The day started off about 7am, checking the weather. It has been really foggy in the San Francisco Bay Area and the California Central Valley for the last week. It has been zero/zero some mornings. The forecast was for more of the same today, but not that bad. My checkride was to be out of Mather Airport in Sacramento, about a 40 minute flight from Reid Hillview in San Jose where I’m based. I had agreed with the Examiner on Friday, that as long as it was likely to be above minimums for the ILS approach (200’ ceiling, 1/2 mile visibility) when I arrived and forecast to be VFR by midday we would be good to go. As it turned out the ceiling was at 1700’ with 2 miles visibility and forecast to be 4000’ scattered later in the morning. I got to Tradewinds at 8am, got a briefing, filed my IFR flight plan and called the Examiner to let him know I was on my way. I never even got into the clouds on the way up, the uncanny ability of ATC to vector me around what few clouds existed still amazes me. By the time I got to Mather the clouds layer was so broken up that it was a clear shot into the airport on the ILS with visibility around 3 miles.
The oral part of the exam began with a briefing from the examiner - usual stuff with a special emphasis on positive exchange of controls in the event of a traffic conflict (sounds like he had a bad experience with this at some point). We went over the paperwork - application form, logbook endorsements and written test result. I had scored a 98% on the written and the Examiner commented that “this must mean I already knew all this stuff” - seemed like a good start. Once he was happy the paperwork was fine and I paid him $350 we got into the questions. For the benefit of any aspiring commercial pilots studying for the checkride this is what he asked as best I can remember.
Prior to flying we had some discussion on exactly how the take-off climb out should be executed with regards to flaps. Basically, Vy on this plane is 88 KIAS (which is fast for a Skylane - my 1980 fixed gear Skylane has a Vy of only 78 KIAS). If you take-off with 20 degrees of flaps it takes a long time to accelerate to Vy and you need to pitch the nose down almost horizontal. This feels quite clumsy in the plane, but the PTS requires that you accelerate to Vy before retracting any flaps. One of my CFI’s had specifically checked this point with the Examiner before the checkride (mainly because, I was objecting to the technique), the Examiner had been pretty emphatic about getting to Vy before the flaps are touched. Thankfully, a careful reading of the POH over the weekend had shown that for a normal take-off you “should retract flaps slowly after reaching 75 KIAS”. It is reasonable to treat a short or soft field take off the same as a normal take-off once you are into the climb phase (having cleared the obstacle or accelerated out of ground effect). I asked the Examiner what speed I should use (75 or 88 KIAS) and he agreed that we should follow the POH. Moral of the story - always carefully read the POH. We also discussed how gear should be retracted on the short field take-off. Again having read the POH - I said only after the obstacle was cleared - which is the right answer. Then the Examiner stumped me by asking why was this the case. After some thought I guessed that as the gear retracts on a Skylane (which is a high wing plane that tucks its gear into the main body a bit like how a bird tucks it legs in), it causes some drag. Basically the wheels turn sideways as they swing into their up position. You don’t want any drag when you are trying to get over the pine tree at the end of the runway so don’t touch the gear until you are clear.
After a quick break it was off to the flying portion. The weather had cleared even more with just a few clouds at about 2,000’. The plan was to take-off to the southeast, climb to 4,500’ run through the commercial maneuvers and then head to Franklin (F72) for the landings. I did a good job of following all the checklists and remembering to do a break check as soon as I started moving. The first take-off he asked for was a soft field. He said to imagine I was taking off with 6” of snow on the ground. We had some discussion about doing this in a retractable gear airplane, basically leave the gear down for a while so the wind can blow off any snow you may have accumulated. I demonstrated a picture perfect soft field take-off, got into ground effect early, pitched to keep the plane there and smoothly let her fly out of ground effect, bring the gear up, then flaps in increments, climb out right at Vy. We turned to a heading of 150 and climbed up to 4,500’. I remembered my climb and then cruise checklists and leveled off right on altitude.
We started with steep turns. He said I could do them one at a time or not (PTS says one should lead straight into the other). I slowed up to about 100 KIAS mentioning that that was the correct maneuvering speed for our weight on the flight, did some clearing turns and completed the maneuvering checklist - we had some discussion about the fact we were now on top of a broken cloud layer so an it was a good thing we were surrounded by hundreds of square miles of flat farm land in the case of an emergency landing. The steep turns were almost perfect (they are usually my nemesis in a checkride - I can only do them right when I’m on my own in the plane). Then we did slow flight, it was a bit unusual. First slow to 90 KIAS, maintain 4,500’, maintain heading. Then 10 degrees of flaps and slow to 80 KIAS. Then turn to a heading (90 degree turn) while slowing to 70, descend 200‘ maintain 70 KIAS. Then 20 degrees of flaps and slow to 65 KIAS, climb back to 4,500’ and turn another 90 degrees. This all went really well - its just like an attitude flying exercise in IFR training and I managed to spend enough time looking at the instruments to fly it pretty well. Then the Examiner asked me to demonstrate a stall and normal recovery from he current configuration (20 degrees of flaps, level 65 KIAS, gear up). This went well. Then a full power-off stall, 40 degrees of flaps, gear down with a full recovery, again this went well. Then an approach to landing stall, I don’t recall the exact configuration I was in, but I think it was clean (no flaps or gear). Basically it was a stall in a descending left turn. It worked ok, but not great (I haven’t practiced turning stalls enough), I over banked a little. Then a power-on stall in a climbing right turn. Basically, clean configuration, full climb power. I screwed it up - let the plane bank way too much and got pretty uncoordinated in the process. He had me repeat it to the right, this one went much better, though it is pretty hard to get a clean stall break on a power-on stall in this aircraft with the gear up. Next up was Chandelles. I did some clearing turns trying to find some good visual references for the maneuver. Basically there wasn’t much to use, we were over a broken layer of cloud in the middle of the Central Valley - so any convenient mountains were a 100 miles away. I ended up using some small cumulous clouds that were poking up from the flat layer as a reference. I did one Chandelle to the left and one to the right. They were acceptable, but I got dinged for not being really smooth on the roll-out, I actually rolled out a bit off heading. I said this was due to the lack of a good visual reference which was pretty true. Then we setup for lazy eights. The first one didn’t go great, same problem being a little impatient with the rollout and so not ending up right on the exit heading with the wings level. He had me repeat the maneuver and the second one was better - basically I just slowed down a bit which always helps in a lazy eight. There really wasn’t much wind so the examiner decided that we would skip the eights on pylons and as the cloud was pretty solid over Franklin we headed to Rancho Murieta (RIU) which is closer to the mountains and over which the layer was still scattered. Thank goodness for GPS, I’d have never found the airport otherwise.
I got the CTAF and airport elevation from the sectional chart. There was a helicopter and a Warrior in the pattern using runway 22. So after dropping down through a hole in the cloud , was passed over mid field at about 300’ above pattern altitude (which was a little low, we passed right over the Warrior on downwind). I didn’t make a great entry to the pattern (fatigue was setting in), basically, made a left turn and came in on left base instead of a right turn to come in on the left 45. Still, the Warrior was on final when I joined base so no harm done. I suffered a moment of panic as I came out of the turn (I was still expecting to be somewhat close to a 45 entry) so I lost sight of the airport - I asked the Examiner to point it out - which he did (CRM right). The first landing was to be a Short Field landing. I came in steep and made a left side slip to lose some altitude. This worked well, but considering the wind was light but 90 degrees across the runway from the right I should of made the slip to the right. We touched down just about within the 100’ spec (he said use the start of the tarmac as he aiming point - which is actually somewhat ambiguous as to the required touch down point from which the 100’ should be measured). However, having neglected the crosswind, we landed somewhat hard was a side force to the left - rather a big no-no for a commercial checkride. I was admonished on the taxi back to runway about crosswind correction. However, obviously not enough as you will see on the next landing. Before that however, the examiner asked for a short field take-off. The field elevation is 140’, he set the altimeter to 100’ and told me the obstacle was 100’ tall so he wanted to see Vx held until we were passed 200’ indicated. The take-off went well, I held in position right at the start of the runway, full power with the breaks held, release, rotate at 50 KIAS, hold 65 KIAS to 200’, then pitch for 90 KIAS, gear up and flaps up slowly after 75 KIAS. This time around he asked me to repeat the short field landing because the last one was poor. Everything went well and at about 20’ above touch down he said “go around”. The go around was pretty good, everything came up at the right time in the right sequence. With the go around we were pretty close to the Warrior, so we extended upwind to get some space. This next landing was again to be a short field landing, but then he pulled the power abeam the numbers to make it an emergency landing. He didn’t specify any particular touch down point so I didn’t volunteer one (so just a plain vanilla emergency landing - not a precision 180 power-off landing). I managed to say the right words about quickly checking the obvious (carb heat and mixture) but as we were next to an airport we would just land. On base I mentioned about securing the aircraft (fuel off, doors open etc.). I also mentioned that I’d turn early into the field as I had a long runway and it fine to use all of it to land. Again I used a left slip to get down - forgot about the cross wind in all the excitement and landed with some side force to the left. The Examiner didn’t say much but wasn’t happy - he told me later he was strongly considering failing me at this point - not sure why he didn’t. Last we did a normal take-off and headed back to Mather (which is very close by), we stayed under the clouds at about 1,200’ and made a left base entry for 22L. At this point the Examiner asked for a no-flap landing with extra added crosswind correction. This actually went OK. But it was really hard in the flare with the nose way up in the air (because of no flaps) and the right wing down. I couldn’t see any of the runway to keep the nose straight. Right at the last moment I felt that sudden sink that tells you that you are about one foot above the ground instead of 1 inch and you are about to hit hard. I gave the engine a burst of power which just about softened the landing to acceptable - with no side force - which frankly was luck because I couldn’t see the runway to keep the plane lined up with it.
And that was it. 22L is over 11,000’ long and all the taxi ways except the last one are currently closed so its a very long drive back to parking. Other than further advice to practice crosswind landings especially with a wind from the right and the paperwork was filled out. My shiny plastic Private Pilots License was taken away and replaced with a temporary paper Commercial Pilots License. I’m just glad its over.
By the time I got a briefing and got out of the FBO (and called my CFI to give Her the good news) the sky was pretty much overcast. So I asked for a Tower IFR clearance to VFR on top and promised I’d cancel when I got there. A nice climb up through about 1,500’ of cloud got me into the sunshine. I cancelled, climbed to 6,500’ and headed for home. Even though the METAR for RHV had promised FEW at 4,500’ the Bay Area looked socked in, so I dropped down near Livermore to about 3,000’, the visibility was really bad . Some more IFR, in this case I Follow Roads, I found 680 and tracked it over the Sunol Grade and down through Fremont until I had RHV in sight. A nice non-eventful landing and for the second year in a row I complete my years flying in the USA with a successful checkride. Next week I’m off to Ireland to spend Christmas with my family. Back in the New Year I’ll start to work on that CFI for next year’s Christmas checkride.