100% on the Oral Portion, 94% on the Flight Practical: In Other Words, Failing

I have been training to get my multi-engine rating for the past few weeks. When I tell people they always ask, “Oh, are you going to get a bigger plane?” But it’s not really about that. 

In the spring I took a motorcycle safety course (getting a perfect score on the written and a perfect score on the riding test), which was the best way to get an M on my California drivers license. I have not gone out and bought a motorcycle (although there are some tempting electric ones out there now). In fact, I have not even been on a motorcycle since getting the M. Two things figured into it. The first is that I rode motorcycles quite a bit when I was younger (putting ten thousand miles on a bright blue Yamaha Seca II, and spending two years driving around Las Vegas, Nevada on it). It seemed like if I was going to do any more of it, I should get proper training and become legal (here in California even our governor was riding around without the M). The second thing is that learning something new (or getting real training for something you already “know”) is good for your brain. It gets harder to learn new things as you get older, it gets very easy to settle into the same patterns and that is bad for the brain. We live way too long now for us to stop learning new things when we are fifty. That would mean we spent the next fifty treading the same little paths. What good can come of that? Stretch, explore, learn.

So I decided I should learn to fly more complex aircraft. Multiple engines definitely make them more complex. As an aside, I would also like to get my tailwheel endorsement. I have six or so lessons toward that. And I’d like to get a glider rating. The glider rating apparently makes a huge difference in how smooth pilots are and how well they handle an engine-out situation. Since our plane is really a powered glider learning how to fly it without the engine is a good idea.

There is a flight school here in Los Angles that uses only Diamond aircraft. It is down at Long Beach airport and they have an associated maintenance department. They do all of the work on our plane (except when we fly it all the way across the country and back; sometimes it needs a little care while away from home). The school is Angel City Flyers and if you are in the Los Angeles area and looking for any sort of training (they also train Citation Mustang pilots and have a simulator for that), you should stop in and check them out. It is a beautifully tight operation full of people who really care about flying.

The Twinstar

The Twinstar

Diamond makes a twin engine version of our plane called the Twinstar. Training in this plane seemed like a good idea, since I would already be comfortable with the controls, the cockpit, the G1000 avionics suite, the view and all of the other things the two airframes had in common. The first few flights I was ham-fisted on the controls. I didn’t bounce my landings, but I also didn’t feel like I was entirely in control of them. After about ten hours, though, I really was comfortable in the plane. Flying our plane home after the lessons always felt like I was jumping into a toy because of how much lighter the controls are and how nimble it is in the sky by comparison.

Although mastering the flying is satisfying, the training itself is not that much fun. Most of the training for a multi-engine rating involves flying around on a single engine. Ironic, I know, but that’s the important skill for a multi-engine pilot: how to handle the aircraft when one of the engines goes south on you. And that’s also one of the reasons you are in a twin to begin with: you want to be able to keep flying even after you have an engine failure. So you need to be able to handle the plane in that configuration.

We would take off and as we were climbing out ahead of the runway, 400 feet above the ground, my instructor (Zach Nick) would hide the power levers from me with a flight manual and suddenly one of the engines would roll back to idle. (I know it seems like I should have half the power left, but losing an engine in a light twin actually means that you lose 80% of your power.) The first vital skill is figuring out which engine has died, and I got pretty fast at that. (Losing an engine means that the plane has asymmetrical thrust: the engines are mounted on the wings and if only one is operating that wing pushes forward while the other drops back.) If I had to stomp on the right rudder to keep the plane moving straight ahead that meant the left engine had died (the phrase they teach with is “Dead foot, dead engine”). Once I identified the engine, I would pretend to wiggle the power lever to confirm that the engine had, in fact, died, and then I would “secure” it by shutting it down.

An inoperative engine is a drag on the plane. Apparently it happens often enough that airplane manufacturers developed a way to drastically reduce that drag: the pilot can feather the blades of the propeller, turn them so that they let the wind slide right past them. In the Twinstar that’s part of shutting the engine down (securing it), which requires the flicking of a single small, silver toggle switch. Identify, verify, and (click) it is secure.

Flying around, especially at low altitude, with one of the engines actually shut down on a small twin is considered foolhardy. So once I touch the little silver switch, my instructor moves the power lever on the “inoperative” engine up from idle to 15%. That little bit of thrust simulates having the engine properly secured and the propeller feathered.

The Twinstar is a wonderful light twin (really, it seems like it was designed for training), and once the drag from the windmilling propeller is eliminated it is simple to fly the rest of the pattern around the airport and land. With less power available, I stay a little higher than usual since correcting a descent by adding power isn’t as easy. But after a half dozen landings on a single engine they are as easy for me to do as landing the bigger, heavier plane on two engines.

Angel City Hangar

Angel City Hangar

I hate check rides. I’ve only done two, but I hate them. I would much prefer my instructor have the power from the FAA to say whether I have the skill necessary for the rating and just sign me off in stages. That does happen at some larger flight schools, but not this one. (And, the truth is, those flight schools still have stage check rides, which are just the same thing split into smaller pieces.)

So on Thursday, October 17 2013 I am down in Long Beach bright and early. I have studied the systems on the Twinstar, the aerodynamics of light twins, and the maneuvers I need to complete on the flight test. I am most nervous about the flight portion because during my first two check rides I flubbed once on each and the examiner let me slide. (Well, he made certain that I could complete the maneuver correctly, he just didn’t fail me for having screwed up.) I also know that my worst flying ever has been on those two check rides because I am so stressed and nervous that I can’t really be smooth.

The oral portion of the exam, where I talk with the examiner for close to two hours about flying multi-engine airplanes, is a lot easier than I expect. I have memorized the thirteen different systems of the Twinstar and I know all the details about how the fuel is pumped from the wings into the engine and why it has a fuel cooler (our plane does not). I have the specifications for the four batteries on the plane memorized. I know the five things contributing to the certification of Vmc (minimum controllable airspeed, how slow can you fly the plane on a single engine), although the examiner stumps me by asking about one of them in detail and I freeze as my brain empties of all relevant facts. Fortunately, he talks about some other, unrelated things and it pops back into my head that when the center-of-gravity is at its furthest aft position, the rudder is less effective because the effective arm is shorter.

That portion is over in less time than I think it is going to take, but I realize that’s just because I am nervous and the hours jumped past. So we go out and I show him how I pre-flight the airplane. (I’ve already done that when I arrived at 8am, but he wants to see how it goes.) We climb in and after running the checklist for starting, I fire up the engines.

When we taxi out to the runway he could have failed me. I did not give him a passenger briefing (show him where the seatbelt went, how to disengage it, show him how to open the little window), and I didn’t use a taxi diagram to get from the flight school down to the point on the runway where we take off. I knew that he was very familiar with the plane since he is the only FAA examiner in the LA area who is allowed to do check rides in it, and I could probably draw the taxi diagram at KLGB on a blank sheet of paper without too much difficulty.

After the run up we take off and head out over the Long Beach Harbor to the local practice area. He has me demonstrate power-on stalls, power-off stalls, slow flight and an emergency descent. As we scream down from 4,500 feet to 2,500 feet he has me head to the airstrip on Catalina Island and we do a low pass. I enjoyed that. Coming back up we turn back toward Long Beach and he has me demonstrate how to shut down an engine bring it back up. For the final in-flight maneuver he has me do a Vmc demonstration where I show that I can recognize when the plane has dropped below “red line,” or Vmc, and how to recover from that. We fly around a little bit with one engine and then he has me bring them both back up to cruise power.

Since I have an instrument rating and I want to be able to fly multi-engine planes in the clouds as well as VFR, he has me don a hood (restricting my view to just the instrument panel, no references to the outside world) and he works the radios to get us cleared for the ILS to Long Beach Airport’s runway three-zero. As I am about to intercept the localizer and turn on course to land, he fails the right engine. I promptly identify, verify and secure the engine. He moves the power lever up to 15% and flying on the remaining engine is not a problem.

I love instrument flying. Although it lacks (during training at least) my favorite aspects of flying, I have come to love the exactness of flying in the clouds by the instruments. I mutter to myself when I am training and on a check ride (and when I am alone in the plane). I warned the examiner about that and so I am flying along on one engine and saying, “C’mon, back up to the glide slope, where area you going, small corrections, small corrections,” and in general keeping the needles centered and everything nice and smooth. Back on the ground, during the de-brief he said, “You were complaining to yourself about the ILS, but you flew that beautifully. You would say you were getting low, but you are allowed a three-quarter dot deflection on those instruments and you weren’t even off the width of the needle.”

After we passed the final approach point I lowered the landing gear. Soon after switching to the tower for communications the examiner said I could look up. So I pushed the hood back and continued to the runway visually. Then he said, “I want you to pull the power lever for the right engine to idle, so that when you land you don’t pull the left lever to idle by itself and get surprised by asymmetrical thrust.” I paused to think about it for a moment and then did as I was told.

And that’s when things fell apart. As I explained, during training a secured engine was simulated with 15% power. Now I had idle power, which is a windmilling propeller and more drag. I pressed down harder with my left leg on the left rudder, but I wasn’t sure I had enough rudder authority to counter the additional yaw introduced by the additional drag. I also wasn’t sure if this was a test of something else I was meant to be able to do, since we were doing something differently than I had during the six weeks of training.

I froze my hands near the power levers. Since I wasn’t meant to touch the right lever, and I wasn’t sure adding power to the left engine was a good idea with the additional drag I had just introduced, I determined I would’t touch them at all until it was time to pull the left engine to idle.

But he had me pull the right power back a little further from the runway than was prudent, and the plane was dropping a little faster than I would have liked. I tried to extend the glide by pulling up a little, which meant I bled off some of the airspeed. With less air moving over the control surfaces, I had less rudder authority and the plane started to yaw to the right. With the yaw, the plane was sliding less cleanly through the air so it slowed further. The examiner said, “What’s happening? What are you going to do to correct this?” I knew I needed speed, so I dropped the nose. We crossed the threshold of the runway, but we were sliding to the right of the centerline, crabbed to the right while flying straight ahead.

What a mess.

He said, “You’ve got to do something.” We were in ground effect (less than a wingspan from the surface of the runway), and I couldn’t drop the nose any further. I didn’t want to add power, since we were already yawing to the right and adding power to the left engine would make that worse. I decided I’d like to eliminate some drag and that with the gear already down I didn’t mind raising the flaps from Landing position to Approach position. (Raising the flaps can eliminate some lift and I actually know a pilot who had his gear up when he raised the flaps completely only to have the plane settled onto the runway on its belly.) We continued to drift to the right and over toward the edge of the runway. I was waiting for the airspeed to increase a little with the elimination of the drag from the landing flaps, when the examiner said, “That was an incorrect control input, I am taking the plane.”

He took the plane and very carefully brought it back to the center line, set it down and slowed us down until we could taxi off. He said it was up to me whether to continue the flight test, but that it wasn’t possible to pass me after having to take the controls. I said I wanted to continue.

We entered the runway again and as we started our takeoff roll he simulated an engine failure on the ground (by pressing hard on a rudder pedal). I pulled the power to the engines, steered back to the center line and slowed us down. We took off again (a short field take off) and he failed an engine just after take off. I identified it, verified it, secured it and we continued in the pattern. He brought the power lever back up and I continued to a short field landing with both engines. Then we taxied back to the school.

Afterwards he said that I flew sixteen of the seventeen maneuvers beautifully. He said I was a really “smooth stick,” (a huge compliment for a pilot coming from an examiner) and that the number of hours I have flown really shows in how I handle the plane, the radios, the pre-flight and all of the business of flying. The short field landing was to commercial pilot standards, as were a number of the maneuvers. He said he had no idea how I could mess up the single engine landing and I agreed that I didn’t either. He had to give me a certificate of “disapproval,” but said all I needed to do was return and do a single, one-engine landing with him and I would be all set.

My instructor was not very helpful diagnosing what went wrong, but I called my friend Jeffrey “MossY” Moss, a master CFI who was the FAA’s 2010 instructor of the year. He made it very simple and clear: “Oh. In the middle of a flight test the examiner told you to configure the plane in a way that you had never encountered in training? You were landing with the inoperative engine windmilling, which was not how you trained. You should have rejected the instruction.”

Of course, I had no idea I could reject the instruction. Mossy said that he would have fought the examiner if he was the instructor, that giving a student a directive on short final and not agreeing ahead of time how to handle the single engine landing was not the way to do things. It isn’t worth it to me to fight the examiner. I don’t mind doing three more single engine landings with my instructor and I don’t mind doing one last landing with the examiner. And now I have learned something about check rides. I had no idea I could say, “I need to pause the check ride here, time out!” which Mossy said I could do. And I know now to brief ahead of time some of the standard things that I trained to do, and what to say if the examiner goes off script. I could have also said, “That’s not how I was trained to land the plane on a single engine. I’m going to do it the way I was trained, and then we can talk about it on the ground. If you want me to do it again after that I can.”

So, watch for the update in a couple weeks where I actually am allowed to fly a multi-engine plane by myself. [Update: I passed.]

About Colin Summers

I am an architect, programmer, private pilot, husband and father. A couple of those I am good at.
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2 Responses to 100% on the Oral Portion, 94% on the Flight Practical: In Other Words, Failing

  1. Alex says:

    Zounds! I would head straight to my wine-tasting course and call it a day.

  2. Ron Rapp says:

    One of the big problems with checkrides is that you’re flying with someone whom you’ve never seen before, and phraseology differences or small variances between the way you were trained & how the DPE wants to see it can cause a lot of stress. There are also many variables you can’t control on a checkride. Will the controllers cooperate? Will traffic get in your way? Will you get slam-dunked on that ILS?

    On my instrument checkride, the examiner almost failed me for descending below MDA on a circling approach earlier than she thought it should have been done. But the criteria for descending are open to interpretation; I was in a position from which I felt I would make a normal landing using normal maneuvers. She thought it was a bit early. In the end, after we landed she asked why I picked that point to begin my descent. I listed the required criteria and told her how I met them, so she let it go, understanding at that point that I did know what was required.

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