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Location: Massachusetts, United States

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Good Thursday

Good news all around for what was a miserably windy day: Ron got hired as a First Officer at ExpressJet and I became an instrument pilot.
I arrived at the airport in the morning, ready for a last prep flight and was filled with anticipation and a little angst induced by my pink slipping the last checkride I took. Eric, the instructor I flew with, had only reassuring words and positive comments about our two-hour excursion in the skies of Virginia.
After a quick bite, H-Hour arrived and I sat down with the examiner, whom I’d first met during my multi-engine retest.
He quizzed me about regulations and asked me what I and the aircraft needed to be legal for IFR. Easy enough. Then it was on to questions about the low en-route chart. Again, no problems there.
We then discussed the flight plan he’d asked me to prepare, a short hop from Manassas to Cumberland, MD. The route was straightforward enough and I’d spent time surveying it and the area to make sure there were no traps. I also considered escape routes along the path of flight and briefed the only approach I’d be able to shoot based on the weather conditions he gave me.
We finger flew the flight plan. Over the Casanova VOR, my first checkpoint, approach calls me and says “Seminole 1234AB, climb and maintain 8,000, proceed on course as filed.”
A few minutes later, the DE explained, the radios appear to be awfully silent. What should I do? After calling approach for a radio check I get nothing but silence. So, I said, I’d check the volume knob on the radio, the headset, the jacks and so on. Nothing. Complete communications failure.
Since approach had cleared me as filed, I explained, I’d proceed to the next checkpoint and fly the flight plan all the way to Cumberland. Once there, the weather worsened so I showed him how I would fly the published missed approach and how I would enter the hold. After a second attempt, still no luck so I’d divert to my alternate, Martinsburg, which I picked because it has an ILS approach, is away from the mountains to the west of Cumberland and might therefore have slightly different weather conditions and is convenient to get to since the hold for the missed approach is on the Victor airway that leads directly to Martinsburg.
Satisfied with that, he probed me a little bit about the Visual Descent Point, minimum altitudes and had me read him a prognostic chart, which showed 8 or 9 low pressure systems moving east and tightly-packed isobars west of us, which would of course explain the strong winds.
After pre-flighting, and some amount of dismay on my part about the winds in the area, which were gusting in the mid-20s, we were off for the practical portion of the test. I flew west direct to CSN VFR to leave the ADIZ. On the way, since I had an idle moment, I decided to identify Casanova even though I was navigating there using the GPS. I figured that if he failed the GPS or assigned me the VOR-A at Culpeper (which begins at CSN) this would save me some work. This was only met with disapproval on his part, which I didn’t have time to question. As I mentioned in a previous post, this particular examiner can be somewhat gruff, although I do enjoy flying with him and learned a lot on Thursday’s checkride. The point, I think, was to stress me out or test my confidence.
He soon gave me vectors to shoot the ILS at Martinsburg, WV. Unfortunately, the tower there was too busy handling a C-130 and a Cessna 172 on the ILS so we were told to try a little later. I scrambled to set up the GPS-A into Winchester and shot the approach single-engine partial panel. Combine that with the checkride stress and the gusty winds and I was working hard. Since he failed my HSI, I could use two options to fly the approach: the CDI page on the GPS to get guidance to the runway, or the number 2 VOR tuned for the VOR-A. The latter is what he preferred, so I obliged. But it became obvious that the instrument was a little out of whack, showing me to be right of course when the moving map showed us well left of the approach path. I checked the frequency, the OBS but everything looked good. Even he was baffled, but instructed me to continue flying the approach that way. I personally would have preferred at this point to rely on the CDI page because the VOR could very well fly us into a mountain.
At the MDA, the examiner told me to go visual and asked me which way I’d circle to land on 14. I looked down at the approach plate and immediately replied that I would turn right to join a left downwind. While my answer was correct, my having to check led to a well-deserved scolding. I really should’ve had that figured out when I got the weather earlier on during the approach but was distracted by the engine and vacuum failures and the whacky VOR. Lesson well learned.
After landing at Winchester, he vectored me for a second, and this time successful, attempt at the VOR26 at Martinsburg. I got on with approach, who steered us to the final approach course, and flew a nice and tidy ILS all the way down. While on a long downwind, we heard the pilot of the C130 on the approach calling tower at the final approach fix.
“Who do you think has the easier job, him or you,” the examiner asked.
I was sweating bullets, doing my best to make sure everything was set up correctly and fighting the bumps so without thinking I replied the C130 pilot probably had a harder job, what with his aircraft being so much heavier, faster and complex.
“Are you kidding? He has a crew to help him with charts, radios and calling out altitudes. You are doing all that on your own and you have an SOB in the right seat yelling at you.”
Hmm. I smiled.
“If you look at it that way then I have the harder job!”
Did a nice landing in a direct 90 degree crosswind then took off and departed to the south and headed direct to Linden VOR, where the examiner told me I’d fly a 5DME arc to the left to join the 160 radial and depart eastbound. The stiff headwind bought me some time in trying to figure out how to enter this thing. The stress induced by his badgering was really getting to me even though I knew that was precisely the point of it. He likes to instill a stressful atmosphere in the cockpit to see how much you can handle, which I think is genius. Not pleasant, but great training and proof that a check ride really is a learning experience.
I was flying to LDN on the 030 radial, so I’d make a 90 degree turn to the left at about 5.5 miles out, accounting for the strong headwind. I’d arc to the right, then turn left to intercept the 160 radial outbound. We were still a few miles out so I took the chart out and finger flew the arc ahead of time to make absolutely sure my entry was correct, which it was.
After battling the wind on the initial turn, I was established on the 5DME arc and to my surprise flew it very nicely, hardly leaving the intended path at all. An arc so close to the VOR requires finesse and the way the winds were howling I knew I had my work cut out for me! Once on the outbound radial, the examiner vectored me to CSN for the VOR-A into Culpeper. On the way, he deplored that all he could see outside was lightening and dark clouds. Was he hinting to something? Was I missing something? Everything seemed to be set up correctly so I continued to wonder what he was getting to.
“Seminole 1234AB, you are cleared for the VOR-A to Culpeper, you can cancel IFR with me in the air or FSS on the ground.”
Aaaaaah. Now I get it. We’re never going to break out here, the weather’s so bad we’ll have to go missed.
“Cleared for the VOR-A Culpeper and we’d like to cancel on the ground.”
Resounding silence from the right seat. Sweet!
I flew a nice approach all the way to the missed approach point then executed the published missed: climbing left turn to 2,900 then direct to CSN and hold.
“Mark, all you have to do now is enter the hold,” he told me.
Don’t screw this up, was the message.
Upon reaching 2,900, I slowed the plane down and confirmed the hold entry to be parallel. Reached CSN, turned the outbound heading, started the time, twisted the CDI to the inbound, corrected for the wind out of my left so I wouldn’t be blown too far. A minute later, I turned right and smiled as my wind correction was spot on. I intercepted the inbound and flew back to the VOR, where he took the plane for a couple of quick and problem-free unusual attitudes.
“My airplane,” he said when I was done with those. “Take your foggles . Congratulations, you can relax now.”
Wow! Instrument pilot! I did it. The checkride was a work-out but what a feeling of accomplishment!
It’s apparently sort of a tradition of his to fly back home, so I took in the scenery and relaxed. The dark skies allowed just a sliver of bright incandescent red light frfom the setting sun to bleed out of the base of the clouds near the mountains. What a perfect sight after a couple of hours under the hood!
The next day I studied for the Fundamentals Of Instructing written, which I took without problems. Over the next couple of days I’ll be cramming to take the Flight Instructor Airplane and Advanced Ground Instructor writtens on Monday, then head home for a few days on Tuesday. I could use some rest and am looking forward to some time with my wife.


Blogger John said...

Nice write-up and .... Congratulations!

11:02 AM  
Anonymous phil said...

Right on!

Reading this post brought me back to my ppl checkride.

11:33 AM  

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