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I am now officially an instrument rated pilot

Two days ago I passed my instrument checkride out of Wings Field Philadelphia (KLOM). After the oral exam and the practical test in the air I was awarded a temporary FAA IR certificate on paper - the plastic card will show up in a little while in the mail.

With that the training I started back in October 2013 culminated successfully.

Hand-flying the practical exam

The flying portion of the practical exam lasted about 2 hours. It all started like a regular cross-country flight towards Ohio. After several blind calls to Wings Traffic on the local Unicom frequency I switched to Philadelphia Approach to check in with them: “Philadelphia Approach N205EC 1300 for 2000”. I got a “Radar identified” back followed by a climb instruction to which I was to respond “2EC out of 2000 for 5000”. We eventually ended up at the filed cruising altitude of 6000ft.

The examiner was particularly interested in my hand-flying skills. The aircraft used was a 2012 Cirrus SR20 with the Perspective avionics - basically a flying computer and made to be flown on autopilot with the human pilot monitoring the system and planning ahead. My examiner was ex-military and a bit old school but not at all against modern technology. My impression was that he wanted to find out how much I depend on the technology. I believe that is a good approach.

Actually going to Ohio would have taken us about 2:45 hours but the examiner asked me to inform Philadelphia Approach a few minutes into the flight that we are canceling IFR to get started with some airwork. So I said “cancel IFR” and let them know that we would like to stay on flight following, which they confirmed. I was also to climb 500ft higher in order to be at a VFR altitude.

Flight following is service where the radar controller actively monitors a flight and provides collision avoidance and navigation service to VFR pilots. It is unknown in Germany where there is a sharp distinction between VFR and IFR flight.

ATC wasn’t happy with us doing airwork

Now that we had switched to VFR rules the examiner wanted me to start some airwork. He wanted me to slow down to 80kt and descend at that very slow airspeed for a while. Cirrus airplanes are not really made to be flow very slow so it was difficult to slow down that much. It becomes wobbly as well. It is really like the airplane were telling the pilot “don’t do that. I don’t like it”.

While we were doing the slow airspeed descend ATC contacted us to inquiry what we were doing. The controller’s voice showed some signs of being upset. We had changed our heading and were flying towards the Philadelphia airspace B while in a 500ft/minute descend. The controller wasn’t happy with our activities and she let us know “I can’t have you bouncing around up and down in that area”. So the examiner started to negotiate with her in order to perform the instrument checkride while not going very far away from his choosen practice area. Eventually we were allowed to continue the airwork and then heading towards Reading airport (KRDG).

Setting up for the first approach

En route to KRDG I was to request to Reading Approach a practice ILS, which happened to the ILS 31 with intention to fly the published missed approach. Now the tricky part started. :-)

I was hand-flying. It was bumpy and we had between 20kt and 30kt of wind at our altitude. During an instrument checkride one is supposed to stay within 100ft of altitude, within 10kts of airspace and within 10 degrees of course - and not to exceed these limits consistently. All that means that while hand-flying one is very, very busy with constantly monitoring all the instruments to ensure the aircraft does not deviate from the intented flight path while at the same time one tries to set up the navigation radios, read charts, talk to ATC, and listen to the ATIS broadcast to find out about the weather at the destination airport. The examiner might inject a few questions here and there as well.

So… It does get busy and one may find one’s own personal limits reached. Later the examiner told me that part of his doing is to find out where those limits are, because after all this is single pilot IFR and there will be no second pilot to assist when in bumpy IMC doing an approach somewhere. Apparently I was able to handle the situation to his satisfaction.

Controlled flight into terrain (CFIT)

Before the flight during the oral part of the exam we had been talking about controlled flight into terrain (CFIT). The term refers to the situation where a pilot has the aircraft fully under control but flies straight into a mountain without knowing that the terrain is there.

Well… The examiner had a second opportunity to make his point.

We were vectored onto the localizer at Reading airport a second time and the instructions from ATC were to stay at 2000ft. There is a mountain ridge on one side of the airport and we were going straight for it.

The student doing the practical test is required to wear a view limiting device, which is called foggles. It does restrict vision to the instrument panel and does not allow one to see outside without raising the head quite a bit. It is supposed to simulation being within a cloud. The safety pilot, usually the instructor or in that case the examiner, on the right seat has unobstructed view to the outside and is responsible for spotting other aircraft and anything else that might become dangerous.

When we were flying towards that mountain ridge he told me to look up and explained one more time what CFIT really means. We then were vectored the other direction and eventually onto the localizer to fly a second approach. This time it was the non-precision approach LOC 13 flown on the autopilot.

Partial panel

Part of the training for an instrument rating is to understand how to continue flight to a safe landing in an emergency situation. Even the best technology can fail and so one practices flying an approach in simulated IMC with only some of the instruments working. That is called partial panel.

Current models of Cirrus aircraft with the Perspective avionics have a fully redundant system design. Everything of importance exists two times, it does switch over to the other good one, if the first one fails, and one can switch manually as well. Still there are external sensors that can fail so one does practice to fly the airplane without airspeed indication amongst other things.

Near the end of the practical test we set up for the GPS LPV approach at Wings Field (KLOM) and pulled circuit breakers to simulate an avionics failure. The landing wasn’t straight in. We were going for the circle to land option of the approach and he had me fly around the airport visually before the actual landing. There was some crosswind and some gusts coming in to short final, which always creates an additional challenge but I managed to demonstrate a smooth landing.

Temporary certificate

After we taxied back to the ramp and I shut down the engine the examine said “Congratulations!” and we debriefed. Back in the office he started the process to produce my temporary airmen certificate with the magic words instrument rating on it. That piece of paper does allow me now to fly anywhere in the world an FAA registered single engine piston aircraft under IFR. In a little while the FAA will mail me the final certificate, which is a credit card size plastic card.