There’s a wonderful line in a Toby Keith song that laments, “I’m not as good as I once was, but I’m as good once as I ever was.” It’s a bar room tale complaining about the aging process and the awful fact that it can’t be stopped. Luckily, that’s not necessarily true of pilots. Flying isn’t about party stamina but about skill, and that doesn’t have to slide downhill just because time is passing—assuming, of course, a pilot wants to halt that erosion.
With flying, we know, for a fact, how good we were when we started because we had to pass an entrance exam that serves as a reference point to measure from. Even better, rather than the checkride being a random obstacle course of bats, flaming dragons and boiling moats, it was guided by the same map we were given as students that, if followed, would lead us through the maze to the other side: We were trained and tested according to the Practical Test Standards (PTS) guide. Basically, if we could decipher and satisfy the gods of the PTS during our training, we’d be guaranteed (more or less) to survive the test ride. That little booklet can still come in handy because, when we ask ourselves “Are we as good now as we once were?” we can fall back on the PTS and make up our own checkride.
In case it’s been a while since you looked at one, the PTS is arranged in a chronological order that starts asking questions and setting tasks long before the candidate gets in the airplane. So that we don’t get caught up in minutiae, we’re going to ignore much of the preflight stuff except for a few goodies that we should be asking ourselves more often. From that point on, we’re off on a flight of self-discovery: we’re looking for the pilot we were at the moment the examiner handed us our ticket with the ink still damp. Hopefully, we’ll find we’ve improved with experience in all areas, but, maybe not.
Preflight Questions To Ask Ourselves
• What documents must be in the airplane and how many have to be renewed?
• Can you recite the size, configurations and equipment/weather requirements for all of the air spaces
(A, B, C, D, etc.)?
• Do you ever refer to the POH performance charts, or do you just wing it?
• Can you still work a CG problem?
• Do you know which over-the-counter medicines are on the FAA’s list of no-nos?
• When you preflight an airplane, do you actually look at it carefully, or are you just walking around it, giving it a cursory once-over while looking for parts hanging off?
• Can you explain the basics of how the different systems in the airplane work, including, but not limited to:
- control system
- electrical system
Familiarity with the way the systems work is invaluable in the case of a failure in flight.
Before Taking Off
• Can you get it started in almost any weather?
• Do you know how to handle hot starts, if it’s a fuel-injected engine?
• The FAA loves checklists. Are you using yours? Checklists are a good way to avoid forgetting anything important.
The PTS contains some interesting and slightly contradictory language concerning takeoffs. For one thing, it mentions using “the most efficient lift-off attitude,” which we interpret as letting it run on the main gear and flying itself off, rather than pulling it off—something with which we wholeheartedly agree.
The area in this section that raises questions, however, is the suggestion that the climb speed, in this case Vy, should be in the range of five knots below to 10 knots over the prescribed speed. Every airplane has a specific climb speed that’s affected by various environmental factors (altitude, temperature, etc.). If this is why the FAA has such a wide allowable range, the PTS should state so. However, if, in a given situation, an airplane has climbed above or below the optimal number, it loses efficiency and won’t climb as well. Similar margins are applied throughout the PTS, and the same statement about efficiency applies in all cases.
So, on climbout, do you know what the climb speed (best rate or angle) is supposed to be? Do you hold it plus or minus two or three knots (not minus five or plus 10)? If you want max efficiency, you need to know and fly that number.
And do you, as outlined in the PTS, manage to correct for crosswinds, both during the takeoff and on climbout, so you’re always on the runway centerline?
The PTS has a lot to say about various maneuvers in the air, including steep turns, S-turns across a road, rectangular patterns and turns around a point. In all of them, emphasis is placed on:
• Splitting your attention between the ground track and controlling the airplane, both of which are actually tied together. This is an excellent test of your ability to actually control the airplane.
• Without saying so, the PTS requires knowing when the groundspeed is increasing and decreasing and what effect that has on the ground track in any maneuver, whether it’s an S-turn, rectangular pattern or turn around a point. It allows altitude margins of plus or minus 100 feet, which is okay. The real question is whether you can still remember what effect changing groundspeed has on your ground track. Go out on a windy day, and see if you can still fly the maneuvers the way you did on your checkride.
In the stall section of the PTS, the FAA clearly says that you’re actually going to stall the airplane, both power off and power on, and won’t recover until the stall has actually occurred. Good for them! But how long has it been since you’ve actually practiced stalls—especially takeoff and departure stalls in which the attitude and resulting attitude change is more abrupt?
Although the FAA is clear about its desire to have the candidate experience a true stall rather than just the buffet, when it comes to spins, it goes just the opposite way. The language is “Objective: to determine that the applicant exhibits knowledge of the elements related to spin awareness by explaining…” and it goes on to talk about aerodynamic factors, situations in which spins might occur and procedures for spin recovery. This is a controversial area and one for which many CFIs think students should tiptoe right up to a spin and demonstrate that he or she can keep his or her head and fight the urge to pull. Being able to explain it is one thing. Being able to maintain your cool when it’s actually on the edge of departing is something else.
Flying The Pattern
The PTS mentions a lot of generalities about exhibiting knowledge of airport procedures, collision avoidance and other basic info. Then it states that it gives points to the candidate if he or she:
• Complies with proper traffic pattern procedures (Well, do you?)
• Maintains proper spacing from other aircraft (No one actually tailgates, do they?)
• Corrects for wind drift to maintain the proper ground track (Meaning, do you wander around on downwind or on final?)
Then it says, “maintains traffic pattern altitude, plus or minus 100 feet, and the appropriate airspeed, plus or minus 10 knots.” This last point, downwind being a 200-foot-high window, is something any self-respecting pilot should be able to tighten up easily. Half that distance is easily attainable and, in reality, most of us should stay within 25 feet of our altitude unless the weather is beating us up.
There has been an interesting change in the last few years in one part of the PTS. In the explanation of the parameter for flying the pattern, there was once a line that read, “Establishes an appropriate distance from the runway, considering the possibility of an engine failure.” That line is no longer in the PTS. Does that mean engines no longer fail? This is another issue for which a pilot should use his or her own judgment and improve on the standards set down by the PTS.
Approach And Landing
The PTS goes through all the takeoffs and landings—soft, short, normal and crosswind—clearly spelling out what’s expected of the applicant, although there’s still that 15-knot spread on approach speed with which some instructors disagree.
Interestingly, the PTS landing section states that, in every landing scenario, the applicant is expected to touch down no more than 400 feet past a selected point. Considering the wide range on the approach speeds, this is an interesting contradiction. If you’re on the high side of the PTS’s approach speed range, you’ll float like crazy. If on the low side, you’ll drop through ground effect much more quickly. Regardless, can you put your airplane down repeatedly just 400 feet past a given mark on the runway? Since you must have done it as a student pilot, you definitely ought to check to see if you can do it today.
Few to none of us are the vibrant young souls we were decades ago; however, by following the PTS in giving ourselves a checkride, we can find our weak spots and work to fix them. We’ll never be younger than we are right now, but there’s no reason that we can’t fly like we’re young.