Getting my Instrument Rating

Back to John's Flying Page

When I started learning to fly, it was always my plan to go on and get my Instrument Rating. Even in sunny California, if you want to be able to plan a weekend away then you need to be able to get there and – even more important – back, without getting stuck because of some mild weather. After I passed my PPL checkride my instructor said "Go do some flying, give me a call when you're ready to start". I did as he said, at the same time reading everything I could find towards getting my Instrument Rating. At the end of my Private checkride, my examiner said "Get your written done before you start training, because otherwise you'll be ready for your checkride and still not have your written done".

So on 16th May – coincidentally the exact anniversary of my first flying lesson – I had my first instrument lesson. At that time I was very happily flying the Ourplane 182 (N430P) and expected to complete my training in it. It was the perfect plane for it – great avionics (including a KLN94 GPS and an MFD), an HSI, and a delight to fly. In the event it didn't turn out that way, as I will describe later. The first lesson was just basic flying under the hood, no different from what I'd done during my Private training. My first few lessons went pretty well. I was flying confidently under the hood and got the hang of partial panel without too much trouble. Of course I've never had to do real partial panel, but it doesn't seem like that big a deal. Over the months of my training, just about any flying-to-get-somewhere under the hood was done partial panel. Not to mention the Cutlass whose AI was dying and would randomly indicate an attitude 20 degrees or so off – that was actually easier to fly with one of my instructor's Post-Its covering the AI. Looking at my logbook, I realise that all my pre-private hood flying was in very short bursts - never more than 0.5 hours, and often 0.2 or 0.3. By contrast, my instrument training was (naturally enough) all under the hood – from 200 ft above the runway to short final on the way back.

I expected Instrument training to be mainly about flying approaches – I guess most people do. It was a bit of a surprise that the first ten or so lessons were all about just basic flying, especially precision flying. My instructor used the "Oscar pattern" as a test for good-enough – this is a series of standard-rate turns and constant-rate climbs and descents which, if done properly, brings you back to the starting point in a fixed amount of time. Once we'd mastered that, it was time to start working an approach or two into each lesson. That was really the fun part. Hood flying quickly gets fairly boring, I find, especially on a summer evening when you know that there is a beautiful view outside. On the other hand I found that you very quickly get used to looking only at the instruments. On one lesson, climbing out after a "missed" approach, I forgot to put my Foggles back on. It was only after a couple of minutes that I even realised, when I happened to look up for some reason. In fact, near the end I did a whole lesson "under the hood" but without a hood, after my Foggles mysteriously dematerialised at the start of a lesson. I was never particularly distracted by the outside view. On the other hand, the first couple of times in actual IMC, I would be distracted by popping in and out of the clouds (which never gets tiring) and bust my altitude – from which I learned that even when visual, you have to concentrate mainly on the instrument scan and just treat the outside as "another instrument", unlike VFR flying.

During the six months I became quite a connoisseur of the different kinds of hood. In the very beginning my instructor used one of the simple bent plastic hoods (which I call the "lampshade" because it reminds me of the "dog lampshades" that dogs wear to stop them scratching their heads). This does a poor job of restricting sight to the sides, which I initially found distracting. I bought myself a Francis Hood – the black plastic affair that looks like something from a WWII submarine – which certainly gives the most restricted vision. However getting it on and off is a major undertaking and certainly not something you want to do at ILS minimums whilst trying to land the plane. After a few weeks with that I bought a pair of Foggles, which I found worked well and can be taken on and off very easily. My first pair disappeared when I left them in a plane, and although I looked shortly afterwards, I never found them. My second pair disappeared even more mysteriously: while taxiing I had them hooked into my shirt pocket, but when I checked after the run-up they were gone. The very next day I emptied the plane completely to be weighed, and didn't find them. My suspicion is that they are made of some kind of anti-matter that spontaneously dematerialises under some conditions. I bought a third pair, but meanwhile I used my instructor's "lampshade" again and by now I guess I was less easily distracted, and I got on fine with them. For my checkride I used the lampshade.

In July the 182 was booked by someone for nearly the whole month. I'd been working on getting checked out in Ourplane's Cirrus SR20, but was not done by then. I decided to take the opportunity to get some retractable time, in the club's Cutlass RG. This is a plane that I've never really enjoyed flying. It seems very noisy and during my first few flights I could never quite get the plane fully under control. Finally I realised that it was because the AI was worn out. On take-off it would be off by 5 or so, sometimes gradually correcting itself as it spun up (or so I suppose), and sometimes not. Ignoring it made things a lot easier. The main thing with flying a retractable of course is complete paranoia about the gear, which I hope will never wear off, especially now that I'm flying my own retractable! It was in this plane that I logged my first actual time, flying back one night from Santa Rosa to Palo Alto on an IFR flight plan, up in layers of misty cloud.

It was around this time that we started flying approaches. It took me a long time to get a good feel for this, with my instructor constantly repeating "small bank angles", "small pitch changes", "small heading changes". For a long while I found that my approaches were about 80% OK, which is to say that everything was in place and looking good until at some point I would just lose it, typically by making a big unintended heading change. Of course 80% OK is absolutely not OK, since the whole point is to have the runway off the nose at end of the approach. The secret, I eventually learned, is absolute, total concentration throughout the whole thing. The slightest distraction, say to tune a radio, almost guarantees failure unless you keep up your scan perfectly during the distraction.

While getting checked out in the Cirrus, I flew with Ourplane's instructor IFR to Reno, which has a very long ILS approach. At the start, tower was telling a turbine behind us to slow down, so my instructor helpfully asked if they wanted us to speed up (without asking me). OK, I thought, if he wants to speed up... we flew the ILS at 160 KIAS all the way down until we began our sidestep, and the turbine didn't slow down. That was a fun approach.

I didn't do much training in August. When September came around, the Skylane was no longer such an attractive choice. Reliability was very poor, and then Ourplane decided to move her to San Carlos. This isn't terribly far from Palo Alto, but the disruption of having to drive my instructor up there, and back afterwards, quickly showed itself to be pretty seriously impractical. As a result I decided it was time to move on from Ourplane, and most likely to buy my own airplane. I tried flying the Cutlass for a while, but again I didn't really enjoy it. At the same time I was getting impatient about getting my Instrument Rating. I had to make an extended trip to Europe at the end of November, and I wasn't sure how soon I would be flying again afterwards since one reason for the trip was some fairly major surgery. I knew that if I broke off my training for a month or longer, it would set me back a long way, so I really wanted to get through it before leaving.

Finally at the end of September I selected a plane to buy, and in early October N5296S, a 1980 T182RG, was mine. However I needed 10 hours of dual for the insurance, and as I quickly discovered there was too much to get used to to combine this with Instrument training, so that made a further gap in my training. It was mid-October before I really picked up again. I also discovered some minor documentation problems which would have to be fixed before I could count on this plane for a checkride.

During this time, we tried to go to the AOPA Convention in Palm Springs. This was a real demonstration of why an Instrument Rating is a good idea. There was a nasty weather system in place in Southern California, and our first attempt failed to get through the Tehachapi Pass due to low cloud. After lunch in Bakersfield, we tried again, this time to be blocked by the cloud over the mountains north of Palm Springs. We turned tail to return to Palo Alto, but even then the weather made the journey much harder. With the rating, I could have flown the whole way at 10,000 ft, dropping down into Bay Area at the end. As it was I had to fly low, in poor visibility and with night falling, and constantly worrying if the weather would close in completely and force us to spend the night in a motel somewhere.

Around this time I did my Written. I'd been studying for this since I got my Private. I read just about all of the "complete" textbooks, starting with the ASA book which my examiner had recommended. My instructor used the book by Butcher which is very good on actual flying. I also like the Machado book - his style is a matter of taste (it doesn't bother me but it doesn't do much for me either) - but he has the most thorough treatment of approaches, I found, and this is really the hardest part of instrument flying, that books can really help with anyway. (For example, this is the only book I have found that describes in detail the significance of approach segments). He hardly talks at all about actual flying, for which Butcher is probably the best. It's also essential (in my opinion) to read the relevant sections of AIM several times, since this is what defines the rules of instrument flying. In the end I guess this all worked, because I got a score of 95 on the written. Two of the missed questions were the kind of administrative arcania that you never really need to know. More annoyingly, I got the "long" navigation question wrong because I forgot to correct for magnetic variation in the wind. Of course this is really of only theoretical importance because winds aloft forecasts are never accurate enough for it to matter. (In the Bay Area it's common for the SFO - coast - forecast to be pretty different from the FAT - central valley - forecast, and it's left as an exercise for the pilot to figure out where and how the transition occurs). But it was still annoying.

Instrument approaches in a complex, fast (for me) airplane like 5296S are a lot more work, particularly when you sequence several of them together. A typical lesson for me would be to fly over to Stockton or Modesto, then a string of four or five different approaches. It's very easy to forget, on the third or fourth missed approach as you're already starting the next one, to do something like opening the cowl flaps, and the workload and the pressure are very high. Around this time I had a lesson which was my biggest morale bust of the whole thing. Nothing seemed to go right, every approach worked for a time then I would lose it and end up being outside limits on CDI deflection or whatever. When we returned I more or less told  my instructor I was giving up, with apocalyptic visions of selling my plane. I went home, had a drink or two, looked at prices in Trade-a-Plane, and went to bed. I got some excellent advice from my pilot colleagues which boiled down to "don't give up", so a few days later I had another lesson. This time I managed one truly spectacular mistake - after a hold, I'd intended to do "own nav" which meant doing a procedure turn in the hold, but then I got vectors anyway. So in the middle of this, I forgot where I was and started the procedure turn inbound when in fact I was already on final. The first warning that something was not right was an anguished cry from my instructor... "where are you going? what are you doing?" Surprisingly though, I was much less demoralised after that than the previous lesson. These were lessons I would learn from first time, and mistakes I would not expect to repeat.

One thing I learned from my "cry of despair" is that pass rate for Instrument checkrides is quite low, around 60%. This made me really feel that I wanted to try it before leaving for Europe, and after I talked it over with my instructor he agreed to book it. However he made this part of a deal: you can do the checkride but you really have to work at it between now and then. As a result we flew almost every day for a couple of weeks. This was absolutely what I needed, and I'd recommend it to anyone. We worked over and over at the approaches to Stockton, Modesto and Livermore, which we knew were the favourites for my examiner. Stockton has a classic NDB approach, with the beacon five miles or so off the end of the runway. This means following a specific course away from the beacon, which is a lot harder than it sounds. You have to watch both the ADF needle and the DG with unfailing concentration. In fact, to make it harder, I flew nearly all of these approaches partial panel, using the mag compass. This isn't really much harder, since all of the well-known problems with the mag compass apply only at bank angles higher than you should ever be making on an approach, and it does have the advantage of accuracy - with the DG you always have to worry about precession. After one not-so-good attempt, we flew the whole thing with my instructor droning "two-niner-one, two-niner-one" all the way down. At the time I didn't get it - I knew perfectly what the heading was - but in later attempts I realised that this is a great way to keep your mind on the heading. It certainly worked this time - when I looked up, the runway was right on the nose.

It was only near the end that I felt confident about minimum altitude control. I can normally hold an altitude to 20' without much trouble, but I would consistently get down to MDA, hold it just fine, then after some distraction such as the radio, find I was 50' too low. Since this is instant failure on the checkride, it is not good. One trick which I found helped is to keep the plane trimmed slightly nose up, so that lack of attention to the nose results in a climb. Another thing is to let go of the yoke altogether when moving around to retune radios and the like - if the plane is correctly trimmed, this will be less harmful than inadvertently pushing it forward or twisting it with body movement. Most important though was the realisation that power is everything - at the slightest sign of altitude loss, adding power works every time.

I planned to take the checkride in my own plane, but there were some paperwork problems so I decided to use a club Skyhawk, 738GE, the same plane I used for my Private. This was really a good idea, as several people pointed out to me. The less there is to mess with (gear, cowl flaps and so on), the more chance you stand with the actual flying. Also the plane is a lot slower, meaning there is more time to get things set up between phases of the flight. In fact, my plane lost a magneto on the Saturday before the checkride, so it worked out even better than I'd thought to switch planes.

On one of my last lessons, I was lucky to fly in near-minimum conditions to Stockton. My first VOR approach had the runway lights looming up out of the fog at just the right time, a very satisfying if rather eerie feeling. I didn't see the runway on either NDB approach, but I did see them as we flew over the runway on the missed so I could not have been very far off laterally - it must have been due to the 100' difference in MDA between the two approaches. In fact, getting the runway off the nose on a classic NDB approach is largely a matter of good luck (or truly excellent pilot skills) - a heading error of just one degree corresponds to a lateral error of about 500'. One degree is less than the error of a normal compass, and even given a perfect compass it would be challenging, to say the least, to achieve this precision.

Finally the day of the checkride came up. I spent three hours the previous day doing ground work, going over all of the odd things I was likely to have on my oral. It's amazing that even after months of studying, and getting a good Written result, there were still little things I didn't know. I tripped up over the symbol for an airway that apparently passes through a waypoint but in fact doesn't - which looks just like the electrical symbol for "wires crossing without connection". First of course you have to find one of these on a chart - they are by no means common. I read through the AIM sections on IFR procedures, and revised all of the obscure weather chart stuff.

My examiner was the same as for my Private, so I already had some idea of what to expect, and in fact I ran into her at the flying club the previous day - all she said was "relax". On the day, the oral went quite well and quite quickly. To my surprise there were no difficult weather chart questions. Mostly it was about interpretation of charts of various kinds, and other common sense stuff. It was very relaxed and casual, and we ended up having a big discussion with my instructor and various others who happened to be there about the finer points of interpretation of the rules concerning allowable use of GPS. Then it was off to fly. She had already told me what to expect, a couple of non-precision approaches at Stockton, ILS into Livermore, and airwork along the way. As a result, I had practised these approaches endlessly and literally knew them by heart. Unfortunately the weather had other ideas - both Livermore and the central valley were IFR in mist and fog. We set out anyway, with the intention of doing some airwork and then returning to Oakland for actual approaches. When we got over Livermore, though, the central valley was clear, so we ended up flying over there and doing the VOR and NDB approaches (the latter partial panel) to Stockton. This went well - with me chanting "two-niner-one" to myself all the way down the NDB - and the runway in sight off the nose exactly where it should be (which, I continue to believe, is entirely a matter of luck for an off-field NDB approach). After that we headed off to do airwork, starting with a steep turn. I hate steep turns, since I always seem to have struggle to get everything to come together right. But for once it all came together, exit dead on the right heading, altitude within better than 50 feet, so it was a non-event. Then we did stalls and unusual attitude recovery, after which the examiner said, "OK, just using navigation aids, where are we?" This is one thing I can do, so after twiddling the dials for a moment I said, we're just east of V-whatever, a couple of miles north of XXXXX, here on the enroute chart. "Look out the window, see the lake?", she said. For a moment I thought I'd blown it, then I realised that the lake meant I was right to within a mile or so. Phew. So, direct to a holding point, a hold, and then try the ILS at Livermore. But the ATIS says Livermore is running the "wrong way", which would mean a circle to land and breaking off at 1000'. That left Oakland. I was a bit nervous about this, since Oakland is one of very few airports anywhere near home that I'd never flown an approach to. It's a long, long approach, which for some reason has a series of step-down fixes before you get to the glideslope. Step-downs had been a terror for me once, I could not hold the altitude, but this time they all went fine, I picked up the glideslope, the needles were inside the donut the whole way down, and when she told me to look up, I was perfectly centered on the runway.

And that was pretty much the end. I didn't dare ask whether I'd passed, although I believe they have to tell you at the point when you fail. So it wasn't until we'd tied down and walked back to the flying club that I was sure I'd passed. In fact, everything had gone exceptionally well, I don't think I'd made even a slight mess of anything, which is more than you can hope for. This was very largely thanks to Fred's intensive coaching at the end. If I give one piece of advice, it's that at least when you come up to your checkride, try to fly every single day.

Back to John's Flying Page