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Sat, Jun 28, 2008

Earning My Wings... At Long Last (Part Eight)

Time To Meet The Examiner

by ANN Managing Editor Rob Finfrock

Still riding the emotional and mental high from my successful cross-country flight the day before, I awoke the morning of Thursday, April 3 ready and eager to tackle the next major hurdle in my quest for a sport pilot license: taking my oral exam.

Actually, I hoped I could knock off two birds with one stone. My instructor, Jim Crone, had contacted the Designated Pilot Examiner he used for his other students earlier in the week -- before I'd even soloed N702GB, in fact -- and had discussed the chances of me taking both the oral exam and the checkride at once. The DPE, a guy Jim referred to as "Wayne from Maine," had agreed, as long as we gave him enough notice to clear his schedule.

Such an ambitious plan would require a number of things going exactly right... not the least of which was first having the time for me to knock out the 2.3 hours of solo flight time I still had to burn off before taking the checkride. I had awakened that morning fully intending to grab the keys to the Gobosh, and tooling around the northern Florida skies for a few hours, before heading with Jim down to Zephyrhills to meet Wayne.

Alas, Mother Nature apparently felt I'd done enough flying for the moment. A wet, soggy, gray blanket had descended on Haller Airpark overnight, and when I opened the door to check the weather I could barely see across the road.

This wasn't unexpected; Jim and I had checked weather the evening before, and fog had been forecast for early morning. I'd also seen fog at Haller before, and reminded myself it had burned off by mid-morning those other times. So I might still be able to make our plan work, if I waited a bit.

By 11 am, however, it was clear the plan to get everything done in one day just wasn't going to happen... at least, not that day. In fact, the overcast ceiling never lifted much above 1,000 feet AGL the entire day... leaving Jim and I resolutely ground-bound.

"Let's make the best of it," suggested Jim, ever the cheery optimist. "I'll grab some supplies and clean the plane." Though it still looked quite stunning on the ramp, it was hard to deny the little Gobosh had accumulated a rather thick layer of expired Florida insect life along its wings, canopy, and prop.

Well, it's not flying, I thought. But it's still aviation. Actually, Jim didn't have to twist my arm too much to convince me to give him a hand; I'm fastidious about keeping my home organized and my vehicles clean, the latter a remnant from my previous life of running a detail shop for a Chrysler store in Albuquerque. So I felt right at home as I lovingly scrubbing the bugs off 2GB's wings (and yes, fantasizing that the plane was "mine.")

Of course, there are other advantages to having a clean plane, as well. "We just might finally see 100 knots in cruise," Jim quipped. "And of course, examiners love seeing you pull up in a shiny airplane."

We also used the extra time on the ground to prep for the oral exam. After a final, three hour practice session, with Jim quizzing me on the FARs in between bites of dinner, he nodded. "Ready as you'll ever be," he told me. Now, we just had to make it down to see Wayne.

*****

Friday morning, it was still cloudy... but the ceiling was much higher than it had been the day before. I was unsure whether I wanted to chance soloing with such low clouds, though, so Jim and I took off to have a look from above.

Once airborne, two things became clear to me. One, the broken ceiling was somewhere between 1,500 and 1,800 feet, so we were just this side of legal staying at 1,000 feet; and two, such narrow margins made me feel VERY uncomfortable.

There were holes we could punch through to get VFR on top -- we even made a spiraling climb up to 3,000 feet through one of them -- but they were ever-changing, and a thicker overcast layer dominated the sky at around 5,000 feet. It didn't help that the air was pretty turbulent, too; we were getting jostled pretty good as we flew the wide pattern around Haller.

"OK, new plan," Jim said. "Let's check the afternoon forecast between here and where Wayne is. If it's clear, we can head down there and wipe out the oral exam, anyway."

The forecast looked promising for an early-afternoon departure, so Jim called Wayne as I hurriedly wrapped up the morning for Aero-News. We departed Haller just after 1:00 pm, but not before Jim Campbell reassured me with these words:

"If you bust the exam, don't bother coming back," he said, with what I hoped was a smile.

*****

"Wayne splits his time between Hernando County, also called Brooksville, and Zephyrhills; today's he's at Hernando," Jim said. "So let's retrace our steps from last week's flight to Punta Gorda, but with a more westerly heading once we clear the Palatka MOA."

As the ceilings were still pretty low, I held us to 2,000 feet as we departed Palatka following the usual fuel stop and tracked the now-familiar highway heading west. I had charted our course before leaving Haller. Though we were still getting bumped around in the choppy air, it was a pretty easy flight... allowing me to mentally prepare myself for the task at hand.

And then, after about 30 minutes in the air, something weird happened. "You're heading for Zephyrhills, right?" Jim asked me.

I looked for a smile, to see if he was joking, but Jim looked serious enough. "I thought you said Hernando County?" I replied.

Jim shook his head. "No, Wayne was at Brooksville this morning. He said he'd be at Zephyrhills this afternoon."

Um, OK, I thought. "Time to look at the sectional again," I said. Some quick computations, and a turn to the south, put us on course for ZPH. All the while, I looked for some sign that Jim had thrown a deliberate curveball, to make sure I could handle an in-flight diversion. I was still looking for some sign of this even after I'd landed on Runway 18 at ZPH, and as we taxied off to allow a De Havilland Dash-6 jump plane to take off, with the wind, in the opposite direction.

Zephyrhills is a very nice airport, don't get me wrong... but at 3 pm on a hazy Friday afternoon, it could be described as "sleepy" with no fear of insult. I continued to question the sudden change in plans even as we taxied to the lone FBO on site, a small building that looked just big enough for a fuel counter.

As Jim walked over to check at the FBO, a pilot preparing his SR22 for departure gave me a hand pushing 2GB to a parking space. "You here on a cross-country?" he asked me.

"It seems so," I replied, still preoccupied with wondering if we were at the right airport. "I'm supposed to take my oral exam today, but I don't think this is where we're supposed to meet the examiner... in fact, now I know I'm right!" I added, as I watched Jim jog back over to the plane.

"Nope, Wayne's at Hernando," he said, nodding meekly. "Back into the air!"

I laughed; there really wasn't anything else to do. "OK, master navigator," I replied, "but this time YOU'RE flying!"

*****

Though I'd never met him before, the first words out of Wayne Ouellette's mouth confirmed the rough mental image I had of the man, based on Jim's description. I'd pictured a somewhat gruff, by-the-numbers kinda guy, but one possessing a good-natured sense of humor, too.

"Well, it's about time you got here!" Wayne greeted Jim and I as we exited the Gobosh on the ground at BKV. He was smiling, though, so I responded in kind... by pointing an accusatory finger at my instructor. "Blame him, sir! I tried to get us here quicker!"

 After a few minutes chatting as Jim and I secured the plane, Wayne shooed my instructor away. "We'll meet you afterwards over at American," he said. "Should be a couple of hours or so... unless you haven't done your job, in which case it'll be sooner than that."

As Jim prepared to taxi the Gobosh over to the FBO, I followed Wayne over to one of 10 WWII-era 'igloo' hangars situated on the north side of the field... not quite sure of what lay ahead. Seeing I was nervous, Wayne tried to put me at ease.

"I've been doing this a long time," he said. "I already know you have the knowledge you need to be a pilot, or else you wouldn't be here. But that doesn't mean there aren't still things I can teach you... or things that I can't learn from you, for that matter. So let's see what we know, shall we?"

Standing at a makeshift desk off to the side of the hangar, Wayne looked over the results of my written exam, noting the questions I'd missed. He then took my logbook. After studying it for a few moments, he frowned. "I can't find your endorsement to take the test," he told me.

I leapt from the couch I'd nervously situated myself on, and asked for the logbook back. "It's back here," I said, flipping to the back pages. "Here it is." I then realized Wayne was smiling.

"See? That was a test," he said. "See how easy that was?" I nervously chuckled in reply.

The next two hours are still something of a blur to me, but a few lessons stand out. Wayne started out by asking me some questions, straight from the FARs. I recited the limitations of the sport pilot license, the kinds of planes I could fly and those I couldn't, things like that. He briefly tripped me up on the question of whether I could fly with someone onboard who was visibly intoxicated -- one I initially answered with a short "no."

"Are you sure?" Wayne asked me. "Let's say you know your buddy has had a few, and you can tell he's tipsy but doesn't seem drunk. Can he fly with you?" I considered the question for the moment.

"Um... still no?"

Wayne smiled... but while I was fairly sure I was right, I couldn't tell from his expression whether I'd passed the test. "Why not?"

"Because the FARs say I can't have anyone onboard who is visibly impaired, or appears to be under the influence of drugs," I responded. "Unless it's an emergency."

Wayne nodded, and I knew I'd met his approval. We continued on the FARs for another 20 minutes or so, then Wayne said we could take a break. I blew out a breath of relief. "So, what led you to deciding to become a pilot?" he asked.

I briefly told him about my first flight on a small plane, my first solo in 2004, and how I came to Aero-News. I also told him why I wanted to be a sport pilot -- partly for medical reasons, partly because I liked flying low and slow anyway. Wayne nodded.

"See, we're just having a conversation," he explained. "I don't want you to feel on the spot, or scared of your shadow. But you should realize that even when we're just talking, I'm determining what questions I need to ask you, and what you already know. By telling me your story of how you got here, I know what you're looking to gain by being a pilot. You also answered at least a couple questions I had."

Next, Wayne asked to see the flight plan I'd plotted for the trip down to Brooksville. Pointing to my sectional, he said "Why don't you explain the route to me, starting with Palatka? Plot the course out, and tell me what you're doing."

"OK... well, as you see here, we're first going to fly roughly west out of Palatka, to avoid the MOA -- on a course of roughly 260, though I'd check the wind of course with Flight Service to make sure..."

Wayne stopped me. "Explain it to me like you would to your young niece, or nephew."

It took me a few moments for me to shift gears. "OK, we're going to takeoff and fly west for awhile, following a highway that you can see on the chart here," I said, pointing to the representation on the sectional. "We're going to follow that road for about 10 minutes, or 18 miles -- and we'll be able to make sure we stay on course by looking for lakes, those railroad tracks, and other stuff below us.

"Here's an example -- see how that lake turns south on the chart?" I asked Wayne, who nodded. "It looks a lot like that from the air, too -- and we'll turn to follow that bend, which will keep us out of this area here."

"What's so special about that area?" Wayne asked, pointing to the red hashmarks denoting the border of the Palatka 1 MOA. I swear, he even kinda sounded like a youngster.

"That's a military operations area," I responded. "Fighter jets and stuff like that are allowed to operate there -- and they go a lot faster than we can, and can't always see a small plane like ours. So, we'll stay out of there to be safe."

Wayne nodded. "What's that over here?" He was pointing to a mark I'd made on the chart northeast of the Ocala VORTAC, denoting a virtual checkpoint.

"That's actually kinda cool," I replied. "There's a radio station over there, that sends signals out in a circle. By tuning in a certain radio frequency -- 113.7, we get that from this little blue box over here -- and using a special instrument on this plane, I can tell when we're going to be at that point in the sky, so I know we're on course."

I could tell I'd impressed Wayne at least a little with that explanation. After going through the rest of the flight plan, he seemed content that we'd be able to arrive at Hernando County as I'd plotted.

I made a point throughout the exam to not look at my watch... but after my mental clock clicked off an hour or so, I finally started to feel a bit more at ease. Time seemed to speed up as we covered a range of topics, from the documents I needed to have with me in the plane ("Do you have to have your logbook with you?") to operational stuff ("are you allowed to perform aerobatics?")

*****

After one last break, we discussed the airspace around Tampa. It was here I came closest to busting the exam, too.

"What do you need to fly here?" Wayne asked me, pointing to the outer ring of the Class B airspace near Zephyrhills (shown below). "Can you fly your new, fancy Gobosh here without a working transponder?"

Noting that the blue ring indented in to clear the airspace around ZPH, I replied "yes, because it's not inside the Class B ring."

Wayne frowned... the first time I'd seen him do that. "I think my hearing aid was turned off, I didn't hear you say that."

Uh-oh! I frantically scanned the sectional, looking for what I'd missed... and then found it. "Strike that!" I exclaimed. "No, we need a transponder... because Zephyrhills is inside the 30 nautical mile Mode C ring, here. We'd need to get special permission to fly there without one."

"OK, my hearing aid caught that," Wayne said. "But there are exceptions, like if you were flying a plane that was certified without an electrical system. How about this -- can you fly over Tampa's airspace to stay out of the Class B?"

"I could if I weren't a sport pilot," I replied on cue. "But since I am a sport pilot, I need to stay at or below 10,000 feet above sea level, and Tampa's Class B ends right at 10,000 feet. I can't legally fly over it."

Wayne grinned. "Yes, it looks like you are a sport pilot... or will be soon. Congratulations, you passed your oral exam."

(Sectional graphics courtesy of SkyVector.com)

Coming Soon: Wrapping Up My Solo Time

 

FMI: Click Here To Read Earlier Installments, www.sportpilot.org, www.faa.gov, www.gobosh.aero

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