Knowing that I had my PPL exam today I woke early on Sunday 2nd April 2017 to a bright, clear and sunny day with very little wind, that was one relief knowing the weather was on my side and I didn’t have to deal with additional factors during the exam.
Following the cancelled mock exam on Friday due to bad weather, I had managed to move my exam to this afternoon and get a session at 9am with my instructor to practice some circuits completing the various landing types as well as spin recovery procedure which I hadn’t practiced throughout my training.
Arriving early, I checked the aircraft over which today was G-BCJN, one which I was used to and familiar with, ideal for your exam! The aircraft had just come back from its annual service/check and was parked in somewhat of an awkward position, it was also low on fuel, I was going to need some fuel and help pushing the aircraft back as it was in a position not possible to taxi out of.
Once backup arrived and we pushed the aircraft back I learnt there was no fuel left in the bowser, or there was a problem with the bowser so we needed to re-fuel at another airfield, my instructor agreed we would fly to Kemble, take on some fuel and then come back giving us time there and on the way back to practice the manoeuvres. As time was short between this session and my instructors next session we headed out to the aircraft after completing the paperwork and I run through the external and internal checks, making sure that I read each one out aloud, something vital for the test.
After all the checks, we were cleared to depart runway 27, and then head towards the Avonmouth Bridge before turning onto a heading of 6 degrees towards Kemble, I had flown this route many times before so the surroundings looked familiar. Before I knew it we were nearing Kemble and changing onto their frequency with the first radio call, I was going to complete an overhead join to land as it was good practice, and I quite enjoy doing them for some strange reason!
The active runway was runway 08 RH, after completing the overhead join with associated radio calls we were soon on approach to land, the landing was smooth and we vacated and taxied to the refuelling area, shut down and filled up with fuel. This was new to me so quite an experience pulling up to a fuel pump at an airfield and filling your aircraft up like you do a car, apart from it costing a lot more.
Once full of fuel I wandered over to the tower to pay the landing fees, I wrongly assumed we had time to practice some touch and go’s and so purchased a block of 5 landings, but we didn’t have much time and so had to head back, I was starting to think my pre-exam session was not going to be as productive as I had hoped.
I did the usual start up, taxi checks, power checks and we departed back towards Bristol. It was a pretty warm day by now and a few scattered clouds had started to bubble up, on the way back my instructor announced we would practice some stalls, of which I had asked to do. I climbed up to 4000 feet and then we used the gaps in the clouds to aim towards to complete the stalls, firstly a clean stall, a full flap stall and then a turning final stall without losing much height and avoiding the clouds – all good fun!
We then needed to head back to Bristol Airport as time was running out, my instructor had another session to get back for, we were in the vicinity of Badminton which isn’t far from Bristol anyway and so headed back to the Avonmouth Bridge and re-joined the Bristol CTA. As before all checks I read out loud and carefully made sure no steps were missed out, I didn’t want checklists be a reason for possibly failing the skills test.
After a smooth landing back onto runway 27 we taxied back and parked the aircraft back in the line where we took it from earlier, shut down and went back into the club house, my instructor then had to go for his next session and wished me luck. I now had about 2 hours before my skills test which gave me plenty of time to check the weather again, finish my PLOG, revise some of the key skills and importantly have some lunch!
Preparation for the Skills Test
I was aware who my examiner would be but while my training I had only ever seen him once or twice and only ever said hello and that was it, I hadn’t been able to have a good chat to break the ice and get to know him, to be honest I was a bit nervous of him as I didn’t know what he expected of me and what his manner would be like. However I was confident enough I was ready and so was my instructor so I was determined to give it my best shot.
The next hour or so went quickly and I managed to get everything done I needed to for the flight, the examiner was there early and so was keen to get going early which took me by surprise as I was expecting to relax a little before the test, I agreed to start and so went out to the aircraft to complete another A check, no problems were found and after completing the aircraft paperwork we were then in test conditions.
Paperwork complete I got us booked out via the Avonmouth Bridge and then talked my examiner through the passenger brief as though he was a passenger, I was feeling pretty nervous by now. We walked out to the aircraft where I explained our route which would be from Avonmouth Bridge to Chepstow, then head North to Ledbury where I would turn towards Moreton in Marsh, I was aware somewhere along this route I would need to divert, the nearest likely airport being Kemble.
The Skills Test
I think my examiner could sense the nervousness in me and reminded me to relax and enjoy the flight, he wasn’t there to fail me, that was easier said than done. I completed the brief walk around checks and internal checks and completed the start-up procedure. The examiner then asked me questions on the fire on the ground procedure, my memory went blank and I reverted to a quick checklist check and the little I could remember, I was correct but not a great start I thought.
Taxi clearance was requested and given to holding point HX for runway 27 where I did my power checks and then announced I was ready for departure. I was conscious my examiner was just sat quietly observing not saying anything and so was hoping that was a good sign. I was given clearance to enter the runway line up and hold.
Clearance for take-off was then given and as many times before I advanced the throttle to take-off power and called airspeed rising, T’s and P’s green and within limits and then pulled back on the yoke, the exam had properly started. Climbing away I completed the after take-off checks and continued to climb away from the airport, the examiner asked why I hadn’t turned yet as he pointed out there were a lot of trees ahead and a turn shortly after take-off is best in case of EFATO, this was just something that had become normal for me as I had been instructed, I was already learning and picking up new stuff.
Once at Avonmouth Bridge the navigation exercise began and I set heading for Chepstow initially rather than routing directly towards Ledbury which would have taken me very close to two power stations, this route would keep me clear of them which I felt was good airmanship, but my examiner informed me wasn’t entirely necessary.
My first solo cross country navigation exercise was to Ledbury and I failed to find it as it is hidden near a hill, I was pretty nervous that would happen again today and so had timers going, keeping a look out for land formations, roads, rivers and railway lines. With keep checking my map I was slightly left of track and so made adjustments to keep on track.
Half way along the route I changed radio frequency to Gloucester Tower and passed my message and intentions, which was another part completed of the route. Passing over the M50 I could see a town in front of the aircraft that was possibly Ledbury, the town has many roads going into and out of it and a railway line, checking and double checking I was fairly confident it was Ledbury and when overhead announced we would be turning towards Moreton in Marsh.
Hopefully my examiner was enjoying the flight and seemed quite happy enjoying the view with a careful eye on what I was doing. After turning we were then in an area of gliders so some adjustments to heading and altitude was needed to avoid them. Passing nicely again over the M50 and then the M5 I was more confident of our location and that we were on track and heading towards Moreton in Marsh.
Along this leg of the route my examiner asked me to obtain a fix by using the aircrafts VOR equipment, two VOR stations were available; Brecon and Daventry. I tuned to BCN on 117.45 and listened for the Morse code identifier to check it was the correct station. I was currently on a heading 240 degrees from the BCN VOR, using the DTY VOR I could have marked on the map to the two lines and got a fairly accurate location where the lines crossed, that was that bit completed and correct.
Navigation Exercise Complete
Having never been to Moreton in Marsh I was unsure of what it looked like other than a disused airfield that was being developed, that was something to go by. I soon found it and announced we were overhead, my examiner then asked me to divert to Kemble. What a surprise I thought! Using my diversion ruler, I quickly worked out the heading which was 220 degrees and it would take us 15 minutes, I turned the aircraft and headed to Kemble.
I was beginning to feel pretty tired by now as had spent quite a few hours in the air today and so didn’t notice we had wandered off course slightly, there was little wind but it was enough to take me right of track, my examiner did point out my heading of 220 degrees was perfect I just needed to stick to it.
I could now see Kemble ahead of me and changed frequency and told them my intentions of joining overhead for runway 08 with a right hand circuit. My navigation part of the skills test was complete. I enjoy overhead joins and completed it without issue and was soon downwind where I completed the landing checks and radio calls, this would be a series of landings and the first being a normal flapped one.
Slightly higher on approach than I wanted which can affect your glidepath we landed without issue and took off again, the next landing would be flapless which gives a shallow glidepath, I completed this and took off again where the next would be a glide approach. These are all about getting timings and heights correct but I managed to complete it fine and we landed without engine power, apart from the engine warming just after turning finals. I then performed another flapless landing before taking off again after the examiner letting me know he was happy. Being a perfectionist, I could have done better I felt but I was under pressure, hot and feeling exhausted.
Engine Failures & General Handling
My examiner asked me to take him back to Bristol Airport and so I climbed back out of Kemble and headed towards Bristol, along this part of the route I would encounter a simulated engine failure and demonstrate the different stalls and how to recover from a spiral dive.
We were nearing Badminton, which is a grass strip about half way back towards the Avonmouth Bridge, my examiner called “engine failure” and I was then into PFL mode, first job was to pick a field and to my left was Badminton so opted for there, I was already downwind and got my speed of 75 knots, turned, added flaps and approached the grass strip. The examiner said it was good and to climb away, as I was climbing away he called “engine failure after take-off”, I responded instantly by getting the nose down and picking a field ahead of me in a commanding manner, again the examiner was happy and said lets head back now, not before completing a few stalls with and without flaps, again all without issue.
I felt like a weight had been lifted as I had complete the navigation part, completed the landings, completed the engine failures and now the skills test was nearly over and so headed back towards Avonmouth Bridge. I had forgotten about the spiral dives, the examiner asked me to climb up to 4000 feet and demonstrate one, not having ever practiced them and not having time in the morning I told him of this which he was fine about and demonstrated the first, seeing the ground rushing towards you and the engine sound increase considerably was certainly interesting.
As the first had been demonstrated I then took control and recovered the aircraft, first step to reduce engine power, then pull the nose up, then level the wings and restore engine power when appropriate, seen as that was my first spiral dive recovery my examiner was happy and we headed back to the famous Avonmouth Bridge.
Heading back to Bristol
After clearance to enter controlled airspace I completed the landing checks and we routed towards the Barrow Tanks, a set of reservoirs near the airport where we had to hold due to incoming traffic, we were number two to 2 aircraft on approach. It was at this point I remembered I hadn’t demonstrated steep turns, and so what better opportunity than this and we completed a series of these first in one direction and then in the other near the reservoirs before returning to normal turns.
Finally clearance was given to proceed to right base, the exam was nearly over I thought. I maintained good speed and height and was soon turning finals for runway 27, I called finals to the tower and my examiner asked me to make sure I landed on the numbers, landing slightly over the numbers were slowed down quickly and vacated back down taxiway Hotel, the need for the speed was due to incoming traffic.
I would normally stop on the taxiway when clear of the runway and past the red stop lights to run through the after landing checks, the examiner told me to continue and park up and do them there. Parking the aircraft back in the line I completed the shutdown checks, it was at this stage I was unsure of the outcome, I had noticed the examiner was often writing things down, not knowing if this was good or bad I was expecting a failure, not sure why I thought this though.
My examiner said it was a good flight, navigation was good and accurate, diversion was good, failures were all fine, landings all good, general handling was good and the compliment of “you fly well” from him went down well. He then said there were no problems and all ok, I was expecting to hear the words you have passed but instead I asked if I had passed, and to my surprise the examiner said yes of course, I was so so pleased, years of training and studying and I had done it, actually passed first time. He went back to the club house and I finished off in the aircraft and walked back, on walking back my instructor was just leaving in another aircraft with another student and from a distance did a thumbs up/thumbs down to see if I had passed, a thumbs up was the reply!
Back in the club we completed the paperwork, my test document was signed and stamped with all sections completed without issues, I was thinking once I get the actual licence I am a qualified pilot, I couldn’t believe it.
Apparently it is traditional to buy the examiner a beer, which I did and a well earned drink myself. As this was a once in a lifetime achievement I wanted to get a photo of the occasion with my instructor who had taught me and guided me through most of my training, as he was out flying I wanted to wait for my instructor to get back to get a photo and so in the meantime made phone calls, messages and spoke to people to share the news that I had passed.
My instructor then returned and I got the photo I had been waiting for, it was another kind of tradition, I had one from my first solo and now from passing my test. By this point I was beaming and so pleased with myself, feeling completely exhausted I headed home from a great day keen to complete my application with the CAA to get that piece of paper!