Getting My Cloudbuster’s Badge

A little more than a year after hearing the words, “you’re a pilot now”, I earned my instrument rating and thus the right to fly through the clouds, rain and other weather. I took my instrument airplane checkride with Robert (Bob) Gawler at Gaithersburg, and despite being the more difficult checkride, it was a worthwhile experience.

The Ground Portion
My checkride began Monday morning as I headed downstairs from the cafe and to the designated pilot examiner’s office. “Come in, said the spider to the fly” he told me. I went in, and sat down nervously.

We started with some basic paperwork, and while he inputted the data he needed to enter into IACRA, he gave me a couple multiple choice tests of my instrument and airplane knowledge. They served as a starting point for our discussions and ranged from minimum equipment lists to instrument approach procedures and the interpretation of various symbols. When he was satisfied that I had a basic level of knowledge, he added some additional oral questions. He gave me weather for Gaithersburg and a destination airport, and he asked if it was legal to fly. He gave me a route clearance, and asked if I could accept it. He gave me a communications failure and asked me what I would do, and what altitudes I would fly. It was a rather basic set of questions aimed at determining if I knew the important points of instrument flying.

When he was satisfied he said “well, you want to go flying?” Of course I did, so he asked to see my logbooks for the airplane. He asked me what inspections were required, and I went over the details with him. He also asked to see the weight and balance, and asked why I had not asked for his weight. However, I had asked him for his weight via email when I scheduled the checkride, and I proved it by showing him his stated weight on the weight and balance. He was satisfied and sent me out to preflight the airplane.

I preflighted the airplane, and climbed in to get set up. He appeared and stepped inside. He then asked to see the airplane’s required documents (I guess he figured enough students leave them in the plane to do that check from the cockpit), which I readily provided. I then started the engine, ran through my pre-taxi checks, and we were on our way.

Pulling onto the taxiway I had a horrible thought: where’s the pitot tube cover? The pitot tube is a small tube that accepts ram air and the difference in ram air and static pressure gives indicated airspeed. I thought for a moment what I was going to do, and ultimately decided to confess that I thought I had a problem. No matter, Bob said; we’ll just shut down on the taxiway and he offered to get out and check (there’s only one door in my airplane). Sure enough I had left it on! I felt quite silly; however, Bob just said “You caught the error, and you caught it before it was a safety problem. Let’s continue.” Lesson learned: confess your mistakes. DPEs are human, they realize you’re nervous, and they know you make mistakes. Don’t hide them.

I restarted the engine, and we proceeded to do our runup. Unfortunately, the shutdown and restart had fouled the spark plugs and I wasn’t able to get the magnetos to check out. I announced we were going back to the ramp, and I asked for a Letter of Discontinuance at that point. Bob agreed that discretion was the better part of valor, and we taxied back to the ramp. Back in his office, he prepared the paperwork, told me I did well to break the accident chain, and sent me on my way. We rescheduled for Thursday.

The Flight Portion
On Thursday, I headed back to the airport under clear skies and calm winds (even stating calm on the AWOS). It was a beautiful day for flying, and I was looking forward to the flight. I was also getting nervous. Arriving early, I executed a relatively thorough preflight. I set up the inside of the airplane, then headed into the pilot lounge for a couple deep breaths. I met Bob in his office, and we discussed the plan of action; he gave me some basic instruction on hold entries (I mix up the teardrop and the parallel entry often) and sent me back to the airplane.

Bob arrived shortly thereafter, settled in, and I started the engine. We taxied to the runup area, and I executed my checklist. Bob was satisfied with the improved mag drop, and we prepared to fly. I programmed the GPS to fly direct to WOOLY from Gaithersburg, and I set up the NAV2 for direct to Westminster VOR (which was my clearance). Bob was concerned and asked me what he asked me to do; I told him that I was going to fly the #2 CDI and switch for the GPS approach I was expecting at Carroll County. He was satisfied with this answer.

I departed, and got myself on course to Westminster. Bob had me put the hood on about 300 feet above the ground, and I was under it most of the rest of the trip. He cleared me direct to WOOLY for the GPS 34 approach to Carroll County. Checking the weather, he realized that the winds favored Runway 16 and directed me to circle and land. Descending to the circling minimums, I looked up, maneuvered for the downwind, and Bob said “you’re back in the clouds now, what do you do?” “Go missed” I said, and he said “Okay.”

I began to execute the missed approach, and once stabilized he vectored me off the missed approach course to do some airwork. He had me put my head down, and maneuvered the aircraft for an unusual attitude, expect in a twist he hadn’t placed me in an unusual attitude at all – he had just spatially disoriented me. He took it as an opportunity to teach about the inner ear, and then had me do it again. I recovered from the left climbing turn quickly, and he was satisfied with my recovery techniques. He cleared me to execute a 7 DME Arc from the Westminster VOR to intercept the transition to the Frederick ILS Runway 23. I went to work configuring the GPS, CDIs and VOR receivers for both the arc and the approach.

Here’s where things got a little hairy. During my training, my instructor always gave me a direction to fly. Bob didn’t; he simply cleared me to fly the arc. Obviously he wanted me to fly the shortest distance, and once established that I was flying south on the 185 radial, the fastest way would be to fly counterclockwise. But in this case, counterclockwise was a right turn, not a left turn. To make matters worse, I was tracking the 180 radial inbound, but once I turned west, I needed to reverse the CDI to track the 350 radial outbound (so that I could then track the 295 radial outbound). Initially I didn’t configure the CDIs for this, but I caught it quickly and recovered. Bob never mentioned this at all (though I’m sure he noticed).

Recovered, I flew the arc within a half mile of the 7 mile distance, and turned out right on the 295 radial. I quickly configured the #1 CDI for the localizer and the #2 was already configured for the outbound 295 radial. I didn’t bother touching the GPS; he said “RAIM has quit” and it was an ILS anyway, I didn’t need the GPS. He instructed me to request the option at Frederick, and had me land from minimums. On the way down he reminded me that a one dot deflection put me over an obstacle and said “keep it lined up”. I landed, switched for my missed approach, and took off again, heading for the hold once I reached 1,300 feet. Once established, he had me obtain a transponder code for the DC SFRA and he vectored me for the VOR 14 approach to Gaithersburg.

At this point the suction cups came out and covered up my vacuum instruments. “I declare an emergency” I said, “I need radar vectors for a no gyro approach immediately.” He said, “Radar contact lost, cleared for the VOR 14 approach.” I was on my own. After a few minutes he asked me why I wasn’t asking for compass headings; I showed him that the track was highlighted on my GPS and he “failed” it, forcing me to ask him. I got myself on course, and began the VOR 14 approach into Gaithersburg, but made a big mistake: I forgot to start my timer. He pointed this out on the final approach course. I said “oops” and then I told him “if I really did that I’d confess it to ATC and tell them I needed help getting to the missed approach course”. He was satisfied with this answer apparently.

He asked me for my final approach airspeeds and vectored me for the base and final legs. He had me look up and I was about 500 feet from the runway, a half mile from the threshold. Chopping the power and dumping the flaps, I landed smack on the 1,000 foot markers and right on the center line. “Not bad” I told him. “Much better than the Frederick landing.” He just smiled.

We taxiied back to the ramp, and since he hadn’t ended the checkride I knew I had passed. “So, how do you think you did?” he asked me. “Honest self evaluation.” I gave him some of the things I thought went well, some of the struggles, and he said “Well, I can’t think of any reason why I shouldn’t type up a little white piece of paper” and shook my hand. I had passed!

Lessons Learned

There were a few lessons that I learned from this experience, that I think every pilot can take along on his or her next checkride.

  • Designated examiners are human and realize you are too. They aren’t out to get you, they’re out to make sure you’re a safe pilot. The FAA may not let them give you second chances, but they will give you the benefit of the doubt, so long as the maneuver is “never seriously in doubt.” Forgetting to remove a pitot tube cover is a major checklist mistake, but failing to realize it and departing is a major safety problem. He’d rather I double check the checklist than depart with a safety problem.
  • You won’t fly perfectly, but that shouldn’t stop you from trying. Was my checkride perfect? By no means. Forgetting to start a timer on a VOR approach is pretty fundamental, but also pretty easy to forget when you’re partial panel, trying to hold a heading, dealing with light chop and watching five instruments all at the same time. Know what to do in those situations.
  • Train for the real world, not the checkride. It’s easy to focus on the practical test standards, but that’s not what training is about. My instructor put me through the paces, and though the checkride was hard, passing her mock checkride was far harder. Since your commitment to the standards continues long after the checkride ends, it’s crucial that you take the training seriously. “Within PTS” may be good, but “perfect” is far better. Could I have passed my checkride two weeks ago? Sure. But I wouldn’t be as prepared for the instrument rating as I was today.

2 thoughts on “Getting My Cloudbuster’s Badge

  1. Congratulations on the instrument rating! I’ve been tossing the idea around a lot more lately, but I need to save more before I can get my IFR. Enjoy your new instrument airplane privileges!

  2. That’s a great post Brandon. Hadn’t had a chance to read it until now. Sounds like you did all the right things. Good for you. Best wishes, Marc

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