Less than four years ago, the only interest I had in aviation was as a passenger. Then a friend who owned and piloted several airplanes told me over dinner about how he'd just flown himself back to Florida from a weekend in Cabo San Lucas, and he invited me to come out and fly one of his planes, a small jet. We drove to the airport, he popped me in the front left seat and took me for a spin. As we climbed out in the clear night over the Gulf of Mexico, it occurred to me, "I really should learn how to do this."
Over the next few years, I trained intensively, tentatively at first, still wondering why I was going to the trouble, and then bit by bit challenging myself to master the airplane.
I earned my Private Pilot and Instrument Flight Rules licenses (so I could fly in clouds and weather), I bought a small, single engine airplane and soon found I was flying myself all over the place, to meetings, to poker games, to dinner in Santa Barbara or Vegas. I was hooked.
I decided recently to take the next step, to learn to fly a jet. I read at least a thousand pages of textbooks and technical manuals and flew over 150 hours with an instructor. This last week I spent 7 days doing intense training in a small twin engine jet, flying over the high desert in Southern California, culminating in an oral test and 2 hour check ride with an FAA examiner.
The test was incredible: Simulated engine fire followed by engine failure on takeoff at the most critical moment as the wheels leave the ground (these jets fly just fine on one engine!), single engine approaches and missed approaches, simulated explosive decompression at altitude followed by a (very real) dive at 6500 feet per minute, stall recoveries, hand-flown approaches on one engine -- all the hardest things you can do in a jet crammed into a single intense test with an FAA examiner sitting in the right seat making notes of everything you do. At one point, he had me look down at a piece of paper on the floor of the plane for 20 seconds and then said, "look up, and recover", and as I raised my head, I found only blue sky out the window and all my screens blanked out -- he'd put us in an "unusual attitude" pitched way up and approaching a stall, and I had to recover control of the plane using only a backup instrument.
The passing standard is 100% or fail. You have to do every maneuver by the book at the same level as an airline pilot, or you don't make it.
I realized near the end of the test as I was flying in on my final approach and staring intently at my instruments, that I'd done almost everything you can do in an airplane all while rarely looking out the window. All the training and the test flight itself is administered as though you're in a cloud the whole time. Except for takeoff and the last 200 feet of your approach to landing, you're in simulated weather the entire time, so you only look at your instruments. The screens become your complete reality, and you rely on them completely. It felt a little like Ender's Game.
This training and test was one of the most difficult things I've ever done. At times over the past week, after blowing a procedure or just forgetting some important step and sitting there tired and drenched in sweat, I thought about giving up. My instructor kept pushing me, and by the final day before my check ride, I had it down. The test -- even with those crazy maneuvers -- went smoothly.
And I passed! I received my Airplane Multi Engine Land and Jet rating along with High Altitude, Complex and High Performance ratings. I passed the same check ride every airline pilot has to take -- as one aviator friend put it, the "PhD of flying."
I'm proud of the accomplishment but also humbled by the level of knowledge, skill and presence required of jet pilots -- something I will never take for granted when I step into an airplane as a passenger, or as the guy behind the wheel.