Like other students contemplating their first check ride, I’d heard the tales from the crypt about examiners. Legend had they were all mean enough to frighten Hannibal Lecter into retirement.
Needless to say, I was not looking forward to this day. With the mere mention of the word "check ride," the nerves hit me, chills down the spine and beads of perspiration on my brow, heart beating faster than the drummer at a heavy metal concert. Yet, with some sadistic, perverse anticipation, I was ready to welcome the day with the examiner.
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Months of preparation, countless hours of study, and many dollars invested to learn what comes naturally to birds were not to be wasted on check ride day. Standing on the tarmac, glancing up at the clear blue sky, I watched a hawk propel himself effortlessly in the cool morning breeze. I soon would be sharing that airspace with my feathered friend as a licensed helicopter pilot. If all went to plan, that is.
As the examiner lumbered down the flight school hallway, the chill and perspiration returned. At this point, a Metallica migraine headache might have been a welcome alternative. Instead, I was almost face-to-face with my opponent for the day, my FAA-designated examiner. He was wearing a light-colored cloth jacket with more pockets than a mother kangaroo. He had two pens in his left breast pocket, probably one of those a NASA-styled anti-gravity pen that defies the laws of physics and can write failure notices while upside down. While hoping that I would keep things twirly side up during this hopefully brief encounter, I continued to size up my challenger, hoping not to telegraph the immense fear and concern propagated by those early tales from the hangar flying crypt.
As he continued striding toward me, I could see his slacks, light blue Dockers, whose cuffs were dragging the floor like a feather duster picking up lint, cinched at the waist with a belt whose buckle could have anchored a boat. I'm also certain that his frame once fit into those Dockers with ease. However, today I was glad that my breakfast only consisted of an almost ripe banana, and nothing more. I was reasonably confident we could remain under gross weight in the R-22; however, my confidence for the check ride was diminishing with each stride that he took down the hallway.
As he stood across from me, I felt like a crouton in a salad. Noticeable but not very important. He spoke, and I expected to hear a monotone, arrogant, staccato authoritative patter. Instead, in a rather pleasant-sounding, calm, reassuring non-intimidating voice, he introduced himself. "Hi. My name is Bill, you must be Sam. Great day for some 'copter flyin’.” He actually sounded human, pleasant and eager to enjoy the flight. Not like a villainous adversary who could morph from a seemingly mild-mannered examiner to a drill sergeant in the blink of a blade. While his manner was outwardly friendly and downright congenial, I was not yet ready to let my guard down. After all, with years of check ride demon stories, and knowing full well that you can't always judge a book by its cover, I remained cautiously optimistic and guarded.
"Let's have a chat and check out your paperwork." "Sure," I said, "follow me." I could hear the footsteps following behind me while the rhythmic sound reverberated in my chest. Unfortunately, that was the rapid beating of my heart, not his footsteps that I heard. I was still succumbing to the malady known to all pilots as "check-ride-itis.” A deep breath followed. Now, footsteps could be heard. These were friendly footsteps, no doubt.
As we settled in for a brief chat, with an inquisitive nature, he asked me a number of questions about helicopter flying, regulations and other related subjects in a conversational, comfortable manner. I actually was relaxed and enjoying this confidence-building discussion. I glanced at my aviator’s watch, which of course had more hands than an octopus with gloves, and through careful examination determined that we spent the better part of an hour in our discussion. With the proper aircraft and student pilot paperwork in hand, Bill pushed away from the table like a satisfied diner leaving a gourmet restaurant. "Let's have some fun and go flyin’." The oral portion of my exam was completed.
As I held the preflight checklist in the morning sun, carefully examining the helicopter, preflighting with a degree of diligence fit for a president, Bill remained unobtrusively available. He continued his low-key, conversational patter, and with both of us confident the helicopter would fly as well as any bird could, we strapped ourselves in.
With the tight crew quarters of the Robinson R-22, and the excitement and nervousness of an all-or-nothing flight, I was glad I stroked an extra helping of Right Guard on that morning. Pressed side by side in the cabin, I hoped Bill did the same.
With the prestart checklist completed, a twist of the key brought the Lycoming engine to life. With rotors in motion, the usual sounds and vibrations of the helicopter provided an extra level of familiarity and a comfort level I was glad to secure. I performed a normal takeoff, and as each minute of the next 60 ticked off the Hobbs, I knew I was that much closer to achieving my goal.
The early apprehension and animosity toward my designated examiner seemed now as far removed as Jeff Bezos is to poverty. As we turned back toward the airport, with all the requisite maneuvers and flying performed well above private pilot standards, I knew the success of this flight was not only a result of excellent instruction, hard work and dedication, but also was attributed to the disposition and manner with which my examiner conducted this flight check. Prior to our meeting, I feared he would be a crusty, ego-stroked maniac, setting me up for failure. Turns out this notion was far from the truth. There generally is only one person who sets us up for failure. That, of course, is ourselves.
As the main rotor blades gently slowed and stopped, like a carnival merry-go-round ending, I slid out of the helicopter with a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. "Congratulations! Now is when the real learning begins." Those simple words from my examiner stay with me to this day. The learning never ends.
Your check ride need not be a tale from the crypt. Come prepared, stay one step ahead of the aircraft and two steps ahead of yourself. Fasten your seat belt, and enjoy the ride!
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