IFR Checkride

After a couple of months of intensive training it was match day, checkride time. Keen readers of my Private Pilot diary will remember that I needed to switch planes on the day of the checkride: history almost repeated itself.

The previous few week’s training had been undertaken in Kimberly’s new training plane N2219E but the Friday before my checkride the plane went into maintenance, and I still needed one more training flight to meet the requirements. Thanks to parts being scarce and a whole bunch of other things, we found ourselves stood next to the plane at 4pm the day before the checkride watching a man try to finish the work. It was quite painful being unable to do anything about the situation and we were starting to discuss whether we should switch planes or postpone the checkride: I favoured the latter.

Shortly after 5pm, the engine was made to return to life and a quick taxi around by the mechanic had the plane back in our hands. We jumped in and made my final practice flight. My practice flights had gone recently gone very well so I was feeling fairly confident that I had the flying portion of the checkride mastered. It helped that we knew pretty much the exact route I would take and so there would be few surprises on the day.

I met my examiner Joe Leone inside Gibbs and we inspected the logbooks and various forms that needed to be presented. Once that was taken care of Joe asked to look at my prepared flight plan. Just as with the Private I had been asked to prepare a trip – this time to Santa Maria. We followed the intended route and he asked me questions about altitudes and symbols on the chart.

I had been warned that Joe was big on lost communications procedures so I had made sure that I knew all the rules. However the first question he asked me had stumped and he went on what was the first of several walks to let me think about it. The question and others after it were all very interesting and really this was the first time I’d ever thought about how to apply the rules, rather than just regurgitate them. Several lost comm
questions later and he said we were finished with the oral part of the checkride. I was astonished as we had not talked about weather, how the instruments work, the FAA regulations or any of the stuff I had expected. Perhaps my score of 93% on the written exam made him comfortable that I knew it and he didn’t want to waste time asking ? Whatever the reason I was pleased that part was over, after all I knew I could do the flying.

For the past couple of months there has been a lot of disruption at Montgomery Field whilst they install new ground lighting. Most importantly this mean that one runway had usually been closed. Joe asked me if 28R was open or closed. 28L has no instrument approach and he explained that if 28R was closed we would have to go to Carlsbad airport and do the required ILS approach there. This would not be good – our practice route had been what he had told us it would be: VOR into Brown Field, do some maneuvers, LOC into Gillespie and the ILS back in to Montgomery. Of course, if I was truly ready to be an instrument pilot then I should be able to do Carlsbad just as well as Montgomery but I wanted no surprises. Two days earlier 28R had been closed but someone must have been looking after me as I went outside and found that 28L was closed: 28R was open!

Joe had me get my clearance to Brown Field and pre-flight the plane. We taxied out to 28R and took off. Very soon after take off Joe had me put on the foggles and then covered up the attitude indicator and the heading indicator – simulating a failure of the vacuum pump. I followed the controller’s instructions and made one of my best VOR approaches ever; I hoped that would give me credit for things I might later foul up.

We joined the traffic pattern for Brown Field (the approach does not take you straight to the runway, rather it gets you where you should be able to see it and then you circle to land) and Joe called up the tower and said we would not be landing. Instead we turned north east and Joe told me to follow the 050 radial off the VOR. He then wanted me to do an 8 mile DME arc followed by tracking the 018 degree radial. A DME arc is a procedure where you try to fly a circle around the VOR at the specified distance. The equipment in the plane tells you how far you are so its actually pretty simple, plus you get a mile’s latitude.

The 018 radial is special because it leads to a place in the air called Ryadh Intersection where there is a prescribed holding pattern. When the airspace gets busy controllers may ask you to ‘hold’ at a certain point. This entails flying a racetrack-like pattern using the hold point as the end of one of the straight parts. Joe wanted me to fly to Ryadh and hold. Identifying the hold point is done by intersecting the signals from two different VORs. Then when you get there you must make a turn of the appropriate kind to get yourself established on the holding pattern. For example, if you get to the holding point and you’re facing the wrong direction for the pattern you can’t just do a 180; the FAA has three designated procedures for sorted.

I chose the entry method appropriate to our position and performed the turn. The idea is to turn, go out for one minute, turn back towards the hold and you should reach it after another minute. I was 45 seconds late getting to the hold point which meant that taking into account the winds (and the sloppy headings of the pilot) I should not fly out so far next time. I told Joe this and he seemed satisfied.

Joe had told me that rather than use the controllers for our flight, he would handle all the radios and simulate being a controller issuing me directions. I was to respond correctly to his instructions but not key the mic when I did so. This was a huge burden lifted from the checkride. Joe’s reasons for helping the candidate out in this way is that he evaluates the pilot’s radio skills at the beginning. After that there is too much going on and the situation is unnaturally stressed; using the radio as well adds nothing to the evaluation and only harms it.

We climbed and headed out east for the performance maneuvers. The winds had picked up quite a bit after
leaving Brown Field and I was having problems keeping the plane under absolute control. In fact the
light turbulence we had the entire time would be the worst I had encountered throughout any of my training. I hoped Joe would relax the standards a bit if I messed up (and not forget that perfect partial-panel VOR approach from earlier!). The performance maneuvers are the same from the Private – steep turns and unusual attitudes. The only difference this time was that the steep turns were only for 180° rather than a full turn. This makes it a little harder, I think, though it does also give less time to mess it up? Much to my delight we only did one unusual attitude and it was rather tame – nose slightly up, slightly banked. Joe told me to prepare for the approach to Gillespie.

Joe vectored me around the sky and we were soon established on the approach into Gillespie. There is no glideslope so you descend “stair-like”, descending and levelling off until you reach a point where you are told to descend again. The go/no-go point (called the missed approach point) is timed in this approach. You time 5 minutes (at 90 knots) from a radio fix and if you can’t see the airport when the time is up then you have to do the missed approach procedures. There was a pretty strong crosswind and I found myself “chasing the needle” too much, the indicator that shows whether to go left or right would go left and then right as I tried too hard to centre it. The Gillespie controllers had told us we could not descend below 2100 feet which made me smile since the approach would be a lot easier not having to descend all the way. However my smile soon disappeared when Joe informed them we were on a checkride and if possible we’d like to go all the way down. We were cleared to do what the hell we wanted so we bumped our way down. At 5 minutes Joe said to remove the foggles and I could see that we were quite a way past the point we should have been at. This wasn’t unusual as I am not very good at holding 90 knots on the way down, a few periods of 100 knots and it is easy to overshoot. The standards say you fail if the needle deflects more than 3/4 of the width of the window. I had been chasing it around like a man possessed and I wasn’t sure if it had gone too far or not. I resolved that Montgomery would be perfect.

We turned away from Gillespie and Joe had me set up the plane for the ILS back home. We intercepted the approach course and the same needle chasing started again. But then it dawned on me – there was a strong crosswind that was blowing me off course. I was correcting for it but when the needle was centred I would turn back onto the right course and then the wind would blow me off the path again. Once I realised this I made a better job of the approach. I was holding my height pretty well, I went slightly below a couple of times but noticed it quickly and levelled off to intercept the right height again. When we reached the decision height (at which point we decide go or no/go) I was a little to the left of the runway but nothing too dramatic. I did a very smooth landing and we taxied back to parking. Joe got out, told me to put the plane to bed and join him for his decision.

I knew I had not flown as well as I had done but I thought I had done ok. It had been more work than it needed to be but it had been quite bumpy and I thought surely he would take that into account. I walked into Gibbs and Joe was talking to someone, he told me he’d be with me in a while. A while passed and someone else cornered him for some information. Then another person, I was starting to get nervous – I wanted to be put out of my misery now!! Finally we made it to the meeting room and Joe’s next checkride applicant was already in there working on her flight plan. He asked if I minded her being there for the debrief to which I said no (I would save my crying for outside). Then we got disturbed and Joe was answering more questions, more delay, this was killing me. Finally he said he needed my logbook, he made some notation inside and handed it back telling me to read what he wrote: “INSTRUMENT CHECKRIDE PASSED”. I sighed some relief and he said it had been an excellent flight. The only comments he had were to do with not repeating a hold short instruction on the ground at MYF, not repeating correctly a turn command from a controller – we had been told to turn right to a heading of east and I did not repeat the direction of turn – and that I had been too busy chasing the needle on the last two approaches. We chatted whilst he filled out the white slip and that was that; I was now an instrument rated pilot!