The IFR Checkride

In retrospect, I had been getting good help to prepare for that checkride all along. I knew my stuff so well, come exam day, that my examiner could tell from the first five minutes of the oral that she would have to really dig deeply to find something I would have a hard time with. In fact, I actually had to prompt her to ask if she'd like to review my cross-country flight plan. it! That is, my ticket to learn more. Not that there was any doubt.

"I think you've memorized this book," said the examiner, looking up from the Instrument Oral Test Guide.

"We're good friends," I acknowledged modestly.

As several people had told me about her, she has over 45,000 hours and has been a flight examiner for 25 years, and is good at making people feel at ease. That went well with the effort I had put into maintaining a calm and confident mindset. The two kind of locked in together and stayed that way.

My pre-flight prep was sufficiently well-organized that it generated few questions. All the documents were there, including a summary I made up of the dates of the most recent and next due equipment checks on that airplane. In fact, it was so complete that she almost forgot to ask me about my flight plan.

We talked about the route I had selected, and I explained that I had avoided the seductively direct routing of V128 because I had called Dulles Approach for their advice on preferred routings. They told me that unless I were to fly this trip early in the morning or late at night, they use V128 for various kinds of skeds and jet traffic. I used the preferred routing that they outlined, which also had the advantage of proximity to a couple of other airports along the way -- more, even, than the alternative preferred route to the south of V128.

She talked a bit about preferred altitudes for the flight and the altitudes that a 172 likes best -- 6000-8000 feet, in her view. She noted that while it was appropriate to file for 10,000 feet on the segment of the westbound airway with an MEA of 8500, I might want to ASK for 9000' or so and see if they'd allow that.

She asked me about the weather relevant to the trip, which was from Manassas to Charleston WV. I outlined the stationary front that had drifted out to the Atlantic and the absence any strong weather systems to clear out the collection of midsummer scud and prevailing TRW -- utterly typical conditions for this area and this time of the year. Legally, I told her, did not require an alternate, as CRW at ETA was forecast to be 45 BKN CHC TRW- 3FH. However, not only did I wish to have an alternate in such conditions given my experience, but, as the alternates within range all had forecasts that were no better, I would not want to make this trip today. The planned flight, including flight to alternates plus reserve, left me with about another 25 minutes to spare, which wasn't a whole lot. If I were to attempt it, I would monitor weather on Flight Watch to evaluate conditions as I went along, and quite possibly pick up fuel in Elkins if conditions were no better than forecast in order to give me more options.

She liked my choice of alternate, for all that -- the nearest allowed one with an ILS -- and my reasons: If weather isn't great, then a precision approach would be an added safety factor.

On the flight test, I remembered to ask her to clear my turns, and to limit cockpit conversation to that required for the flight, please. I also remembered not to get rattled by anything that wasn't perfect; of course some things weren't, starting with the wonky intercom connections – I think her venerable little telex headset's cords had started to fray. She had already noted that she didn't use fancier or heavier headsets that students were thoughtful enough to provide for her convenience, so that wasn't something I ought to have done. Then I couldn't figure out how to flip the ON switch that I'd just used inside. I should have asked her the night before whether I needed to supply an intercom; my instructor had always brought and set up the intercom -- and I knew for a fact that BOTH of his intercoms were already wonky, so I wasn't going to borrow his). I started up, went to turn on radios, they weren't working as I had expected, so I shut down until I got them working -- figuring out how to keep the cords wiggled in was the trick. Then they were fine for almost the rest of the flight. (In fact, I also had the com cut out on the ILS, and didn't know whether it was an instructor-induced deal or what, so I checked the breakers, frequencies, and then successfully wiggled the cords.

Then it took me a couple of tries and some more prime to get it started again.

And I will confess all: I actually did start my takeoff roll unaware that I was still using the brakes. It dimly occurred to me that that might be the problem; once we'd lifted off, the examiner agreed aloud.

We flew the Manassas triangle -- VOR at Warrenton, NDB and Culpeper, and the Manassas ILS, and were in actual for most of the time, in and out of scud. I remembered to just fly the approaches and not worry about anything she asked or did. I had a bit of an effort keeping the 100 feet, but I was within it. I remembered to factor winds into my chosen courses --this pleased me, and was a particularly fine underlying factor for a successful ILS. I was cleared to CSN and for the VOR approach. We went out to the CSN VOR and did the course reversal. That went well, and the one flight I did with Barbara had been very helpful in this regard. Sometimes she made an abrupt adjustment -- or at least, moreso than I would have/was trying to make -- to fix a heading she didn't like...and that was the hardest thing to categorize as "normal environment for this flight". Afterwards, one of the other instructors noted that she probably wouldn't have done that if we had been in VFR conditions.

Any time I got an unexpected comment, or observation, or question about where I was or what corrections I was planning, I just processed the relevant content of the input and moved on. "Never mind what she's thinking. Fly."

She asked me whether I needed to report the procedure turn at the fix, and I didn't think I had been asked to do that -- yet I did so when I was entering an assigned HOLD there yesterday. I probably should have. When I was at the fix and reported position, ready to continue outbound, it took a couple of exchanges with ATC to have them understand that I was doing what they had cleared me to do. It took a bit of fooling around, but I did finally get established. I identified the stepdown intersection primarily on the second VOR, and she noted that it would be much better to have used the DME to do that...quite so. When she was satisfied that I was going to have made it, she asked me to execute the miss; I continued on the heading I was on, and she asked for a climbing turn NOW, which I then did, and went through the MAP drill.

The controller acknowledged the miss and cleared me to do the NDB at Culpeper using either the VOR or the NDB as a starting point. I chose the VOR, because it clearly gave me more time and, to be honest, because I knew that I'd have less mental work if I didn't have to manipulate one more set of variables by coming at the NDB from a direction that I usually don't.

She reset the heading indicator a couple of times, and once deliberately set it OFF course, which I caught, though it meant that my outbound pt leg was 30 degrees off, and I overshot and had to correct for crossing the inbound course. It would have been better to recognize that earlier, but I successfully visualized which side of the desired course I was on, and which way I had to turn to fix it (yay! Yes, I know this is not a game or contest. It was satisfying to have the hours of practice, particularly those I spent last week doing rapid NDB position awareness exercises, pay off). I had delayed my descent from 2400 to 1020 until I was satisfied with my inbound track -- a good choice, in keeping with the one- thing-at-a-time rule -- but that left me with less than optimal distance to descend. She asked me how fast I needed to descend in order to make it to the airport, and I had about a mile and a half to go, maybe two. I said that I'd consider making a miss at this point, given that things weren't set up the way I wanted them. She acknowledged that, and told me to proceed anyway.

We shot the miss about a half mile out, and went back to CSN, and were vectored for the ILS. At that point, we went into partial, and I was surprised to find that I really did have no-need-to-think-about-it responses to which way to turn to reach the correct heading on the mag compass. So, I stopped thinking about it, and got used to the drift and the waiting it out. I did maintain headings rather well, and the altitudes settled right down, too.

On the ILS, she asked me where I was relative to the approach environment, and looked at the second VOR and I KNEW. She had me do a couple of things differently than the way I usually do them. "Fly the approach at 100 knots," she said, afterwards explaining that she thinks instructors should have students fly the approaches at a variety of speeds, otherwise you only know how to do it one way. She also instructed me to stay at 3000 feet after the first fix inbound and intercept the glide slope, rather than drop to the intermediate altitude and hold that until the FAF. When we got down, she explained that it made more sense to just configure the airplane ONCE for approach, rather than descend-level off-descend if I had a choice and the GS was working. I trimmed up fairly well, which made it easier to adjust to the faster rate of descent. Things were helped enormously by having chosen a good drift correction -- I had slotted the information about wind direction into a useful mental cubby-hole. Finally, though, she did tell me to just use pitch to keep on the glideslope, and told me to slow down to landing speed 100 feet above DH. I brushed away mental concerns about being told so many things, and remembered to assume that I was doing 100% unless told that the test was cancelled.

As we were in IMC, we didn't do unusual attitudes -- or, at least, if we did, it was so briefly that I didn't notice -- and I would have noticed if we did steep turns, which we didn't.

We came down and shut down and she said, "You did okay. You need to remember to just do one thing at a time -- radio frequencies are probably the least important thing anyway, and you were trying to correct heading, under partial, and change a radio. That's too much to be doing even under full panel. And when you're doing it -- or anything else -- you never want to look away from your instruments for more than a couple of seconds. Change part of the radio, then leave it; come back to it. The same for looking at charts. Otherwise, a wing gets low -- especially in the low-wings like the Cherokees -- and before you know it you're in a steep descending bank, and you have to take the time to interpret the instruments -- because they aren't showing what you expect -- and then react.

And then I had exactly the end-of-job experience that I had visualized:

She looks over at me and said magic words which turned out to be: "Now, you take care of the airplane, and I'll go inside and finish the paperwork for your license."

I am smiling, full of happiness, getting out of the airplane and putting all the warm headset and soft warm black cords together and storing them in the zip case.

After she leaves, I am overcome with just a few tears, most of which I manage to have wiped up by the time I finish with the tow bar and tie-downs.

This is so nice.

The one piece of advice Tom Adams had given me the day before was"one thing at a time", and I did much better when I WAS remembering that.

We were up for 1.5 -- a bit more than half the time it took to get my private in Canada. Interestingly, she noted that it's harder to get your instrument rating in Canada. Apparently there's a LOT more NDB work (not surprising, given what I learned about the VAST number of NDB's in Canada compared to ILS or VOR -- is alaska the same?), and a friend told her that there were six-month recurrency examinations required.

You were quite right: I have been preparing in many ways for a long time for this...and while it is a perishable skill, not a trophy, this is a MAJOR ACHIEVEMENT in my books. Different from winning prizes, I have not had quite so much satisfaction in doing something since perhaps I finished my the exams for my last academic degree. The flight test for getting my private was so traumatic that it didn't leave me with nearly the same sense of accomplishment.

So, now, of course, what are my plans for staying current?

I have airplane booked for next Saturday. Weather permitting, of course, it would be fun to take JJ someplace just to enjoy flying. Only have airplane for three hours, which isn't long enough to do much, but there are more than a few airports I haven't been to. I could fly some approaches if nothing else. I also want to post a notice to seek out people interested in a shared arrangement to fly safety pilot for mutual currency.

And it's time to get back on that hunt for a good sim instructor.
The time I did in Toronto, even with a fairly inexperienced sim instructor and good equipment, was absolutely worth it.

JJ and I will look at the funds together and see what money is available for IFR currency. I had intended to fly either airplane or sim once a week. In order to use the rating for its real purpose --flying someplace -- it will be important to stay current on the skills of flight planning. That was part of why I got out of flying anyplace VFR: I had lost my flight planning skills as well as the money to fly anyplace.

Next will be the commercial, but I want to spend some time learning and using the existing qualifications. Primarily, I want to collect a bunch of solo PIC, as so much of my time has been with another pilot in the plane.


And finally, would you permit me to thank you for several important
things you did?

- getting me off my duff in front of the computer
and back into an airplane

- making me realize that I just needed to say "YES, I am
good enough and worthwhile enough to undertake this
rating. All I need is to say, "I CAN" and find
the resources to make it happen."

- helping me to understand the fundamentals of mental
strength and confidence. That message had to reach critical
mass from several sources, but when it clicked in,
it was vital and essential to doing this

- providing me with well-written, clear technical advice
and understanding encouragement with the learning process

- hanging in there over the long learning rollercoaster,
and keeping the faith even when I recounted terrible awful
things about which I should have known better

- caring so much, for reasons I don't entirely understand.

Would it surprise you to know that this experience has piqued my interest in becoming an instructor or becoming more involved in aviation education in some way, if only to give the world a better learning experience than I had? I want to write down the things I remember and most think could have been easier while they are still in fairly sharp
that will be my next task.


Judy & JJ
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