On April 3, 2000, I took the day off of work. It was a week past my 28th birthday and I had an appointment on my calendar to keep. I’d been working pretty hard for the previous nine months on something that I wanted to do for as long as I could remember. And on that day a dozen years ago, I finally got my shot: I climbed into a Cessna 172 with an FAA examiner and took my “practical” test to get my private pilot’s license. I’d already taken and passed the written test. The first part of the day on April 3 was the oral examination. That seemed to go pretty well. I followed my instructor’s advice: let the examiner do most of the talking and never volunteer information. Turns out, my examiner wanted to talk a great deal about the screenplay he’d written so I just let him go. Eventually, he asked me some questions and I think I answered most of them well. Well enough, anyway, for him to tell me to get the airplane ready for flight.
Next was the practical test. The practical is where you go up in the plane with the instructor and demonstrate a laundry list of skills. Of all the things I had to demonstrate, there was only one that I was concerned about: the short field landing. A short field landing is one in which you have to be able to land the plane on a short runway. To “test” this, you usually have to aim for a marker on the runway and touch down right on that marker. As part of the test, I was diverted from one airport to another–Oxnard airport, which happens to be just across the street from my parent’s house. Approaching Oxnard, I called the tower:
“Oxnard this is Seven-Three-Echo inbound for touch and go’s.”
I was cleared for the touch and go’s but the examiner immediately jumped in: “Who said to do a touch and go? I want you to do a full stop and taxi-back.” (It’s the examiner’s job to try to rattle the student.) I called the tower back and amended my request. I landed and as soon as the wheels touched the ground and I pulled off the runway, the examiner said, “Okay, good, that was your short field landing.” After that I was immensely relieved. I did a short field takeoff from Oxnard and then we flew out over Thousand Oaks and did some other maneuvers, including steep turns, and some time under the hood (to practice low visibility conditions). Finally, we headed back to Van Nuys airport. I was flying north in the downwind pattern for the long runway, 16R and was cleared to land. As we came abeam the touchdown point, the examiner said, “Okay, you just lost your engine. Glide in the plane and I want you to be off the runway at the first taxiway.”
I made a nice gliding u-turn and brought the plane down on 16R and eased her off at the first taxiway. At that point, I felt I had the test in the bag, all I had to do was taxi back to parking. Of course, I had to taxi the whole length of the airport, but I did it. When we pulled into the parking area, the examiner was telling me about a rubber tree he’d planted 40 years ago or so. When the plane came to a stop, he said, “Get the plane tied down and meet me inside. I’ll go make out your temporary certificate. Congratulations. That was some nice flying you did.”
And I was officially an FAA licensed private pilot.
I still carry my pilot license in my wallet despite the fact that I haven’t flown in ten years. I just can’t bear to let go of it. I worked hard for it. I passed all my tests on the first try. It was a big achievement for me. I can hardly believe it has been twelve years.