The check ride

I made a series of bad decisions before my check ride. I am certain beyond a reasonable doubt under any other condition I would never get into a plane in the shape I was in. The day of the check ride I did it because I was more concerned with external pressures than my fitness to fly.

When I left Oregon for GIFT week I left a sick husband (he had just come home from the hospital and a surgery the day before) and a week of income to earn my license. I had it in my mind I wasn’t coming home without at least trying for a private license. It didn’t help that CFI #5 had moved on to an airline job and I didn’t want to go through the gauntlet to find a decent CFI at a flight school again. Scheduling the check ride at my flight school looked to be at least a few weeks, a few headaches, and a few thousand dollars away. But if I took my check ride and passed at GIFT week I could return home the victor!

This is where my mind was before I even got to Texas.

GIFT week started out great, beautiful weather, an abundance of optimism, planes and students at the ready. At noon Tuesday a storm blew in.

“…and the skies are not cloudy all day.” Bullshit. The clouds didn’t lift for two and a half days.

There was talk Thursday night that the clouds might clear Friday and some of the girls that were ready could take their check rides. I was determined to be one. Every few hours Thursday night I woke with a start about things I already knew…

“How do I use an E6B to compute groundspeed?!”

“What does the second A in AV1ATE stand for?!”

“What are the pitot static instruments?!”

Arriving at the airport Friday morning I learned the examiner was already booked and I would have to test the following morning – Saturday, the last official day of GIFT week. That same Saturday I was scheduled to catch the last available flight from Dallas to Portland, meaning I had to leave Vernon no later than 11 am – if I was willing to speed and skip lunch.

The examiner decided to begin my oral exam at 6:30am to give us enough time, but we were still dependent on the weather for the check ride and the forecast called for fog and low ceilings until noon.

I’d now like to run us through the IM SAFE checklist to illustrate the state I was in by 6:30am the following morning when my oral began.

Illness: Beginning stages of a cold and I’d had the nervous poops for a good 40 hours.

Medications: Tylenol, to stave off the headache that comes with the beginning of a cold and lack of sleep.

Stress: Mini meltdown territory. That morning I could be found alone in the dark  – silent tears dribbling down my cheeks – outside the hotel waiting for the examiner to pick me up.

Alcohol: None. I opted to study the night before instead of celebrate with the newly licensed pilots that passed their tests.

Fatigue: Not a wink of sleep in close to 40 hours between my roommate’s fog horn decibel snoring and the bathroom faucet that dripped all night long. Also, did anyone catch that 6:30 am Texas time is 4:30 am Oregon time?

Eating: I managed half a plain bagel and then gave up on food. For those that don’t know me: I need food roughly every two hours if I am expected to function as a peaceful, intelligent human.

It was against all of my better judgment that I stepped into the examiner’s car that morning and began my oral exam before the sun was up while we drove to the airport.

Like countless student pilots before me I was asked about medical certificates, Bravo airspace, the legality of carrying marijuana on board, Victor airways, and all of the other good stuff that pilots have to know about. To be honest, I don’t remember most of the oral. Only that it lasted THREE HOURS. My eyes kept drifting over to the clock as inconspicuously as possible wondering if I was ever going to make it to the check ride.

The sun came up and the fog that was predicted never formed. The skies were mostly clear except for some fluffy little clouds at 2,500 feet. There was only one questionable weather phenomenon that day – the wind. Again, on any other day, I would have checked the weather, saw 19 knot winds gusting at 24, decided I’d never flown in something that strong and made the call to stay on the ground. But on check ride day this is what came into my head: “I’ve made it this far, I should give the check ride a shot. Worst case scenario: I find myself up there unable to manage these winds and I have a talented CFI and DPE in the right seat. The worst that can happen is I fail the test. No one is dying today. Go for it.”

So, up we went, even with the examiner saying “are you sure?” [Hell no, I’m pretty sure I should stay firmly planted on the ground!]…which came out as a deceptively confident “yes.”

Another bad decision I made that day: I was in a hurry (to catch my flight out of Dallas). I’ve never taxied that fast in my life, and twice the examiner made comments that I  needed to slow down. I heard her. I even intended to slow down, but before I knew it my hand was on that throttle again and we were whizzing down the taxiway.

Aside of my taxi motor speedway act it started out great. The take off was nice, the climb was right at 70 knots, I found my first check point and calculated my ground speed on my E6B. Then the examiner asked me to fly above the spotted clouds.

I refused.

She asked again.

I refused again.

The third time she explained it wasn’t part of the test to see if I would make a bad call and fly above converging clouds as a VFR pilot but as a necessity since we couldn’t do many of the maneuvers below three thousand feet. I insisted I would only do it if she took responsibility for getting us down safely if the clouds converged. She giggled at me, made a mark on her paper and agreed.

Up we climbed through the spaces in the clouds to 3,500 where I was asked to do steep turns. Fun fact: I hadn’t practiced steep turns in six months. Another fun fact: it’s much easier to pick a point on the horizon when the horizon is full of mountains; it is very difficult to pick a point on the horizon when there are no points out there, just open plains for miles and miles. I picked a collection of farm buildings and did my best to keep the nose on the horizon.

Steep turns were followed by slow flight, which segued to stalls.

The power off stall…god bless it the nose wouldn’t buffet! I had the yoke all the way back, the airspeed indicator read 0 knots, still no buffet! My feet were dancing to keep it coordinated…..nothing….nothing….still nothing…is it the wind?!

I looked at the VSI and called it, “we’re losing 500 feet a minute, I’m declaring this a stall and starting my recovery.”

The examiner did not protest.

The power on stall was textbook, the nose buffeted as it should, I dropped it a little and recovered.

Then out came the hood.

The hood?!

Yes, I said hood. Did anyone else not know that the hood would be part of the check ride? No? Just me then?

I donned the hood [for the first time in eight months] and gave the examiner what she wanted. Then this happened: “were you the one in class asking about graveyard spirals?”

I was indeed one of a few people asking about the difference between a spin and a graveyard spiral…and everything else that can kill you in an airplane. What can I say, I’m a pansy.

On the spot the examiner asked me to do one. “Go ahead, bank the plane in either direction…keep going” Eventually we entered the spiral. “Now pull back on the yoke. Do you feel the g’s increasing, you’re only making it worse.” Faster and faster we spiraled “ok, now do you remember how to recover?”

I leveled the wings and the spiral was over. So was my hood time. Whew!

Next came turns around a point. This is how strong the wind was at 1,000 feet – I had to point my plane away from my point and look over my shoulder to watch it pass behind the tail to keep my distance from it on the upwind side. Somehow it was the best turning around a point I had ever done.

“Ok, take me back to Wilbarger Airport,” she said.

Riiiiiight…..I had tried all along to keep an idea of where I was during our maneuvers but there had been clouds below me for most of my navigation attempts. I knew there were wind turbines near the airport. I searched the endless display of fields and found not one but three windmill farms in the distance.

Well shit.

I pointed the plane vaguely at all three and began searching for the freeway I knew led into Vernon.

No freeway.

The examiner – watching me search the sectional and the ground wildly – pulled out her phone and said, “you know, it’s amazing how many navigation apps there are available to us as pilots. In the real world you will have access to them, I see no reason why you can’t have access to them now during the test.”

God bless that DPE. We made it back to Wilbarger Airport where the winds were stronger than when we took off.

“Ok, let’s see a short field landing.”

It was all I could do to line the plane up with the runway in what may have been the longest final in recorded history. I first shot for runway 20 and changed it to 16…ya, I uh…I meant to do that.

I did it like I had flawlessly practiced it days before when the winds were calm. I brought it in full flaps, cut the power just shy of the numbers and then coasted down the runway…..way past the numbers….way past the markings I intended to stop before….way past the point where the two runways cross…eventually the plane settled down into the best soft-field landing a girl could hope for. Too bad I was shooting for a short field landing.

“ok, show me a soft-field takeoff then.”

With the winds we jumped into the air well before Vr and I did my best to hold it in ground effect until Vx. With the wind I was all over the place. I came around the pattern and the examiner asked for a soft-field landing. So, naturally, I produced the perfect short field landing. I touched down HARD on the numbers – even with the power still in.

“Those would have been perfect if you had done them in the right order,” the examiner joked. I was completely deflated and cursing the winds in my mind.

We taxied “Little Blue” back to the fuel pump and shut her down.

“Well I’ve got great news!” the DPE said. “We’ve gotten you back by 11 am! You can catch your plane in Dallas.”

With those words – and those words alone – she got out of the plane.


Utterly destroyed I climbed out of the plane and began fueling it up.

When she came back within earshot I asked her for the words I needed to hear.

“Did I pass?”

She looked at me incredulously, “Yes, of course!”

I stared at her for a minute wondering why she would pull such a cruel joke on an already overstressed student. I was in disbelief. It didn’t feel right. I had royally screwed up the landings. I had gotten lost out there. I couldn’t get the nose to buffet in the power off stall. I had made a number of bad decisions all morning long, including getting into the plane in the first place. How? How had I passed?

Then my body started doing something to me. It started out slow, then it started to grow. I was jumping. I was shuffling. I was wiggling my hips like a boss. It was the happy dance.

My body had accepted the news, my brain had not.

The face of celebratory disbelief

I hugged the DPE. I said thank you. I got the silly string celebration when I stepped into the FBO – all the way in cognitive disbelief yet physical celebration.

A few minutes later I was climbing back in Little Blue with another pilot and logging my first 45 minutes as a private pilot. We flew back into the metroplex and got me to Love Field with all of 5 minutes to spare.

This is Alex. He is about to be a great addition to the CfI community. He joined me back to the metroplex on my first official flight as a licensed pilot.

This is Texas from 3,000 feet. Flat plains for miles and miles.

It was a whirlwind day. I wasted no time telling everyone sitting next to me on the plane that I was a pilot. Although it took special effort to edit out the word “student.” It was another 7 hours before I was back home in Portland .

I was still in disbelief that night. I’m told it will sink in soon. It’s been two weeks and I’m still in disbelief. I’ll let you guys know when it does.

Even more pics from GIFT week!

We worked hard this week and have lots of good progress to report. A number of girls passed their written exam, more will take the test soon.

There are three newly certified pilots as a result of GIFT this year.

This is Brenda, who flew in from Mexico to earn her commercial license (covered in silly string, per tradition).

This is Cameron from California who earned her private.

And yours truly, as of today a private pilot!

What it takes

I have found that very few – if any – student pilots’ journeys to licensed pilot are easy, simple experiences. Most contain a series of harrowing stories, a tremendous financial hurdle, a facing-off with ones mortality and deepest fears, an ability to prioritize something that feels out of reach, a small army of supporters, and a sprinkling of prickly personalities to contend with. I know this because of my own story, and from listening to so many others that did and didn’t make it to the finish line.

Today I arrived in Vernon, Texas to Girls In Flight Training week – a program modeled after the WWll WASP training program in Sweetwater, Texas where women trained women to fly. I have only met a few of the women I will be working with this week but already I am hearing familiar things. Things like “I have over 100 hours and haven’t soloed yet” and “I am the only girl at my airport” and  “my last three flight instructors dropped me because their wives didn’t want him flying with a girl.”

A few years ago AOPA published an article asking if aviation needed an all girls’ flight school. After some of the shared experiences I’ve heard today, I would suggest an all girls flight school in every state. There are women here from all over the country, one from Mexico.

This place feels like a sanctuary of kindred spirits. It hasn’t even officially begun yet but I am encouraged and excited. We’ve all made sacrifices to be here. It wasn’t just a plane ticket and a week off of work. It was leaving my husband a day after surgery after a two week stint in the hospital. I left him to his own devices because he insisted. He understood how important this would be for me. 

So, here I am in the middle of nowhere hoping to finish my private license in the next few days. Across the country on a different time zone my dogs are wondering where I’ve gone and my husband is ordering take-out to survive. None of it is easy, but no one’s story ever is, male or female. I hope this is the last hurdle to my PPL.

This is what the middle of nowhere looks like.

Breaking the stall

I flew for the first time since Memorial Day weekend today. Not as a pilot, but as a passenger on a commercial jet.

Why the hiatus?

Somewhat becausethe end of May was when my scholarship deadline passed and I felt like a failure because I had made it all the way to .3 solo hours from eligibility for the check ride and didn’t close the deal. Somewhat because my husband started a new medication with tremendous side effects and I wanted to take care of him. Somewhat because of feelings of inadequacy – an inability to navigate; botched attempts at slipped and crosswind landings; still no idea how to do a VOR check from the ground; a foggy grasp of how to locate things in the FAR AIM. Somewhat because another CFI had moved on to an airline job. But mostly it was fear.

I had heard multiple CFIs tell me I was a good pilot. I was “private pilot material.” Even one disturbing remark “Val, I have soloed and checked out student pilots that have less talent than you do in your pinky, what are you waiting for?”

Fear. I’m waiting for the fear to pass.

Recently I saw a posting on my 99s board. A private pilot that earned her license 5 years ago admitted to fear. Tremendous, paralyzingly fear. She was afraid to fly to new airports. She was  afraid to fly alone. She asked for advice. Over the next two weeks responses poured in from all over the country. Kindred spirits with similar fears. Two that stood out to me were women with licenses that were afraid to leave the pattern even with their pilot husbands in the right seat.

So that’s it then?! The fear never leaves, it only gets worse after you earn your license?!

I gave up for a while. 

Then I started to miss flying. I found myself losing my place in a conversation because I was watching a plane in the sky – like a dog when it sees a squirrel.

How do I get back up there? Especially now that I’ve forgotten so much since I haven’t flown in 5 months and I’ve lost another instructor?

I posed this quierry to the universe and guys, the universe answered.

Once a year in the middle of nowhere (also known as Vernon, Tx) a group of women get together for Girls In Flight Training (GIFT) week. It’s a full week of free ground school all day everyday. Bring your dumb girl questions, bring your fears, and get over them in a room full of like-minded, equally frightened girls. 


There are also flight lessons each day tailored to the student wherever she is at and a DPE present for anyone ready for the check ride.

It only took this pansy two weeks to think it over, one night to see what her husband thought (he’s extremely supportive), and I was booking my ticket to Texas.

I arrived a few days early to visit family so tonight I am back in my childhood home, sleeplessly sweating buckets (it’s still 90 in Texas), watching the first lightning storm I’ve seen in a year and sifting through an old high school yearbook. I’m nervous and excited, just like being 17 again.

I’ll keep you guys posted🙂👍.