Took my last pre-test flight with my CFI, Dan, tonight. A week or two ago we spent the day in the classroom reviewing and getting things taken care of . Today was the day for some final air work. We went out with roughly a 3500' ceiling and just 10 miles vis around 4:30. It was very warm for January, the high was 56 degrees and I enjoyed walking around campus with only a T-shirt on. By the time I arrived in a 1970 model Cessna 172 rental to pick up my instructor, you could look at the sky and tell rain was coming, the air looked thick and grey, almost smoky - 2 hours before official "sunset." It had been a bright blue, and almost clear sky just an hour before, which goes to show you how quickly the weather can change. We decided to head out and see what we could get done.
I went through a quick startup and taxi checklist, and proceeded to "teach." Dan would ask for a flight demo of one thing, an explanation of something else. 30 degree banking turns, VOR interception and tracking, slow flight (which seems easy to non-pilots, but is actually a very neat - and complex - trick), and every performance maneuver I know were "taught" back to the man who taught them to me at one point or another. I was really getting put throught my paces (and doing the same to the plane). Then I showed him a cross-controlled stall and an accelerated stall. These can be hard, that Cessna wing is too slick, and just wants to mush around through the air unless you know exactly what to do to get a clean stall break out of it.
By now it was probably "sunset," though no mortal man could have told you that by looking at the sky. Tonight had one of those grey, 3 hour long twilights that just fade to black. We headed back to the airport - me remembering to continue running my mouth about getting the ATIS, traffic pattern entries and altitudes, and reminding Dan to "fly it by the numbers - 2100RPM, 100 MPH - top of the white arc, find your altitude...," etc. I was told to teach a soft-field (grass) landing, then we did short field takeoff and landing technique.
When my CFI was satisfied that I was properly trained to train others, I asked for one final ride around the patch. "I'm not going to touch the controls unless you make me, why don't you show me some of the dumb things that these people will try to do to wreck the plane?" Little did I know that I was in for the wildest ride in an airplane I've had so far in my life. We drove big circles trying to line up with the centerline, swerved from one side of that 150' wide runway to the other, skipped sideways and who can remember what else before the plane was finally airborne! We proceeded to accelerate to approx 5000 MPH before starting to climb out of ground effect, at which time we established an extreme pitch-up attitude (good thing we both learned how not to stall with power-on :D). The traffic pattern was sufficiently wide to let the B-52 between us and the runway make a successful landing, flaps were nearly retracted several times during the approach, and the flare - one second it was 30 feet too high, then we were pointed nose down about to make contact with the ground propellor first. When we were again to a complete stop I vowed to always, no matter what, pay the strictest attention to my student and the airplane at all times. I believe this was the lesson I was supposed to take away from the experience, at any rate...
Back in the office I filled out the log, went through my CFI-Airplane Practical Test Standards book (PTS), and got the last few things taken care of. 8710 form (the application that I may have forgotten to take to a previous checkride, but definitely will not let the same fate befall me or any of my students ever again), written test review, etc. were endorsed. Last came the big one, the endorsement in my logbook where my CFI and flying companion of several years and many hours attests that I am prepared and proficient to take the practical flight test to become a flight instructor for single-engine land airplanes! What a nice feeling. I have been anxious this past week about my upcoming test, but I don't think I will be from here on out. I know I can do this whole instructor thing - because I have - and the aviator that I trust the most to keep me realistic, informed, and in line agrees with me.
By this time it was dark, and the ceiling down to about 3000' AGL. Not too good, but not too bad either. I still had to get the airplane and myself back to our home base about 12nm away. I took off with the runway lights at max intensity and the throttle all the way in. In the cool winter air with half tanks and only my 10lb flight bag and 180lb body as cargo, that little old plane took to the air like nobody's business. About 300' in the air I noticed Dan in the parking lot watching me takeoff, and I blinked my nav lights at him as a farewell greeting.
The flight back home was beautiful, the air was still thick and heavy, but the temperature and dewpoint were still 7 degrees C apart - no danger of fog any time soon. I flew up the river valley, admiring the view of city lights ahead and beside me as I went. Arriving in my home airspace I smiled - the runway lights are broken again. The entire runway is supposed to be boxed by lights, but only the threshold lights and about 700' of the runway at one end actually are. Not a problem though, I decide that now would be a good time to get night current again. This involves 3 takeoffs and landings at night every 90 days in order to be legal to carry passengers. The last time I did this exercise was about 100 days ago. Even if the weather starts to get worse (which it shouldn't), I am close, and there is a class Delta airport 4nm away that I can get into on the ILS if I really need to.
Turned out that I didn't need to use that other airport, and I made one beautiful, greaser of a landing after another. I had forgotten how much I like flying at night. With the interior lights turned down low, the thrum of the engine, the unusual (but welcome) silence on the radio; it is very peaceful and calming.
All too soon I found myself standing next to a dark airplane, tying it down, gathering my things, locking the keys up, and walking across the dark and deserted ramp to my car. Then the realization hit me - the next time I climb into one of these planes, I could be that guy. The little fleet of 20 to 30 year old Cessnas that I have spent, literally, hundreds of hours in. I've flown as primary student, insturment student, commercial student. I've been taught to fly high-performance planes and complex planes. I've also flown as Pilot In Command, with family and friends - both on sunny spring joyrides and cold and rainy fall Instrument flights with a particular destination and timeline in mind. I've spent hours flying solo - for fun, for proficiency, for learning new things. But as I walked across that ramp tonight, bag over my shoulder, it hit me - the next time I fly in one of these planes, I will probably be the Instructor, the guy in the right-hand seat with the plan, and the answers, and the person who knows where to look for answers he doesn't know. I could be the guy who teaches someone else to fly solo, to make safe decisions, and to take their closest friend or relative on a $100 hamburger run for lunch some sunny Saturday afternoon.
Wow, what a thrill, what a responsibility. Now, I just need the weather to cooperate with my plans for my scheduled test date - 3 days from now.