Thirty minutes later we were good to go and on our way. I was excited for this trip for a number of reasons, but first on my list was getting the chance to fly along the Florida coast at night, including passing by the Kennedy Space Center. I had my camera in my flight bag and was hoping to take some pictures. I should have known better. Not five minutes after we’d reached altitude and were on course along the coastline, Alex reached behind him and grabbed the IFR hood. I slid it over my head, realizing my excitement about doing some nighttime sightseeing was pure fantasy. My view for the next several hours would be of the Seneca’s instrument panel.
With the required cross-country flights in the rearview mirror, by day four it was time to focus on what I would be required to demonstrate on the check ride. We practiced engine failures — lots and lots of engine failures. For me, the hardest part in the beginning was memorizing the emergency checklist flow, which I would perform over and over in the airplane as Alex cajoled and corrected. I found myself practicing the flow on my drive on the way to the airport, while sitting in my rental car in the Burger King parking lot during lunch and in my hotel room in the evenings. Ad nauseam, my hands moved over an imaginary set of controls, performing the same flow every time until I knew it all by heart.
The Check Ride
The last flight with Alex on day five went well, although I wished I could have done five or six more engine-out ILS approaches for good measure. Most of the check ride with the designated examiner, Michelle Melendez, a former airline pilot who now owns a DC-3 cargo airline at KOPF with her former-airline-pilot husband, progressed without a hitch. My 50-degree steep turns, which had been nearly flawless during training, weren’t quite as precise, but they were still well within practical test standards. After conducting the emergency descent, I forgot to retract the landing gear, prompting the examiner to pipe up and say, “Gee, there sure is a lot of green out here,” referring to the landing gear lights. Whoops.
After doing power-on and power-off stalls and the Vmc demonstration, all that was left was the engine-out instrument procedures, plus a simulated engine failure in the pattern. Setting up for an ILS approach, the controller added a new wrinkle by asking me to keep my speed above 130 knots until established. I wasn’t sure this aging Seneca could do 130 knots on one engine. I acknowledged the instruction and, sure enough, a moment later the examiner brought back the power on the left engine. The airplane was yawing and banking into the dead engine, and I was going through the emergency checklist, setting up the zero sideslip and securing the left side. To maintain 130, I had to firewall the good engine. After reaching the final approach fix, I momentarily got high on the approach but was able to correct while carefully adjusting my crab to the right to account for a crosswind blowing from 120 degrees at about 18 knots on the ground.
After we touched down, the examiner instructed me to do another takeoff, this time a short-field demonstration. I was fairly certain this would be my last circuit in the pattern. Nail this, and you’ve got your ticket, I thought. On the downwind, like clockwork, Michelle failed the left engine. As I was securing it, the controller cleared me to land on Runway 9L, and then, seconds later, he threw me a curveball, amending my landing clearance to Runway 12. But far from causing me problems, the switch actually did me a favor. Besides being pretty much directly ahead as I was making the base turn for 9L, Runway 12 was also perfectly aligned with the wind. Thank you, Mr. Controller.
As I rolled out on Runway 12 and turned off the runway to the left — the back of my shirt now drenched with sweat — the brake on that side suddenly felt very mushy. Oh, boy, I thought. If the examiner wanted us to do another circuit in the pattern, I would have to decline. As far as I was concerned, this airplane was now officially broken.
“Where to from here?” I asked as I completed the after-landing checklist.
“Take us back to Wayman,” she said. “Nice job. Congratulations, you earned it.”
Back at the flight school, I bid farewell to the great folks I’d met at Wayman Aviation as we posed for pictures with the Seneca. In the rental car on the drive to the airport, the full weight of what I’d accomplished hit me. The feeling was a mix of pride and relief. The last week had been a blur of activity that I knew would take some time to process. But my mind wouldn’t allow itself to dwell for long on the past, no matter how recent. I was already thinking ahead to the next phase of my training, looking forward to the next adventure, a new opportunity to learn and grow behind the controls of another wonderful airplane.