Cleared for the Clouds

I wasn’t sure if it was worth paying my CFII to accompany me up to the check ride. I went back and forth about it. The check ride was schedule for Tuesday, October 24 at 11am. It was going to be up at Paso Robles, about an hour and a half flight from Santa Monica. I watched the weather for a week before. I couldn’t go flying, since the plane was in the shop for its annual, so it gave me something to do. I first started worrying about it on my IFR cross country when we arrived at KPRB, also at 11am. The airport was covered with a blanket of nice, soft clouds. If I was VFR I would not have been able to land. So I booked Liz’s time, and then worried about whether it was necessary.

It turned out to be a great decision.

First, Santa Monica itself was IFR at 9am, when I needed to depart. I had filed an IFR flight plan up to Paso Robles via the Internet and it was fun to pick up the clearance from Santa Monica ground and hear the clearance trail off to “… as filed.” (I was also already nervous. My friend Art came by and talked to me as I was sitting in the plane, a good distraction while I was waiting for Liz. Having another pilot in the plane is a good idea if you are nervous. As I told the examiner, I never fly if I am that nervous.) We took off into fog and mist. I went under the hood.
Ah, hood time.

To take your instrument check ride you need to have logged forty hours of simulated or actual IMC (Instrument Metrological Conditions). I started this morning with 40.7, neatly documented in my online log and my handwritten logbook (entries which require the signature of an instructor I put in the paper logbook; it’s so difficult to sign a computer screen). Near the beginning of my training I noticed that when we landed the hood time was, essentially, the same as the flight time. My plane is right next to the runway and the time to taxi to the active is just a few minutes. I started logging the whole flight as hood time.

That was a mistake.

G, the examiner, started knocked a tenth of an hour off of the flights where the hood time matched the flight time. Flights with multiple landings he knocked off a tenth of an hour off for each landing. He was going back and forth between the paper log and the computer log and comparing things. There were entries in the paper log which I knew were incorrect which I would then correct in the paper log. He said I had to stay with the paper log. It was a nightmare. It lasted forty-five minutes and after about fifteen I had to leave the room to walk around.

He whittled it down so that I was hour and a tenth short of the necessary forty. I reminded him that I had flown up to Paso Robles under the hood, so that was another 1.4 and another 0.1 actual IMC. I had a spare 0.6. I really could have used a tranquilizer and a long nap at that point. We went through the rest of the paperwork, which was trivial. I had a fancy bound presentation of all of my necessary log entry and endorsements. Part of that was the record of the written exam. He said the FAA needed the actual slip of paper, so I had to remove it from the binding a little carefully. He once had to send one in that the pilot had laminated (it was a 100% correct on the written and the guy was proud of it).

G said that now the test was going to begin.

He went through a very official-sounding speech about the results of the test and how it might terminate, what was being tested and how the test would be run. Then we started the oral portion.

On Sunday I had called him up for a cross-country assignment. He told me to plan a flight from Paso Robles up to Santa Rosa. Now he will look over the work that I have done. On the private pilot check ride this is a major portion of the test, because you are learning to navigate by pilotage, dead reckoning and reading of charts while aloft. You need to figure out the wind correction for the winds aloft, how that affects your design course and so forth and so on. The truth is that on IFR flights you want to know if there are such huge headwinds that you ETE (Estimated Time Enroute) or your fuel calculations are going to be affected, but other than that you are tracking VOR radials, where you correct for the wind in your piloting.

So mostly he wants to know if I know how to read a low-altitude enroute chart, which has a lot of special little notations like the altitude that you need to fly in order to receive radio transmissions and the altitude that you need to cross specific intersections. He can stump me, even with the legend of the map at hand. He mostly wants to teach me things about the charts and to show me that there’s a lot more information there than I currently read. G is clever and the standard wishy-washy tone for answers these days doesn’t fool him. Even if the answer is correct he says, “Are you sure?” Knowing the right answer and knowing that you are right are two different things.

He wants to know about filing alternate airports for my flight plan. You need to file an alternate if the weather projection at your destination airport is below certain minimums. That’s meaningless to me in real life because I think you are crazy to fly even VFR to an airport and not have an alternate airport in mind to land nearby. Even as I am entering the pattern at a new airport I am aware of the three nearest airports.

Here is my favorite question, which I answered correctly even when my CFII first quizzed me: When flying Part 91 (which is the not-for-hire set of rules that little private airplanes fly under) what are the minimums (visibility and height of cloud ceiling) for take off? The stunning answer? Zero zero. You are legally allowed to take off when you cannot see in front of the plane because there is a cloud sitting on the runway. We talked a little about how crazy that was, and what my personal minimums were for taking off.

He asked about lost communication procedures and went over the flight I had planned and what I would do if I lost my radios immediately upon departure. He showed me how he would have filed a little differently so that if he did lose his radios he would be cleared deeper into the approach. That was interesting to learn. (Art says that G’s check rides are in part tutoring sessions, which is true.)

G asked about what equipment is legally required for IFR flying. Again, this is a stupid question to me. The equipment necessary for flying IFR is in the IFR-certified airplane you purchase or rent. You aren’t going to get into a Cessna 172 down at the rental place and start going through the list and say, “Hey, there’s no directional gyro in this aircraft, I’m not legal for IFR.” If things are missing, I don’t fly at all. Period.

That’s the sort of question in this sort of testing that makes me lose a little ground. A hard-assed examiner would say if you can’t answer it you shouldn’t get the certificate, as if answering it correctly means you are going to avoid flying into an apartment building and answering it incorrectly means you won’t. Nope. Neither. It only means that you are able to memorize something meaningless.

Considering these things, especially during the test, does no good for my blood pressure and I try not to dwell on them.

We talk about the IFR scenarios just a little more. I mention that I will not do a contact approach ever (that’s where you can see a mile ahead, know the neighborhood and fly around looking for the airport). I also will not do a circle-to-die approach. Neither is allowed by operations like FedEx, and I do not pretend that I fly well enough to fly for them. And yet, my cargo is more precious. Finally he says, “I’ve had enough of this, how ’bout you? Should we go flying?”

Okay, but before we go flying we have to talk about what we will be doing when we are flying.

G is a much easier examiner than P, the hard-ass down at Santa Monica. P was taking off with a G1000 candidate a couple weeks ago and as they were taking off he said, “Oh, too bad, your autopilot failed, so you won’t be able to use it on this flight.” That’s foolish. If my autopilot failed on take off I would return to the field and fly another day (I fly all the time without the autopilot, but it is so integrated into the plane that I would worry it was a harbinger of something else). He just wanted to make the fellow fly the entire test by hand, which isn’t really meaningful since the guy owns a plane with an autopilot. Even if the candidate happened to have the skills to fly the whole test by hand, if he uses his autopilot all the time afterwards his skills will degrade anyway. Technically, the FAA allows you to use the autopilot for one of the two non-precision approaches during the test. G told me I could do that. I told him that I had been hand flying for almost all of my training and that I would probably just hand fly for the test, unless there was a moment I had to copy down a clearance or something. He said that was fine.

He said that with the electronics in the G1000 system in my plane it wasn’t really necessary to do partial panel work. (That’s where the examiner pretends that some portion of your flight instrument system has failed and, for instance, you suddenly do not have an airspeed indicator.) If the airspeed indicator fails on the G1000 I have a secondary steam gauge (old style) airspeed indicator directly above the screen. I also have the ground speed readout from the GPS. Three things have to fail. That seems more than just unlikely. So G doesn’t do any partial panel testing.

(I have three days of instruction due to me down at a place in Long Beach with a full G1000 simulator. My goal for that training is to see what it is like to fly some of these approaches when some of the more complex systems fail. What does it look like when the number one Airspeed Heading Reference Data fails? What is an alternator failure like in IMC and what steps do I want to drill? These are really hard things to teach in the airplane and really easy in an advanced simulator.)

He doesn’t mention it, but he doesn’t test on any of the maneuvers, either. I have drilled on the steep turns, power off stalls, power on stalls and slow flight, but he won’t be testing me on any of that. We will do the following:

Depart Paso Robles VFR, climbing to 5,500 feet and heading to the KIKII intersection near the San Luis Obispo airport. We will contact Santa Barbara approach and ask for three practice approaches at SBP.

First we will do the GPS approach, but go missed (not landing, flying past the runway landing point), then we’ll be outbound away from the airport in the opposite direction. That will position us for the ILS approach back in. After it we will fly the missed approach for that, and then as we fly toward the published missed we will be on the set-up for the VOR approach. We will fly missed for the third approach and then we would fly back to Paso Robles.

We climbed toward KIKII.

I climbed to 5,500 under the hood and called the controller. He was really busy. I told him what we wanted and he said to stand by. Then he said “N971RD, squawk 4640.” I acknowledged and he said, “Three thousand five hundred and zero-one-zero on the heading.” I turned my heading bug (which reminds me what he told me to do because sometimes it takes a moment to comply and you can forget) to 010. It looked entirely wrong so I radioed back. “Santa Barbara Approach, confirm zero-one-zero heading for N971RD.” He said, “N971RD is direct to CADAB.” That’s the first intersection on the approach, so that was good. I was descending to the cleared altitude and was about to call back and confirm that when G said, “What are you doing on your altitude?” I started to climb back to 5,500 and said I had been cleared down. He said, “I didn’t hear that.”

Thinking about it carefully, I believe that my acknowledgement stepped on the controller saying the call sign of another aircraft. G said, “That was a gift. Listen closer.” That means, “Technically, I could fail you, you have just performed at less than the practical test standards.”

We went into the hold for the approach. The controller kept telling us about other planes heading our way, including a Brasilia, which is a rather large commercial plane. G keeps swiveling his head and looking around, but rarely reports traffic in sight, which makes me really nervous (mid-air collisions happen near airports), on top of being nervous and knowing that I already failed to perform to standards and I haven’t even started any of the approaches.

I talked to myself. “Turn to heading 155 after CADAB.” When I am flying the approach I often talk about the time remaining to the next point in the approach, so I do that. G seems a little grumpy, but he said in the briefing that “No news is good news,” so I keep flying like I can pass.

We do the GPS approach. After I have started down the steps I realize that I have forgotten to brief the approach. So I start reading things off the approach plate and G said, “That’s okay, just fly the approach.” I am a little high and a little fast. I meant to just do everything at a snail’s pace of ninety-five knots, but I know that it extends the torture so I probably keep the speed a little too high. We go missed and fly out over the ocean.

I am struggling to stay ahead of the airplane, thinking ahead to the next task. I brief this approach a little better. I make all the correct radio calls. I wander off heading a little while I am looking at the approach plate, but that’s why I will always be starting my approach with the autopilot on. I fly the published missed approach procedure and G says it would be better to get a real good rate of climb off of the runway before doing anything else (I was setting the course, setting altitude bug, tuning the radio). I fly the missed approach toward the hold, which is over the Morrow Bay VOR.

As we approach the VOR I start briefing the approach and get a pair of points tangled for a moment. I say I should be at 3,800 feet over the VOR, then see the name of the VOR (MOQ) near another point and say, “No, wait, 3,800 here, then 1,700 over the VOR.” G says, “You’re reading that wrong.” I wipe the sweat out of my eyes, take a deep breath and turn on the autopilot (allowed since I haven’t used it yet and this is the last of the three approaches). I read the plate correctly, we pass over the VOR and now we are on the VOR approach.

I use the autopilot’s heading bug to turn the plane outbound. I need to do a procedure turn, where I turn away from the approach course, time outbound and then turn inbound to recapture the course. I spin the heading bug and the autopilot turns away from the course. I time our run outward, and then start spinning the heading bug to get us back to the approach. The autopilot is confused and starts to wiggle a little, so I turn it off and fly by hand for the rest of the approach. G mentions that I might be a little high, but I prefer a little high to a little low.

We get down to minimums and tell the tower we’ll be heading back to Paso Robles. He says to let us know when we are terminating the approach. G takes the plane and says, “We’re heading back.” No news is good news, but I still apologized for “the worst flying I have done since October 19 2005.”

On the way back to PRB, he circles the house he is building (and which is nearly finished). We talk a little about the area. Back at the airport (my worse landing in months) we do paperwork, which seems interminable. He goes down and has a Bloody Mary. He lives in wine country and I think the check rides that go through lunch, when he would have a glass of wine, are a little long for him. I also don’t discount how harrowing it must be to go through multiple approaches at a busy airport with an instrument candidate in a plane he has never been in.

He wants to sit in the bar and talk with Liz. I need to relax and just drink a Coke until my blood pressure returns to normal. I send a text message to Nell to tell her I passed. (I had sent one after I had passed the oral portion of the exam.) Finally, I get Liz extricated (the bar tender was taking pictures with her) and we climb into N971RD for the ride home. We climb to 7,500 feet and I remember flying this exact route when I was on my first cross country flight with my private pilot instructor. We were at 5,500, and I remember looking at the terrain and wondering where to land if the engine quit. I stare down from 7,500 and think about where to land if the engine quits.

We collect the weather in the LA basin with the G1000’s XM weather link. Santa Monica has gone IFR. There’s a fog rolling in off the Pacific. All the other airports are still open VFR, but not mine. As we cross over Santa Barbara I ask for an instrument route and approach to get home. It’s my first real approach. I’m not under the hood, I’m still just looking outside. We fly over Camarillo, then Van Nuys and Burbank. They vector us a little for the jet traffic into Burbank’s airport, but then they turn us toward Santa Monica and start us on a descent. I pass DARTS at 4500, descend to 2600 to pass over BEVEY (in Beverly Hills), and then drop to 1120 to pass over CULVE (in Culver City, which is right on the 405), before dropping to 680 minimums for the approach. At BEVEY I am still looking outside occasionally and we are flying toward a huge wall of a cloud. We fly right into it and I look down at the instruments.

We come out the bottom of the cloud a mile from the end of the runway. We’re at 700 feet, high for that close in, but we’re going a leisurely eighty-five knots and I slip down, twisting the plane in the air and lining us up on the center line. I drag the wheels onto the ground without a whisper from them. The airport is ghostly, with the beacon turning in the mist, the runway lights all on, and very few planes moving around. In an hour the fog will probably descend another hundred feet and the airport will be closed.

It was an excellent close to a tough day, which itself was a hard, nerve-wracking end to the long adventure of getting the instrument rating. I will not be pursuing another rating any time in the near future. I plan to do some additional instrument training (particularly on the simulator), so that I am safer, but I will not be ramping up toward a commercial rating.

About Colin Summers

I am an architect, programmer, private pilot, husband and father. A couple of those I am good at.
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