On 24th January 2019, I sat my PPL skills test. Something that many pilots don't look forward to, I was surprised to find myself eager to get started. This was, hopefully, going to be the day I upgraded from 'student pilot' to 'pilot'.
This post aims to discuss my experience and walk you through the process - as always, knowing what to expect helps immeasurably.
The usual order of events is as follows,
Paperwork, Planning & Briefing
Your skills test starts as soon as you wake up on the day (though arguably it starts in the days leading up to it, keep an eye on NOTAMs and weather to form a good model in your mind). I'm a 'morning person' and was in all honesty quite excited, so an early start presented no difficulty to me. Having woken up and eaten well, the first thing I did was print off metforms 214 and 215 (you could use F214 to draw the wind on your chart already), METARs and TAFs for the time period in which my test would lie, then headed over to the NATS AIS to print the NOTAMs for the area (though, speaking to other students or even your examiner, you may already have a good idea of your nav route).
It's important to show the examiner you've read and properly understand each piece of paper here. Form a judgement of the weather based on F215, TAFs and other available forecasts - remember you can always decide not to fly, in fact in undesirable conditions it's commendable to make this decision yourself. Do not feel under any pressure to fly. Circle any NOTAMs affecting your flight.
Now you're ready to head to the airport. You'll need at least the following,
At the Airport
First, A-Check the aircraft, noting fuel and oil. Ask the examiner for the route, estimated duration of flight (for fuel planning, as you can't tell how long the general handling/circuits part of the flight will be), his weight, and weights of any equipment he may be taking. Thoroughly plan the route on your chart and PLOG (I also plan the longer radio calls, such as 'pass your message'). You'll need to collect your aircraft's POH and take a copy of the W&B sheet - use the weight and balance schedule (which should have things like COG and empty weight) to fill out the table to make sure you're within the required envelope (note you'll need the aircraft's total fuel, and to convert it from volume to weight, for this). Calculate runway distances required for take-off and landing, remembering to add factors recommended by the CAA and possibly your flight training organisation. Make sure the wind is within the aircraft's limits, and that you have sufficient fuel to make the flight and get to your alternate airfield (plus reserves). It might also be useful to make a few phone calls to nearby airfields asking for 'unofficial weather observations' if they don't release METARs - it's all to show you have good awareness.
Now you're ready to speak with the examiner. You'll discuss the test, the examiner's role as an 'interested passenger', weather, NOTAMs, aircraft performance, the planned route (threat and error management) and any other concerns around making the flight. You should brief the examiner on what to do in the event of an actual forced landing, ditching etc.
Once you and the examiner are both convinced the flight can be made safely, make final preparations such as booking out the aircraft and filling tech logs. Put your high-vis jacket on and make sure your examiner is wearing his, then you are ready to go out to the aircraft together; don't forget the keys!
The examiner may want to see you perform a pre-flight check. For demonstration purposes, treat this like an A-check (which you should have already done). You should have done this plenty of times by now but don't be afraid of using your checklist if you aren't sure. You'll need to keep an eye on your examiner, they're playing the role of a passenger so may do things like stand on flaps when you need to lower them, etc! You're actively trying to find something wrong with the aircraft here. You can call the flight off if something isn't right.
Take-Off, Navigation & Diversion
Remember, you have done all of this before. While getting into the aircraft, brief the examiner on using the seats and harnesses. Before take-off, note the surface wind and brief the examiner on your intended actions in case of EFATO and other take-off emergencies. Don't forget to write down take-off time, it's easy to forget under pressure. Talk through everything you do; as long as you have good reason for doing something, the examiner will be fine!
General Handling & Circuits
Again, nothing new here. If you didn't use any radio navigation aids in the navigation section then you likely will be asked to demonstrate this here. You'll perform various stalls, spiral dives, PFLs and so-on. Then return to the circuit for go-arounds, EFATO etc.
On landing, if you choose not to use full-flap, perhaps it's windy, make sure you tell the examiner why!
You'll have a good idea as to whether you passed or not, and if you don't, you'll be able to find out straight away - my examiner told me as soon as I'd shut down the engine. Write down your times, secure the aircraft and head back inside for a celebratory coffee!
As you can see, with the right approach, it's a relatively low-pressure and thoroughly enjoyable experience. Best of luck.