In August 1968, I had just completed my AFROTC summer camp at Plattsburgh AFB (Plattsburgh, NY) and had returned to the Michigan State University campus to prepare for my senior year.
I was already slated for USAF Undergraduate Pilot Training after my June 1969 graduation. Along with all the other pilot training selectees, I was authorized to enter a private pilot training course (the Pilot Indoctrination Program) conducted at nearby Capitol City Airport in Lansing by a civilian flight school under government contract. Another AFROTC cadet (Dale) and I decided to start that training before classes started in late September.
For PIP, the Lansing flight school used two 1961 Piper PA-22-108 Colts. The Colt was a good airplane and relatively easy to fly. However, its odd-looking, short-coupled tricycle landing gear gave it the nickname of “Flying Milk Stool” and it sported an odd, single-lever brake handle instead of the typical heel- or toe-operated brakes. That brake lever activated both main wheel brakes simultaneously…or at least that was the plan (for a story about problems with that system see Stop This Airplane!).
Once Dale and I decided to get started on our training, the race was on. Who would solo first? Who would be the first to get his private pilot’s license?
I beat Dale to solo by one day but only because of the vagaries of Michigan’s autumn weather. If memory serves (not always a sure thing these days), Dale was first to pass his checkride for the private pilot license.
On the day of my checkride, I met the check pilot at the scheduled time and proceeded to wow him with my book knowledge and my carefully plotted flight plan.
No sweat thus far.
On takeoff, I skipped once…for reasons I can only attribute to a small case of checkride jitters. As briefed, I flew up to a small grass strip some 50 miles north and made a couple of passable, if not great, landings. Stalls and falls (all the basic aerial maneuvers) went OK, although I think I lost a bit too much altitude in my approach stall recovery. Out of the corner of my eye, I thought I detected a hint of displeasure on the face of the examiner. My jitters ratcheted up another notch.
Then, he pulled the throttle back and said, “Forced landing.”
I guess I was so busy trying to second-guess the examiner’s mood that I had failed to keep track of nearby potential forced-landing sites, despite being very familiar with all the fields in the area. Frantically, while establishing the best glide speed, I hunted for a suitable field…as altitude below me quickly became altitude above me.
Finally, I settled on a field that looked good to me and tried to set up a pattern to make it. The examiner wisely said, “Go around.”
After I had regained altitude, I was sure I noted a distinct frown on his face. That frown did nothing to calm my jitters.
Once again, I heard “forced landing” as the throttle came back to idle.
This time, I was sure I had a good field easily in range and set up to redeem myself.
I’m sure we would have survived that landing but it was one sloppy approach. Luckily, I didn’t have to proof it one way or another, as he directed another go-around.
Back to Capitol City Airport for a couple of landings, none of which were up to my usual standards thanks to my persistent jitters. After we full-stopped and taxied back to the school’s ramp, I quickly completed the shutdown checklist and secured the airplane.
The examiner stomped off while tossing off a terse order over his shoulder: “Give me 15 minutes and see me at my desk.”
For the next 15 minutes, I drank a Coke and paced around the flight planning room. My instructor stopped in between flights and asked me how it went. I shrugged and said, “Certainly not my best day.”
Finally, at the appointed minute, I walked up the examiner’s desk and sat down.
He leaned back in his chair and ran his hands through his thinning hair. Finally, sat forward and said, “I suppose I could flunk you. I guess you know what things you didn’t do well on.”
“Well, I’m going to sign off on your private pilot license. I know your instructor and he wouldn’t have recommended you if you weren’t ready. He began completing the paperwork. “Congratulations.”
I think my shoulders sagged a bit as the tension skidded out of my body. “Thank you, sir.”
Without looking up, he said, “Just promise me one thing.”
“What’s that, sir?”
“Don’t ever use this license.” Not even a hint of a smile.
I seized the paperwork he handed me and promptly left the room, assuming he was joking.
But I’ll never know for sure.
I did learn an important lesson, though: Never let anxiety get the better of you, particularly when flying!