March 28, 2005


A few thoughts in the aftermath:

It's hard to believe that suddenly, as a result of the checkride, I'm actually allowed to fly approaches to minimums in IMC. A 200' decision height on even a familiar ILS is scary enough under the hood in VMC with an instructor sitting impassively in the right seat, but single pilot IFR in IMC? No way. It's tempting to impose at least an airport's highest circling minimums on myself for any approach to that airport in actual, regardless of what's legal; I certainly wouldn't fly a non-precision approach in IMC to anywhere close to minimums (except in an emergency). Perhaps the only ILS I'd fly to close to minimums would be Oakland's 27R, an approach (and surrounding terrain, etc.) that I'm utterly familiar with -- but even here I wouldn't want to go below (say) 500' in IMC (and, luckily, probably would almost never need to, given Oakland's weather). And I doubt I'd do any serious IMC flying without a certified GPS for positional awareness at least. And a decent single-axis autopilot would help too...

As both John and Mr Batchelder have said, I need another bunch of hours just flying the system and getting better at everything without the unreal stress of checkrides and instruction before I attempt any real sustained flying in actual. I guess I already knew this, and plan on flying IFR in the system -- with or without the hood -- pretty much wherever I go for the next year or so anyway (I have a long-planned trip to LA (KSMO or KBUR) sometime April or May which will be ideal for this). And then a slow transition through small amounts of coastal stratus actual to the real thing. I'm actually looking forward to this, with a whole long Northern Californian summer full of coastal stratus just about to start.

As with the private pilot certificate, basically nothing went wrong -- so once again, this isn't a Triumph Against The Odds sort of story, just a rather more realistic diary of trying to get an instrument rating in Northern California while also trying to keep a full-time business going. I didn't experience any major existential crises, any real problems in understanding procedures, any problems at all with disorientation in actual or under the hood, etc. -- i.e. nothing that would make this diary / blog really interesting.... The main problems were (predictably) external: getting time away from my business, and, towards the end, having to be ruthless about my finances. Nothing insurmountable, but if you're committed to getting the rating, having a life that's constantly changing around you probably isn't the best way to arrange things (understatement).

Was the rating the hardest thing I've ever done? No, not even close. Nothing has so far been harder than the honours year of my undergraduate degree, or sustaining some of my relationships over the years. Even the checkride wasn't as intense as doing the honours exams (oral and written), or as difficult as the stand-up graduate studies interview in front of the committee at the LSE all those years ago. But both the checkride itself and the year or so of training were definitely draining and difficult, and a fair bit harder in some ways than my initial private pilot license experiences.

The rating took pretty much the amount of effort and time I expected it to -- I'm no prodigy or over-achiever, and didn't do it in minimal time -- but I'm a little disappointed not to have been able to get it all over and done with last year before I had to go to Australia. No big deal, but it would certainly have made the last few months a lot easier by not having to cope with the rating as well as a new job, growing business, etc. etc.

I'm glad I did the past few months mostly in 2SP -- the combination of a stable, well-rigged and powerful (180HP) plane with a GPS and autopilot made it a great platform for learning some real-world IFR. I thought that maybe I was biting off more than I could chew, or that maybe a DE would mark me down for having all the extras that any Real Pilot would do without. Quite the contrary -- Mr Batchelder said he cut me some slack for turning up in the sort of plane that you really might fly single pilot in IMC, and for knowing how to use the GPS and the autopilot on the fly and with changing clearances (he has a gentle rant about some of the planes he's seen being used for instrument checkrides and the unreality of learning in something like them). The extra effort and time to become at least somewhat fluent in both was definitely worth it, and I'd recommend it for anyone out there wondering about the issue.

And finally -- my choice of instructor turned out to be excellent. I'll have much more to say about John in a separate article, but for now, let's just say I've generally been blessed with good instructors, and John's obviously the main reason I got through it so smoothly.

March 26, 2005

The Long Version

Yes, I passed the instrument rating checkride last Thursday, first time through. A close thing, though -- throughout the checkride my flying was mostly pretty mediocre, and several times I thought I must have failed after that little screwup or this major blunder. I should feel elated, but all I still feel is a huge sense of relief -- finally my life is going to return to normal. No more late nights or long drives back up Interstate 880 for a hurried flight under the Cone of Stupidity. No more relentless practice flights to Sacramento or Stockton through fading light or indistinct grey skies (that I can't actually see anyway). No more anxiously checking my bank account to see if I can afford another week's flying...

* * *

I meet Richard Batchelder, my Designated Pilot Examiner (DPE, or traditionally just DE), as he comes across the apron from an earlier checkride. He's pretty much what I'd been told to expect -- friendly, affable, larger than life. And late. I've arrived at Concord airport (KCCR) in 2SP at least 30 minutes early; he's returning from the previous checkride late, and by the time we get going on my checkride, we're maybe 90 minutes late. So I get to sit around the apron in the sun and watch the little Schweizer 300's from Helicopter Adventures hover and flit around a few metres away (these things are loud), and talk with the previous candidate's instructor. That candidate -- a full-time student from Sierra Academy -- has just failed his instrument checkride, which doesn't make me feel so good, but his instructor's a nice guy, and very encouraging. Over the years I've had a bunch of personal connections to Sierra, but I don't really know anyone there now, especially since they moved away from Oakland airport.

We start the oral after a whole bunch of paperwork, and proceed pretty quickly. No surprises here, just the usual menagerie of questions, most of which I get right(ish), some of which I should get right but in the heat of the moment say the wrong thing, and some of which (mainly things like the minutiae of weather charts), I just get plain wrong. Oh well. At least that part's over and done with satisfactorily; now on to the checkride itself...

Mr Batchelder's checkrides are notoriously intense workouts -- as I'd been told, just one damn thing after another, with barely space to breathe -- but he tells me that even if I do something really badly, I should just keep pressing on unless he tells me to stop.... If I need to redo a checkride later, I'll only have to do the things I failed. Sounds good to me.

So after the preflight we get in, and the blur begins: depart runway 32R VFR, a simulated Buchanan 7 departure with the REJOY transition, two times around an impromptu hold at REJOY followed by some unusual attitudes and other airwork in the vicinity, then straight on to the ILS RWY 2 into Sacramento Executive (KSAC), then go missed back to Sacramento VOR, then straight on to a partial panel VOR-A into Rio Vista (O88), then a circle-to-land for runway 25 at Rio Vista (luckily there's no one else in the pattern), a quick touch-and-go on 25, vectors from Mr Batchelder to a DME arc to near the final approach course for the GPS RWY 19R approach back in to Concord, then an autopilot-coupled intercept and approach (the GPS RWY 19R) to full stop at Concord. Or something like that.

Several times duing the flight he barks at me -- "what do you think you're doing?!" or "where the hell are you going" -- things like that -- but this seems to be mostly an attempt to see if I can cope with being rattled, or to see how well I can articulate what I'm trying to do (and, in at least one case, it was because I'm about to make a stupid blunder...). I feel bad about it at the time, of course, but it's pretty effective. At other times he just sits back, looks out the window, and muses about the birds down there in the Delta or why we Brits (and others) call an autopilot "George".

Departing Rio Vista he explains what he wants for the DME arc, and what follows is a comedy of errors as we both argue about how to set up the GPS to do what he wants. Basically, I say that the damn thing really can't quite do what he's asking for, and suggest setting it up for a much simpler method; he more-or-less agrees but still thinks it can be set up his way anyway with a bit of effort. After a minute or so of to-ing and fro-ing 3,000' above the Delta like this I finally tell him we'll have to do it my way or we'll probably be out over the Pacific before we have anything set up at all. He basically agrees and lets me do my thing, which has the advantage of simplicity -- and workability. Again, it sounds bad now, but while it's happening it's actually quite funny, and he's gracious and good-humored about it as it's happening ("Hey, you're the boss!"). Similarly, he's quite happy to let me do my (non-standard) thing with the autopilot a few minutes later after I explain what I'm going to do, and why.

* * *

So what went wrong? A lot of things... my altitude control was just terrible, I did two really bad landings, I circled the "wrong" way at Rio Vista (never mind -- there's really no "right" way there, given the stringent noise abatement rules, and I made it up on the spot as I came out from under the Cone of Stupidity), I got quite a bit to the left of course on the early stages of the partial panel VOR-A approach into Rio Vista (but corrected OK and kept -- just -- within PTS standards), I did a poor job of briefing the approaches, I was pretty rough with controlling airspeeds, and I really confused Mr Batchelder several times about what I was trying to do -- apparently it was far from clear what instruments I was relying on to identify a fix, for example (GPS? DME? VOR cross radial?), and he thought several times that I'd made a mistake when I had basically changed instruments on the fly without informing him (that sort of on-the-fly change is not a smart thing to do).

And what did I do right? Apparently, Mr Batchelder didn't have too many doubts about my basic safety, or that I knew what I was doing (or what should be done...), and that I had reasonable positional and situational awareness. That is, the basics were OK, if a little rough -- and when I got something wrong I apparently recovered quickly and smoothly. My radio work was also OK (as it should be at this stage...). Headings and clearances and the approach procedures themselves all went fairly well. The hold entry and the hold itself went OK, if a little rough. Despite the comedy of errors surrounding setting up the DME arc to the GPS approach back into Concord, I actually flew the DME arc just fine (no more than about .5 miles off the required distance), and I apparently did OK at staying on top of the GPS and the autopilot on the approach.

* * *

So it's all over (at least until I start the Commercial -- I give myself a while before I want to start that...). There'll be a few more postings here about the event and associated musings, but in the meantime I want to again thank John Ewing, CFII for getting me through it all with such good humour and teaching skills. The last couple of months have been less than than ideal for me learning anything, let alone something as difficult as this, but John got me through calmly and successfully...

March 24, 2005

The Checkride

The short version of the story: after two weeks of nonstop stressed-out work, work, work down in Silicon Valley -- and a bit of hurried flying when I could get the chance -- I pass the checkride with some of the worst flying I've done in months. I don't feel anything much other than very relieved -- I guess the sense of accomplishment will come later. And I'm grateful to John for getting me through it all, especially the last two weeks when I've been really cranky due to things at work getting utterly out of control. Too many 7am meetings and all-weekend work shifts to make flying an easy thing...

The long version will have to wait for the weekend, at least. I have a long day's real-world work to do tomorrow...

March 13, 2005

Work And Play

31V and 36B Heading Back Over The Golden Gate

I get to combine work and play by doing some formation shooting in Ginny Wilkins's 172 (with Ginny as pilot...) for the club and for Alameda Magazine with Dave Penney's twin Texas Taildraggers, 31V and 36B over The Bay, Marin, and the Golden Gate. Dave piloted 31V, Ben Freelove piloted 36B (with Gabe Schlumberger as co-pilot and second photographer).

The full (unedited) web proofs from the shoot will be up here for a few weeks (maybe longer). Note: these are lo-res web proofs only, and haven't had proper sharpening, colour balance, cropping, etc., work done on them, so don't get too critical. And yes, the shots suffer from way too much glare in some cases, but there's a couple of shots there that'll survive editing (this was my first attempt at air-to-air photography as opposed to in-air aerobatics photography. I have a lot to learn...). And an hour in formation over the Golden Gate in the warm early evening Northern Californian spring sunshine -- all VFR! -- revives something of the sense of flying I used to get in 36B or the Decathlon...

March 10, 2005

Underground Airports For Future Air Traffic

Underground Airports For Future Air Traffic

"The proposed subterranean terminals doing away with the primitive, dangerous nuisances of the present day flying fields."

OK, I'm a sucker for this sort of thing (and it's a good break from thinking about the checkride). It's from a great little transportation futures exhibition just up the road in Berkeley that I unfortunately missed last year. The sections on commercial aviation and helicopters strike a strong chord with me; and the Oddities section has a bunch of just great stuff, not least of which is the "Escape pods can prevent needless air-crash deaths!" page from March 1960's Mechanix Illustrated. Oh, and there's a very futuristic-looking rendering of my local BART station as envisaged in the 1960's. Kewl! Nothing dates quite as quickly as The Future, I guess. Just be thankful we're not (yet) sitting on these things on the LA / SFO shuttle (as they say, "When leg room is not an issue, seats may be much closer together"):

March 05, 2005

I Have No Life, Part 43

I Have No Life, Part 43: Saturday Night, Another Simulated Checkride.

The Buchanan 7 departure / REJOY transition out of Concord (KCCR), the ILS RWY 2 into Sacramento Executive (KSAC), the VOR-A into Rio Vista (O88) with circling (urgh!), then the GPS 19R back into Concord. Plus sundry holds, partial panel stuff, autopilot coupling, etc. It goes well, mostly at or above PTS standards, and I keep the stupid mistakes to a minimum. I feel reasonably confident again -- more so now than before I had to go to Australia -- and we decide on a potential date for the checkride, modulo Mr Bachelder's availability, etc. It looks likely to be March 25, but this isn't set in concrete yet.

Once again, I'm somewhat appalled at how badly I fly VFR nowadays, making simple errors on the approach into Concord and taking way too long to get my bearings visually when coming back over the Oakland hills into Oakland.