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Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Becoming an Airline Pilot, Week 5: Checkride time

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After a week and a half in the simulated jungle, the end was not near: it was now. Like Captain Willard making his way through the jungle in Apocalypse Now, eventually there would be a final confrontation to end the journey. In this case, instead of the insane Howard Kurtz, I would be up against the sim and the list of tasks in the Airline Transport Pilot Practical Test Standards.

Although I've written posts with tips on taking your FAA written and acing your oral examination, I haven't done one devoted to the flight portion of the checkride itself. I'll fix that at some point in the future, but for now let's just say that the ATP checkride is just like any other: an oral part and a flight part. Just like any other performance, how easy it is depends on how much work you put into preparation.

(True story about preparation: I had spent so much time studying the single-engine missed approach procedures the night before that when my alarm went off I woke up saying, "Condition levers max! Set power! Flaps one notch up!" before I realized that that noise was my alarm clock. I'm not making that up.)

There is a saying in sports that games are won on the practice field, and flights are no different. Although I probably wouldn't have turned down an extra practice session if one had been offered to me, I felt ready to take this ride and go home for a few days' rest. Our airline, like most, will give an extra session if the trainee really feels behind or their instructor says they need one, because after all that money spent already on their training they want to see their new First Officer succeed. After all, if they take the checkride and fail, they have to spend even more money on an additional sim session or two and another checkride, so it's cheaper and easier for all involved to spend a little more up front than a lot more afterward.

I remember years ago killing time at the FBO one day waiting for a brief rain to pass so I could get on with my lesson. As I waited, I leafed through the ATP PTS and was amazed anyone could get one with one of the tasks being a single-engine instrument approach with multiple instruments failed. That was just an insanely hard thing to imagine having to do.

Now I was going to do just that.

The checkride started, like all checkrides, by making sure all the required paperwork was in order and the application for a new certificate or rating (the "8710") filled out. After the i's were crossed and the t's dotted, we proceeded on to the oral. This went a little differently than previous oral exams, since there wasn't much general aviation knowledge covered. After all, by the ATP level you already have those kinds of things down cold. Instead, it was a much more technically-oriented exam, with the focus on the capabilities, limitations, and systems of the aircraft. After a while, the examiner opened up a software program that allowed for a virtual tour of the plane. We went through a typical preflight walkaround and talked about what system was located where, how it worked, what it was connected to, etc.

As I noted in the first Week 4 entry in this series, I was overprepared for this part because I spent too much time studying systems when I should have been also studying the operations manuals. All the time spent studying the systems at least had the benefit of making the oral part go smoothly, and after about 2.5 hours we proceeded on to the flight portion.

No one likes being evaluated. I'm on the lower end of the "fear of evaluation" scale (after all, I get up in front of people to speak about aviation and to teach my Private Pilot Ground School at LCCC, I put my thoughts and opinions out into the blogosphere regularly here, and I even face the wild rage that is the YouTube commenter by having my own YouTube channel) and I've already passed 6 checkrides, so this one is just another one on the pile, right? The reason that people hate being evaluated is everyone's big fear of being called a failure in the eyes of others.

Remember my awe at the ATP standards all those years ago? Now I was going to have to meet them myself. That meant I ended up being more nervous than I had ever been before, with the exception of my initial CFI checkride. The checkride started off with the simple stuff: stalls and steep turns. I'd been doing spectacularly on those up until now. I didn't realize just how nervous I was until I did the worst steep turn I'd done in a looong time. About halfway through I said that I thought that the sim was broken, because the controls felt way off.

Just like so many "mechanical problems" in aviation, it turns out that the problem was the nut connected to the yoke, not the yoke itself. I was so unexpectedly tense that instead of flying with my usual smooth, confident style, I was putting an enormous amount of input into the maneuver—way more than required. I still have a football player's physique, and the year before I won the college's bench press competition, so if I start muscling things around it gets sloppy.

Nonetheless, I managed to keep it pretty close to standards. Close enough to proceed to the next things on the list of tasks, at least. Not as precise as I was expecting, but at the time I chalked it up to having my checkride at 8 a.m. when I had been in the sim until 10:00 the following night. I got back into a bit of a groove as I warmed up, and we churned on through almost everything else except for two tasks: a single-engine ILS to a landing (I had already done a pretty nice single-engine missed approach during the GPS approach task) and a non-precision VOR approach with a 20-knot tailwind.

One of the disadvantages of having the checkride in the sim is that it can be as hard as the examiner wants it to be. Single-engine missed approaches are one of the most dangerous things a pilot may ever face in real life. Since you're doing the checkride in the sim, you'll get them. In the real world, you probably wouldn't risk your life and $15 million worth of airplane on doing one in a checkride situation.

No problem, since I had already passed my single-engine missed task earlier in the checkride. Just don't go missed and that's not a factor.

Except unfortunately this time I misjudged the flare in the landing and was about to pancake the plane in from a few stories up. My sim partner, who had flown the Dash for another airline, saw the red screen (what the sim does if you break it) coming and called for a missed approach. Either pilot can call for one and once a missed approach is initiated, it must be followed through on.

No problem, since I had just done one a few minutes ago and did fine.

Except this time there was a problem. The "GA" mode (Go Around) mode for the flight director never engaged. To this day, I don't know if I forgot to push it in the heat of the moment or if it just didn't work. The reason for the uncertainty is that later on, the next people to use that sim wrote the TOGA button up as intermittently inoperative.

It doesn't matter which caused it, because if I had been more experienced or been more situationally aware at the time I would have realized something wasn't right. A missed approach—and especially a single-engine missed—is a "high workload environment" in the same way that being doused in gasoline and set on fire is a "high temperature environment". With all the stuff going on at once in the transition, I didn't notice that since the GA mode wasn't engaged, the flight director was blindly trying to get me to climb back up to the glideslope, which was now way above us, and commanding a 180-degree turn back to the localizer (the needle that lines you up with the runway), which was now way behind us. I, meanwhile, was blindly following the flight director.

Remember how two posts ago I said that following the flight director was going to take some getting used to? I was now used to following it, but not used to it enough to be able to tell when it was telling me to do something stupid. Fortunately, in real life, where there are two pilots to cross-check each other, it would have been caught. Although I had the aircraft under control, I was 90 degrees off the proper heading and way below the proper single-engine climb speed.

It was over. Only two things left and I would have been the world's newest ATP, but I had stepped up to the plate ready to hit a home run, swung for the fences, and... missed. Now that new certificate—and my flight home—would have to wait two more days: one day for extra training on what I hosed (and the VOR approach we didn't get to) and one day for the second checkride. (As it turned out, the sim wasn't available until the day after my extra sim session, so I got my one and only chance to check out downtown Seattle. At least there was some upside.)

The extra session went quite well, and I was re-signed off with no problem. The second attempt also went well. With the stress of possibly failing off my shoulders, since I had already gotten that out of the way the first time, I was back to my relaxed, smooth style again and passed with no problem.

The hard part was over. The weeks of studying, the long nights in the sim, the weight of an impending checkride hanging over my head like the sword of Damocles... over. In exchange, I had a brand-new ATP certificate with a DHC-8 type rating, and had earned the opportunity to get evaluated all over again with the next step: Initial Operating Experience (usually just called IOE, for obvious reasons).

My flight back was the red-eye the following night, so I checked out a little more of the city. I arrived at Cleveland-Hopkins the next morning during a heavy rainstorm. By the time I got home, it had trailed off, leaving this in its wake as a welcoming present:

That's a nice welcome home.

Little did I know that I would be looking down on a rainbow in just a few days.

See the series index here.

The author is an airline pilot, flight instructor, and adjunct college professor teaching aviation ground schools. He holds an ATP certificate with a DHC-8 type rating, as well as CFI, CFII, MEI, AGI, and IGI certificates, and is a FAASafety Team representative and Master-level participant in the FAA's WINGS program. He is on Facebook as Larry the Flying Guy, has a Larry the Flying Guy YouTube channel, and is on Twitter as @Lairspeed.

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