On becoming a private pilot (finally)

After waking at 1:37, 3:35, 5:05, and finally getting up at 5:30, I was just about to head out the door when my examiner texts that he wants to start at 9:30 instead of 8. Okay, I thought. It prolongs the agony of waiting but gives me a little more time to get centered for my private pilot oral and practical exam.

Awhile later, I get to the airport where my venerable instructor Stan already has the plane out. I preflight, organize the cabin with my materials and flight plan, and hop in to taxi to the terminal. Stan’s lovely wife Michele will meet us there with coffee and croissants.

I take deep breaths, say a quick prayer, and begin starting procedures. Only, instead of roaring to life as I hit the starter button, I hear a “click” and then silence.


Thankfully, Stan came right back and assisted by another friend, Mark, started banging and wrenching to no avail. After 15 minutes, I drove myself to start the oral portion of the exam, hoping that somehow the plane would get started. Ten, then 20, then 25 minutes passed and just as the examiner walked down the stairs, Stan arrived, pressing the 182’s keys into my palm. He got it going! (It turned out that a tiny $2 part decided that checkride day would be a good time to fail after 60 years of working just fine. Naturally.)

What followed was one of the most intense days of my life. And that’s saying something, considering I’ve defended a dissertation.

The oral exam stretched over more than two hours, with me acing many parts but COMPLETELY blanking out on others and having to admit that no, I never actually mastered the E6-B flight calculator. At one point I thought the examiner was going to call it quits over a really ugly answer. When he finally said “Okay, let’s go fly” I nearly passed out from relief.

What saved me I think? Keeping my composure during the bumpy parts of the exam, knowing how to find information (even if I couldn’t actually locate it in the moment), and keeping a open-to-learning attitude. I left the oral exam with half a dozen things to review and a promise to dust off that E6-B.

The flying—aside from a couple UGLY steep turns—was my time to shine. I felt confident in my flight plan and navigating (we didn’t even get two minutes into the cross-country portion!), I handled all of his directions well including the instrument work and when my engine (fake) caught on fire. And I nailed the spot landing so perfectly the examiner, silent the entire 1.8 hours except for requesting maneuvers, said “Nice!”

I headed back to Sacramento Exec feeling proud of my flying but uncertain of the overall outcome. The uncertainty wasn’t helped by the examiner’s stone faced silence upon landing, taxi, shut down, and clean up. It wasn’t until both of our doors were slammed shut, that he walked around the front of the plane and shook my hand, saying congratulations.

And of course, I couldn’t help myself, I danced a tiny celebration jig.

After more than four years of training and 200.1 hours, I finally earned my private pilot certificate!

And the best part? (Aside from not having to take crap from friends and hang my head in perennial student pilot shame…) The examiner said “I can tell you’ve been flying for 200 hours and I’d be comfortable with any of my family and friends flying with you.” What a compliment.

Temporary Airman CertificateHUGE thanks to my flight instructor, Stan, for his patience, support and encouragement over these last many years. And to my father-in-law mechanic extraordinaire Ray-Dad for keeping my bird in good repair, teaching me how to do annual inspections, and being so darn proud. And to Steve, Joel, and Tommy for helping me get sharp over the last month.

And of course, all the thanks to my husband and live-in ground instructor, Mr. T, who really introduced me to general aviation, inspiring me, answering all of my questions, and providing the right balance between tough love and encouragement. Love you!



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