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Welcome to the second part of the instrument checkride. This is the second of two parts covering my checkride for the instrument rating. If you haven’t checked out Part 1, make sure that you download it and listen to it. It contains background information that’s helpful to understanding some of the material in this episode and will bring you up to speed on the checkride so far.
Also, if you’re following along at home, you can download the approach charts here.
Flint RNAV Runway 18: http://media.libsyn.com/media/airspeed/KFNT-RNAV-18.pdf
Flint VOR Runway 9: http://media.libsyn.com/media/airspeed/KFNT-VOR-9.pdf
Pontiac ILS 9R: http://media.libsyn.com/media/airspeed/KPTK-ILS-9R.pdf
To set the stage, we’re about an hour into the checkride and we’ve just completed the RNAV approach to Runway 18 at Flint, Michigan and gotten vectors for the VOR Runway 9 approach.
As we’re getting closer to the approach course, a hand reaches in from the right and places a cover over the attitude indicator. For those not familiar with the cockpit of most general aviation aircraft, that’s the instrument with the artificial horizon that helps you tell whether you’re pitched up or down or rolling left or right. It’s a central part of the instrument scan in most phases of instrument flight.
Mary asks me if I know what that means. It could mean that the individual instrument has failed. It could also mean that the vacuum system has failed, which would take out both the attitude indicator and the directional gyro. The directional gyro is in the middle of the bottom for of the “six pack” of primary flight instruments and it tells you which magnetic course you’re on. It’s your primary instrument for bank when you’re in most phases of flight because a change in heading usually means that you’re rolling.
I clarify with Mary that I’m not supposed to assume that I have a vacuum failure for the moment. If I was supposed to assume that, I brought along my own covers so that I could cover up the DG as well.
You cover an instrument in training to simulate its failure. But, if you have an actual failure, both the regulations and common sense require that you cover the instrument. If you don’t cover it, you’ll very likely continue to keep it in your scan and you’ll even rely on its indications at some lizard-brain level even though you know that it’s failed.
So now I’m relying on the altimeter for pitch. Soon, when Mary takes away the DG, I’ll be relying on the turn and bank indicator and the magnetic compass for roll and the altimeter, airspeed indicator, and vertical speed indicator (or “VSI”), in varying degrees, for pitch.
This is an opportunity for me to demonstrate that I can control the airplane using less than all of the instruments, but is also a reminder of the redundancy of the instrumentation in the airplane and the capabilities that we still have even if systems start to fail us.
By the way, when I say that I’m looking for the traffic that approach just called, it means that Mary is looking for it. As a part of our preflight briefing, we agreed that she’d do everything that required eyeballs outside the aircraft, but that I would run the radios just as though I was looking outside. She advised me whenever she had something in sight and I handled the communications to approach or the tower.
Also, I normally fly instrument approaches with the GPS overlay, which means that, even if it’s not an approach that requires GPS as such, I load in the approach and use the moving map and other elements of the GPS display to maintain situational awareness. It’s really helpful. For this approach, which is clearly going to be a partial-panel VOR approach, Mary takes me the rest of the way old school by having me dial down the brightness of the GPS screen so that I can’t see it.
Then we get clearance for the VOR 9 approach.
Then it’s over to the tower.
You heard the tower controller tell me that I was south of course, which is fine (I was, in fact, south of course), but then she asks my intentions.
I never know what to say that wouldn’t be sarcastic or taken the wrong way. You can hear me get tongue-tangled before Mary just tells me to say that I’m correcting. I actually wasn’t that far off. The needle was still well short of full deflection and I was correcting back to the center of the course. I was still eight miles out. The controller even said that I was only slightly south.
She may not know that I’m missing two of my most helpful instruments, have the FAA in the right seat, am gripping the seat cushion tightly with my butt cheeks, and am busier than a one-armed paper hanger. But I’m clearly trying to fly a bloody instrument approach.
Do I respond, “I’m flying the VOR 9 at Flint?” That would come off as sarcastic, right?
How about “I must have had problems in my early childhood that are now causing me to pollute your airspace. I am not worthy” Still not good.
Look, don’t piss off a controller on your checkride. But what to you say even if you’re trying to be respectful?
And how would that little dig from ATC go over in other circumstances? “Say, Mr. Woods, you seem to have failed to get it within 10 feet of the pin from the fairway bunker 250 yards out with your three-wood . . . Say your intentions.”
Hose off, eh?
Okay. Rant over. I’m pretty sure that the controller wasn’t being deliberately mean. Just bad timing.
But still, I get this.
What? I looked at my approach plate, I had thoroughly briefed the approach, I still had 100 feet to go. The transponder had the correct altimeter setting dialed in. I don’t know what the problem was. But Mary could clearly see that I had nailed everything and said nothing.
Okay. Time to just fly the airplane. Things don’t go as you expect them to all the time. You have to deal with unexpected distractions. This is especially true on an instrument checkride. I’m sure that the controller was doing her best and had her screen and other information to go by. Again, just bad timing.
And I’m pleased to report that I absolutely nailed this approach. A little after the tower gave me grief about being off course, I had the needle centered, power set, crab angle established, and all of the gages were like they were painted on.
I am not used to this happening, especially when partial panel. I actually tuned and re-identified the VOR on that approach because the VOR needle was centered and not moving and I entertained the thought for a moment that the VOR receiver or instrument was broken. That’s never happened to me before. Got to like it.
Okay. Here’s the final approach. I’m at the minimum descent altitude of 1,300. I maintain this until the missed approach point, which is going to be directly over the VOR on the airport. I can tell when I’ve passed the VOR when the indicator flips and tells me that I’m now going FROM the VOR instead of TO it. That’s what I mean when I say that I’m watching for the flip.
I also re-brief my missed approach procedure here because we’re going to be flying that missed approach out to an intersection called KATTY. KATTY is off the east of the airport at the intersection of the 097 radial of the Flint VOR and the 006 radial of the Pontiac VOR. I John King all of this to Mary so that she knows that I know what I’m supposed to do.
I also go through my pre-landing checklist.
So I complete the approach and tell departure that I’m going missed. Departure clears me to KATTY and tells me to hold as requested. Mary tells me that that was a good approach and I admit to why I re-identified Flint. She also gives me back my attitude indicator and DG, as well as the GPS. Thank you, thank you, thank you!
As we approach KATTY, I describe the hold and go through my cruise checklist.
A holding pattern is essentially a racetrack in the sky. You do all turns at standard rate (which means a minute for each of the turns, and you fly your outbound leg such that you get as close to one-minute inbound lets as possible. It’s trial and error for a few turns around and you usually get it nailed by the second or third time around. Unless there’s a massive crosswind. More on that later.
Then another snag. The scattered layer is such that we can’t stay far enough from the clouds at 3,500, so we ask for 3,000. No dice. I though that maybe we could hold somewhere else around Flint and asked for suggestions. I’ve held at various places around Flint and didn’t anticipate having any problems. I was pretty disappointed about not being able to go to KATTY, though. The outbound and unpound courses would have been more or less directly into or out of the wind, making the hold a lot easier. Remember, the winds aloft are howling along at around 50 knots.
But Mary decides to go to Pontiac. Not a problem because I’ve held west of the Pontiac VOR on several occasions and that would still give me a more or less directly into and out of the wind course for the outbound and inbound legs. Again, more on that later.
Okay, remember when I alluded that Korea had something to do with the checkride?
The ICAO identifier for the Oakland County International Airport (called “Pontiac”) is “KPTK.” But the VOR is “PSI.” Unlike Flint, where the airport is “KFNT” and the VOR is “FNT,” Pontiac’s VOR is different.
All of this would be less of a problem if it weren’t for the fact that there is, in fact, a VOR with the identifier “PTK.” But it is not near Pontiac. It is not in Michigan. It is not on the North American continent. “PTK” is a VOR-DME associated with a US military airbase near Pyeongtaek in the Republic of Korea.
Mary hints that I might have an issue. I know that the VOR is off the field and that, unlike Flint, there’s a material difference between flying to the airport and flying to the VOR. But I have it stuck in my head that I need to dial in “PTK.” “PSI” does not enter my mind until approach calls me up and ass if I’m taking the scenic route.
I reply that I’m going to the VOR, but by now I’m way off course for even the VOR. You can hear the departure controller key her mic and then let go of it trying to figure out what to say.
We finally get it cleared up and I admit that I’ve goofed up with the GPS.
Here’s the thing. I had the Pontiac VOR dialed in and was good to go before I started playing with the GPS. I wanted to get an overlay with the GPS so I’d be ready to have it help me with the hold. But I ignored the VOR needle that would have told me that I was deviating further and further from course as I gave my attention to the GPS.
I still recommend using redundant instruments to help navigate whenever you can. But always do two things. Make sure that you actually identify each navaid before you decide to fly to it and then cross-ckeck those instruments to avoid making the mistake that I made.
Alternatively, carry a lot of gas. You’ll need it to get to Korea.
Mary gives me my holding clearance.
North. She said north.
Hey, it makes a lot of sense. The VOR is west northwest of the field and they’re using 9R and 9L for landing traffic. Holding north keeps us further out of the approach path – even further than if we were to hold west with left turns (which would keep us on the north side of the inbound course).
But that means that I have to hold with 40 or 50 knots of direct crosswind. Get out your crab angles, ladies and gentlemen, because Mary’s going to be looking at the VOR out of her side window on the inbound course.
There’s nothing wrong with what Mary wanted to set up. And it’s safer from a traffic avoidance perspective. It’s just that I had put a lot of emphasis on nailing the inbound times during my training and fared that I was going to be all over the closk by the time I had my turns set up.
So we get the ATIS and call up Pontiac tower to let them know that we’re going to hold on the VOR.
So we get to the VOR, turn right, and fly outbound for a minute and then turn right again most of the way back to the inbound course. I’m trying to get to the course line, but we have a savage crosswind that’s keeping us from getting to the course line. I finally get to the VOR ar just about the same time as I finally intercept the inbound course. I just flew a course that would look a lot like one leaf of a clover. I didn’t even get to start my time on the inbound course.
Not horrible for the first trip around in a howling crosswind. At least I made it back to the VOR.
A little humming appropriate to the circumstances on the way back around for another trip. I tried to hit the timer when I got to the approach course, but the button didn’t engage. It wasn’t that far off, though. The amazing thing was that I had to take a 60-degree cut at the onbound course in order to maintain the proper ground track. That means that I was making a 180 course over the ground, but the nose of the aircraft was pointing at 120. The long and short of it was that, even though the button didn’t engage, I made it to the course line and tracked it in accurately in an amount of time reasonably close to where I was supposed to be. And Mary cut me some slack for the button, probably in light of the stupendous crosswind.
We call up Detroit Approach and ask for a clearance to shoot the ILS for 9R at Pontiac.
This will be the precision approach. The other two provided no vertical guidance. I had to monitor the altitude on the approach course myself. I still have to do that for the missed approach point on this ILS, but vertical guidance up to that point is provided courtesy of the glideslope broadcast and a horizontal needle on the panel that tells me whether I’m above or below the glideslope.
Detroit Approach gives me a vector for the ILS.
As I go through the approach briefing, we talk a little bit about the ground speed. It’s still pretty blustery at altitude, but it’ll likely slow down as we descend.
I do the last of the descent checklist and then talk through what I’m going to do about the pre-landing checklist.
Then I’m cleared for the ILS.
The approach tells me to contact the tower.
We’re flying the last part of the ILS. I’m inbound on the localizer and I identify WAKEL, which is the initial approach fix for this approach, by seeing that we’ve crossed the 199 radial of the Pontiac VOR and seeing that the outer marker light has come on. I start the timer so that, if I lose the glideslope, I can still fly the approach as a localizer approach and determine my missed approach point using the time.
The altitude ticks down and I announce out loud the remaining altitude down to the missed approach point. On the ILS for 9R at Pontiac, you follow the glideslope down to 1,180 feet, or about 200 feet above the runway surface. If you have a half mile of visibility and you can see the runway environment at that point, you can land. Mary tells me to tell her when I’m 100 feet above the minimum altitude. I get to about 1,300 feet and announce that I have a hundred feet to go. She takes the airplane to let me flip up my view-limiting device and tells me to land.
For the first time in about an hour and a half, I lift the view-limiting device and can see out the window. The runway is just as the instruments advertised – about a half mile in front of me and about 300 feet below. I follow the VASI light indications on the left side of the runway and maintain the glideslope all the way to the runway and put it down competently. Not the most graceful landing ever, but competent and safe. We’re a little fast because of the winds and the gust factor and I left the flaps at only 10 degrees, which seemed appropriate given the winds.
Then we clean up the airplane and taxi back to Tradewinds. As appears to be Mary’s custom, we sit in the airplane in the middle of the ramp for a couple of minutes after shutdown and she debriefs me on how the flight went.
Then she tells me that I passed. I’m not surprised by this. I trained hard for this ride and, other than a few moments en route to Korea, it was pretty solid. I never really got more than a few dots from the approach course on any of the approaches, kept the altitudes pretty solid, managed the hold reasonably well given the crosswind, and shot the best partial-panel non-precision instrument approach of my life.
A solid checkride of which I think I’m justifiably proud.
Having had a chance to think over the experience, I have the following reflections on the experience.
I used simulators a lot in my preparation for this rating. I knew it was a good idea from the beginning, but also got a lot of assistance from Tom Gilmore’s book, published by ASA, called Teaching Confidence in the Clouds. There’s lots of good information in the book about how to best use simulators for IFR training and you can also hear Tom talking with Jason Miller The Finer Points – Episode 91.
I took about three years to finally finish this rating. I started within a few weeks after getting my private ticket, but took breaks for the birth of my daughter and at the end of each calendar year when my law practice consumed all of my time, as it usually does. I took about 60 hours of dual training by the time it was all over, the excess over the Part 141 required 35 hours being largely knocking the rust off upon returning to instrument flight after long absences and getting to the point where I was actually improving and taking a few more flights in actual preparation for the checkride than I really needed to. I don’t have any problem with having taken that long. It allowed me to meet the other commitments in my life and, after all, it’s time flying an aircraft! How bad could that be?
If you really want to progress, you need to fly about twice a week and you need to reserve enough time to get at least 2.5 hours Hobbs for each lesson, especially if you have to go somewhere other than your primary airport in order to shoot instrument approaches. I shot most of mine at Flint, about 20 minutes from Pontiac if the winds permit. Early flights should be shorter because there’s a steep learning curve but, by the time you’re regularly shooting approaches and polishing your skills, you need enough time to shoot at least four to six approaches on each flight and the usual two-hour block that results in 1.3 hours of Hobbs time won’t cut it.
Many people find the instrument rating “the toughest ticket” and it is in a lot of ways. But I actually found it easier than the private ticket. It required a lot more cerebral stuff and book learning, but I’m a better book learner than a kinesthetic learner. If you’re like me, you’ll find the instrument rating a really wonderful intellectual exercise. I’m not saying that it’s not hard work, but it’s the kind of work I really enjoy.
If, like me, you do most of your training in Class C airspace with full ATC service and vectors galore. Make sure that you go fly in less congested airspace where you’re talking to a center controller who doesn’t baby you and wants to clear you onto the CTAF of your destination uncontrolled airport as soon as possible. Out there, you’re much more responsible for your own destiny and have to be a little more on your toes.
Also, get used to flying instrument approaches into uncontrolled airports and the techniques and communications that that involves. Bear in mind that you have VFR traffic at those airports that has no idea what you’re talking about if all you speak is IFR. “Cadillac traffic, Cessna Zero-Tango-Alpha is inbound on the localizer for Runway 7 at Cadillac” doesn’t tell the VFR traffic much. Say something like “Cessna Zero-Tango-Alpha is five miles out on the localizer for Runway 7 and will be making a long straight-in approach over the lake. Cadillac.” Describe what you’re doing in a way that VFR traffic will understand. And watch for that J3 Cub with no radio. Remember that, in some cases, he could be out there in the pattern with no radio even if it’s one-mile visibility and be completely legal.
Lastly, I’ve had some of the most inspiring experience of my flight career during instrument training. Three things here. Breaking out of the clouds or coming out from under the hood at 400 feet and a half mile after not looking out the window for more than an hour and finding yourself lined up on a runway more than a hundred miles from where you launched never ceases to amaze me. Flying broadside into a big, white, puffy cumulus cloud the size of an aircraft carrier in the sky is absolutely unmatched for inspiration. And that rare and precious flight where ATC gives you an altitude where you can literally drag your wheels in the clouds for miles and miles at a time. Those experiences just don’t happen if you don’t take the leap and go after your instrument ticket.
I remember coming up through an overcast layer for the first time with Eamon Burgess and Eamon saying “This is why we learn to fly on instruments.” He was right.