Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Cognitive Flatulence and the Instrument Check Ride (Part 1)

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
23 Jul 2013 N21481 SDC (Williamson, NY) - ROC (Rochester, NY) - SDC 3.1 1184.5

I have heard it said that pursuing an instrument rating is akin to graduate school for aviators.


I can say with some certainty that, at the end of the process, I felt much as I did after defending my doctorate in chemistry, though maybe not for the reasons that might be expected.

A Case of Nerves

I counted the passage of time with each thump of an anxious heart as I waited in the Rochester Air Center's unfamiliar lobby for the examiner who would assess my petition to join the fraternity of cloud busters.  Intellectually, I was ready.  I had the knowledge, could fly the airplane, and it was Tom's expert opinion that the rating was easily within my reach.

However, in the previous two days, both scheduled instrument practice sessions with Darrell were undone by weather, first by a 2000' scattered layer that prevented flying practice approaches while VFR and then by a line of thunderstorms that threatened to overrun Le Roy.  I was prepared for the check ride, but not emotionally ready for it.

Anxiety-induced lack of sleep detracted even further from my confidence.

Despite the nerves and uncertainty, I wanted to complete the check ride before a July 27 flying trip with the family to Tennessee, where expanded weather capability had the potential to reduce the risk of being stranded.  Obviously, I was only interested in a slight expansion of my weather envelope; approaches down to minimums with the family on board as a low time instrument pilot do not fall into the "good idea" category for me at this time.

Hypothetically Speaking

Ken arrived punctually, shook my hand politely, and we dove into "paperwork".  Since my first check ride in 2002, the portion of that paperwork actually involving paper was largely eliminated in favor of the FAA's clunky IACRA (Integrated Airman Certification and Rating Application) website.  Though I had meticulously organized the information that Ken would want to see (like marking important logbook pages with Post-It notes), I did not come prepared with my IACRA password.

"I'm going to phone a friend," I told Ken as I called Kristy to look up my password.

"Ok, but once you use that lifeline, you won't have it any more," Ken remarked.  I smiled, envisioning a harried phone call placed to Kristy from the cockpit of the airplane while executing an approach.

With IACRA presenting a bland, satisfied facade, we jumped into the hypothetical cross country flight that I had planned for Ken.

As I researched the flight, I found that a preferred IFR route existed, though it contained an arrival procedure (STAR) at the destination involving a a minimum altitude of 11,000'.  While possible to fly in my ship, this seemed like an unreasonable altitude for a Piper Warrior on a hot summer's day.  Instead, I located a TEC (Terminal En Route Control) to my destination that made significantly more sense to fly.  I suspected that a part of what Ken wanted to see was my recognition that these routes existed and some sound logic behind my ultimate selection.

Ken and I talked through my choice of route and looked at weather data together.  Was there a legal requirement that I file an alternate airport?  No, the terminal forecasts were not sufficiently poor for that. But there were Sigmets for thunderstorms as well as thunderstorm warnings in the terminal area forecast at the time of arrival. Would I make the flight IFR?

"No, the convective forecast is outside my comfort zone." Ken nodded and continued to use the scenario to further probe my book knowledge. Satisfied, he announced that it was time to fly.

The thumping in my chest resumed.

Darrell had already told me that I would like Ken, that he was reasonable and easy-going. Darrell was right; Ken was terrific, a seasoned aviator with a breadth of experience in professional and personal flying.

So why did I feel like David Gilmour's "earthbound misfit" every time I opened my mouth? The simple answer is lack of sleep and inadequate confidence.

The Crucible

Climbing away from Rochester while under the hood, I requested an ATC-assigned hold at the Geneseo VOR.  I was assigned to hold southeast on Victor 147.  After glancing at the en route chart and noting that this airway used Geneseo's 153° radial, I sketched the hold on my kneeboard and made the proper entry.  At one point, Ken appeared to be concerned that I was leaning too much on the moving map of the Garmin 430W, so he "failed" it with Post-It notes.  If anything, I tightened up my flying of the holding pattern.

When Ken announced that we would do unusual attitude recoveries next, I knew that I had performed a satisfactory holding maneuver.  We did two recoveries.  For the first one, a descending spiral, my airspeed indicated well into the yellow arc and was climbing rapidly when I resumed control of the airplane.  I was thankful to Ray for always reinforcing the notion of looking at the airspeed indicator first in those situations.  The recoveries went well and Ken asked for a steep turn course reversal with a return to the hold.

Next, we began a simulated VOR-A approach into Le Roy.  While descending from the initial approach fix, Ken pointed to the vacuum gauge and asked what it would mean if the reading there suddenly went to zero.

"I would lose my attitude and directional gyros," I answered.

"Yup," he replied while covering those instruments with more of his ever-versatile Post-It notes.  At this stage, my confidence was beginning to build and I nailed the approach, partial panel and all.

Next, we flew the RNAV 25 approach into Rochester.  Rochester vectored us onto the approach just outside of the final approach fix, TUNLE.  I was told "VFR altitude [my] discretion" and cleared for the approach.  I even demonstrated a function on the Garmin 430W that Ken, an experienced user of the device, did not know about. I crossed TUNLE at the appropriate altitude, reduced power, and flew the approach magnificently.  One of my greatest fears prior to the check ride was inadvertently going below a minimum altitude, but the approach went quite well despite the gusty conditions.  I was proud of it and my confidence continued to grow.

Upon reaching the missed approach point, I added power and followed the missed approach instructions previously issued by Rochester.

"I can't count that approach," Ken commented as we climbed away.

This was code for "you just failed."

My heart fell as I processed the implications.  Rochester provided vectors around the south side of the airport to set us up for the third planned approach, an ILS onto runway 28, as Ken explained what I had done wrong.


While Rochester was vectoring us to intercept the RNAV 25 approach just outside the final approach fix (FAF), I descended to the minimum crossing altitude altitude for the FAF before fully establishing myself on the approach. There was a logic behind what I did in the moment, but it was a false logic.

In other words, I had a brain fart. Lack of rest and a bad case of nerves were likely contributing factors. On the bright side, it was a mistake that I will never make again.

Ken had no choice but to fail me.  After all, in actual instrument conditions, altitude is life.

Basket Case

As I processed that I had just busted my check ride, I lost enough focus that my performance on the ILS 28 approach was unacceptably sloppy. Rochester Approach barked at me when my distraction resulted in missing an assigned heading. I do not have a track record of failure, particularly in aviation, and did not manage this bad news well.

Somehow, I centered myself on the localizer at the decision altitude, pulled off the Foggles at Ken's prompting, and squeaked the airplane nicely onto runway 28.

Ken explained the next steps.  I would need to go back to Tom for additional training, receive a fresh sign off from him in my logbook to finish the check ride, and go on another date with the always-exciting IACRA system to generate a new application.  Then, of course, I would need to take Ken back into the sky and demonstrate that I really did know what I was doing.  The good news was that I would only need to fly those two approaches - I passed every other area of emphasis Ken threw at me and would not be retested on those items.

We stood talking on the 300 ramp at Rochester while some magnificent thunderheads in the distance were highlighted in crimson by the setting sun.  I took the menacingly lovely vista as a prompt to head home.

I landed at Williamson-Sodus after sunset.  I was frustrated with myself and discouraged.  As I gloomily pushed the Warrior back into her hangar, my neighbor Bob wandered over to check on me.

"You've been gone over seven hours!  How did it go?"

"I have to go back and redo part of it," I told him glumly.

He made a face.  "Oh...sorry to hear that."

So was I.


  1. Ugh, frustrating indeed. Now I already know how this ends, of course, but that still sucks. I can certainly see how easy it would be to do what you did - given the training, and the conditions, you did what you'd practiced in a sense. Oh well, we're all in this for the continual learning experiences, right?

    1. I was very discouraged that night. But I am really grateful to my instructor and the examiner both for encouraging me to get right back to it. And you're right, it's just more learning.

      Now it's your turn - I'm sure you'll do better!

    2. I don't know about that - but you're certainly right that it's my turn. Shooting my first-ever approach while doing hood work during the WINGS-pseudo-BFR last weekend (and looking up to see a runway in front of me!) definitely added to the motivation!

    3. You'll do great. One advantage that you will have is that you already know how to fly the airplane well and you have plenty of cross country experience under your belt. There's still a lot to learn, but the amount of real world aviation experience you already have will make for a great foundation. I'm glad I waited.

  2. Gr8 post ... The IFR check ride is a huge milestone! Sounds like u had a little bad ATC karma that day... Just curious... Did ATC know it was a check ride?

    1. Thanks, TJ. Interesting question, I don't know if they were aware or not. Either way I accept my goof as a learning experience and will move on from there. I just logged about 1.1 hours of actual with my family over southern Ontario, so it all worked out in the end.

  3. Been a while since I took a peek at your site. I busted my first IFR check ride back in April - finally getting it right on the second try, finishing on April 30th. My brain cramp was associated with flying a VOR-A/DME approach with a GNS430W for reference in addition to serving as NAV1 and the DME reference as substitute. I screwed up to start with by not setting the NavAid as the DME fix to get the distance showing. This was the first approach of the ride, taking place at the airport I departed from (KBUY). Basically it was going to be junk from the beginning because I had the OBS set wrong, off by about 7 degrees, so even though I was merrily flying the ground track over the ground keeping an eye on the magenta line, I couldn't get the needle on the VOR head to center to save my life. If that wasn't bad enough, I then compounded the problem by turning left rather than right to go to the missed, and then with the OBS now properly set for the inbound course, I somehow got screwed up further and tried to catch the outbound heading and then flew a full 360 inside the protected space. I knew something was wrong but had no idea what it was or how to fix it. Suffice it to say, the ride was a bust. We hadn't flown anything else so when the DPE asked if I wanted to continue - I just said yeah - and proceeded to then fly the precision approach, a GPS approach with a partial, all the unusual attitude stuff, etc.

    Came back a week later, flew the same approach I had botched in the sim right before I left, then again in actual IMC into the airport, and then the DPE said to go back and do it again. I had not changed a thing on the panel so everything was already set up for the approach. The "do over" including the subsequent hold lasted just at 20 minutes.

    A license to learn for sure - and I learned a lot about cross-checking and double-checking nav aids, frequencies, OBS, etc.

    Congrats on passing your IFR check ride.


    1. Hi Dave -

      Congrats on passing yours, as well! I was feeling pretty low about busting the first ride until one of my flying mentors, whom I respect greatly, shared with me that he had busted his first ride as well. And he turned out OK, so I figured that I would, too. I have used the rating a few times now and find that I am still learning, but I suppose that's the idea.

      Thanks for your comments, Dave. I'm glad to know that I am in good company.