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...

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