As the song goes, "It was twenty years ago today . . . "
I'd survived the first solo. Slogged through slow-flight simulation, boring ground reference maneuvers, and cross-country student flights. I'd even made it through a vetting with the notorious Diane Cosgrove, who was known to take student pilots out on a seemingly routine check flight ... and then, once over the foothills, would reach over and shut the engine off. Completely. Then she'd turn to the now-flustered pilot and announce, "Well, you just lost your engine. Now what're you going to do?"
One day in early April, 1987, after a routine flight around the area, my instructor Tom Lynch and I were sitting around talking back at the flight club office. Something, though, was on Tom's mind.
"Well," he began in that distinctive cadence of his, "About your training ... you've done everything you're supposed to do ... and I think ... it's probably time ... t'set up the check ride ... with Cliff. We'll do some brush-ups ... on things you're rusty on, and then ... you'll be ready."
Oh, boy, I thought. The checkride. The final exam. The culmination of all the long hours of training and student flights. The time when we'd find out if I really could handle an airplane well enough to not be a danger to myself or, more importantly, anyone in the air or on the ground.
Cliff Hodges was then the Federal Aviation Administration's resident Flight Examiner for our area. As one might expect, stories swirled around about the terrors of flying the checkride with him. He was said to be taciturn and speak in annoyed grunts, when he spoke at all. And there was the cup of coffee. I was warned Cliff always brings along a cup of coffee, filled to the brim ... and woe unto the pilot that spilled the coffee.
Tom arranged for me to take the checkride later that month, on the 29th. The appointed day, another sunny California one, rolled around and I presented myself at our flight club's office on Reid Hillview Airport in south San José. There was Cliff, waiting for me ... with that damned cup of coffee already in his hand. No pleasantries were exchanged; we both knew who we were and what we were there for.
Cliff motioned to a nearby table, we sat down, and he said he had a few questions for me. A few questions, indeed – I was quizzed on everything from the weather outside to the latest changes in aviation rules. I did well enough that Cliff instructed me to plan a flight from San José to the Tehachapi airport, a few hundred miles to the south. Of course I knew that we wouldn't actually fly there – along the way, I'd be told to cancel my flight plan and return to home base. The trick was not to have that happen within the first few minutes, which would mean I'd failed.
He spent a few minutes reviewing my flight plan. "Y'ready?" he rumbled. I smiled, weakly, and said I was. "All right. Let's get out t' the plane and get moving!" After refilling his cup of coffee, naturally, Cliff sauntered out of the office and toward the tarmac, me following behind with a 'we who are about to die' look on my face.
Cliff watched as I did the pre-flight check of the airplane and its systems, trying to do everything by the book. I announced that the plane was ready to go and, just before climbing in, he looked around – trying to find something wrong, I thought. I got in and, once we were belted up, went through the pre-starting procedure. The airplane started up nicely (at least it seemed to be on my side), and after obtaining taxi clearance, we proceeded to the run-up area.
At the run-up area, I went through the pre-takeoff checklist, again without a hitch (which I determined from the lack of comment). We taxied on to the edge of the runway and, when I received takeoff clearance from the tower, put the power to the plane and we were off. I maneuvered through the traffic pattern and guided the plane up to cruising altitude. So far, so good, I reckoned, and so far no spillage of coffee.
As we were going along, another of Tom's admonishments came to mind. I could almost hear his voice: "Now remember ... even if you think you've done something wrong, or blown the checkride, DON'T cut it short! Continue on, because you'll get credit for all those parts you did pass, and you'll only have t'do the ones you missed over!"
Yes, Tom, I hear you, I thought, but I'm not going to fail the checkride, because I don't want to answer to you! Just about that time, Cliff interrupted Tom's mental lecture to start giving instructions. What happened from that point is today a bit hazy in my memory, but I remember being instructed to break off my flight plan. He reached into the back seat of the plane and brought out the “hood”, a plastic hat-like device worn on the head that blocked forward vision, leaving one only able to look down and see the plane's instruments. I didn't like the hood then, and I still don't.
Cliff told me to fly a particular compass heading, which involved using only instruments and skill to keep a needle centered on that heading. I'd done this many times, but damned if I could keep that needle on the nose. Try as I would, it went from side to side but rarely stayed put. After a few minutes, I thought I detected an exasperated sigh from Cliff. Then he instructed me to make some 45-degree banked turns, and don't lose any altitude. I made the turns, alright, but the altitude was another story – well, I didn't lose much since we remained in the air.
By this time, I felt sure I'd busted the checkride. Still, remembering Tom's advice, I plugged on. Cliff told me to take off the hood, and there were more questions and instructions – what would I do in this case, what is this meter for, what's a power-on stall, demonstrate slow flight. Since I now thought I had nothing to lose, I relaxed and probably performed much better. After all, I figured I'd be coming back for another try, so why not just sit back and try to enjoy flying the plane?
Finally, Cliff said to turn back to our home airport. I was exhausted and feeling a bit despondent. Here it comes, I thought, the bit about what I did wrong and how I could come back in a month and try again. Instead, Cliff was silent during the flight back. He sipped his unspilled coffee in silence, until it was time to begin the landing setup. "Alright", he said suddenly, "I want ya to show me a soft-field landing." Amazing how he picked the one landing procedure on which I was weakest. The airport came into sight and I brought the plane down to the runway. Suffice it to say the landing was uneventful, just a few bounces, and sort of resembled the standard soft-field procedure. By this time, I really didn't care anymore and only wanted to get the checkride over and get out of that damned plane. There'd be next time.
As we taxied down the runway to the tie-down area, I was now certain the time had arrived for the letdown speech. Instead, Cliff had a few more questions.
"Ever go off into the grass?"
"You mean, off the runway?" I squeaked.
"Well, no, never." Geez, did I fly that badly?
"OK," he said. "Ever bust a tire?"
"No, haven't ever done that, either."
"Alright. Taxi on over there, drop me off, then c'mon over't the office and I'll write your ticket out."
I may have a dent from where my jaw hit when it dropped. I couldn't believe it – I'd actually passed the checkride! My hands hadn't been shaking during the entire ride, but they were now. I wasn't even sure I'd heard right. I'd passed! I was a pilot, dammit, a real certificated Airman, Third Class! Managing to keep the big smile off my face until we reached the spot Cliff indicated, I braked the plane to a stop and let him out. He walked off and I continued taxiing to the area where the plane could be secured.
I came to a stop, shut the plane down, secured it to the tiedowns on the tarmac, and hopped out. There was my friend Mike (how the hell did he know I was doing the checkride that day?), waving his hands at me.
"How'd'ja do? Did ol' Cliff wear you out?" he said, in his Brighton accent.
"Geez, Mike, I passed! I passed, dammit, I passed! But I gotta get to the office so Cliff can write out my ticket before he changes his mind!" I yelled, laughing. As I ran to my car, Mike said he'd meet me at the office.
Once there, Cliff wrote out my temporary license and handed it to me. We shook hands, and then he was off to put another student through the wringer. Mike congratulated me as well, and we left the office planning to get together later when I could tell him the whole story. I thought I was high after I soloed the airplane, but now I was up among the clouds. At a time when I was seriously questioning my ability to master something truly difficult, I'd done it. I was a pilot.
Twenty years on, and I haven't flown in a long while, though I may again someday. Mike is now an FAA Examiner himself, and I've long since lost touch with Tom Lynch. But the license never expires, and I still proudly call myself a Private Pilot.