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Learning to fly a plane: The checkride flight (part 3 of 3)

Flight Chain App - NTSB Aviation Accident Reports - Helping pilots learn from accident chains By Dan Sobczak
July 2021

Editor's note: this article first appeared in America's Flyways magazine in December 2005. This content does not constitute flight instruction. Consult a certified flight instructor in your area for proper flight instruction.

Shortly before I was to take my private pilot checkride, a co-worker asked me, "Why do you fly?"

Why do I fly? Why am I spending my nights studying thick aviation books and dozens of Federal Aviation Regulations?

My private pilot flight training had taken me on an exciting, six-month journey. I had experienced a wide range of emotions along the way: anxiety I felt during my first flight lesson; grief over my inability to make a proper landing; exhilaration after my first solo flight; and distress over my aborted cross country flight to Lake Havasu City, Arizona.

Despite my journey, I still wasn't sure I had a valid answer to his question: Why do I fly?

The checkride: oral exam

After two mock checkrides with my instructor John and another with Matt, the chief flight instructor at Falcon Executive Aviation, I was ready for the flying portion of my private pilot checkride.

I had spent the previous four weeks studying every aspect of my flight training materials to ensure I would make it through the grueling oral examination. Everything I had learned and experienced these past few months all came down to this one day: the checkride.

My day started at four in the morning. Darren, my designated pilot examiner, had called the night before to give me the cross country destination for our flight.

The checkride cross country flight from 2003: KFFZ -> P33, as seen in ForeFlight.

The checkride cross country flight from 2003: KFFZ -> P33, as seen in ForeFlight.

I was to create and file a flight plan from Falcon Field (KFFZ) in Mesa, Arizona to Cochise County Airport (P33) near the town of Willcox in southeastern Arizona.

After checking enroute weather and the status of military operation areas along my route, I filed my flight plan and headed out the door for my 7 am appointment.

Darren's professionalism and friendly personality put me at ease. He outlined how our day would progress: first he would check my logbook for the required endorsements and take care of the initial paperwork. Then we would begin the oral examination. Our conversation would last about three hours, after which came the practical test.

I gathered the logbooks for N738XD to show that the Cessna 172 we would be flying this day was both airworthy and legal to fly. Darren also wanted to ensure that I knew what made me legal and safe to fly an airplane. After all, I would be pilot-in-command on this mission. All flight decisions would be mine.

Darren's questions weren't set up to trick me, or make me second-guess my initial responses. He wanted to make sure I had sufficient knowledge, and more importantly exercised sound judgment, when it came to aviation.

We covered various topics, including aerodynamics and how altering the center of gravity can adversely affect the stability of an airplane, interpreting the myriad of airport signage during ground operations, and the rules of the sky in airspace regulations.

Opening up my sectional chart and flight plan, Darren quizzed me on my decision-making behind my cross country flight plan.

"Why did you choose this route of flight instead of flying direct to Willcox,” he asked, pointing to the lines I'd drawn on my chart.

I had chosen a route that took me from Falcon, southeastward over Kearny, south over San Manuel, and around the south side of the imposing Winchester Mountains just a few miles northwest of Willcox.

"Flying direct would have taken me right over the nearly 8,000' Winchester Mountains," I explained. "With the height of three major mountain ranges northeast of Tucson, that flight path could put me in an area where it could be difficult to get VOR reception, which is my primary navigation aide."

I also explained that by flying down the valley in which Kearny and San Manuel lie, not only would I have potential diversion airports and recognizable landmarks along my entire route, but also an extra 5,000' of altitude to work with should a flight emergency arise.

The checkride: flight exam

After more discussion about important aviation weather and density altitude issues, Darren seemed satisfied with my work.

"Let's go flying," he suggested.

I was relieved the oral examination had finally ended. It was the most challenging portion of the checkride. I felt confident that I had satisfactorily answered all of the questions.

I knew that I could perform the required flight maneuvers successfully, so I could relax somewhat and focus on flying. I'm halfway through, I thought as we walked out onto the ramp.

It was a beautiful late morning sky: clear, temperature around 90 degrees fahrenheit. The ATIS reported a 14-knot wind at 020 degrees. With the active runway on 4R, I had a very manageable five-knot cross-wind from the left to deal with.

I knew we'd experience more turbulence than usual during this flight, which worked on my nerves. I worried how the winds would affect my performance in meeting the required practical test flight standards.

Darren peppered me with questions about the Cessna during my preflight, and I briefed him on safety issues as I would any future passenger. We strapped ourselves in and moments later we were airborne.

I tuned and verified my VOR frequencies to intercept Florence Junction, the first waypoint on my flight plan. The wind bounced us around, but I was able to hold my altitude and heading. Everything feels and looks good so far, I thought.

"Okay, you've just run into weather that is closing in quick and we're unable to continue our flight to Willcox. Take us to Pegasus," Darren announced.

I diverted to Pegasus, a small non-towered airpark, and explained my estimated calculations for our distance from the field, time enroute, fuel remaining, and fuel bum rate.

Darren was satisfied with my diversion and suggested we head to the practice area for private pilot maneuvers: climbs and descents, turns and stalls, unusual attitude recovery. My confidence grew as I completed each maneuver. I was starting to feel good about this checkride.

"Let's head back to Falcon to get some pattern work in," Darren requested.

The checkride: is my examiner tricking me?

A few miles outside the Class D airspace, I called tower to declare my intentions: "Falcon Tower, Cessna Seven Three Eight X-Ray Delta, is over Apache Junction with information Echo, inbound for full-stop taxi-back."

I received no response. I waited a few moments and made three more calls: still no response with each attempt. I asked Darren to try his COM switch: same result.

Okay, what did he do? I speculated to myself, believing Darren had pulled a fast one on me while I wasn't looking. I had been warned that some examiners like to make a subtle change to something minor inside the cockpit to see if their examinee is paying attention and can resolve the problem.

I had arrived just outside Falcon's Class D airspace, which I knew I could not enter unless I had established two-way radio communications with the tower. I put 8XD into a 30-degree bank and began circling while I worked the bad COM situation.

I reset my COM switches, checked my headset jacks and asked Darren to try his COM switch once more: still no response.

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I recalled previous flights in this Cessna when the radio had intermittently quit working, so I continued my troubleshooting process.

What am I overlooking here, I thought. Then I shut off the COM1 radio, set the tower frequency in COM2 and activated it.

"Falcon Tower, Cessna Seven Three Eight X-Ray Delta, do you copy?"

"Roger Eight X-Ray Delta, read you loud and clear," came the reply.

Finally! I breathed a slight sigh of relief. After a few rounds of normal, short and soft field landings and takeoffs, it was time to end our flight. It was hard to believe the checkride was over. I believed I had a good chance of passing.

"I'll meet you inside to start the paperwork," Darren said.

Certified to exercise the privileges of Private Pilot

I tied down the Cessna, went inside and sat across the table from Darren. He remained quiet, busy with paperwork. Is this a good sign? I wondered.

After what seemed like forever, he finally handed me two pieces of paper and asked me to verify my information.

I read them over and discovered the text that read: "Dan Sobczak has been found to be properly qualified and is hereby authorized in accordance with the conditions of issuance on the reverse of this certificate to exercise the privileges of Private Pilot."

"It's kind of anti-climactic, huh?" Darren joked.

I had done it! After years of watching aircraft come and go, wishing I could be at the controls, and after months of hard work, I had finally realized my childhood dream.

"Don't look at this certificate as the end," Darren advised. "This is really just a beginning. This piece of paper is your ticket to learn. When you fly, don't just bore holes in the sky. Always make sure you learn something on every flight you make."

Why do I fly?

I thanked my examiner for the expert advice he had given me throughout the checkride process. I wanted to let everyone know what I had just done.

It was then that I realized the answer to my co-worker's question: Why do I fly?

I fly for the sense of accomplishment.

The ability to guide an airplane through the sky and then return it safely to earth, offers a sense of achievement that nothing else can match. I fly for the opportunity to learn.

By setting and accomplishing the goal of becoming a pilot, I've learned more about myself.

Stay sharp!
The Flight Chain App team

Flight Chain App - NTSB Aviation Accident Reports - Helping pilots learn from accident chains Dan Sobczak is the founder of, a mobile app that helps pilots learn from accident chains by making NTSB reports more convenient and easier to digest. Dan received his private pilot certificate in 2003.

Flight Chain App and its companion blog are committed to reducing general aviation accidents, helping improve aviation safety, and growing the pilot population.

Ahead Of The Power Curve
Blog Archives


July 2021:
Learning to fly a plane: The checkride flight (part 3 of 3)
June 2021:
Learning to fly a plane: The cross country flight (part 2 of 3)
May 2021:
Learning to fly a plane: The first solo flight (part 1 of 3)
April 2021:
NTSB report released in crash of Boeing B-17
March 2021:
Flight Training Tip: What does a Cessna 172 and Phantom of the Opera have in common?
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Flight Chain App and its blog Ahead of the Power Curve are committed to reducing general aviation accidents, helping improve aviation safety, and growing the pilot population.