That Moment During My Pilot Test

August 27th, 2015 — 5:30am

It was a quiet moment between me and the FAA examiner. He was a veteran pilot, and much older than I. The airplane I was flying was pointed back toward Champaign, the airport we had taken off from almost 2 hours earlier. My voice sounded strained and shaky as I made the routine radio calls to Champaign approach. I was sweating from the heat, and from the stress.

The check ride I was on is the last step in getting a private pilot’s license. It was a Saturday, and my only chance to take the check ride in time to carry out my plans to travel for this project. I had just performed a range of maneuvers — steep turns, s-turns, lost procedures, navigation by map and compass, simulated engine failure, short-field landing, etc.

The first half of the ride went great — some of my best flying to date. Then I made some small mistakes on my short-field landing, and some big mistakes on my soft-field takeoff. It was ugly and I knew it. A few minutes later I got flustered when he asked me to combine an unexpected maneuver with my simulated engine failure procedure. I forgot some steps and missed my planned landing area. By that time any feeling that this was going well was gone, and a sinking feeling of failure was setting into my gut.

Once all the required maneuvers were done, the examiner gave me a second chance at the engine failure procedure. I knew it was make or break. I was hot, exhausted, and out of adrenaline. I didn’t see a field that looked good. I turned left to look behind me, and I didn’t like my choices there either. I said to myself “Get it together or you are going to fail this test RIGHT NOW.” I made a choice, but it wasn’t a good one. I barely cleared a couple of obstacles on the way to it. The sinking feeling was increasing.

After that second chance on the engine failure, we headed back to Champaign. So there we sat, in quiet except my radio calls. The test was harder than I expected. I was pretty sure I had failed. I was exhausted and discouraged.

In the noisy silence of engine rev and radio static, I was surprised to feel the examiner’s hand rest on my shoulder for just a few seconds. It was as if he was saying, take a breath, it’s ok. Relax and finish this. I didn’t expect that from the man judging my performance against the standards.

I landed gracefully at Champaign, parked, and shut down the airplane. As the propeller sputtered to a stop, I flipped off all the switches and waited to hear the worst. Instead I heard, “Congratulations. Meet me inside.” I was pretty sure that meant I passed, but I didn’t quite believe it until he handed me my temporary pilot’s license.

As I drove away from the airport, I remembered that moment and his hand on my shoulder. Celebration would have made sense, but tears rolled down my face as I steered my car toward home. Working toward my license over the past year was harder than I ever thought it would be. The final check ride stretched me to my limits. And this quiet old man who could have failed me showed me kindness. He helped me do a hard thing, and it moved me deeply.

We all need a hand on the shoulder sometimes, and we all have a chance to be that for others when they get shaky. Moments like these bring a whole lot of meaning into life and leadership.