Every Emergency for the Price of One – Part 1

Sit down, on an uncomfortable chair without a headrest, inside a space no bigger than two widths of your body, turn the heater up to 30-degrees Celsius, task yourself with multiple, simultaneous and dynamic problems involving mental recall and hand-eye coordination, for three and a half hours, and call it fun.  This is what my private pilot licence test was in a nutshell.  After finishing school and at the half way point through university, I was a 19-year old spending all of my holidays and all my spare time for a few weeks after the holidays studying and training for my licence.  It’s not the tip of Everest in terms of civilian flying approvals, more like the climb to base camp.  You don’t know what to expect because you’ve never done a large test like this before yet you are prepared for anything (including multiple emergencies) the testing officer throws at you.  My testing officer was one of the calmest pilots I had ever met; solid in his abilities and knowledge, yet if he were any calmer he would probably pass out.  Having said that, he shared the trait that all other testing officers I met had; high expectations with no problem in failing you for something that you wouldn’t otherwise bat much of an eyelid at.

The day started off with the tasking of where I was to plan to fly and about half an hour of questions thrown at me to test my knowledge of the aircraft, its systems, procedures, and planning.  Once he’d had his fun and my sweat glands started to fill, a final reminder of what was about to happen was echoed in my eardrums; “Pretend I’m not here.  Only respond to my commands otherwise fly to the plan”.  As we strapped into the one engine Cessna, Captain Cool was looking as if he had just taken a sedative, yet I know he was watching me with chameleon eyes, blending into the backdrop of my focus.  The plan had us flying north from Archerfield in Brisbane to Gympie for an uncontrolled aerodrome approach and landing and the short field take off component of the test, then onto Maryborough further north for a touch and go, south to the Sunshine Coast airport for a few circuits then back to Archerfield.  The weather put on blue skies with some light winds and a warming late winter’s day of around 25-degrees Celcius.  I was getting very comfortable and settling into the trained rhythms of pre take-off checks and preparations to depart.  Lined up on the runway, I had a quick glance out of the corner of my eye to see how my testing officer was enjoying himself.  Still blending into the backdrop, Captain Cool was sitting calmly taking in his surroundings as the tower barked, “Clear for take off.”  Accelerating through our minimum take off speed, I pulled back on the stick and started to climb away when no more than ten seconds into the air Captain Cool decides to pull the throttle to idle to simulate an engine failure on take off.  Any thoughts I had then of believing this flight would be a breeze vanished as I took in the situation and acted to the briefed ‘insufficient runway remaining engine failure on take-off’ procedure; nose forward, set best glide attitude, select an area within 30-degrees of the nose, flaps as required, land.  After a few more seconds of descending to the ground, a nonchalant, “full power, continue” came over the intercom and so I pushed the throttle forward to end that engine failure simulation and continued on our climb out.

Tracking toward Gympie, we were on time and making good progress.  The stronger than expected thermals were making things a little bumpier than expected but other than that I was confident things weren’t going to get out of hand.  That is until I completely ballsed up the approach to Gympie.  Far too high and too fast, I had royally thrown this test into the proverbial heap.  With Captain Cool not saying a word about my unveiling level of expertise as if he in fact fell asleep, I announced, “Going around” but then an unexpected response of, “Good idea” was heard and I felt a little less apprehensive.  This too is a tested procedure that I was now doing for real.  A go around is where you have done what I just did in having a brain fart and consider it not safe to land so you put the power back on, follow a procedure turn to go back around and have another shot.  This time I greased the landing and turned around on the runway to line back up at the start point ready to demonstrate my short field take off ability.  Launching into the air with the minimum amount of runway used I half expected him to pull the power on me again to demonstrate another practiced engine failure on take off but that was too easy.  Instead, we were about fifteen miles from Gympie en route to Maryborough at about 3500 feet when he pulled the power to simulate an en route engine failure.  Easy, I’ll just do exactly what I’m trained to do and at the safety altitude of 500 feet put the power on and get back in the groove.  With a bunch of emergency checks done on descent, I was now lined up with a farmer’s green pasture and approaching the safety altitude.  “Descend below 500 feet” was the clear instruction given, so on approach to the green field with a farmer off to the right wishing YouTube had been invented, I continued below 500 feet with no power aiming to put the bird down on the grassy rectangular field.  A little under 200 feet with the trees feeling like they wanted to slap me, I heard the dreaded words, “Taking over.”  To hear those words by a testing officer during a licence test means almost certain failure.  This time though, there was a more interesting turn of events…

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