Tuesday, December 06, 2005


Checkride Day

Blogging has been light for the last several weeks as I was busy finishing up the IFR training in hopes of wrapping it up before the end of the year. That would satisfy two birds with one checkride, as the IFR checkride would also meet the requirements for my biennial flight review, which would otherwise fall due this month. The IFR training has taken up most of my flying time since I started in earnest in May, and by the end of October, the essential training requirements had been met, and it was only a matter of polishing things up while looking for a good date for the checkride. November was not a promising month, as my work schedule combined with the Thanksgiving holiday allowed few opportunities to take time off. The late autumn weather, with the lowering freezing levels, also kept me grounded on a few days that otherwise would have seen good IFR conditions. Faithful Instructor George and I did manage to get some productive hood time in, including one weekend were we flew four times and logged about six hours of simulated instrument time. It was good practice, but I was eager to get the checkride done, and occasionally uncertain of my chances of keeping my skills sufficiently rust-free if the early December weather proved unflyable. George seemed a bit more confident in my abilities, but as we made preparations to schedule the checkride, I couldn't help but feel a little nervous.

We tentatively scheduled Checkride Day for Friday, Decemebr 2nd, with Thursday as a possible backup in case of weather. Looking at the advance forecasts, Thursday was looking like a better option, but I was in a training class at work all week and wasn't too sure of the practicality of skipping out early.

As the week progressed, the forecast for Friday promised snow flurries and high winds - mid teens gusting to upper thirties, out of the west. That would put a healthy crosswind to all of the local approaches, not to mention the low-level terrain-induced turbulence. I didn't consider these to be unsafe conditions, but with only a few hours of turbulent time under the hood, I would have preferred smoother skies for the checkride. I actually called the FAA designated pilot examiner (DE) on Tuesday to see about moving things up to Thursday, but he was already booked for the day, so we were committed at least to the orals.

I had planned on spending Thursday night going over my notes from a three-hour mock oral that I had done with George a while back but I spent most of the evening filling out my 8710, assembling all the required documents, preparing the flight plan, and printing out and annotating all of the area approach plates.

I had been assigned to plan a flight from Westfield up to Houlton, ME. The forecast called for generally low ceilings, particularly up north, and with icing in the forecast from the surface up to well beyond Yellowbird's service ceiling, the planned flight was purely an academic exercise. With that in mind, I went a step farther and prepared an additional alternate plan using a less direct routing (the first flight plan stuck to the TEC routing between Bradley and Bangor) that took advantage of airways with lower MEAs.

Bedtime found me too tired to study, but not at all sleepy. I tried to read the AIM, but I couldn't concentrate. I tried going to bed, but I couldn't sleep. Finally, I popped an old tape (Strategic Air Command) in the VCR and watched those great silver birds of SAC cruising the skies until 1:00 am. I went to bed confident that, if Jimmy Stewart could fly a B-47 on a PAR approach down to 100 feet with one arm out of action, then I could probably navigate the Dear Little Yellowbird around the familiar skies of western Massachusetts with a few dozen knots of wind.

Friday morning brought ceilings of about 5,000 feet, and seven knots of wind. George had a PPL student (we'll call him Newbie) going for a checkride before me, so I had some time to prepare some more. As Newbie took off, I plugged in Yellowbird's preheater, and headed over to the office. George and I spent about an hour going over my paperwork and quizzing the basics of the orals to come. During this, poor Newbie was having troubles upstairs.

The winds had strengthened and were now blowing out of the west at up to 24 knots. This put a good crosswind component on all of the local runways, and with the added pressures of a checkride, a DE on board, and an FAA examiner reviewing the DE from the back seat, this proved to be Newbie's undoing. I don't know the details of how he failed, but it was a very dejected Newbie who landed back at Westfield an hour or so later.

While the DE had a few words with George, I chatted with Newbie and got his PIREP of the conditions aloft. As I had feared, things were pretty rough up there. I wasn't concerned about the wind, but I was a little anxious of the thought of trying to hold PTS altitudes and headings while getting battered around by the low level turbulence. With the expectation that conditions were to worsen as the time passed, I considered the possibility of postponing the checkride for another day. A handy excuse, if needed, would be that the ceilings were now down to just under 3,000 feet, meaning that some approaches could not be flown at the published altitudes while keeping VFR cloud clearances. I kept that in mind as I went in for the oral.

The oral portion was a little less involved than what I had prepared for. I rattled off a few regs on currency and required inspections and equipment. I showed him the log entries for the most recent transponder and static system checks, and then we looked at my flight plan. We chair-flew the first few segments of the route, and the DE quizzed me about a few aspects of chart symbology along the way. I also talked through my printed DUATS weather briefing, in which I had highlighted the most important factors, the most crucial for this flight being the threat of ice. Although forecast conditions didn't require an alternate, they were close, and I had filed one anyway. I explained my reasoning for doing so, and concluded that if this were for real, the icing factor would have kept me on the ground. That seemed good to the DE, and after briefing the approaches we would be flying for the checkride, he took a bathroom break while I headed over to preflight the Yellowbird.

By now, the ceilings had lifted to 4,000 feet, although there were a few clouds still hanging around at 2,700. The surface winds had dropped to 7 knots, but from the looks of the clouds scooting by overhead, the winds aloft were still strong. As the DE joined me on the ramp, we discussed the additional items such as pitot heat and alternate static checks that the prudent IFR pilot should include in the preflight checklist. After engine start, he had me demonstrate a dual VOR check, and after giving me a 'clearance' for our departure, we were off.

Yellowbird was full of fuel, and with two on board she was less than 100 pounds under gross weight, but with the freshening crosswind breeze, she lurched about uneasily as we climbed out of ground effect. The ride grew bumpier as we ascended, and the wind across the ridge just east of the field meant that a firm hand on the yoke was required to hold altitude at 2,500 feet. as I was vectored northeast for the ILS 23 at Westover. Given the turbulence and the better than normal performance in the cold air, I reduced power by a few inches below my normal cruise setting. This smoothed the ride a little, but it also gave me a little more time to prepare for the approach. I set up the frequencies and identified the navaids for the approach as I continued towards the base leg. I was also prepared to check the Westover ATIS, but the Bradley controller had given us the current information after our initial contact.

ILS 23 - PDF FormatAs I was vectored towards the intercept, I referred to my pre-landing checklist, and then verbalized the headings and altitudes for the approach, pointing to each pertinent instrument in turn to confirm the correct settings. As soon as the localizer came alive, I began the turn to intercept, letting the crosswind carry me towards the needle. As it centered, I tried to figure out what the wind was doing, but the constant variances in direction and speed made it quite a chore. As I intercepted the glide slope, that chore took on a second dimension as the strong headwind component called for a shallower descent rate. The winds shifted direction and speed all the way down the final approach segment, and I was stitching both the localizer and the glide slope pretty thoroughly (although still within half scale) as we bumped along towards decision height. With a hundred feet to go, I started drifting off the localizer, but I was at decision height before it got too far off.

VOR-A - PDF FormatBefore starting the approach we had requested our next approach, which would be the VOR-A into Northampton. After going missed at Westover, I turned to intercept a course direct to the Westfield VOR as Bradley cleared us for the approach. We were headed almost directly into the wind, so for the only time during the flight, I could fly for a few minutes without concerning myself too much with wind correction. I took the time to set up for the approach, including setting the Northampton CTAF frequency in standby. Upon reaching the VOR, I turned to intercept the radial, and as I descended towards the final approach fix, the DE quizzed me on the requirements for a circling approach and requested that I make an appropriate pattern entry instead of going missed. He also pulled out the instrument covers and failed my vacuum system. I split my scan between the altimeter and VOR on one side of the panel and the turn coordinator and clock on the other. For this approach, we had a quartering tailwind, but it was a little steadier on the west side of the ridge so I didn't have to watch the needle as closely. The wind did increase our ground speed, so when the time to the MAP elapsed and I took the hood off, I found that we were directly over the field. I announced my intentions on CTAF, entered a left upwind for runway 32, and descended to pattern altitude. At the base turn, the DE had me leave the pattern and we headed north for some airwork.

This consisted of two unusual attitude recoveries, one with full panel and the other with partial panel. Both were considerably more conservative than those that George had thrown at me during training. Both were handled satisfactorily, and the DE gave me a heading back towards home and our last approach.

VOR 20 - PDF FormatI called Bradley and requested the VOR 20, with a hold at the final appraoch fix. They asked if we could climb to 3,500 to keep the approach course clear, and since the ceiling had lifted, I complied. We were already on the radial, and I picked up the ATIS and then noted the wind correction angle as we tracked inbound towards the holding fix. At the fix I turned to an appropriate outbound heading and started the timer as the wings leveled. A minute later I turned inbound and intercepted the radial back to the fix. Inbound, the instrument covers came out again and the DE quizzed me about the timed turn required to reach our desired outbound heading. I did the math and came up with a fifty second turn. I started the clock at the fix and rolled into a standard rate turn, while also noting that the headwind on our inbound leg had delayed our arrival at the fix by nearly one minute. I announced that I would shorten our outbound leg accordingly as I rolled into the turn.

Yellowbird still has her original turn coordinator, and it's always been a bit flaky, particularly in rough air. The gyro seems healthy (It takes several minutes to spin down after shutdown), but it bounces around quite a bit in turbulence. Today it let me down. Try as I might, I could not keep it stable at the standard rate mark. Without the attitude indicator, the best I could do was to try and split the difference between the turn coordinator's fluctuations, but it wasn't good enough. With several seconds still to go on the timer, the DE uncovered my directional gyro and I saw that I had passed through the desired outbound heading by nearly 30 degrees. I turned to correct, and announced that I must have been banked too steeply during the turn. This seemed to satisfy the DE, and I continued the outbound leg as he instructed me to prepare to continue the approach.

At this time, Bradley asked if we were ready to come home, and cleared us for the approach as I turned inbound. We were still at 3,500 feet, well above the crossing altitude for the final approach fix, but the wind slowed our ground speed and gave us plenty of time to descend to the minimum descent altitude. The winds were now out of the southwest gusting to about 25 knots, putting a good crosswind component on both 20 and 33. For the sake of exercise, I requested to circle for 33, and leveled off at the circling minimum descent altitude. In due time, we crossed the missed approach point at the VOR midfield and I took the hood off. A mile later I turned to enter a truncated left downwind for 33, and descended for a somewhat bumpy, but apparently satisfactory landing.

The IFR Photo OpThe DE complimented me on my airmanship as we taxied back to the terminal, and I started breathing again. Inside, we debriefed a little. Drifting off the localizer during the last few feet of the first approach was the day's only glitch, but it was apparently within the PTS. He took my plastic pilot's certificate and gave me a fresh Temporary Airman Certificate displaying the magic words "Instrument Airplane", and we headed out to the ramp for a photo. I chatted with George for a while before taxiing Yellowbird back to her tiedown. I tucked her in, with tarps on the wings against the snow forecast for the coming week, and then went home and tucked myself in for a much needed nap.

The bottom line: In all, it took about 70 flight hours to get my instrument rating. Thirteen of those were flown in actual instrument conditions, and the rest were flown under the hood. About 130 instrument approaches were flown into 20 different airports. Flight work started in earnest in June of 2005, after taking the written exam in May. Most of the lessons were flown with George, but I did go up with another instructor (a friend of George's) twice, and flew four times with various pilot friends acting as safety pilot.


Posted by Anonymous Paul at 1:03 PM, December 06, 2005  

Congratulations!! I think the IFR ticket is one of the most satisfying checkrides out there (not that I've done anything beyond that to know, mind you), sounds like you nailed it pretty good, too. Excellent write-up.

Posted by Blogger John at 5:40 PM, December 06, 2005  

Excellent! Congrats! The instrument rating is one of the hardest ratings and it sounds like ya done good.

Posted by Anonymous Ed Stromboneski at 10:08 PM, December 06, 2005  

Hooray for Scott!!! You had me wondering about a pass/fail/pass/fail/pass as often as you stitched across the ILS 23 at Westover. My heart was ticking as much as yours. Great job on a challenging day. You've earned your new rating. Congratulations.


Posted by Blogger MyFlightBlog at 11:17 AM, December 09, 2005  

Congratulations. Always nice when the DE gives high praise for your airmanship!

Posted by Anonymous Jim Howard at 8:15 AM, December 10, 2005  


Posted by Blogger Aaron DeAngelis at 10:55 PM, December 16, 2005  

Great job, Scott!

Posted by Blogger Dave at 12:11 PM, January 01, 2006  

Congratulations on the checkride! You mentioned on my blog that you felt your GPS track was "sloppier" then you remembered. What a great training aid. It is a bit embarrasing to post my huge 's-curves' for the entire world to see, but it does help me to focus on my weak areas. Looking forward to following your blog in '06.

Posted by Blogger Robert at 7:53 PM, March 05, 2006  

Congratulations! I'm in the middle of my IFR training right now and it's great to read about your experience. Fly Safely and many happy landings!

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