Thursday, December 6, 2012

Instrument Check Ride - Flight

Good to Go

I got an email late Friday night from the DPE saying she double booked herself for Tuesday the 4th and could I switch to Monday the 3rd. The weather might even be good that day. I checked my calendar and I could. Monday would be 12-3-12. I liked the symmetry of the date. I did my PPL check ride on 11-9-11. 12-3-12 seemed right for some reason.

When I got up Monday morning all online weather data showed clear or, at worst, patchy fog. Light winds were forecast for all altitudes I would be near. ATIS and AWOS for all airports on the route reported clear. Every airport reported calm winds. I wasn't sick. I got down to the airport to pre-flight the plane and the plane was fully functional. I checked the VOR receiver check logs and made a note that I needed to do a VOR check before we took off. I called Flight Services for a standard IFR weather briefing. The only AIRMET was for IFR conditions (not a problem for an IFR flight) and even the predicted IFR conditions were all south of my route. No TFRs or NOTAMs I was not already familiar with for the airports on my route. That was probably the shortest full weather briefing I'd ever had. I kept waiting for something to happen to prevent the flight, but nothing did.  I went back outside and cleaned the windscreen on the airplane, inside and out.

It was 15 minutes before my check ride was scheduled to begin and everything was good to go. I wasn't sure I believed it. It was actually going to happen this time. My adrenaline was pumping and I paced a bit. Then I got a bottle of water and sat and checked email on my phone as I waited. There was nothing else I could do. Nothing else I should do. I felt more nervous than I needed to, I thought. After so many delays, the flight was finally going to happen. All I had to do was not screw up. Just fly an instrument check flight according to the PTS. That's all. That's all?! That is one heck of a lot. But yeah, that's all.

I was staring at my phone when I heard a familiar voice, "Are you ready?" My CFI was done with his student and standing by the front desk. I was so distracted I didn't even hear him go by.  I smiled and told him I was almost too ready and I was very nervous. We talked about the finer points of making videos and his ideas for mounting a GoPro camera to the tail tie down of a plane as we waited for the DPE to arrive. This was a change, he was there "early" and she, the DPE, was running late.

Pre-Flight Briefing

The DPE arrived and we talked a bit about the recent storms. We all compared our relative rain measurements (I won with over 15" of rain measured at our house in the mountains!). I think all three of us, DPE, CFI and me, were excited about getting this ride finally done.  She went over the three possible outcomes of the flight: pass, fail and continuance. She also reminded me, no one does a perfect check flight. If I make a mistake, correct it and move on.

We discussed the plan for the flight. Pick up the clearance at RHV and depart the airport IFR. Then fly a GPS approach into Tracy with a procedure turn (counts as a hold), a circle to land at Tracy, then missed and partial panel VOR into Stockton, missed and ILS to Livermore followed by unusual attitude recovery. Along the way she would evaluate my flying, radio work, navigation, adherence to ATC clearances, cockpit resource management, etc, etc. against the Instrument PTS and special emphasis areas. With that we were walking out the plane and going to actually do the check ride. The sun was shining and there wasn't a bit of wind.

Pre Take Off

When we got to the plane I explained to the DPE where my binder with all of the paper instrument approach plates was in case we needed an approach at an airport we weren't planning on. I also pointed out the little binder I had within easy reach that had all of the approaches at the airports we were planning on in case we had to switch approaches for some reason. I asked her some detailed questions on what she was planning for the circle to land. Would we actually land or not? She seemed surprised by that question. I figured if this was an actual instrument flight I would figure out as much as possible on the ground, including where I was and was not likely to land. So I would do the same thing for the check flight.  Then I started to give her a passenger briefing. She said quickly I could do the pilot version of the passenger briefing.

We pulled the plane out and climbed in. The DPE reminded me to breathe. She could tell how tense I was. I took a deep breath but it didn't help much. I started going through my checklists both to prepare the plane for the flight and to try to calm my nerves. I contacted ground and told them we were pre-filed IFR to Tracy, the first airport of our route. I received the taxi clearance and taxied the plane to the run-up area, careful to keep eyes open for planes or other vehicles on the taxiways and checking the instruments as I taxied to make sure they behaved correctly. When I got to the run-up area I did my run-up and a VOR check.

I called ground for the IFR clearance. The ground controller read back the clearance very clearly and slowly.  Cessna 6525D cleared to the Tracy airport via left turn heading 290 Victor 334 SUNOL Victor 195 Manteca, Direct. Climb and maintain 3000 expect 5000 5 minutes after departure. Departure frequency 121.3 Squawk 0422. I copied it down and read it back flawlessly. So far, so good. I asked the DPE if she wanted to see me program the route into the GPS or load the previously saved route, she said to do what I would normally do. So I loaded the previously saved route, verified it matched the clearance I just got (it did) and then loaded the approach at Tracy. We were ready to go. I called the tower for IFR release, was told to stand by. 30 seconds later we were cleared for take off.

Radar Route of my Check Flight -
Some of the straightest tracks I've ever flown

Flight

We took off and flew the standard departure, left turn heading 290. Then things got a bit interesting, I was directed to fly a heading of 040 for a bit, and then back to 330 to intercept V334. When it was clear I'd intercept V334 the DPE told me to request direct to OYOSO. It was so quiet in the air ATC had no problem giving us that clearance. Actually for the whole flight every request we made was quickly approved. I requested pilot navigation from OYOSO so I could do the procedure turn there. Norcal told me I may have to do a couple turns in the hold for some reason and to report when established there. So I entered the hold and reported when established. Then we were cleared for the approach to Tracy. Per the DPE's instructions I asked at that time to cancel IFR but to continue this approach and other approaches VFR for faster routing. ATC obliged. 

First Approach

The first approach was the LPV into Tracy with a circle to land. The flying of the approach was actually easy, I did as I was trained and kept my corrections small. I let the DPE know we would have to circle to land to the northeast because southwest wasn't allowed. She asked why and I said, that's what's specified in the approach plate. I leveled off when I got down to the circling minimum and was told to go visual. Off came the foggles and I started the circle procedure until the DPE announced she was confident of the successful outcome of that procedure and directed me to execute the missed. For the first time I did all of the radio calls for this particular approach. There wasn't anyone in the pattern to hear the calls.

From Tracy to Stockton

I made sure to CLIMB on the missed and leveraged the VOR I had TunedAndIdentified earlier to choose the right heading to proceed to the Manteca VOR. The DPE brought out sticky-notes to cover the HI and AI and I was flying partial panel. I contacted NorCal and requested the next approach. They provided radar vector headings and I had no problem turning to the right heading or maintaining the right track. I did have one problem though... I was cleared to 2500 feet after the missed, which I leveled off at. After getting the next approach clearance NorCal told me the climb out instructions for Livermore would be heading 200 and altitude 2000. I wrote that down and repeated that back. I loaded the VOR 29R approach for Stockton and activated it using "vectors-to-final" as we were already on vectors. I was trying to get the weather for Stockton and the controller radioed back something about climb and maintain 3500. So I read back climb and maintain 3500 and started to climb. NorCal said nothing. The DPE asked me, Are you sure about that clearance? I told her what I thought it was but without prompting I contacted ATC and asked them to confirm the clearance. What the controller actually tried to do was tell me a revised clearance after Stockton to climb to 3500 when leaving Stockton. I read back the corrected clearance and advised ATC I was returning to 2500. Roger was all ATC said. You can see that brief climb towards (but not TO) 3500 feet in the picture below near the 8:40PM mark.
Altitude and Airspeeds for the check flight - courtesy FlightAware.com

Stockton VOR

I let that mistake go, the check ride was still going on and I had to keep my head in the game. The distraction about the altitudes threw off my rhythm a bit and I had to get the weather. I got the weather and knew I'd be on the last vector for the approach soon. I started programming the radios for Stockton Tower and the DPE asked what approach I was doing. I said the VOR approach. I glanced at the VLOC/GPS indicator on the GPS. I had the right approach course on the OBS but the GPS was still set to GPS. That was going to be the next step to do, but I was definitely late doing it. I quickly hit that switch and TunedAndIdentified the Manteca VOR on the top VOR receiver. ATC announced the plane was three miles from the VOR and cleared me for the approach. I was only 2000' but I had 3500' in my mind so I was worried about getting down to the first step down altitude by the time I got to the VOR and then getting to the MDA right after that. I checked in with Stockton tower and was cleared for the option. At the same time I was doing a quick mental calculation of the descent rate I needed to make it down to the MDA in time for a potential "normal approach to landing". I did that descent rate, stayed on the right approach course and hit the MDA and leveled off briefly before doing the missed. Remember, all of this is going on while I'm flying with two of my six primary instruments covered - partial panel. I was glad I had so much practice flying partial panel.

Next Stop - Livermore

I hit the missed approach point and started a climb on the missed on runway heading as instructed by the tower. The sticky notes came off the instruments. When cleared I turned to a 200 heading and contacted NorCal again, continuing my climb to 3500 (there was no way I'd miss that altitude after my mistake earlier). I set the GPS to the next destination of Livermore and loaded the ILS 25R approach. We were on radar vectors but this time I loaded the approach from the point furthest away from the airport so I'd have the most options. The DPE wanted direct to FOOTO, so that's what I requested. We were cleared direct FOOTO immediately and had a long time to fly to the next airport. I got the weather from Livermore, flew the plane, programmed in the Livermore tower, flew the plane and remembered to TuneAndIdentify the ILS for Livermore well ahead of time.

The ILS into Livermore went smoothly, it was one of my better ILS approaches. While I was still nervous and keyed up, I was able to do it anway. I made sure my corrections were small and forced myself to not chase the needle instead focusing on keeping the wings level, just as taught. It worked. It amazes me how I am now able to fly that plane into a smaller and smaller "box" and keep it on the right track and glideslope using instruments alone. Great instruction, a lot of practice and some skill must be involved.

Unusual Attitudes

DH reached, I started a Vy climb on runway heading as cleared by Livermore Tower. I was instructed to squawk VFR and the DPE became my 'eyes' giving me headings and altitudes to fly on the way out of the Livermore area. She asked me if I could climb at 100 knots. That was a strange question. I said, yes, but I'm climbing out a Vy. She said she would prefer I climb at 100 knots so she could see to clear us for traffic. Oh! that made sense. I adjusted the pitch to a climb at 100 knots, still under the foggles and continued a climb up to 3000 feet. As I did that I thought about how cool it was I was so comfortable with flying by instruments that it wasn't difficult at all to use pitch to adjust to the the desired airspeed and keep it there.

Time for unusual attitudes, the last task I had to demonstrate. The DPE was careful to describe what would happen next, she would take the controls, put the plane into a nose up or nose down unusual attitude and I'd have to return the plane to straight and level flight. She also said she isn't near as 'rough' in the movements of the plane as some CFIs are ... I was happy about that. I was ready for this one. I had mentally practiced what I would do for unusual attitudes over and over in my head and with my hands until it got to the level of reflex.

She took the controls and I closed my eyes. I could hear the sound of the engine changing and feel the movements of the plane, but I knew not to trust my body. Ok, open your eyes and recover. I opened my eyes, we were in a nose high, turning attitude. Immediately my hands pushed power to full, pushed the nose level and then leveled the wings. I felt extra pressure on the yolk so I did a couple quick turns of the trim in order to reset the plane for hands free flight. She commented on that. She said no one's ever re-trimmed the plane before. I doubt it was a never thing, but it made me feel good that I did and it was positively recognized. Next unusual attitude would be nose down, I knew. She took the controls and I closed my eyes again. Open your eyes and recover. Nose down and turning attitude. Pull power, wings level, nose up, re-apply power and I was done. The last instrument maneuver was over. I was told to take off the foggles and take us home.

Take Her Home

We were over Calaveras reservoir with only one thing left to do. Go back to RHV and land. I couldn't let myself screw this one up. I got the weather and called into Reid-Hillview tower and forgot to mention I had the weather. The tower gave me the weather info. I thanked them for the help. I almost never screw up on radio calls and I've had some good mistakes today. Oh well. I'm still going. I came in for landing and managed for the first time in what seemed like months do to a good, square, base to final turn. I didn't even have to add power to make the runway. I felt very good about that.

And just like that it was over. I taxied the plane back to parking, went through the final checklist and shut it down. The DPE smiled and congratulated me on my successful flight. With that I was done. I had demonstrated all of the tasks in the Instrument PTS successfully, both in the oral test and in flight. I had earned my instrument rating.

We talked briefly about the flight and she offered a suggestion of creating my own pre-approach checklist to use on instrument flights. That may help me ensure I do the right things in the right order and not be so slow on that darned GPS/VLOC switch. That type of mistake can be fatal. I will definitely take up that suggestion.

Afterword

As I pushed the plane back into its parking spot I was happy it was over. With so many delays for my check flight and before that, long breaks in my training that made the training take longer it could have, I felt more relieved than elated. Proud of my accomplishment, yes, but more happy that it was over than anything else.  I packed up my equipment and buttoned up the plane and then headed inside the club. The DPE printed out my temporary license a Private Pilot license with INSTRUMENT AIRPLANE on the back. She congratulated me again and said, halfway joking, she looked forward to being the DPE for my commercial ride. I assured her, this time next year, she would.

She left the club and I chatted a bit with the young man who manned the front desk. I had had many long chats with him since I started instrument training. Then I told the owner of the club that I was done, I had earned my rating. We joked around a bit. Time to call my CFI and share the happy results. If he wasn't there I wanted badly to leave him a message that I failed, just to tease him a bit, but I couldn't make myself do it. I didn't think I could pull it off. I got his voice mail and left a message saying simply, "I'm done. Give me a call." Fortunately for him, but unfortunately for my joke, the person he was on the phone with was the DPE, who told him that I passed!

He called me back and pointed out its not a good thing to leave that type of voice mail with a CFI as that would make a CFI concerned. I fessed up that I did that on purpose. We had a brief chat, he asked me for my perspective on the flight and then said it seemed that both I and the DPE appeared to have been in the same plane, which was a good thing. He congratulated me a couple times and asked how I felt. I had trouble explaining but he understood. He described it more like the feeling of getting over an illness. That was exactly right.

In the End

People say the instrument rating is the hardest to earn. It may have been hard, but I've enjoyed the learning and training process for my instrument rating thoroughly, even if I did not enjoy the wait to finally complete my rating. Now I can't wait to use it and fly in the clouds. A little bit at first and eventually more often. I'm also looking forward to flying under IFR rules. I like the increased involvement with the greater ATC system and knowing I won't have a problem finding an airport again if I file and fly IFR. I can't wait to use that rating to file IFR through Los Angeles airspace for instance. Another thing "they" say is a pilot's license is a license to learn. I'm already finding an Instrument Rating is a license to learn even more. If there's one thing I love, it is learning and experiencing more.

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