Road to the PPL: (flying) across the finish line!

While the pace of collecting flight hours have slowed down after I completed my required solo navigation flights with my long cross-country on the 23rd of March (see details in the previous post), there was still plenty of things to be taken care of in order to complete my PPL training: I had to pass the final progress test, pass the theory exam, get an English Language Proficiency Certificate, and finally pass the check-ride (a.k.a. the skill test, or practical exam).

I typically set aside one day a week for studying (even when flying to Girona for a few days of cycling holidays, I was busy reading on the plane), but then I typically studied 8-12 hours continuously.

Three weeks after the last solo navigation, I decided that it was time to fly again, and just booked a simple training with the goal of doing more soft & short field practice (having had only one full stop landing and take-off from a grass field until then). We decided to fly to Grimbergen (EBGB), where I got my first introduction to general aviation back in 2019 in the right seat of a Cessna 172, which gave me the last necessary motivation to start with the PPL training. Now I could also put this aerodrome in my actual logbook ;)

The flight [#30, on the 16th of April] was a bit bumpy, the soft field landing and take-off went better than the first time (but I knew that I still needed a lot of experience in this field [haha, field, get it?]), while the instrumental flying exercises were easy but fun. It was also good to fly with an instructor again, not only for the exercises, but also for the chat along the way.

Unfortunately I had some issues with the GoPro setup for this flight (when I fly with an instructor I always feel bad about spending time with the setup, so I made some mistakes with the external power supply), meaning that on the first leg the wing view camera died already around take-off, and on the return leg my main camera died before landing. And even the audio gain level was set a bit incorrectly… :( Anyway, the video is still worth watching ;)

After another month of studying, I wanted go for a flight just to keep my flying skills in order, and maybe refine the soft field operations a bit further with the same instructor as on the last flight. Unfortunately or not, the administration of my flight school thought that I had made a mistake in booking, and so they changed my flight to a Final Progress Check with a different instructor. Even though that was really not my intention, the idea of doing the PT3 got into my head, and thus I went along with the changed plans.

The final progress test is basically a practice check-ride, so the evening before the flight I quickly refreshed my memories about all the manoeuvres and procedures from the SOP, and I also prepared a NAV flight to Grimbergen (most of which I had still lying around from a month earlier, which saved me a lot of work, as I only had to update the wind data and the resulting magnetic headings and timings).

The flight [#31, on the 22nd of May] went pretty well, with only some minor mistakes (mainly on final to EBGB as I was extremely preoccupied with navigating the very short circuit for the first time ever, so I did forget a few items, and I needed a second try for two of the many exercises, as the first ones were not up to my standards), so I passed the progress check, and at this point my practical flight training was officially done. I was pretty happy with the improvement I made in operating to and from a soft field.

After this flight I basically had only two more topics to study, so I was soon ready for the theory examination. I fist had to take a practice exam at my flight school, which I did on the 17th of June. I passed each of the nine topics (with an average score of around 90%), which gave me good confidence for the upcoming actual exam, and of course it also provided some feedback on what things I had to have another look at. I managed to book the actual theory exam for the 1st of July (and the ELP test for the 3rd of July, to get everything out of the way in one weekend).

Just a few thoughts about my studying technique, as this comes up frequently as question from fellow students:

I attended no theory classes, but I went through well over 100 hours of an online learning platform provided by our school. I was not very happy about the quality of this, as while some topics were quite OK (e.g., meteorology), with good progress checks, some others were pretty bad, unstructured, providing little detail in the explanations, followed by ATPL-level questions, which were impossible to answer since the necessary background material was not covered in the slides earlier… (These progress checks were only possible to pass by trying multiple times and learning the answers, or by simply looking them up in ATPL question banks…) So overall this was a bit of a waste of time for me, and if I would have to start from zero, I would probably prefer to skip it (which is of course not possible, as the PPL training requires a given amount of hours of ground schooling, so you cannot both not attend classes and skip on the official e-learning platform). I have a background in academia, so I can study on my own very well, but probably attending a good class would be my suggestion instead of the e-learning platform.

After completing my legal obligation by going through the whole e-learning platform, I read through all the Pooley’s books and did the corresponding Examination Prep Books (they contain 3-5 test exams per topic). In my opinion the Pooley’s books are excellent, but some of the material in Communications, Air Law, and Navigation is a bit UK specific. This is not a big problem, as for the Communication the differences are clear just from the flight training, and for the Air Law and Navigation parts reading through the BeLux AIP will make it clear that the UK situation is actually a bit more complex, than ours.

Finally, you can download a question bank (at the bottom of the page there are download links, but be aware that the download contains not only the PPL(A) questions, so make sure to use the correct folder within) containing typically around 100 questions for each of the 9 topics, which are extremely similar to the ones on the official exam (at least to the one that I took in Luxembourg). I have gone through these twice, and did them as test exams (covering the marked correct solution in the test exam PDFs with a piece of paper), typically having a 90% score on the first try, then I checked those questions where I made a mistake, and made sure to review those and figure out where I made a mistake. I did it the second time just over the two evenings before the exam, with barely any mistakes.

As I mentioned the exam itself was in Luxembourg at the DAC (next to the airport), and since it was at 9 AM I booked a hotel for the night before, to avoid having to get up at 6 AM, which is really not compatible with me. With all this studying the exam was pretty easy, and I was done in a little bit more than 2 hours. I got to see my results immediately, and having made only 4 mistakes in total, I think I can be 100% happy. This probably means that I studied way too much, but better too much than too little, right? In any case, the last time I studied this much was definitely more than 10 years ago during my Masters, so it is good to know that I can still have it ;)

Two days later I did my ELP Assessment (with AVIAtest) at the flight school, so this time I only had to drive to Charleroi (but it was a lot of driving that weekend, especially with these fuel prices…). I never had difficulty with radio communications (after the initial being afraid to press the button syndrome has passed), and I like to talk in English, so I did not need to prepare anything for this, and got the highest level without issues. First there was a written exam consisting of 20 questions (multiple choice), very similar to the Communications topic from two days earlier. I passed this with a 100% score, then the oral part followed. First there was a general discussion where I had to answer questions like why I started my PPL, which is my favourite airport, etc. Then there was a listening exercise, where I had to listen to an ATIS and a pilot briefing conversation, and answer some questions related to these audio snippets. Then there was a simulated VFR flight where I had to fly between two Estonian airports (using the provided charts), one with only AFIS and one in a proper CTR (just like flying from, e.g., Grimbergen to Charleroi), followed by a discussion on this flight. I made one mistake: I did not pronounce 1500 as one thousand five hundred, but as thousand five hundred, which is incorrect. After this, I payed a lot of attention to this in real life! And that was it :)

Of course all this studying and the exams meant that it had been again more than six weeks since my final progress test, so I still wanted to do a quick flight before my check-ride. I planned a (solo) navigation to Grimbergen (yes, again, reusing the map from the last wo flights), so I could finally try those soft field procedures on my own too. Plus I just wanted to fly, without needing to do anything new, therefore a short, familiar route was the best choice I could make. I still completely prepared the navigation flight (navigation log, maps, etc.), but in practice I just flew with SkyDemon on (well, I barely needed it, as I flew with the AFI VOR and using visual reference points anyway).

The flight [#32] went dominantly uneventful, the soft field landing and take off was again an improvement compared to the previous visit to EBGB, the only thing I was not so happy about was my short final before the landing back at EBCI, where I was definitely not flying up to my standards, but better then than on the check-ride, right? Anyway, of course everything was perfectly safe, I am just very critical. Check it out in the video for yourself.

My skill test was originally scheduled for the afternoon of the 19th of July, but as it became the 2nd hottest day ever in Belgium, with nearly 40°C at EBCI, my examiner cancelled the day before, and we had to reschedule for a week later (for the last day before we left on holidays for two weeks to the Lofoten in Norway…). While I was pretty sad because of the delay, it was definitely the right decision, as that heat would have been unbearable in this plane and/or on the apron…

The weather in the morning of the 26th did not look exactly perfect with a relatively low ceiling, but we had faith in the improvement that was promised by the TAF, so I met my examiner (ex-military pilot and flight instructor-instructor) at 9 AM at Charleroi. While waiting for the weather to improve, we had a short discussion about some theory (e.g., what to do in case of communication failure in the CTR of Charleroi, depending on if you are inside or outside of the traffic pattern), then I briefed the navigation flight that I was asked to prepare (basically a flight counter clockwise around the CTR of Chièvres, across some pre-defined waypoints), before we finally proceeded to the plane.

I did my walkaround, got in the plane, did all the flows nicely, started the engine, and during the after start flow I noticed that the oil pressure gauge was in the red, indicating no pressure (even though it was fine just after start a minute earlier, and the engine was going perfectly fine). While this was an excellent illustration of me actually checking the engine instruments, it also meant that we had to shut down the engine and stop with the flight :S This was around 10:30, with no other plane available until 4 PM… Luckily my examiner had time in the evening too, so we rebooked for another Sonaca 200 for 5 hours later… Since I had nothing to do for so long (besides getting completely crazy from waiting), I decided to drive home in the meantime, pack for the holidays, and drive back to Charleroi by half past three, which meant two hours of extra driving for that day, but it also saved my sanity and it was afterwards really good to have everything already packed when I finally arrived home after the actual exam in the evening.

So fast forward a few hours, we are finally back in a properly working plane, everything is going smoothly (except for forgetting the strobe lights before engine start, but noticing my mistake immediately afterwards). I did a smooth take off, executed perfect flows, avoided a prohibited area, and illustrated that I am very good in dead reckoning, doing the HAT, THARIFF, and FREDA flows, and that in general my situational awareness is great (I constantly identified ground features, and also pointed out traffic around us). Also, I think I have never kept a cruise altitude as precisely as this time. (BTW, the originally planned route is in magenta below, and the actual flight track in blue – click for better visibility.)

Just before Zottegem, Brussels Info asked if I could relay a message to another airplane (which apparently did hear everybody on the frequency but not Brussels themselves), and I reacted to that without hesitation and started writing down their callsign and the message, while my examiner was looking for his pen to make notes before he took over the radio ;)

After the turn over Leuze we stopped the planned navigation, and my examiner asked me to make a diversion to Saint-Ghislain. (There was a bit of a misunderstanding about who needs to bring charts for potential diversion airports, so if you are a student reading this: it is your job :D) Since I could just follow the originally planned track until crossing the highway that leads to this airfield, I did not even need to get my protractor out to draw on the map, so this was super easy, the most difficult part was pronouncing Saint-Ghislain on the radio. I contacted the field, asked for aerodrome information for a few touch and go landings, then integrated onto the circuit for RWY 27, made a touch and go, then we climbed to 2500 feet, where we simulated an engine failure, and I made it back to the field without engine power perfectly fine, and executed a go-around on request on short final.

After this we left the circuit, climbed to altitude, and proceeded with manoeuvres. First I had to do a clean stall, then a stall in landing configuration, then steep turns left and right, followed by turning while wearing foggles (IFR glasses, so basically only being able to see the instruments, and not the outside world). This was all flawless, except that I needed reminding that when flying with instruments only, I should do normal rate turns and not bank to 30 degrees.

When we were done with these, I was asked to return to Charleroi. As soon as I got my normal glasses back on, I immediately recognised the reporting point of SW (the bell tower of Thuin), so even without looking at the map I knew exactly where we were, and which way I had to fly to make it to SE where I was supposed to enter the CTR. I listened to the ATIS, then five minutes out I contacted Charleroi Tower, asked for instructions for a few touch and go landings (as agreed in advance), and then via SE and SA, joined the left hand circuit for RWY 24. First I had to do a flapless approach, then we did a short circuit (500′ AGL), followed by a go-around. Here we were supposed to simulate an engine failure after go-around (simulating an engine failure after take-off), but we could not do it, because there was a bit of communication misunderstanding. After I initiated the go-around, my examiner kept telling me that I need to recover, but he was not pulling back to throttle so I did not understand what he wanted… Apparently I should have pitched down and then he would have pulled back the throttle, because it is a bit risky to do it the other way around – how it actually happens in real life – because you have only a very short time to pitch down at low height when you are that slow before stalling. Anyway, this was not a show stopper (with the rest of the flight being basically flawless), and following a nice full-stop landing (after almost 2 hours in the air), my examiner immediately told me to relax (as I was visibly slightly angry about the last exercise), because I passed. We did a short debriefing after I shut down the plane, and with that the last exam of my PPL was over!

My examiner sent in the report of the exam the next day, while I had to send in an application form – partly filled out by my flight school and the examiner -, with copies of all my exam results and ID attached (which I compiled into one PDF on the evening of the exam, and then sent it in on the first evening of our holidays from Tromsø as soon as I saw that the examiner sent in his paperwork). Less then two weeks later I got the email that my file was completed and that my licence will be sent by post the next day :)

Now I just need to wait for the Belgian post (it should be here next week for sure), but I think I can finally call myself a private pilot! I am looking forward to all the new flying adventures :) About my short term plans: get in as much flying as possible (so a few hours, probably) while the good weather lasts (I already got VFR charts – as SkyDemon backup –  for parts of France and Germany), then as soon as the nights get longer I would like to get a Night VFR rating (so I can also fly at night, and for the fun of the extra training), and I also want to qualify on the DA 40 (a slightly larger, 4-seater plane), preferably combining these two. Then I will most likely join the club in Grimbergen and fly the Cessna Skyhawk too. I might also want to try out gliding next year, who knows ;) On the longer term, becoming a flight instructor might be something that interests me, and I would not exclude the possibility of an instrumental rating at one point either. And just for completeness, some stats: I currently have 62 hours and 36 minutes in my logbook (of which 17:24 as PIC).

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