The Progress Check

Well folks, yesterday was a big day for me. I finally had the progress check my flight school requires before my CFI can approve me to solo.

It came in two stages, two hours of ground school and then a two hour block for the flight check.

I arrived to the ground school portion early enough to study my note cards. I felt prepared, excited even. 14:00 came and went, and with it, no progress check instructor.

At 14:10 (yes, I’m a stickler for being on time, it’s just good manners) a junior chipmunk wandered in, introduced himself as my progress check instructor, and excused himself to the bathroom for the next five minutes.

What exactly is a junior chipmunk? It is someone whose youth and exuberance for their position of authority is only outweighed by their inability to use common sense or people skills. The 18-year-old officer that gave you a ticket for going two mph above the posted speed limit on your wedding day is a junior chipmunk. The intern that sorts the office mail alphabetically and drafts a memo about the new office coffee mug organization system complete with meeting invite is a junior chipmunk.

This junior chipmunk, while unable to grow a single chest hair or empty his bladder before a scheduled meeting, began the progress check with the demeanor of Lord Voldemort.

Chipmunk: “What did you do today before you came here?”

Me: “I came straight from work.”

Chipmunk: “and what do you do?”

Me: “I am an interpreter.”

Chipmunk (somewhat deflated): “oh” [marks 10 out of 10 in the space for English proficiency] “What kind of engine does your airplane have?”

Me: “an air-cooled, four-stroke, naturally-aspirating Lycoming engine.”

Chipmunk: “you forgot horizontally-opposed” [takes point off]

Chipmunk: “how much horsepower does it have?”

Me (deflated): “I don’t know.”

Chipmunk: “108” [takes point off] “How does a four stroke engine work?”

Me: “four pistons pump up and down within four cylinders, each taking their turn with the gas and air mixed from the carburetor to intake, compress, combust, and exhaust, turning the crankshaft.”

Chipmunk: “and how does the electrical system work?”

Folks, this is where it gets murky. Jump ahead ten minutes to find both of us pouring over the POH diagram of the electrical system. He is convinced I have gotten it wrong, yet he cannot explain how it works or answer his own question. He resolves that “this diagram is oversimplified and I cannot explain how it works from this, let’s just drop that question.”

Chipmunk: “what is a stall?”

Me: “A stall occurs when you have exceeded the critical angle of attack.”

Chipmunk: “sort of, elaborate some more.”

Me: “when you no longer get enough wind beneath the wing, it will stall.”

He didn’t like this answer and spent the next few minutes making sure I understood he was brilliant using every big boy scout word he could come up with to explain that a stall was actually when the wind hits the wing at an angle that is not advantageous to lift.

Chipmunk: “What is a spin?”

Me: “An uncoordinated stall.”

Friends, he didn’t like this answer either and despite my elaboration that a spin had to do with one wing stalling slightly more than the other, he made sure to mark on my forms for my CFI that I needed more ground school review of stalls and spins.

After that he asked me things like “what are the IFR flight minimums?” to which I replied, “I don’t know, I’m training to be a VFR private pilot right now, that question hardly seems fair.”

Having never really been challenged before, this popped the acorns right out of his cheeks.


His expression looked something like this.

I’m not sure what got into me. It’s not like me to be so bold or outright rude to someone whose endorsement I need to get where I’m going. Or to another human in general. After all, I was once a junior chipmunk in my field too. Who did I think I was giving a CFI a hard time?! Something about this guy got under my skin and we butted heads the rest of the review. There were even a few questions that were so obscure he didn’t know the answers, which became apparent when I asked for clarification. At one point I even informed him he was mistaken about required airspace for mode C transponders. What was I thinking?!

Seriously, you guys. I was such an asshole to this kid and I still don’t know why.

Suffice it to say, the ground part didn’t go well. I was shooting daggers out of my eyes by the time we parted. Somehow this prepubescent with the fancy pilot shirt turned me from eager student to one of those I-eat-boys-like-you-for-breakfast she beasts in the span of two hours.

At the end he informed me “Fortunately now that you’re Part 61, it doesn’t really matter if you pass or fail this check. This was really just a conversation to see if you knew your stuff.” He never really confirmed if I did or didn’t. I suppose I will have to have a conversation with my CFI to find out. Gee I’m glad I studied so hard and paid so much for a progress check that “doesn’t really matter.”

I took a moment to douse the smoke coming out of my ears and proceeded to the pilot’s lounge for part two.

The flight portion of the progress check went much better. I didn’t do my best. Far from it! I was nervous and hadn’t flown in nearly two weeks. Fortunately the instructor was a young guy who managed to avoid a junior chipmunk complex and taught me some wonderful stuff along the way. We departed with him telling me he could confidently give a good report back to my CFI.


My next lesson isn’t scheduled until Friday. But if the weather cooperates, I’m hoping it will be a day to remember for the rest of my life.

So Low

Yes, that was indeed a play on the word solo.

Friends, two Saturdays ago I had it in my mind I would get to solo an airplane for the first time. My CFI had dropped hints that I was ready for my progress check (required before you are allowed to solo), the sun was out, the sky was blue, the winds were calm. I’m not going to say I was 100% certain it would happen that day, but let’s just say I wore a shirt I didn’t care about and packed my own scissors…just in case.

I sang in the car all the way up to the airport. I arrived thirty minutes early and when 9am struck, my manifest was filled out to perfection and my pre-flight was complete. According to my mental state (and perhaps not reality) my instructor was dropping lots of hints that today was the day.

We headed over to the run-up area and all was great until [insert large clanging noise and blood-curdling scream here] we checked the left mag and the RPM plummeted to the bottom of the scale. Nevermind that this was the plane we had last time that I asked my instructor to report needed maintenance since it had been acting funny on the downwind. He didn’t. He said, “it’s only 5 hours from it’s next major overhaul, it’ll be fine.”

Friends, it wasn’t fine.

By the time we taxied back to dispatch, reported the problem, requested another plane, filled out another manifest, conducted another pre-flight and gone back to the run-up area not only had we lost an hour, the weather conditions had deteriorated considerably. The skies were dark, the winds were variable, the clouds were low. My instructor said I needed to work on my landings so we would do touch-and-goes and stay in the pattern. Choking back tears that today was not the day, I flew the pattern. Again. For the hundred and fifty-first time. At least I could get some work done on cross-wind landings.

Then the situation changed entirely, while we were on the downwind leg the tower made an announcement I had never heard before. My instructor took over the radio and told me to bank left out of the pattern. They were changing runways on us. All eight of us that were flying the pattern, not to mention the helicopters below us and other traffic coming in to escape the weather rerouted from runway 31 to 02.

We were coming in for our final landing, just about to catch ground effect when a burst of wind swept us clear off of the runway. My right hand reached for the throttle and my left thumb tapped the mic to announce a go-around.

But I was too late.

My instructor had taken over the controls and landed the plane, informing me “see, you aren’t ready yet, you’ve got to learn to be aggressive with your ailerons in crosswinds.”

I drove home in tears that day convinced I would never get to solo.

The following lesson we practiced landings. Again. These were the best landings I’d ever had and still it wasn’t good enough.

The next lesson we flew in the pattern again and practiced landings. Again. I was finally getting comments like “that was perfect!” repeatedly. Inside I thought, “ok, so today is the day?!!!”

Negative. I finally told my CFI something I’m told students NEVER say out loud. I looked him in the eyes and said “I’m ready to solo, what do I need to do to make this happen?”

He agreed. He said he looked for three perfect landings in a row before clearing a student to solo and I had done that. The next step was a quiz.

I took the ten page quiz that asked me everything from what medical certificate a private pilot must hold to what to do if I found myself in inadvertent IMC to what airspace my home airport was.

The following lesson was ground school where we took two hours…excuse me, that didn’t have the proper emphasis…TWO WHOLE FLIPPING HOURS!!!!!!!!!!! to review my test answers, find that the vast majority of them were correct and discuss that I thoroughly knew my stuff and wasn’t having lucky guesses.

Did I solo after that?


The next step in the process is a progress check. Yes. It’s not enough that I am now having perfect landings with my instructor, flying the pattern perfectly, and passing my knowledge test with flying colors. No. Now I have to schedule (and of course pay dearly for) another flight lesson with a total stranger they call a “progress check instructor” and convince him I am able to solo a Cessna 152. Is he available before a week from now?


So now I’m doing ground school for cross-country flying and this Saturday, having not flown once in a week and a half, I will hop in the plane with a stranger and hope he agrees I can fly a plane by myself. We will do stalls and emergency procedures and fly the pattern a few times. Then will I solo?


No, then I will have my next lesson with my CFI where we will fly the pattern again and if he feels I’m having a good day and my landings are perfection, THEN. FINALLY. He will get out of the plane and let me solo….or so he says. I’m beginning to doubt it will ever happen.

I’m all for safety and making sure a student is really ready before you stick them 1,200 feet above the runway in an airplane by themselves, but this is just beginning to feel like overkill. I feel strangled by red tape instead of encouraged to progress. Amelia Earhart didn’t have to suffer this kind of bureaucracy!

Wish me luck…should I ever actually get there!

The Fifth Time is the Charm

Hello again! I’ve told my negativity where to stick it, met CFI #5, and made it back up to the skies again this week.

I won’t lie, I was pretty determined to hate this new guy. In my mind I had it all worked out that he was a lousy instructor that was only using me to get to an airline career. I arrived at the airport with 10 minutes to spare and no manifest. Make no mistake, this was a last ditch effort from a student that was once again ready to quit.

I settled into a cushy chair in the pilot’s lounge and began checking the weather on my phone when a friendly voice emerged from the usual cloud of testosterone that permeates these places. A tall brunette stepped out of the crowd and identified himself as my new CFI. I’m not sure I even stood up to shake his hand.

I explained to him I hadn’t flown in three months and didn’t really remember how to fill out the weight and balance or density altitude on the manifest. When I told him my last instructor had shown me a shortcut on the computer for figuring these out, he patiently insisted I should do it myself and showed me how.

At the preflight he insisted I climb up to check the fuel in the wings and check the oil myself. Dear readers, close your mouths. I know the pilot is responsible for visually checking the fuel and oil levels in the plane before take off. I even agree with this notion. However, this particular flight school has a policy that the CFI has to check and verify those two things so it is often the case that the student is told to skip them and perform the rest of the preflight while the CFI climbs up there and checks under the cowling. I was impressed, even joyful, this new CFI felt it was just as important for me to do these two rather fundamental parts of the preflight as I did. I had already grown accustomed to skipping them. Shame on me!

He did this other thing I was not used to an instructor doing. He asked me questions. Things like, “what kind of oil does this plane use?” and “what are you looking for when you inspect the ailerons in the preflight?” You know, stuff a good CFI does but I had not been exposed to much before.

When we went up it was all about checklists and procedure. He was glad I knew what to do, he was not glad I didn’t know how to explain or talk about what I was doing. We did some emergency procedures and stalls, then practiced some touch and goes. I was rusty, but he was patient and encouraging. When I was lost, he helped me navigate. When I didn’t appreciate the beginning of a spin, he offered me a barf bag.

Folks, I think I might be onto something good here. This new CFI has a military background, so I should be obnoxiously skilled with checklists by the time I get to my check ride. I have about ten weeks before my scholarship runs out so we should be flying quite a bit this spring.  Today he is interviewing for the Air Force….let’s hope Uncle Sam can wait until I get my private before I lose another one!