bit ugly, in part due to what I'm almost certain are "bad data points" from the GPS (the red dots). But despite the ugly ground track picture, the spiral looked pretty much the way they did in training, to the satisfaction of my CFIs...

...but Jack seemed a little displeased with my execution. He wanted me to bank more steeply at times during the spiral, which I resisted because I was on the upwind side (recall the strong westerly winds - when flying west I had to maintain a shallow bank to avoid being blown to the east). He also questioned my laborious effort to steer toward that particular intersection. After 2 and 3/4 turns, he had me roll out headed north, and proceeded to demonstrate his version of a spiral. He suggested I should just roll in wherever I happened to be, and pick a point based on whatever happened to be beneath the wing. I was taught that the purpose of the steep spiral maneuver was to simulate the concept of spiraling down over a specific landing site, but when I mentioned that to Jack, he disagreed, and said it was just a maneuver. In reviewing the PTS, the standards for the steep spiral say that the applicant must "select a suitable ground reference point", but it doesn't specify any particular criteria for why and how to select the point, so I guess it's a matter of opinion/choice. In any case, he didn't terminate the ride, so I tried to remember the first rule of Italian driving ("what's behind me is not important"), and focus on the next maneuver.

After completing the spiral(s), Jack asked me to head back to the west and set up for Eights on Pylons. He asked what pivotal altitude I would use, and I said I would start at 1000 feet AGL. I explained that I would target an airspeed of 120 MIAS, and that the "magic formula" for pivotal altitude of V^2/15 worked out to just under 1000 feet. We crossed Highway 85 to get west of Ault and Eaton, and then I picked some intersections along CR-33 as my pylons. I had been choosing pylons a little further apart than optimal in recent practice, according to Cleon, so I made sure to keep them tighter this time. The plot shows them to be about 1nm apart, which I think is pretty reasonable (the PTS no longer specifies any particular distance/time requirement):

After picking pylons, I repositioned to enter the maneuver on a downwind leg, turning to the left. Rolling into the turn, I immediately had to make a substantial pitch-down correction to stay aligned with the pylon, and I struggled through a continuous descent during most of the first turn. In retrospect, I should have anticipated this: pivotal altitude is based on ground speed, and this was of course decreasing as I turned back into the strong westerly wind. I had the luck/misfortune of relatively calm low-level winds during training, so I didn't have any experience with significant winds during eights on pylons. At that point, all I knew was I had to descend to maintain alignment with the pylon. But back on the ground, the math makes it obvious what happened: with an airspeed of 120 MIAS, and 15 mph of wind (just my best guess), that's an upwind ground speed of 105 mph, resulting in a pivotal altitude of only 735 feet. That's nearly 300 feet below my entry altitude of 1000 feet AGL!

Coming around the first pylon, Jack said, "Feel free to continue your turn around this pylon to establish your pivotal altitude". I took advantage of this ridiculously large hint to fly a full circle around the first pylon and try to get better dialed in. My alignment was a little better - though not great - through the second pass. I had to pitch up substantially and climb more than 200 feet through the downwind portion, followed by a corresponding descent coming back around upwind. But at least the second time I was starting from approximately the right pivotal altitude. Coming around to the south on the first pylon for the second time, my alignment still wasn't great. But it wasn't really getting any worse, either, so I leveled out and headed for the second pylon. Rolling into my right hand turn (upwind again), I again found myself falling behind the pylon, and struggling through a descent to stay aligned. I think part of my problem was just a subconscious tendency to keep easing back on the yoke, as I had to descend lower than usual to stay aligned. I reminded myself that we were clear of obstacles, and my airspeed was fast enough for crisp control response, so I just needed to fly whatever altitude was necessary to stay aligned, while keeping an eye out for any conflicts. I completed the turn around the south pylon, and then continued on for another full figure eight before Jack instructed me to climb out and head back for FNL. Overall, not my best performance at eights on pylons; but it was good enough to pass, and I'll take it. Next time I find myself in a similar situation, I'll try increasing my entry airspeed. That would make the baseline pivotal altitude(s) higher and buy a bit of comfort.

Headed back for FNL, Jack pulled the landing gear breaker and asked what I'd do if the gear failed to extend. I simulated resetting the breaker, cycled the gear switch, then went to the checklist for emergency gear extension. Scott had me do this during my initial Mooney checkout, and we've done it at a couple of annuals since then, so the procedure is pretty familiar. I said to Jack that we had plenty of time to work the problem - unlike many emergencies - and that I was going to do a couple of things to make the process safer and more comfortable. I slid my seat back a bit (to easily work the emergency extension crank), put the flaps out (to get the nose down so as to see better), and trimmed for about 100 MIAS. Jack allowed me to steer south to avoid flying directly into the sun. Extending the gear was just a matter of going through the checklist. It was pretty leisurely, and I even remembered to bump the power a bit after each 20-30 turns on the crank to counteract the increasing drag. I'm embarrassed to admit that my weight and conditioning have taken a turn for the worse since the last time I went through this exercise, and I was huffing and puffing a little by the end of the 70-ish turns it takes to crank the gear down. Once we confirmed gear down on the indicators, Jack reset the gear breaker and said to clean up the airplane, I double checked that the crank engagement switch was all the way back in before retracting the gear normally (otherwise it can injure you), retracted the flaps, and steered for Ft. Collins.

Coming back to FNL the weather indicated surface winds were calm, even though there was still an obvious strong westerly wind at about 1500 feet AGL. Jack asked me to set up for a short field landing, and defined an imaginary obstacle at the service road that runs out to the Runway 33 approach lighting system (you can see it as a little cross road running southwest/northeast at the bottom of this satellite photo of the approach end of 33). Once again, I needed a significant crab angle on the downwind leg, but I was really getting used to the wind by this time. I slowed down to 90 MIAS on downwind, 80 MIAS abeam the numbers, and 75 MIAS after turning base. The visual picture was a little high as I turned final (I probably turned base a tad early), and I started contemplating a slip to increase my descent rate without getting too fast. About that time, Jack pointed out we were crossing his imaginary obstacle at about 300 feet AGL, a little higher than the 150-200 feet he was looking for. He then said to go around. On climb out, he explained the approach wasn't outside parameters, but that the PTS requires a go-around anyway, and that was as good a time as any to do one. The ground track for this approach and go-around, as well as all my other approaches is shown below:

We went around the pattern for another short field landing, and I turned base a bit later to compensate for the previous error. This attempt was better, though still a little high on final, so I slipped just a bit to get down to my target glide path. We crossed the imaginary obstacle at about 200 feet AGL this time, and landed. I bounced the landing a little, but the mains touched down just past my aiming point, and the ground roll was nice and short. I said something like "a little bouncy", and Jack said it was no problem, and that he liked the outcome.

As I was getting off the brakes to head for the taxiway, Jack pulled out the cowl flaps and said, "OK, let's roll for a touch and go, and I'd like to see a soft field takeoff technique." I don't commonly do touch-and-gos in the Mooney, as my instructors have generally discouraged them in complex airplanes. But I've done a number of stop-and-gos in the Mooney for night currency based on a quick PGUMPFS check (including identifying each switch or knob as "not the landing gear" before moving it), and a subsequent cram/climb/clean/cool/communicate check on climb out (same as a go-around). With 6500 feet of runway still in front of us, I had time to slow the airplane to a crawl and effectively do an "almost stop-and-go" before bringing the power in for takeoff.

On the go again, I rotated and flew in ground effect per the soft field technique before climbing out, and then Jack instructed me to go around the pattern again for a soft field landing. This one was a non-event, I just flew a normal approach and babied the power through the touchdown. It worked out very nicely - a real greaser. Jack said "nice job" and directed me to roll for another touch-and-go. I did the rolling PGUMPFS check again, but this mnemonic doesn't address the trim, which I forgot to reset this time. The result was that I had to hold a lot of forward pressure during the initial climb out. It's not a serious problem in the Mooney, but can be a "gotcha" in some high performance airplanes without electric trim - there are cases where people have lacked the arm strength to hold the forward pressure with one hand and trim with the other.

At about 400 feet AGL off the second touch-and-go, Jack reached over and started slowly reducing the throttle (never below 18" MP as I recall). He asked what I'd do if we were losing power at that point. I lowered the nose, said we would land straight ahead, and started looking for a place to set down. The only road in sight was perpendicular to us and bordered by a set of power lines, so a field was going to be the best choice. There were several to choose from, but snow on the ground made it difficult to determine the underlying terrain. I couldn't really tell plowed fields from fallow, or see gopher holes, etc. For lack of a better technique, I simply picked the spot that looked the smoothest and steered for it (you can see the slight turn to the right in the GPS track). I explained my choice to Jack, who calmly pointed out I had chosen a lake, suggested that perhaps some other field might be a better choice! He didn't make a big deal out of it, and said all he really wanted to see was me choosing something straight ahead; but I'll bet he was either chuckling or shaking his head internally.

Jack pushed the power back in, asked me to go around the pattern once more for a power-off, 180-degree accuracy landing, and to make it a full stop. I remember thinking the winds would make it interesting, but I wasn't especially nervous. I'd already made four approaches to FNL that day, and I'd been doing reasonably well with the power-off 180 ever since Bryan suggested I fly the downwind leg a little slower before pulling the power. I told Jack I'd aim for the beginning of the solid stripes 1000 feet down the runway, did my PGUMPFS check, and just tried to relax on downwind while slowing to exactly 90 MIAS at 1000 feet AGL.

Abeam my aiming point I pulled the power to idle, pulled the prop to max pitch/min RPM, waited a few seconds to start the turn (just gut feel based on previous practice), and started working combinations of ground track, flaps and prop setting to manage the descent. I made the initial portion of the 180 fairly aggressive - so as to keep from being blown past the final approach course to the east - and then shallowed the bank as we came around to final. This worked out well, and Jack even tipped his hand a little as I rolled out, saying, "This is looking pretty good". Luck was with me that day, and entering the flare, I had just the right amount of energy to play with in selecting the exact touchdown point. I managed to put the mains down within 100 feet of where the solid stripes started (the PTS gives you 200 feet), in a decent nose-high attitude, just above stall speed. Now I'll be the first one to admit there's a hefty element of luck there, but it made me feel good just the same, and Jack even seemed impressed, saying, "Very nice job." after touchdown.

Taxiing off the runway, I expected poker-faced silence from the examiner, in accordance with my other check ride experiences. But Jack surprised me by saying, "If you can get us to the ramp in one piece, you'll be a commercial pilot!" I managed not to run into anything or retract the gear on the way to parking, so we disembarked and headed inside for the final paperwork and a picture with Jack. After taking some time to decompress and chat, I headed back for Longmont. The flight home was after dark, and was peaceful and serene, despite a little turbulence. Snow on the landscape was glowing in the light of the almost-full moon, and twinkling lights from the cities made for a scene worthy of a Christmas movie. It was a gratifying end to a stressful (but fun) day, and I enjoyed reviewing my full ground track after shutdown. Hope all my future check rides go as well.

Vance Harral
December 16, 2006