Do you remember that feeling you had when you took your very first flight lesson? That feeling of pure excitement under a veneer of unbridled terror. Yeah, that one. Well, for better or worse, that feeling had been completely drained out of me. Now, when I walk up to one of my club’s single-engine pistons, it’s all business; I have a routine and neither excitement nor terror are even remotely part of it.
However, on one very fine VFR afternoon, all those first flight jitters came roaring back as I decided that I was going to get my complex endorsement at my local flight school – never mind the fact that I fly in a club whose fleet doesn’t have a single retract in it nor does it have any aspirations to acquire one. Yet there I was about to get checked out in a Piper Arrow feeling like I have never flown an airplane before.
Here’s the thing: When I was first learning to fly and constantly trying to non-intentionally cause my CFI severe bodily harm (sorry Pete!), I could hide behind the fact that I was, well, learning to fly and thus had no idea what I was doing. However, now as a commercial pilot, I felt I needed to prove to myself that I did know what I was doing and getting a sign off was going to be a no big deal.
Anyway, after a fascinating ground session and a routine preflight with one of the school’s CFIs, I was finally ready to get this party started. However, as soon as I climbed into the cockpit I was immediately bewildered; the Arrow’s panel was a mishmash of glass, steam, lots of no-op stickers, and everything in between – typical flight school fare. It took me no less than half a minute to even find the avionics master switch. Lovely.
The CFI made me go through the checklist item by item. Totally reasonable. Except that since I’m more of a flow-then-verify kinda guy than a read-every-single-line-and-do kinda one, my run-up took forever. This culminated into me missing a few minor items in the process which only exacerbated my feelings of inadequacy.
When we finally got to the hold-short line, I asked if he uses flaps on take-off since the POH just says “as required”. He said it’s totally optional and up to me. I opted against it for simplicity’s sake and then announced on CTAF my imminent departure. Fuel pump on. Lights on. Here we go.
I slowly pushed the throttle forward while keeping an eye on the cornucopia of both digital and analog engine gauges. All green. Airspeed was also now suddenly alive and with a little extra rudder I was holding centerline nicely. I made all my callouts and lift off.
As soon as we were off the ground though, I pushed the gear lever up while proudly shouting, “Positive rate! Gear up!” I felt like a total pro. I got this. Then the CFI immediately looked over at me and said, “Too soon. Verify you have negative runway before you even think of touching that lever.” So much for that.
Most of my checkout once airborne was more about me getting a feel of how the Arrow stalls, turns – all the usual primary stuff. However, we did cover various emergencies related to the gear. All went well. In fact, by the time we headed back from the practice area, I was feeling a lot more confident in my airmanship – until I had to land that is.
The first time I tried to land, I had the stall horn go off on base because I was too slow. The second time I was too fast and had to go around. After the third time around the pattern, I finally landed, and the lesson was over.
I got out of the airplane with my pride completely shattered. I was positive he was going to call the FAA and ask them to revoke my license. To my surprise, he turned to me and said, “One or two more lessons and you’ll be fine.” I was taken back and thought he was having some kind of mental episode. He laughed at me and then continued, “Listen, whether you have five or five thousand hours, the first time flying a new airplane is going to be a humbling experience. You clearly know how to fly; you just need more time.” And sure enough, after two more lessons, he signed my book, and I had my endorsement.
Looking back on it now, I realize that earning that signature had very little to do with learning how to operate a gear lever but more so about my mind and body adjusting to how the Arrow reacted to different power settings and configurations. Flying is proprioceptive, and the Arrow once again reminded me of that fact. So, in the end, it turned out that getting checked out in a complex wasn’t so complex after all. Who knew?