We are in a Lear 45 at 15,000 feet over the far northwestern corner of the continental United States, just on the edge of the Olympic mountain range near a VOR called Tatoosh (TOU). The weather is crummy, with cloud layers every 200 feet or so, making visual flight between them almost impossible. The purpose of this flight on this grey and rainy day is to complete a check ride and I am the victim sitting in the left seat. Rob, a very personable FAA Designated Pilot Examiner (DPE) from out of town, is carefully watching my every move from the seat behind the cockpit and to my right.
The DPE is in the back as it is customary in aircraft requiring a crew of two to have a pilot already typed, current and insured in the airplane (in this case, fellow Lear pilot Tim) flying as co-pilot. It is about two o’clock in the afternoon, and we have been at this since nine in the morning. The first hour was spent getting the FAA’s cumbersome computer inputs completed, followed by a two-hour oral exam on every aspect of the airplane. At noon, we took a lunch break at the local airport café. We then returned to do a pre-flight and brief on all of the airborne maneuvers expected by the FAA.
Now, we are working our way through those requirements in a block of airspace we arranged for with Seattle Center (with the controller being quite mindful that we stay within our assigned area). I have the autopilot on with the heading and altitude hold selected, and the power back while I wait for the little jet to slow down and stall. The airplane is slicker than a greased arrow and is decelerating way too slowly for the controller who is concerned we will fly out of his airspace while in the middle of our maneuvering. Although it is not part of the pre-arranged check ride procedure, I deploy the spoilers to help slow us down, then stow them as we pass through 140 knots. We have just entered another cloud layer when all of a sudden everything breaks loose, with the stall warner announcing “stall, stall, stall,” and the stick shaker going off with a noisy vibration which to me, always sounds like an angry rattlesnake. At this point (surprise, surprise) the autopilot clicks itself, and the left wing drops slightly while the vertical speed picks up a lot in the downward direction.
The trick is for me to recover as soon as possible while losing a minimum amount of altitude. So I pitch down the flight director bars to the horizon and push up power on both engines until the annunciator says “takeoff” (T/O), roll the wings level and watch as the Honeywell TFE731 engines kick in with every bit of their 7,000 pounds of thrust and accelerate us quickly through 180 knots. Now my job is to rapidly get back to the original altitude and heading, all the while being careful not to let the airplane go too much faster. The nose comes back slightly above the horizon bars, and the power is back to about 65 percent as I re-trim the airplane and get ready for the next maneuver. I look back at the DPE to see if that was satisfactory, but the expression on his face is difficult to read.
Tim sitting to my right, however, says “good recovery” and that we need to do another one, this time in approach configuration. So, I slow the airplane down, call for flaps 20 at 200 knots, then full flaps and “aux ‘hyd’ gear down” at 150 knots and repeat what I just did. By this point, we have been in the air for about 45 minutes but are less than halfway through the check ride. Though I might look calm and collected on the outside, I can feel that the T-shirt under my dress shirt is already soaked with sweat. It’s a reminder that I really don’t like check rides despite having taken dozens of them and not failing a single one. But, like an opera, you never know the outcome until it’s over.
Wet T-shirt notwithstanding, we then do steep turns which in spite of some turbulence and intermittent visual conditions, I manage to complete within the prescribed limits. When these are completed, we are supposed to make an autopilot coupled approach followed by a single-engine go-around. But when activating the autopilot button, the thing refuses to engage. Now, check ride or not, Tim and I have a real airplane problem.
I ask him to pull out the POH (pilots operating handbook) and look up the checklist for autopilot failure. He quickly finds the correct page and says we need to find a particular circuit breaker on the pilot side of the cockpit. I tell him, “You have the airplane; I will look for it.” There are, of course, dozens of circuit breakers on my left, all set up in some logical fashion – at least in the eyes of an engineer, but not at all to a pilot in the middle of a check ride. I grope around for a bit and cannot find one labeled as described by Tim, so he says, “Here, let me look for it.”
I switch back to “pilot flying,” while he reaches awkwardly across my lap to find the errant breaker. As it turns out, it is labeled differently than the checklist describes, but he eventually finds it and we complete the items required to re-boot the autopilot.
Obviously, this part of the flight was not on the prescribed set of check ride maneuvers, so I glance back into the cabin where our DPE is sitting, and to my alarm, see his expression appears less than pleased. In fact, he is a bit pale and looks unhappy. I can’t decide if he dislikes my flying or is ticked off that we departed from the briefed check ride maneuvers – or does that slight pallor suggest he is sick? I give him a thumbs up and a questioning look, and he just swallows hard and grimaces. Whatever the problem is, it does not look good for my check ride.
Our next maneuver requires setting up for a holding pattern at Port Angeles (KCLM) to be followed by an engine failure, an ILS and a missed approach at which time one of the engines is supposed to fail at the worst possible time – when you advance power close to the ground on the go-around. What you have to really watch for is heading and pitch control because as the “good” engine comes up to full power, it tends to change the airplane’s heading rather quickly unless you are right on it with opposite rudder and a slight bank into the good engine. Of course, you also have to be calling “missed approach,” hitting the “go-around” button on the throttle, pitching up to get a positive rate of climb and then instructing the co-pilot to pull up the gear and most of the flaps and start the missed approach checklist. It feels like way too many things to do at once, but like the proverbial duck who is calmly swimming across the lake with its hidden webbed feet moving like crazy, I seem to get the items done in correct sequence and within limits. Leveling out at the correct missed approach altitude and turning the autopilot back on, I look back for approval from our DPE, only to see him frowning. Again, I think, “Uh oh, this is not going well at all.”
We circle back around, complete a holding pattern on one engine, then another approach with the autopilot off, which seems to work out (at least to Tim and myself). We then head back to KBVS, our home airport, for the last approach; this one being what used to be called a “non-precision” approach as opposed to an ILS. The weather at KBVS is down to 400 and 1, and we break out at minimums, at which time the I click the autopilot off, and say, “Runway in sight, landing.” Tim replies, “Checklist complete, gear down, runway clear” in proper CRM fashion. I have the airspeed almost nailed at Vref, and as luck would have it, proceed to make a “greaser” of a landing on the wet pavement. When clear of the runway, we finish the after landing checklist and I again glance back at the DPE, looking for what I hope is an encouraging nod after my great landing, but he appears even more unhappy.
I pull the Lear up to our line gal Gwyn, and stop the airplane so gradually you cannot tell when movement ceased, then shut the engines down. As we are finishing the checklist, the DPE opens the door and heads into the FBO without saying a word. When they do that, it just has to be “pink slip” time, and I start to wonder just how and where we screwed up.
But, on entering the FBO myself 10 minutes later, our DPE is not sitting at a desk writing on pink paper, but rather is nowhere to be seen. So, I ask Lori the receptionist where he went, and she just nods toward the bathroom door. After another 10 minutes or so Rob, exits the bathroom looking pale and shaken, and says “good check ride,” then promptly makes a 180 back to the bathroom. A little while later, he emerges to say the club sandwich he had at lunch did not go down well, and he feels too sick to complete the following check ride with one of our other pilots. I ask, “You sure it was not my flying that made you airsick?” He musters as much humor as he can and replies no, it was definitely the club sandwich. He says he would like to go back to the hotel and will finish the paperwork tomorrow when he feels better. We arrange for a ride to take him there, and that evening I call his room to make sure he is doing okay. He appreciates my concern and says he should be just fine by the morning.
The next day, I show up at the airport and see Rob still looking a little under the weather but working away on his laptop in order to get my new temporary license printed out. After a few minutes, he hands me two copies of my new license (just in case one gets stolen), and says, “Nice check ride. You guys are a bunch of real professionals.”
As I get ready to leave, we shake hands, and he says though he is feeling well enough to finish the remaining two check rides, he will never again eat a club sandwich at our airport café.