After two weeks of trying, she reached over and offered me her congratulations on becoming the newest private pilot in the United States. But this story began years before this moment. At the young age of 10 months old, I took my first flight from India to Germany to the United States. And for as long as I can remember, I have always wanted to fly; and I didn’t care how I got in the air. Jumping off my bed for that millisecond of freedom from gravity, to staring skyward watching planes lumber overhead, or flying across the country alone to spend the summers with my family in Philadelphia. And over the past 30 years, I managed to have dozens of aerial adventures, from doing night time aerial refueling over the Atlantic ocean, to flying in an open cockpit biplane, being shot off an aircraft carrier in the middle of the Pacific ocean, flying with the Blue Angels, breaking the sound barrier in an F-15E, doing inverted flat spins in an Extra 300 (and not passing out), to loops and rolls in helicopter, and a lot of things in-between. But the one thing that eluded me this whole time was being at the controls of the plane by myself. To be able to go where I wanted, and when I wanted to. To turn to someone and say “Why yes, I am a pilot.”
Exactly one year ago, on a faithful day in December, I was flying in a Piper J3 Cub with my friend Chelsea Engberg from Salinas, CA to King City to visit with the folks at the Tutima Academy of Aviation Safety. Chelsea did the take off and landing, but I had the controls during the whole flight down. “Low and Slow” is what is written in my log book, and it was exactly just that. Peaceful and fun. There was just something about being only hundreds of feet off the ground and really enjoying the feeling of flying. It was simple and fun. And on that day, I decided to take the plunge and go after my Private Pilot’s License. And by the end of March, I had signed up for flight lessons with the West Valley Flying Club at Palo Alto, CA.
Fast forward seven months, and I was sitting in the conference room across from the FAA Designated Practical Examiner (DPE) a nervous wreck. Of course that was only on the inside. My instructor, Josh Smith, had decided that I was ready to take the FAA’s test to become a Private Pilot. Like he said before, he wouldn’t have sent me to do it unless he knew I would pass it. But sitting in that room, knowing that this 5 foot 5 inch redhead had the power to make my dreams a reality didn’t quite give me that warm fuzzy feeling inside. Maintenance and power plant logbooks, airworthiness directives, maps, flight plans, and weather charts were all spread out on the table.
For those that are not familiar with the process, the FAA checkride consists of an in depth oral exam on aviation rules, procedures, and anything from the FAR/AIM guides followed by the actual flying exam which encompasses flight maneuvers, various take offs and landings, cross country navigation, and emergency procedures, among other things. I knew that the weather was not going to cooperate for us to do the flight portion on that day, but I had the option to do the oral exam and get that out of the way. We talked about how to know that the plane is safe to fly. Verified that the required maintenance had been done. What to do if a required instrument that was needed to fly was not working. And then dove right into my flight plan that I had done to take us to Truckee, CA. Airspace, the odd / even rule, special airspaces, minimum fuel requirements for day and night flight, can I take passengers, and if so how do I remain current to carry passengers. The questions kept on coming. It seemed as soon as I answered one, that opened up the door to two more. But before I knew it, 2 hours had passed and the DPE was satisfied. We then both agreed that the weather was not at the minimums to safely get our flight exam in. And with that, we decided to keep in touch and get back on her calendar for another day.
Two weeks and two more attempts were made to try and get back in the air. But a series of winter storms, as well as numerous reschedules on the DPE’s end kept that from happening. And all the while I was just waiting and wanting to get it over with. And finally on one particular Monday, all the stars lined up. The examiner had a few hours free in her schedule, my favorite plane (N47540) was available, and the weather was supposed to have a brief window in between storms.
So I showed up bright and early that fateful Monday morning. A last minute weather update, and I went out to pre-preflight the airplane. I didn’t want any surprises when the Examiner went out there with me. Everything looked good and I got the engine warmed up a bit. As I walked back in, the DPE had already arrived. We exchanged a few small pleasantries and then it was down to business.
She told me that I was to treat her as if she was a passenger and that I was the Pilot in Command. We would taxi out and do one circuit in the pattern and then begin the cross country flight. At some point after reaching my first checkpoint, she would have a medical emergency and have me divert to the nearest airport. After that I would do the aerial maneuvers, some instrument work, and then come back to Palo Alto and finish up my landings. Simple right?
As we walked out to the airport I was feeling a bit nervous. But I knew what I was doing, and my instructor Josh had done a great job preparing me for today. He had more faith in me then I had in myself, but it was enough for me to walk a little taller that morning. As I preflighted the airplane, the DPE asked me some basic questions. What are these antennas (ELT, VOR, VHF), what is this part of the aircraft called (empennage), what kind of fuel do you use (100LL), what color is it (blue), and how do you know if there is water in it (water will bead up and show when you sump it)? And with that it was time to climb in the airplane.
I briefed my DPE on how to use the seat belt, open and close the doors, emergency exits, etc. Then it was time to get down to business. Checklist out, and it was time to start the engine. I shouted “Clear!” and the engine roared to life. Pull the rpm’s back to 1000, and verify the instruments were “in the green.” I contacted Palo Alto Ground and got permission to taxi. A lil push of the throttle and we were moving. With the brake checked and I moved slowly towards the run up area. Once we got there, it was like rush hour traffic trying to get onto the freeway. We were number 5 for take off. But eventually we got our turn.
Now I was expecting a plain old vanilla take off, but right after Palo Alto Tower had cleared me to “Position and hold,” the Examiner told me to perform a Soft Field take off. I didn’t have time to grab my written out notes, so I went to my abbreviated checklist. Luckily Josh and I had done it enough times, that it was nearly second nature. But I backed it up with my checklist none the less. Flaps, elevator full back, full throttle, right rudder, and wait for the plane to lift off at put her into ground effect. Let the airspeed come alive and up we go. Retract the flaps and Vy. Enter right crosswind and be aware of the altitude. The FAA Practical Test Standards set forth a set of tolerances that must be met in order to pass the skill. I did not want to make a silly mistake and give the Examiner any reason to fail me on that, or any other skill. But after a decent Soft Field landing, we began our cross country flight to Truckee.
Of course we were never going to make it, but I had to demonstrate my cross country navigation skills. Watch out the SFO Class B airspace (busting airspace is an automatic fail), maintain a proper climb and hold my course of 53 degrees towards the Sunol Golf Course (VPSUN). I had calculated that with the winds 220 @ 8 kts, it would take me approximately 10 minutes to reach the first checkpoint. While scanning for traffic, I aviated. 9 minutes after, I was crossing the golf course.
But all of a sudden the DPE told me she was having a heart attack and that the nearest airport (Livermore) was shut down due to an airplane that had landed belly up on the runway. I decided to turn towards Hayward Airport. I quickly calculated a heading, the distance to the airport, how long it would take to get there, and approximately how much fuel it would take. As soon as I gave her that info and turned my airplane in that direction, she felt a lot better and told me to find us an area clear of the clouds to do our maneuvers in.
I found a nice area at 4,000 feet directly above Livermore Airport and well clear of the clouds that were starting to form. We didn’t have a lot of time till the next storm was moving in. Clearing turns, then I was to show her my steep turns. After I leveled out, I was told that we needed to quicken the pace. I don’t know if it was to add an extra bit of pressure on me and thus test my Pilot In Command skills, but I was ready to take my time if I needed it. Enter Slow Flight, followed by and Engine Off Stall. Recover and immediately do a Power On / Take Off Stall. Then as if that was not enough, she took the controls as I put on the visual limiting device and we did our unusual attitude recovery and navigation. But it was quick, painless, but more importantly within the Practical Test Standards limits. And with that, it was time to head back to Palo Alto Airport.
As we crossed over the Sunol Pass, I had forgotten that we had not done the emergency engine out test. And just like that she told me what she was about to do and reached over and pulled the engine to idle. Instinctively I grabbed my checklist and looked for a field to land in. Unfortunately this area was very industrial and residential. I saw a school with a large soccer field and it looked like a good area to land. I maintained my best glide speed of 73 kts, and turned towards it. But as I got lower, I realized that it was a poor choice because there were goal posts at either end. Luckily there was a nice rail yard a mile from there. So I told the examiner that I was going to use that as a landing spot instead and why I made that change. As I went through the checklist, I entered the landing pattern. And when my engine “wouldn’t start” I tightened my seatbelt and prepared to make that landing. Luckily the DPE had seen enough and cleared me to end the scenario and to go back to the airport.
As we crossed the bay back to Palo Alto Airport, I was remembering what the examiner had said before. If she doesn’t say anything, then that is a good sign. Don’t assume that the silence is bad. But I pushed that thought out of my mind and prepared to enter the traffic pattern. The examiner then offered me a chance to do all my remaining test items in one landing. I needed to demonstrate a Slip to a Short Field landing with a 50 foot obstacle.
No problem at all! I kept the altitude purposefully high. Kick the rudder all the way in, and get that 1,000 foot a minute drop rate going. Release and line up to the runway. Maintain the airspeed and a slightly steeper approach angle. Let her know that my touchdown point was going to be the numbers, and nail the spot. Retract the flap, apply aerodynamic braking, and stop aggressively but safely.
I took a deep breath and taxied off the runway, did my post landing checklist, and contacted ground to taxi back. We didn’t talk much during those few minutes. But as I pulled into my spot on the West Valley ramp, I asked her if she needed anything else or if I could shut down. She reached over and offered me her congratulations on becoming the newest private pilot in the United States. I guess that meant I could shut down.
I want to thank my family and friends who have been supportive of me going after my dream, but mostly I want to thank my instructor Josh Smith for putting up with all of my questions and letting me stick my camera in his face over these past 7 months. Without him, I would not have been able to make the skies my new playground and join this small and crazy club of being a pilot.