Monday, September 17, 2012

Commercial Pilot!

I haven't written in here very much, mostly because I haven't felt I had anything interesting to say.  But sometimes things look a lot more interesting in retrospect than they feel at the time.  Three weeks ago, I passed my check ride for my Commercial Pilot License.  I can now, in very limited circumstances, accept payment for piloting services.

The road to this point was not smooth, at all. I started working on my CPL almost three years ago, by getting checked out in the 172RG and getting all my cross country requirements done.  In early August, 2010, I passed the written exam, which expires at the end of the calendar month two years from the date taken (the "calendar month" clause came in handy).  I was under the impression that the CPL was a pretty simple license to get - just show increased accuracy in maneuvers, a couple of new maneuvers, and the ability to handle a complex aircraft.

So, I flew the 172RG for a while, had a check ride actually scheduled in March 2011, but canceled it as weather leading up to the check ride prevented me from feeling confident on my maneuvers.  Then I had surgery, then got married, then got sucked into an insane job situation that ate all of my time and my will to live.  So, I wasn't flying much.

In early 2012, I wanted to get started again, but both of the 172RGs at Advantage Aviation were now off the line, and the only other one I could find in the area was too rickety for my tastes - what if it broke down midway through my training?  I'd have no way to continue, and would have to learn a new airplane at that point. So I started learning the Piper Arrow, at Advantage.

In April, my CFI and I decided that I was close to being ready for a check ride.  So we scheduled it for mid-June, and did a bunch of ground prep and a few flights to get ready.  Easy rating, right?  Nothing to worry about.  When the check ride rolled around, I did acceptably well on the ground portion (flight planning, airspace rules, some details about the aircraft), but the examiner's demeanor really had me on edge for some reason. He was perfectly nice; it's not his fault, but for some reason he reminded me of some snarky sysadmins I've had to deal with in the tech industry.  As we taxied out, he tried to set me at ease by chatting about jobs, personal stuff, etc.

Didn't work.

As we were on our climb-out for our faux cross country, the examiner said, "If you don't relax, this isn't going to go how you want it to."  That's...helpful.  But what I didn't (yet) realize was, I didn't have my flight plan out, I didn't have my charts out, I didn't do anything I should have done for a normal cross country flight, because as far as I was concerned, I was just going to go up and do a few maneuvers, just like my practice flights.  So, I had a lot to recover from - which I managed to do, getting my stuff all out and available, but it made me unbearably tense.  Ugh.

We did a few maneuvers, which I did very well, and then did a diversion, which was to an airport that I feel wholly uncomfortable with because it's sandwiched into a weird airspace corner, and there are all these rules, some written and some not.  So we went and I nailed a soft field landing, and when taxiing back, the examiner says, "How are you feeling?"  Well, by this time I felt physically awful.  My stomach was in a knot (and.. other issues), and I really just wanted to be on the ground.  "Do you think you'd fly better on a different day?" he asked.  I replied, "Yes, I'm not feeling well and I'd definitely do better on a different day."   So he asked:  "Are you feeling bad enough that you'd like to discontinue the exam?"  I should have said yes.  Instead I said, no, let's see what I can do.

Turns out, I couldn't do much.  Before, I felt terrible but was at least doing my maneuvers and landings properly, but the conversation set me even more on edge.  Without going into much detail, I found myself unable to make good decisions, and after one particularly bad one, I asked if discontinuation was still an option.  Mercifully, he said yes, and I flew us back home.  I was completely embarrassed by the whole episode, and as I looked back afterwards, I see that I was totally unprepared for the exam -- not for the skills I needed to demonstrate, but for the flow of the check ride itself.  I went home, and spent the rest of the day in bed, sleeping it off.

So I scheduled a continuation in early August.  I chose to use a different examiner, because frankly I was so embarrassed by my aforementioned bad decision making, that I decided I'd be more comfortable doing the exam with someone else entirely.  My command, my decision.  I prepped for this exam same as the last one, this time taking into account the cross country element much more.

I got to the exam, feeling prepped - I could tell you what kind of electrical system the plane had, all kinds of things about the landing gear system, etc, etc.  Then the examiner asked me a question: What's the maximum gross weight of this airplane?  I blanked.  I had a number, but I wasn't confident, and I didn't want to say the wrong number.  And I got the expected response:  "You're not impressing me."

Here's where I must go on a bit of a tangent.  It seems different people have different impressions of what the Commercial Pilot License is supposed to be.  On the one hand, based on the PTS and what I've heard from a few others, it really seems like it's just a Private Pilot License with tighter constraints, and some hours requirements; demonstrate you can fly within spec, and do a couple of maneuvers, and you're done.  No big deal, the easiest rating you'll ever get.  But examiner #2 took it very differently: You're a commercial pilot, which means you have to demonstrate that you are capable of being completely professional in all circumstances.  In this examiner's eyes, this license is more of an attitude check than anything else.  Do you use checklists? Do you make good decisions? Do you do all this with an air of authority?

I failed this check ride.  I was not prepared for it.  Ostensibly, my failure was one of emergency procedures, but the examiner was fed up with me long before that, due to my lack of proper attitude.

Now I had a decision to make:  Try a third time, or let it go?  And I only had a few weeks before the expiration of my written test, at the end of the month (thankfully!).  So, I took a few days to think about it, and decided that regardless of whether I passed the third time, I wanted to be really good at emergency maneuvers.  I called examiner #2, and scheduled a date for August 29.  No leeway, do or die, just like an engine out landing in a field, which I practiced repeatedly, along with a number of other procedures.  The examiner had suggested that I create my own checklists, as I'd be more likely to use them -- this ended up being a brilliant idea.  I got to know some intricate details about the airplane, including some things about the landing gear I didn't know before.

Come August 29, I wasn't even nervous - I was ready.  The examiner gave me a bit of a talk about how I was expected to be the pilot in command of the aircraft, and to convey that.  This is always difficult with an examiner, in part because the inclination is to do your standard passenger briefing and giggle at the parts that aren't applicable to an examiner with 10,000 hours of flight time.  But that's not the point - the point is to convey to this 10,000 hour examiner that you're in charge of this flight.

As we set out, I started my briefing with the door.  The door had popped open on me in one of my training flights, and one of my instructors also had a hard time with it, so I said: "Last time you indicated you'd like to manage closing the door prior to takeoff - this is fine, but it has been difficult to close lately, so I'd like you to close the door before I declare us ready for takeoff, so we have time to deal with it.  Also, I plan to depart to the right and climb to 2000' - is this adequate for your test?"  This impressed, and of course it did - it was genuine.

On the takeoff roll, the door (which looked latched - I had double checked it) popped open.  I aborted takeoff and exited the runway; the examiner had a few questions about how I decided to do that, and when I would've made a different decision (further along, closer to Vr), and then we agreed that if it popped open again the next time (which it did), we'd just do the test with the door ajar.

So we took off with more wind and noise than usual, I turned up the radio and cracked a joke about not needing the examiner to crack the door open as part of our emergency procedures.  We went out, did a simulated emergency landing, came back, did a go-around, and then a normal landing (unfortunately it was supposed to be a soft-field landing, but the examiner took pity on me).   On the way back, I even breezed through some questions about how the constant speed prop works.  And once I shut down, using my checklist, I was a commercial pilot.

In retrospect, I really underestimated this license, and I believe the root cause of that is that I listened to some bad (for me) advice.  I know that my levels of nervousness mean that I have to prepare more for things -- this is how I handle every day life, work, performing on stage, certainly flying in most other scenarios.  Why didn't I do it for this?  Or, maybe I did do it, but I didn't prepare the right things.  In any case, when I took my first incomplete check ride, I only had about 7 hours in the airplane.  7 hours!  Not enough for me to get to know the airplane to the level that was clearly expected of me; I have close to 20 now.  There are probably others who can get away with lower levels of preparation, but I know myself, and I need to trust in my own process.


Long story long - I am now a commercial pilot, and I feel like I have more to learn than ever.  What comes next?  I don't know, but instruction has always appealed to me, and is what drove me to complete this license through all the trials.  Different students need different styles, and I believe my style could be beneficial to a certain type of student.  So, that's a possibility.  For now, probably go out and regain my IFR currency, and then probably my IFR competence, and then we'll see how it goes!

1 comment:

Ian Reddoch said...

Long story was just the right length. Good insight - it's not the plane that makes the pilot, and it's not the checklist that makes the pilot. It's the pilot. Thanks for the good read.