Thursday, September 9, 2010

My road to the instrument rating...

My Road To The Instrument Rating

After getting my Private Pilot certificate in November of 2006 I decided to take a break from studying and just enjoy flying. I certainly did that. Averaging about 100 hours a year in a Piper Cherokee 140 and then a Piper Comanche 250 (more on the switch later) brought me up to about 440 hours when I passed my Instrument check ride in September of 2010.

It’s the details in between that might be of interest. After spending about $6000 getting my Private Pilot certificate I was in no hurry to spend more money on airplanes. I’m not wealthy by any stretch of the imagination and it was difficult enough to get to where I was at that point.

As luck would have it I found an airplane-owning pilot who wanted to pair up for trips to local and distant airports for fun and he insisted on paying for all the expenses. I got to fly half the time in exchange for arriving at the hangar early and getting everything ready, fueling the plane, keeping the airplane tidy after flights, helping out with new technology (a succession of GPS units, for example), pulling the airplane in and out of the hangar and other dirty or heavy work.

After a year of fun and frivolity I was ready to get started on the IFR (instrument flight rules) rating, starting with the written test. I bought a book or two and settled down for a few months of mind-numbing reading. To say that it’s a daunting task would be an understatement. The FAA has a way of wording things that leave you completely befuddled. I found other books by authors who tried to help me grasp the complexities of flying “in the system” with doses of humor, interesting graphics, memory aids and mnemonics. They helped, but I still couldn’t grasp the overall picture or the minutia of details.

After some time I decided to enroll in an IFR ground school at the local community college. This helped quite a bit. At the end of the class I received a certificate that allowed me to go take the written test. I passed with an 80, and it irked me that my score wasn’t in the 90s as all my practice tests had been.

I wasn’t ready to start spending money in the airplane yet and the college’s next semester had a class offered that was focused on simulators. While enrolled in the class I found a local CFII to work with me on the simulator so that I could log the maximum allowable simulator time in preparation for the IFR check ride.
Once the semester ended and I had accrued the maximum number of hours in the simulator it was time to start training in a real airplane. My friend’s Cherokee 140 was perfect for basic instrument training with a glide slope and a second VOR, but no DME or anything else to “complicate” things.

I found an independent CFII to train me in the 140 and we got going at a rate of about two or three flights a week. This was the perfect low-budget setup for me as the CFII was charging me only $25 an hour and I only had to pay for the fuel during training.
Then my buddy got the itch to get a bigger airplane and sold the 140. He bought a Comanche 250. This is a bigger, more complicated airplane. And it hadn’t flown in years. A lot of work needed to be done. A lot. First, it was painted. That takes weeks. Then the panel was rearranged and straightened out. That took forever. Then the interior had to be completely redone in leather. In the end, the airplane turned out to be a real beauty, but it took about six months for the metamorphosis.

I didn’t want to wait to continue training and I didn’t think doing it in a high performance/complex airplane made sense. So I went back to where I did my primary training and found an instructor and got back into the Piper Archer I knew very well. After 4 lessons the instructor moved and I was assigned a new CFII. After 2 lessons with him he switched to nights. I moved with him even though it meant getting home at midnight after training (oh, did I fail to mention that I moved 90 miles away from the airport during this time?). After three different instructors in two airplanes, and a total of about 2 ½ years of studying, I was ready for the check ride.

Or, maybe I wasn’t. It was an awful display of my talents and I did not pass. I was given a “notice of disapproval”. I’m not going to go into every last detail but here’s the Cliff Notes. An Airmet Tango for turbulence had been issued earlier in the day and it turned out to be a doozy. In the holding procedure my altitude fluctuated from 150 feet above the assigned altitude to 125 feet below. I was flown far enough off my path on the ILS approach that I had a full-scale deflection. Either one was good enough for a failure. I elected to discontinue and that meant that on my retest everything would have to be done for the oral exam because I nailed that. I had been very nervous about all the things that I didn’t know, but impressed myself with the way I pulled answers out of the back of my head and never once asked to consult my notes or books. I would not need to redo the oral portion of the exam.

It’s hard to call your family and tell them that you failed the check ride, but it’s even harder to call the CFII and explain that you didn’t pass. More training was needed, obviously. We flew about five more times and it looked like I was rock solid. The Designated Pilot Examiner gave me a new date for the flying portion of the check ride (no more questions!) and I even snuck in one last lesson the morning before the test. Everything looked perfect.

Except for the Airmet Tango issued just an hour before my check ride. I put that out of my mind and actually did a very nice job of for two issues. One, I was on an ILS approach and the localizer went beyond ¾-scale deflection. Well, that’s what the examiner said anyway. I’m convinced that it did not, and that from the right seat it could LOOK like the needle went beyond ¾-scale, but from my seat it did not. I’m somewhat convinced that if that was the only issue the examiner would have bought my story. But there was a problem entering the holding pattern.

After the ILS and on the way to the hold (already approved by ATC), ATC asked if I wanted “another” ILS to an airport I hadn’t been to yet. I said, “no, we are going to hold at Paradise at 3500 feet” and a moment later ATC came back with “so you want another ILS into Chino?” One more time I said “no, we are going to hold at Paradise at 3500 feet”. We were almost to the VOR when ATC gave me a Vector to fly. Then another Vector...then another. I lost track of where I was and when he dumped me off virtually right at the VOR I turned to enter the hold in the opposite direction of where I was supposed to go. Now, I can’t blame ATC for me getting turned around and not having situational awareness, but if I had just headed straight to the VOR like usual I would have been fine.

Anyway, I got my second “notice of disapproval” and that’s not a good thing. The FAA starts to wonder what’s going on. You cannot use the same DPE and no CFII will sign you off a third time because another failure would lead to an investigation of both the pilot and instructor. That’s a lot of pressure.

I had to look at my options, and I narrowed it down to four. The first option was to quit and I considered it. All the extra lessons and extra check rides were costing me a whole lot more money than I ever expected and it made me question my reasons for doing this in the first place. Ultimately I decided that I’m not a quitter. The flight school had another instructor for me and wanted me to start with two hours of ground school and then 4-6 flights to get me to where he was confident enough to sign me off. That added up to a lot of money. Another option was to stick close to home and go train with the CFII who helped me out in the simulator. After one training flight in a Cessna 172 the CFII talked to a local DPE and he said there was no way any DPE in the area would allow me to just do the hold and the ILS and then sign me off with an instrument rating. There was no way I wanted to do the oral again. The fourth option was to go to another state and finish it up using a CFII that I had never met for one lesson and then immediately taking the check ride with a DPE who was recommended to me by a friend. One hour-long lesson, a DPE who was willing to sign me after one hold and one ILS and a half-priced charge looked pretty good. I chose door number four.
My buddy and I flew the Comanche the night before from our home ‘drome of El Monte to North Las Vegas airport, which took about an hour and a half. The next morning I was at the flight school bright and early at 7. The instructor texted me at 7:50 saying that he was sorry he was late, a student was squeezing in a few touch ‘n’ go’s before my lesson. The extra time was probably good for me as a super-cushy couch allowed me to calm down.

The lesson went great. We were in a Cessna 172 with a Garmin 430 so lots of things were different. I had prepared though. I had Googled “Garmin 430” and found some very helpful videos that clearly explained how it worked. I felt confident and the CFII only made me more comfortable. He had a can-do attitude and was full of helpful tips. We did the hold, did the ILS and I was good to go. No mistakes, practically perfect. He signed me off and the DPE showed up right on time. Back out to the same airplane and do the hold and the ILS again. Practically perfect again. No big deal, I felt like saying. The DPE signed me off and gave me my temporary airman’s certificate that identifies me as an Instrument Rated Private Pilot.

An hour later I was piloting the Comanche from KVGT to KEMT using ATC for flight following. I have nearly always used flight following when on cross country trips but this time I made sure of it because the weather back at El Monte wasn’t so hot and I wanted to be able to request the VOR-A approach if needed. Before we ever got near El Monte we could see that an instrument approach was going to be needed. The whole San Gabriel valley was under a blanket of fog. Thanks to the weather on the Garmin 696 in the Comanche we were able to get the weather at El Monte way before we could get a radio signal for the ATIS. Conditions improved during our flight from a 1700-foot ceiling to a 2000-foot ceiling.

We entered the clouds at about 4000 feet and the entire approach was in a thick blanket until we broke out as we got to approximately 2000 feet...and the airport was just in front of us and to the left a bit (just like it should be). It was an exhilarating experience. Well, that’s not scared the living daylights out of me to tell you the truth. Flying for nearly six minutes in a solid cloud bank without an instructor in the right seat was a bit unnerving. I imagine that goes away after 50 or 100 approaches in “actual” IMC (Instrument Meteorological Conditions)...haha.

My plan now is to take a break for a few months and then hit the books for the Commercial rating. We’ll see how that goes.

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