Zero to Hero – Part 2

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I got together with founder and fellow CAP officer Rod Rakic to talk about accelerated flight training. Rod has done accelerated programs as a part of both his commercial and instrument training. I did my AMEL, ASES, and DC-3 (SIC) training in accelerated programs. And Rod and I are both graduates of the CAP National Emergency Services Academy’s Mission Aircrew School.

We talked about the benefits and drawbacks of accelerated and/or concentrated training and how best to take advantage of it.

CAP Form 5 IFR Add-On

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A good pilot is always challenging himself or herself. And sometimes that challenge comes in the form of demonstrating the same skills that you’ve already developed, but doing it in a different forum.

As many of you know, I’m a captain in the US Civil Air Patrol. I don’t wear captain’s bars because I’m such a hot pilot. I got ‘em along with the appointment as a legal officer for CAP and I currently serve as the asst. legal officer of the Michigan Wing.

I finally succumbed to embarrassment last August and put my time and flight skills where my mouth was. I’ve been a member of CAP since 2004, but I hadn’t actually flown in a CAP aircraft until August of last year.

In order to fly for CAP, you have to start out by having all of the FAA certificates and ratings and currency that would otherwise be required in order to fly the category, class, and type of aircraft you’re going to fly for CAP. Additionally, if you’re going to fly search and rescue missions or cadet orientation flights or perform other activities, there are PIC time and other requirements. Lastly, there’s the Form 5 checkride.

The Form 5 ride is named after the CAP form that the check airman fills out during the flight and signs off if you pass.

CAP is a professionally-operated organization. You have flight release officers that act as dispatchers. You have to call and be quizzed about the tactical risk management score for your flight, the weather, the kind of flying you’re going to be doing, and other factors. Then you get a flight release number. If anything about the flight changes, you have to call up the Fro and tell him or her. And you call the FRO when you get back down so that he or she knows that you’re safe. After all, it’s CAP that would come looking for you if you went missing and it’d be embarrassing if it didn’t have as much information as possible with which to begin the search.

The Form 5 ride is to the practical test standards set out by the FAA, where applicable. And some CAP operations have additional standards that you have to meet. But even if the standard is only to FAA PTS, you’re flying for CAP and you really want to demonstrate to the check airman that you’re above and beyond regular PTS and the obvious master of the aircraft.

So, when I attended a squadron meeting in August of last year, they announced that the wing would have be gathering three or four aircraft and several check airmen and holding a Form 5 day at Willow Run Airport (KYIP) near Ypsilanti, Michigan. And I had run out of excuses. Big bad Stephen Force with his podcast and his aerobatic training and yadda yadda yadda. Okay, though guy. How about doing a Form 5?

Actually, they put it much nicer than that but they were right. It was time to go put my time and energy and flying skills where my mouth was.

Long story short, I flew a C-172P with Maj Tim Kramer, who administered an excellent ride and taught me a few things. I walked away with a new Form 5 and was checked out to fly transport missions and to do proficiency flying in CAP Category 1 aircraft (i.e. round-gage C-172s and similar).

But I didn’t do the full checkride with instruments. I went VFR only. I hadn’t flown a C-172P in a long time (if I’d flown one at all) and I was unfamiliar with the panel, especially the Apollo GPS. I didn’t feel comfortable doing a full instrument ride under those circumstances and I didn’t want to waste the check airman’s time.

But a flight with a fellow CAP officer in January really made me want to go get the IFR add-on. We flew from Ann Arbor (KARB) to Battle Creek (KBTL) and back in January. I flew there and he flew back. It had been VFR on departure from Ann Arbor, even though we had to wait for a break in some clouds and climb through a large hole to get on top of a layer at about 2,000 AGL. But, as soon as we got above the scattered layer, we were fine and, by the time we got the KBTL, it was severe clear and beautiful. I shot the ILS for 23 under the hood onto 10,000 feet of inch-deep snow. Very nice landing. Although I had no information for the tower about braking action because I wasn’t about to tough the brakes until we were at walking speed on the rollout.

On the way back, with the other guy in the left seat, that layer had been scattered turned to broken and then to overcast. It became apparent that we would need to shoot an instrument approach into Ann Arbor. Fortunately, the other guy was Form 5’ed for IFR and we handily shot the VOR 24 approach. The layer was about 400 feet thick and it was ragged VFR below, so he put on his foggles until I called a half mile out.

I really like flying with this guy and we’ve flown one other time as well. We’re planning some epic cross-countries this spring and summer. But that VOR 24 at Ann Arbor made me realize that I really needed to step up if I wanted to have this aircrew be fully functional for those cross-countries. I needed to get the rest of the Form 5 for which I qualified. I needed to go for the IFR add-on.

So Scott, a new senior member in the squadron and a new 85-hour private pilot, volunteered to coordinate a Form 5 ride for both of us. VFR for him and the IFR add-on for me. Se scheduled for a Sunday in February.

The Saturday before, I hit the sims at DCT Aviation. Anyone familiar with my Checkride Update series from the fall of 2007 knows that I flew a heck of a lot of sim in preparation for the instrument rating checkride. I’d rather have flown to prepare but it’s hard to fly reliably in Michigan in winter and I had only gotten up on two of the five flights that I scheduled in January. So sim was a must.

Then I showed up at Ann Arbor early on Sunday, rusty, but ready to give it my best shot.

All the paperwork was in order and Scott and I got through the oral at Mike’s Midtown Coney before heading to the hangar. I planned an IFR flight to Grant Rapids and Scott planned a VFR flight to Lansing. I filed my flight plan and off we went.

We preflighted and powered up and taxied to the business end of the runway, which was Runway 6 that morning.

When you do a CAP form 5 ride, you want to demonstrate aircrew skills. It’s nice that you can sit there and run the checklist by yourself, but you don’t get any points for that. I handed the checklist over to the check airman and used Crew Resource Management (“CRM”) immediately. Scott was in the back for my ride and I used him, too, to organize charts and the audio recorder.

Here’s a little bit of the audio from the runup.

[Audio 01]

Then it was time to copy the instrument clearance to Grand Rapids. Note: There’s nothing wrong with using a callsign like “Cessna Niner-Niner-Two-Charlie-Papa.” But wouldn’t you really rather be “CAPFLIGHT Two-Zero-Two-Eight?” I love using a CAPFLIGHT callsign. I’m fiercely proud any time I use that callsign. I’m telling everyone on the frequency that the US Civil Air Patrol is there and we’re either helping people or preparing for the next time we’re called on to do so.”

[Audio 02]

Even among experienced pilots, I’m a fan of briefing everything and making sure that everyone understands exactly what their roles are so there are no surprises that we can avoid. You wouldn’t think that some of this stuff would be necessary with an airplane full or rated pilots. But I think it’s even more important in an airplane full of rated pilots. I once heard a saying that the amount of intelligence in a room remains constant. Only the number of people changes. If you don’t think that’s true, you’ve never seen a lobby full of otherwise incisive and talented lawyers milling around trying to decide where to go to lunch.

So I brief everything. Out loud and the same brief every time. Here’s a little bit of my takeoff brief. They say that mediocre pilots assume that everything will go fine and are surprised when things go wrong. And they say that the best pilots assume that everything will go wrong and are surprised when everything goes fine. I try to be one of the latter. Here’s the parade of horribles that I call out before heading for the hold-short line.

[Audio 03]

There’s more, but that gives you a taste.

Then it’s time to get going. We taxi to the hold-short line.

[Audio 04]
[Audio 05]

The callouts don’t stop on the runway. I call out the most important airspeeds as I roll out to the numbers. Rotate 55, Climb 79, Best Glide 65. And I usually add “smoke on” at the end. It’s the command by the leader of a multi-ship airshow team that tells everyone to turn on the smoke system. The demo has begun. And so it has.

You’ll hear me trade the flight controls to the check airman at 100 feet AGL so that I can pull down my view limiting device. Then I take the controls back and call up Detroit Approach.

[Audio 06]

We couldn’t tune and identify the Detroit VOR on the ground at Ann Arbor, so the first order of business once I had the airplane on the vector and trimmed out was to get that taken care of. There’s a marked radial from that VOR that passes just north of Ann Arbor and my flight plan called for me to intercept it and fly it to my first waypoint, HARWL, no doubt names for Detroit Tigers broadcasting great Ernie Harwell. I tuned and identified the VOR and approach immediately cleared me to HARWL.

[Audio 07]

No checkride goes exactly as you expect it to and this was no exception. Just as I was about to get to my assigned altitude of 4,000 feet, the check airman got on the radio, during which communication both Detroit Approach and I learned that I was going to hold at HARWL.

[Audio 08]

Callouts. Checklists. CRF. If you’re sitting there with the needle all centered and taking a break, you need to ask yourself whether there are any checklists to run or other things for which you should be preparing. So here’s the cruise checklist.

[Audio 09]

The check airman states what is now clear. That I’m going to have a hold. He’s being nice. The hold that he’s giving me and for which he’s asking for Lansing Approach’s approval will be a direct entry – the easiest and most straightforward of the three hold entries.

[Audio 10]

And that’s where the recording media on my MP3 recorder ran out. Turns out that I left it on a high-resolution setting and that ate the rest of the memory.

But it was a good ride. We did a couple of trips around the hold and then headed for Jackson (KJXN). We shot the VOR Runway 6 twice, once with partial panel, and then shot an ILS to minimums.

I was really busy the whole time, working through rust. I’m still unfamiliar with the Apollo GPS that’s in the panel of this airplane as well, and that didn’t help, although the check airman was very helpful in setting up the approaches and coaching where necessary.

Long story short, I passed the ride on the hairy edge. The check airman suggested that I go out and shoot some more approaches under the hood and I agreed wholeheartedly. In fact, I’ve been up and under the hood a couple of times since with more instrument practice planned soon.

Scott rode in the back of the airplane during my ride and even shot a couple of pictures for me. After getting gas at Jackson, Scott and I switched places so he could do his VFR-only Form 5.

The last time that I was in the back seat of a C-172 was in the early 1980s when my Assistant Scoutmaster, Carl Robinson, took us up one afternoon. I’m a little older now and I weigh more, too, so Scott and I paid very close attention to the weight and balance calculations. We were within 25 pounds of max gross and two thirds of the way aft in the envelope, but within specs.

Scott was experiencing a lot of firsts. First time in a C-172R. First time doing a CAP Form 5 ride. First time flying with either me or the check airman. Probably first time flying maneuvers with someone in the back seat and all that that entails from an airplane handling perspective. And probably first time having somebody microblog his performance on Twitter. (Sorry, Scott!)

The check airman commented as we got into the plane that Scott, as an 85-hour private pilot, would probably fly an excellent ride because he hadn’t learned any bad habits yet. Yeah, that’s partially true, but, if it were me, all of those firsts would have more than outweighed any good habits.

So we taxied and took off and Scott flew an ATP-quality set of maneuvers. I sat on the right side of the back seat so that I could see the gages and it was a joy to behold. He nailed the steep turns, nailed the engine-out, nailed the stalls, and nailed just about everything else.

I highly recommend flying in the back seat once in awhile to watch someone else training. It’s great to be able to just relax and learn from someone else’s successes and mistakes. And watching Scott’s ride was particularly enjoyable because he did so well.

If you’re a private pilot in the US and you aren’t yet a CAP member, what are you thinking? The largest piston fleet on earth. All well-maintained, solid aircraft. More G1000-equipped C-182s arriving every month. Talented fellow pilots with whom to fly. And the opportunity to challenge yourself and take your flying to a whole new level of skill and confidence.

Flights like this one happen every day in CAP. It’s an organization to which I’m proud to belong.

CAP Instrument Form 5 Ride

This is a regular blog post. Show notes and links to show audio are in other posts.

I passed my CAP Form 5 instrument checkout for Category 1 aircraft (like the C-172R with steam gages that we flew). If you want to be a CAP pilot, you have to, in addition to possessing all of the required FAA qualifications, pass a CAP-administered checkout each year. It’s done on CAP Form 5 and many refer to it as the “Form 5 checkride” or just “getting Form Fived.”

Capt Alex Craig administered the checkride. Two of us got our rides successively, first me and then SM Scott Gilliand. Scott is a newer private pilot and was doing the VFR checkride. I did the VFR Form 5 in August and was adding on the instrument checkout.

I was first to fly. I planned and filed an IFR flight to Grand Rapids (KGRR) using airways. We diverted at HARWL, flew a hold there (one turn partial panel), and then shot three approaches in to Jackson – Two VORs (one partial panel) and one ILS. I think we were in actual for part of the way there. My hood covers the windshield reasonably well (and I sit low to allow full control travel over my kneeboard), but there’s always that little part of the window down and left that’s hard to block. I’d rather block it. It’s disorienting sometimes.

I passed, but it wasn’t spectacular. I blew a couple of things. Nothing awful or unsafe, but nevertheless not perfect. Alex gave me a deserved admonition to go get a safety pilot and get the rest of the rust off. And I’m planning to do just that.

Frankly, the IFR add-on was so that I could fly a little more capably when Norm Malek and I get out and start covering a lot more of Michigan this summer. We’ll both be CAP qualified instrument drivers and we’re getting pretty good at our CRM rhythm. That makes for a very capable aircrew and we’re going to fine tune it even more.

Alex quipped that Scott, as a lower-time pilot, was likely to fly very well because he had no bad habits to break and was likely still flying to private PTS or better. And, in fact, Scott flew very well. He nailed the airwork and did a lot of it to ATP quality with the needles just frozen in place. Not bad at all for his first time in this airplane! I was really impressed from the back seat.

We did Scott’s pattern work at Willow Run (KYIP). It was a really nice day with light winds and clear sky. Here you can see the steam from the Fermi II nuclear plant a long way off with Willow run in the foreground (we’re on a right downwind for 23R). That’s the kind of plume that tells you that there’s not much going on in terms of winds aloft.

I don’t get to ride in back much at all. In fact, this was my first time in the back of a C-172 since I was a kid. We paid very close attention to the weight and balance on the flight. We were 25 pounds short of max gross and in the back third of the CG envelope (but well within it). I took a lot of pictures and had a pretty good time. It was also great to be able to just sit there and watch someone else take a checkride. It gives you time to think about your own flying and identify procedures that you’re missing or that you might want to add to your own tool kit.

Ann Arbor (KARB) was swarming with airplanes. This was the first really nice day in a long time and it seemed like everyone was out for a few trips around the pattern. Even people hanging around the ramp who weren’t flying, just so be there and watch. We were number three in the conga line on the way back in to 24 and it was clear that the pattern was pretty full. Willow Run, just a few miles to the east, is a really well-kept secret. We had 23R to ourselves the whole time we were there. It’s still my favorite airport.

On to more cross-country go-places flying this summer!

Spatial Disorientation Simulator

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I spent some time recently at the Great Lakes Aviation Conference and Expo in Novi, Michigan. While there, I took advantage of the opportunity to go through the Spatial Disorientation Simulator made available by the FAA’s Civil Aerospace Medical Institute.

It’s a box that contains a single seat with a video screen and flight controls in front of it. You sit in the box in the dark and you fly some basic maneuvers like a climb and some turns. You have a horizon for the first bit of the climb and then you ascend into the clouds.

While you’re concentrating on flying, the box you’re sitting in rotates around its vertical axis something like seven to 12 times per minute. It’ll also pitch forward and back a little.

The simulator lets you experience two vestibular/somatogyral illusions: The coriolis illusion and the illusion that can put you in the so-called graveyard spiral.

The coriolis illusion occurs when you stimulate the semicircular canals by suddenly tilting your head while the aircraft is turning. The simulator rotates slowly for several minutes while you’re flying a simulator. You get used to the rotation and you begin to accept the sensations from your semicircular canals as telling you that you’re flying straight and level. When you move your head forward or back after this, you get the sense that the aircraft is moving in all three axes. I got the sense when I moved my head forward that the aircraft was snapping down and to the right. And the opposite when I moved my head back.

The graveyard spiral happens when you return to level flight after a prolonged bank turn. When you enter the turn, you feel the sensation of a turn in the same direction. If the turn continues for an extended period of time, you lose the turning sensation. Your body has settled into a stabilized mode that’s more or less just like level flight. Then you level the wings. That produces a sensation that the airplane is turning and banking in the opposite direction. If you believe the illusion of the turn (and it’s very compelling), you’ll re-enter the original turn in an attempt to counteract the sensation of the opposite turn.

If you re-enter the turn, you’ll continue in that turn and you’ll start losing altitude. If you pull to get the altitude back or apply power, you’ll only make the turn tighter. If you don’t recognize the illusion and level the wings, you’ll continue the left turn and keep losing altitude until you augur in.

The smooth rotation of the box lets your vestibular system get used to that rotation so that leaning forward and back gives you the coriolis illusion. It can also change rotation to give you that really, really convincing feeling that might lead to a graveyard spiral.

Today’s episode comes in two phases. First, I take the MP3 recorder into the box and fly the simulation. The simulation takes something like nine minutes, most of which is pretty quiet and consists of my flying a climbing turn. I’m going to accelerate the process by fading the audio up and down to tell you where I’ve omitted audio. You’ll hear the simulator giving me vectors and other instructions and, after each of the effects, the initial explanation of the effect that I just felt. You’ll also hear me give a “whoah” at appropriate times. I had intended to give a little more commentary, but I found that the illusions were so compelling that I was processing them myself and couldn’t really talk much about them. I guess that’s what the commentary on the show is for.

At the FAA staff’s suggestion, I exaggerated my head movements to really experience the effect. Note that I didn’t have to move my head much at all to get a really wild sensation in the graveyard spiral demonstration.

So here’s the simulator ride.


Afterward, I talked to Rogers Shaw, the team leader of the Airman Educational Personnel. Here’s the interview.


The take-home for this episode is that the things that the textbook tells you about physiological illusions are real. They’re very real. Even though I knew for a fact that I was in a box in an exhibit hall in Novi, Michigan, the sense of opposite rotation was overwhelming. If you’re going to fly on instruments or without a good horizon, you need to know that these illusions can happen and that they can happen to you. I’m glad that I experienced them for the first time in a simulator in Novi and not in an aircraft.

If you have the opportunity, go through this simulation. But even if you don’t, know and understand that your noggin is much more likely than your instruments to lead you astray. Flying in the clouds takes discipline in a number of different respects. Probably the most important is the discipline to get on your gages and believe them, even when everything you’re used to from walking around on the ground is screaming that things are wildly amiss.

Instrument flight is transcendental in many different ways. My personal favorite is breaking out of a cloud layer in a climb and then dragging my wheels in the cloud tops. But the price for that is building the ability to transcend what your senses have told you all your life and to rely on the science and instrumentation in front of you.

Thanks to the FAA’s Civil Aerospace Medical Institute for bringing the simulator to Novi. Make sure to watch for it at a conference or other event near you.

FAA Civil Aerospace Medical Institute
Aerospace Medical Education Division
AAM-400, PO Box 25082
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma 73125
Telephone: 405-954-4837
Fax: 405-954-2305

Instrument Rating Checkride – Part 2

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Welcome to the second part of the instrument checkride. This is the second of two parts covering my checkride for the instrument rating. If you haven’t checked out Part 1, make sure that you download it and listen to it. It contains background information that’s helpful to understanding some of the material in this episode and will bring you up to speed on the checkride so far.

Also, if you’re following along at home, you can download the approach charts here.

Flint RNAV Runway 18:
Flint VOR Runway 9:
Pontiac ILS 9R:

To set the stage, we’re about an hour into the checkride and we’ve just completed the RNAV approach to Runway 18 at Flint, Michigan and gotten vectors for the VOR Runway 9 approach.

As we’re getting closer to the approach course, a hand reaches in from the right and places a cover over the attitude indicator. For those not familiar with the cockpit of most general aviation aircraft, that’s the instrument with the artificial horizon that helps you tell whether you’re pitched up or down or rolling left or right. It’s a central part of the instrument scan in most phases of instrument flight.

Mary asks me if I know what that means. It could mean that the individual instrument has failed. It could also mean that the vacuum system has failed, which would take out both the attitude indicator and the directional gyro. The directional gyro is in the middle of the bottom for of the “six pack” of primary flight instruments and it tells you which magnetic course you’re on. It’s your primary instrument for bank when you’re in most phases of flight because a change in heading usually means that you’re rolling.

I clarify with Mary that I’m not supposed to assume that I have a vacuum failure for the moment. If I was supposed to assume that, I brought along my own covers so that I could cover up the DG as well.

You cover an instrument in training to simulate its failure. But, if you have an actual failure, both the regulations and common sense require that you cover the instrument. If you don’t cover it, you’ll very likely continue to keep it in your scan and you’ll even rely on its indications at some lizard-brain level even though you know that it’s failed.

So now I’m relying on the altimeter for pitch. Soon, when Mary takes away the DG, I’ll be relying on the turn and bank indicator and the magnetic compass for roll and the altimeter, airspeed indicator, and vertical speed indicator (or “VSI”), in varying degrees, for pitch.

This is an opportunity for me to demonstrate that I can control the airplane using less than all of the instruments, but is also a reminder of the redundancy of the instrumentation in the airplane and the capabilities that we still have even if systems start to fail us.

By the way, when I say that I’m looking for the traffic that approach just called, it means that Mary is looking for it. As a part of our preflight briefing, we agreed that she’d do everything that required eyeballs outside the aircraft, but that I would run the radios just as though I was looking outside. She advised me whenever she had something in sight and I handled the communications to approach or the tower.

Also, I normally fly instrument approaches with the GPS overlay, which means that, even if it’s not an approach that requires GPS as such, I load in the approach and use the moving map and other elements of the GPS display to maintain situational awareness. It’s really helpful. For this approach, which is clearly going to be a partial-panel VOR approach, Mary takes me the rest of the way old school by having me dial down the brightness of the GPS screen so that I can’t see it.

[Audio 13]

Then we get clearance for the VOR 9 approach.

[Audio 14]

Then it’s over to the tower.

[Audio 15]

You heard the tower controller tell me that I was south of course, which is fine (I was, in fact, south of course), but then she asks my intentions.

I never know what to say that wouldn’t be sarcastic or taken the wrong way. You can hear me get tongue-tangled before Mary just tells me to say that I’m correcting. I actually wasn’t that far off. The needle was still well short of full deflection and I was correcting back to the center of the course. I was still eight miles out. The controller even said that I was only slightly south.

She may not know that I’m missing two of my most helpful instruments, have the FAA in the right seat, am gripping the seat cushion tightly with my butt cheeks, and am busier than a one-armed paper hanger. But I’m clearly trying to fly a bloody instrument approach.

Do I respond, “I’m flying the VOR 9 at Flint?” That would come off as sarcastic, right?

How about “I must have had problems in my early childhood that are now causing me to pollute your airspace. I am not worthy” Still not good.

Look, don’t piss off a controller on your checkride. But what to you say even if you’re trying to be respectful?

And how would that little dig from ATC go over in other circumstances? “Say, Mr. Woods, you seem to have failed to get it within 10 feet of the pin from the fairway bunker 250 yards out with your three-wood . . . Say your intentions.”

Hose off, eh?

Okay. Rant over. I’m pretty sure that the controller wasn’t being deliberately mean. Just bad timing.

But still, I get this.

[Audio 16]

What? I looked at my approach plate, I had thoroughly briefed the approach, I still had 100 feet to go. The transponder had the correct altimeter setting dialed in. I don’t know what the problem was. But Mary could clearly see that I had nailed everything and said nothing.

Okay. Time to just fly the airplane. Things don’t go as you expect them to all the time. You have to deal with unexpected distractions. This is especially true on an instrument checkride. I’m sure that the controller was doing her best and had her screen and other information to go by. Again, just bad timing.

And I’m pleased to report that I absolutely nailed this approach. A little after the tower gave me grief about being off course, I had the needle centered, power set, crab angle established, and all of the gages were like they were painted on.

I am not used to this happening, especially when partial panel. I actually tuned and re-identified the VOR on that approach because the VOR needle was centered and not moving and I entertained the thought for a moment that the VOR receiver or instrument was broken. That’s never happened to me before. Got to like it.

Okay. Here’s the final approach. I’m at the minimum descent altitude of 1,300. I maintain this until the missed approach point, which is going to be directly over the VOR on the airport. I can tell when I’ve passed the VOR when the indicator flips and tells me that I’m now going FROM the VOR instead of TO it. That’s what I mean when I say that I’m watching for the flip.

I also re-brief my missed approach procedure here because we’re going to be flying that missed approach out to an intersection called KATTY. KATTY is off the east of the airport at the intersection of the 097 radial of the Flint VOR and the 006 radial of the Pontiac VOR. I John King all of this to Mary so that she knows that I know what I’m supposed to do.

I also go through my pre-landing checklist.

[Audio 17]

So I complete the approach and tell departure that I’m going missed. Departure clears me to KATTY and tells me to hold as requested. Mary tells me that that was a good approach and I admit to why I re-identified Flint. She also gives me back my attitude indicator and DG, as well as the GPS. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

[Audio 18]

As we approach KATTY, I describe the hold and go through my cruise checklist.

A holding pattern is essentially a racetrack in the sky. You do all turns at standard rate (which means a minute for each of the turns, and you fly your outbound leg such that you get as close to one-minute inbound lets as possible. It’s trial and error for a few turns around and you usually get it nailed by the second or third time around. Unless there’s a massive crosswind. More on that later.

Then another snag. The scattered layer is such that we can’t stay far enough from the clouds at 3,500, so we ask for 3,000. No dice. I though that maybe we could hold somewhere else around Flint and asked for suggestions. I’ve held at various places around Flint and didn’t anticipate having any problems. I was pretty disappointed about not being able to go to KATTY, though. The outbound and unpound courses would have been more or less directly into or out of the wind, making the hold a lot easier. Remember, the winds aloft are howling along at around 50 knots.

But Mary decides to go to Pontiac. Not a problem because I’ve held west of the Pontiac VOR on several occasions and that would still give me a more or less directly into and out of the wind course for the outbound and inbound legs. Again, more on that later.

[Audio 19]

Okay, remember when I alluded that Korea had something to do with the checkride?

The ICAO identifier for the Oakland County International Airport (called “Pontiac”) is “KPTK.” But the VOR is “PSI.” Unlike Flint, where the airport is “KFNT” and the VOR is “FNT,” Pontiac’s VOR is different.

All of this would be less of a problem if it weren’t for the fact that there is, in fact, a VOR with the identifier “PTK.” But it is not near Pontiac. It is not in Michigan. It is not on the North American continent. “PTK” is a VOR-DME associated with a US military airbase near Pyeongtaek in the Republic of Korea.

Mary hints that I might have an issue. I know that the VOR is off the field and that, unlike Flint, there’s a material difference between flying to the airport and flying to the VOR. But I have it stuck in my head that I need to dial in “PTK.” “PSI” does not enter my mind until approach calls me up and ass if I’m taking the scenic route.

I reply that I’m going to the VOR, but by now I’m way off course for even the VOR. You can hear the departure controller key her mic and then let go of it trying to figure out what to say.

We finally get it cleared up and I admit that I’ve goofed up with the GPS.

Here’s the thing. I had the Pontiac VOR dialed in and was good to go before I started playing with the GPS. I wanted to get an overlay with the GPS so I’d be ready to have it help me with the hold. But I ignored the VOR needle that would have told me that I was deviating further and further from course as I gave my attention to the GPS.

I still recommend using redundant instruments to help navigate whenever you can. But always do two things. Make sure that you actually identify each navaid before you decide to fly to it and then cross-ckeck those instruments to avoid making the mistake that I made.

Alternatively, carry a lot of gas. You’ll need it to get to Korea.

[Audio 20]

Mary gives me my holding clearance.

[Audio 21]

North. She said north.

Hey, it makes a lot of sense. The VOR is west northwest of the field and they’re using 9R and 9L for landing traffic. Holding north keeps us further out of the approach path – even further than if we were to hold west with left turns (which would keep us on the north side of the inbound course).

But that means that I have to hold with 40 or 50 knots of direct crosswind. Get out your crab angles, ladies and gentlemen, because Mary’s going to be looking at the VOR out of her side window on the inbound course.

There’s nothing wrong with what Mary wanted to set up. And it’s safer from a traffic avoidance perspective. It’s just that I had put a lot of emphasis on nailing the inbound times during my training and fared that I was going to be all over the closk by the time I had my turns set up.

So we get the ATIS and call up Pontiac tower to let them know that we’re going to hold on the VOR.

[Audio 22]

So we get to the VOR, turn right, and fly outbound for a minute and then turn right again most of the way back to the inbound course. I’m trying to get to the course line, but we have a savage crosswind that’s keeping us from getting to the course line. I finally get to the VOR ar just about the same time as I finally intercept the inbound course. I just flew a course that would look a lot like one leaf of a clover. I didn’t even get to start my time on the inbound course.

Not horrible for the first trip around in a howling crosswind. At least I made it back to the VOR.

[Audio 23]

A little humming appropriate to the circumstances on the way back around for another trip. I tried to hit the timer when I got to the approach course, but the button didn’t engage. It wasn’t that far off, though. The amazing thing was that I had to take a 60-degree cut at the onbound course in order to maintain the proper ground track. That means that I was making a 180 course over the ground, but the nose of the aircraft was pointing at 120. The long and short of it was that, even though the button didn’t engage, I made it to the course line and tracked it in accurately in an amount of time reasonably close to where I was supposed to be. And Mary cut me some slack for the button, probably in light of the stupendous crosswind.

[Audio 24]

We call up Detroit Approach and ask for a clearance to shoot the ILS for 9R at Pontiac.

[Audio 25]

This will be the precision approach. The other two provided no vertical guidance. I had to monitor the altitude on the approach course myself. I still have to do that for the missed approach point on this ILS, but vertical guidance up to that point is provided courtesy of the glideslope broadcast and a horizontal needle on the panel that tells me whether I’m above or below the glideslope.

Detroit Approach gives me a vector for the ILS.

[Audio 26]

As I go through the approach briefing, we talk a little bit about the ground speed. It’s still pretty blustery at altitude, but it’ll likely slow down as we descend.

[Audio 27]

I do the last of the descent checklist and then talk through what I’m going to do about the pre-landing checklist.

[Audio 28]

Then I’m cleared for the ILS.

[Audio 29]

The approach tells me to contact the tower.

We’re flying the last part of the ILS. I’m inbound on the localizer and I identify WAKEL, which is the initial approach fix for this approach, by seeing that we’ve crossed the 199 radial of the Pontiac VOR and seeing that the outer marker light has come on. I start the timer so that, if I lose the glideslope, I can still fly the approach as a localizer approach and determine my missed approach point using the time.

[Audio 30]

The altitude ticks down and I announce out loud the remaining altitude down to the missed approach point. On the ILS for 9R at Pontiac, you follow the glideslope down to 1,180 feet, or about 200 feet above the runway surface. If you have a half mile of visibility and you can see the runway environment at that point, you can land. Mary tells me to tell her when I’m 100 feet above the minimum altitude. I get to about 1,300 feet and announce that I have a hundred feet to go. She takes the airplane to let me flip up my view-limiting device and tells me to land.

For the first time in about an hour and a half, I lift the view-limiting device and can see out the window. The runway is just as the instruments advertised – about a half mile in front of me and about 300 feet below. I follow the VASI light indications on the left side of the runway and maintain the glideslope all the way to the runway and put it down competently. Not the most graceful landing ever, but competent and safe. We’re a little fast because of the winds and the gust factor and I left the flaps at only 10 degrees, which seemed appropriate given the winds.

[Audio 31]

Then we clean up the airplane and taxi back to Tradewinds. As appears to be Mary’s custom, we sit in the airplane in the middle of the ramp for a couple of minutes after shutdown and she debriefs me on how the flight went.

Then she tells me that I passed. I’m not surprised by this. I trained hard for this ride and, other than a few moments en route to Korea, it was pretty solid. I never really got more than a few dots from the approach course on any of the approaches, kept the altitudes pretty solid, managed the hold reasonably well given the crosswind, and shot the best partial-panel non-precision instrument approach of my life.

A solid checkride of which I think I’m justifiably proud.

Having had a chance to think over the experience, I have the following reflections on the experience.

I used simulators a lot in my preparation for this rating. I knew it was a good idea from the beginning, but also got a lot of assistance from Tom Gilmore’s book, published by ASA, called Teaching Confidence in the Clouds. There’s lots of good information in the book about how to best use simulators for IFR training and you can also hear Tom talking with Jason Miller The Finer Points – Episode 91.

I took about three years to finally finish this rating. I started within a few weeks after getting my private ticket, but took breaks for the birth of my daughter and at the end of each calendar year when my law practice consumed all of my time, as it usually does. I took about 60 hours of dual training by the time it was all over, the excess over the Part 141 required 35 hours being largely knocking the rust off upon returning to instrument flight after long absences and getting to the point where I was actually improving and taking a few more flights in actual preparation for the checkride than I really needed to. I don’t have any problem with having taken that long. It allowed me to meet the other commitments in my life and, after all, it’s time flying an aircraft! How bad could that be?

If you really want to progress, you need to fly about twice a week and you need to reserve enough time to get at least 2.5 hours Hobbs for each lesson, especially if you have to go somewhere other than your primary airport in order to shoot instrument approaches. I shot most of mine at Flint, about 20 minutes from Pontiac if the winds permit. Early flights should be shorter because there’s a steep learning curve but, by the time you’re regularly shooting approaches and polishing your skills, you need enough time to shoot at least four to six approaches on each flight and the usual two-hour block that results in 1.3 hours of Hobbs time won’t cut it.

Many people find the instrument rating “the toughest ticket” and it is in a lot of ways. But I actually found it easier than the private ticket. It required a lot more cerebral stuff and book learning, but I’m a better book learner than a kinesthetic learner. If you’re like me, you’ll find the instrument rating a really wonderful intellectual exercise. I’m not saying that it’s not hard work, but it’s the kind of work I really enjoy.

If, like me, you do most of your training in Class C airspace with full ATC service and vectors galore. Make sure that you go fly in less congested airspace where you’re talking to a center controller who doesn’t baby you and wants to clear you onto the CTAF of your destination uncontrolled airport as soon as possible. Out there, you’re much more responsible for your own destiny and have to be a little more on your toes.

Also, get used to flying instrument approaches into uncontrolled airports and the techniques and communications that that involves. Bear in mind that you have VFR traffic at those airports that has no idea what you’re talking about if all you speak is IFR. “Cadillac traffic, Cessna Zero-Tango-Alpha is inbound on the localizer for Runway 7 at Cadillac” doesn’t tell the VFR traffic much. Say something like “Cessna Zero-Tango-Alpha is five miles out on the localizer for Runway 7 and will be making a long straight-in approach over the lake. Cadillac.” Describe what you’re doing in a way that VFR traffic will understand. And watch for that J3 Cub with no radio. Remember that, in some cases, he could be out there in the pattern with no radio even if it’s one-mile visibility and be completely legal.

Lastly, I’ve had some of the most inspiring experience of my flight career during instrument training. Three things here. Breaking out of the clouds or coming out from under the hood at 400 feet and a half mile after not looking out the window for more than an hour and finding yourself lined up on a runway more than a hundred miles from where you launched never ceases to amaze me. Flying broadside into a big, white, puffy cumulus cloud the size of an aircraft carrier in the sky is absolutely unmatched for inspiration. And that rare and precious flight where ATC gives you an altitude where you can literally drag your wheels in the clouds for miles and miles at a time. Those experiences just don’t happen if you don’t take the leap and go after your instrument ticket.

I remember coming up through an overcast layer for the first time with Eamon Burgess and Eamon saying “This is why we learn to fly on instruments.” He was right.