I made a lot of mistakes during the checkride that was to finally determine whether or not I earned the privilege of carrying a blue pilot certificate around with me in my wallet. I made so many of them that I was convinced I had failed.
I was shocked when after my last landing the examiner offered me an outstretched hand and said “congratulations.” He told me to tie down the airplane and meet him inside while he did the necessary paperwork. When I got inside, I told the examiner that I was certain I had failed. He looked at me reassuringly and said, “You earned it.”
Given the number of things I had done wrong, and his criticism at several key junctures in the flight, I began to wonder exactly what I did right to earn the privilege. Eventually I came to believe that I was rewarded with the certificate because I demonstrated something that I don’t think the examiner ordinarily saw.
There is an interesting rule that applies to the checkride. Despite the fact that the pilot being scrutinized is still technically a student, the pilot is also legally considered the “pilot in command.” What it means to be pilot in command is that the pilot, and only the pilot, is ultimately responsible for the outcome of the flight. That responsibility, it seems, is not just about knowing the craft of flying so well that the airplane is truly subservient to its pilot; it is also about an attitude.
At the beginning of the checkride, the examiner suggested that we head out toward the coastline between Point Mugu and Santa Barbara to do the maneuvers that demonstrated that I was proficient in handling the aircraft. I responded by saying, “No, let’s go to the Santa Paula aerobatic box. The place you’re suggesting is a corridor for traffic up and down the coast. It’s safer near Santa Paula.”
He looked surprised that so early in the flight I opposed him, but he also seemed pleased at the decision, and quickly relented. He broke one of the few smiles I saw during the flight, and simply said, “Okay. “
Another moment of surprise came after the maneuvers, some of which did not go so well. We were flying out of the box, just east of the small Santa Paula airport where I had taken most of my lessons, and he said, “Where do you want to do your landings?” Just as we were approaching Santa Paula, he said “How about Santa Paula?”
I responded contrarily again, and said that I would rather do my landings in Oxnard, a relatively large, towered airport only a few miles away. I thought, but didn’t say, that I would rather have the comfort of a 6,000 foot long and 100 foot wide runway which would more likely hide my mistakes than the needle in a haystack runway in Santa Paula. The examiner undoubtedly expected that I would choose the more familiar Santa Paula airport that we were just flying over, so he was surprised again. But I was the pilot in command and that’s where I wanted to go.
The last surprise came as I entered the pattern at Oxnard. The controller, who didn’t know I was a student, gave me an instruction I had never heard before and one I have rarely if ever heard since. He told me to “make short approach” and abort the remainder of the downwind leg of the pattern and land immediately to make way for fast traffic coming into the airport behind me. I quickly glanced over to the examiner, who began to nod his head to cue me to say what was indeed the first thing that came to my mind. It was the single magic word that gets you out of jail free: “unable.”
Exhausted and convinced I had already failed, I keyed the mic and instead of the magic word I said another one: “wilco.” “Wilco,” for those not familiar with the shorthand, is a portmanteau for “will comply.” Out of the corner of my eye I could see the shocked, and even a bit frightened, expression on the examiner’s face. I simultaneously kicked in left rudder, pushed the nose down, cut the power, and turned the yoke toward the big fat runway. The gentle Cessna 150 floated swiftly and gracefully toward the center of the runway, where I made one of the best landings in my life.
I couldn’t help but once again see the surprised expression on the examiner’s face. Although he had nothing but criticisms to say up to that point, he couldn’t help himself and he uttered, “That was a great landing.”
“Thanks,” I said diffidently, still convinced I had failed.
I did two more good landings after that, and it is possible that it was my landings that convinced the examiner to pass me. But in retrospect, I don’t think so. After several years of pondering what went right (what went wrong was obvious), I think that the key to my passing was my polite but clear refusals to do what he came to expect.
It takes both skill and judgment to fly safely, but in the contest between the two, judgment wins out. In the case of my checkride, I didn’t merely accept what I thought was expected of me, but instead opted to make my own decisions. I clearly did not demonstrate that I was the most skilled pilot, but I did show the examiner that I knew how to be pilot in command. Hopefully, that’s why he thought I had earned it.