There was something familiar about the young man sitting in the FBO, waiting. He was wearing a dress shirt with epaulets. At his feet was a serious flight bag, larger than the usual. And the expression on his face said, “I’m nervous.”
I grabbed a cup of coffee at the counter and settled in to wait for my appointment to roll up. Since we were both sitting there, facing each other, I asked, “Are you here for a check-ride?”
He nodded vigorously, but with no sign of enthusiasm.
“Which one?” I pressed. I’ve been in his shoes. Personally, I’d rather be involved in a superficial chat with a stranger than to be left alone with my concerns just prior to taking a check-ride.
He was about to head off on his MEI ride. Multi-Engine Instructor. That’s a big one. He told me he felt prepared, but knew he was capable of a mental lapse. Pretty much like all the rest of us, I countered.
We talked about what examiners are really looking for. I pontificated. The examiner really wants to see PIC decision-making, I said. They want to see you fly to the metrics set in the Airman Certification Standard. They want to know that you can fly, that you understand the machine, the airspace, the facilities you use, etc. And they’d like to be confident you can explain all that, to be a teacher, while flying.
My new friend settled down a bit. His partner returned and disappeared into the examiner’s office. There is always paperwork to be done. Fifteen minutes later the two applicants had switched places. The one I had been talking to was now in the office beginning the process. His counterpart was on the couch in the lobby, looking glum.
“How’d it go?” I inquired.
Applicant number 1 shook his head and frowned.
“Hang in there,” I tried my best to provide some encouragement at a tough moment. “It’s hard, but it’s worth it.”
A few days later I found out just how true that last statement is.
Todd taught me to fly. He was my primary instructor. He was my instrument instructor. He accompanied me in a Piper Seminole to a small grass strip where I was supposed to take my own MEI ride nearly 30 years ago. We ended up with a light twin stuck in the mud at the end of a very soft runway, and my examiner paid the bill for our unanticipated overnight stay, since he was the one who stuck it there.
Todd flies for one of the majors now. He sits in the left seat. He’s still my hero.
As is true of so many of us in this line of work, we don’t see each other very often. Maybe three times in the last three decades. But we like each other. Enough in fact that he reached out to let me know he’d be in Orlando on a layover. We made plans. We met up.
Sitting at an outdoor table, soaking up the warm late December evening air, we enjoyed a couple adult beverages while air traffic turned downwind to base overhead. Like the goofballs we are, we looked up at most of them…because that’s what you do when an airplane flies overhead. You look. It’s just a thing. I can’t explain it.
The first time I made that exact turn in that particular pattern, Todd was sitting just to my right. The first time I shot an approach into Orlando Exec, Todd was talking me through it. The experiences we shared helped us bond. He was (and I assume still is) an exceptional flight instructor.
We had a deal back in the old days. If I’d buy pizza, Todd would stop by my apartment to tutor me with whatever I was having trouble with in ground school. Today, we relaxed in a far more enjoyable place, with significantly better food.
Our conversation touched on airplanes, of course. We’ve both owned a few by this point. We’re both active in GA. But we also have families, and mortgages, and guitar collections, and hopes for the future. We talked about all that, too.
We reflected back over all the training we’ve done, all the check-rides we’ve subjected ourselves to, the inflight challenges, the ground-abort weather days, the nervous or even ill passengers, the life-affirming beauty of the sights we’ve seen, and the thrill of cruising at altitude in a dead still sky as the sun sets over the horizon. We chase it with no expectation of anything more than enjoying another moment or two up there where we feel so liberated from Earthly woes.
Yeah, it was hard, but it was definitely worth it. Every minute of it.
I hope one day, many years in the future, Applicant Number 1 and Applicant Number 2 will meet up at a restaurant in some far-flung corner of the planet to reflect on that time they flew off to take their Multi-Engine rides together. I hope the sound of a whirring propeller overhead distracts them for a moment, and gives them the opportunity to bask in the accomplishment of their lifetimes.
Yes, it was hard. But it was so worth it.