Be­yond the PPL: CB-IR

The ag­o­nies and ec­stasies of a pri­vate pi­lot un­der­tak­ing the new Com­pe­tency-based In­stru­ment rat­ing, part one — the the­ory

Pilot - - CONTENTS - Words Stephen Walker Pho­tos Gabrielle Levene

Part 1 - Iden­ti­fy­ing the right ground­school, study­ing for and then tak­ing all nine writ­ten ex­ams

You know those dreams where you sud­denly find your­self trans­ported back in time, sit­ting in an ex­am­i­na­tion hall at school with the clock tick­ing away, sur­rounded by peo­ple half your age and won­der­ing how on earth you got there? I cer­tainly do, ex­cept this time it’s not a dream.

It’s a Tues­day morn­ing in March 2016 and I’m in a real ex­am­i­na­tion hall at Ox­ford air­port, fac­ing a bunch of ques­tions on a com­puter screen that are not only very real, but in some cases re­ally dif­fi­cult. I last sat an exam some­time in the pre­vi­ous cen­tury but here I am, a sup­pos­edly sane mid­dleaged man with a grown-up daugh­ter and a re­spectable job, do­ing it all over again. It’s a cu­ri­ous way to spend the day, and even the stern-look­ing in­vig­i­la­tors look de­press­ingly younger than me. So why, you may ask, am I putting my­self through all this?

The an­swer lies in a pub on New Year’s Eve when, slightly the worse for wear but still just about com­pos men­tis, on the stroke of mid­night I de­cided that 2016 would be the year I gained the new Com­pe­tency Based In­stru­ment Rat­ing, the ‘CB-IR’. I’m pretty cer­tain I was the only per­son in the pub that night mak­ing that par­tic­u­lar res­o­lu­tion, but the truth is for years I’d won­dered about get­ting an in­stru­ment rat­ing. I’d got my IMC (as it then was) back in 2000 and rel­ished the chal­lenge of fly­ing IFR now and then − if hop­ping through a thin layer of cloud to en­joy the sun­shine on top could be con­sid­ered se­ri­ous IFR. But the ‘real’ in­stru­ment rat­ing seemed be­yond me and, more to the point, my pocket. The few pri­vate pilots who had one ap­peared, to my eyes, an elite bunch with money to burn, and ex­pen­sive, fab­u­lously equipped aero­planes to fly, bristling with things like weather radar and de-ic­ing − a world away from any­thing I could ever as­pire to. Then in 2014 along came this new­fan­gled thing, the CB-IR. A full in­stru­ment rat­ing, with all the priv­i­leges at­tached to that la­bel, but de­signed for or­di­nary pilots out there who, like me, wanted to push their bound­aries fur­ther, oc­ca­sion­ally fly IFR to the con­ti­nent, and en­joy the sat­is­fac­tion of punch­ing through the lid of the Lon­don TMA to mix it with the big boys up there in Class A. And there were other ad­van­tages. I re­mem­bered the many times I’d had to can­cel flights be­cause of weather which an in­stru­ment rat­ing would have al­lowed me to take. Or the longer trips around France, scut­tling un­der the cloud at 2,000 feet, ne­go­ti­at­ing a plethora of dan­ger ar­eas, re­stricted zones and those dreaded nu­clear power sta­tions, while simultaneously strain­ing to spot that elu­sive glider in my ten o’clock. Up there in the air­ways, all that would mag­i­cally dis­ap­pear. Up there was an end­less sum­mer of blue skies and car­ing con­trollers, mak­ing sure you’d never bump into any­thing and help­ing to get you to your rained-out des­ti­na­tion with ease. Ir­re­sistible, right? So 1 Jan­uary finds me sit­ting at home nurs­ing a slight hang­over, read­ing about the new CB-IR and its smaller sib­ling, the more con­tro­ver­sial En-route IR (EIR).

In ran­dom searches on Google I dis­cov­ered that al­most thirty per cent of US pri­vate pilots are in­stru­ment rated. Over here the fig­ure is less than five per cent. The hope is that the CB-IR will change all that, and there are good rea­sons to think it will. This is not the place to go into all the some­what con­vo­luted de­tails of ex­pe­ri­ence re­quired, but for me it ba­si­cally boils down to three things. One, less book work − a lot less in fact. You still have to sit seven ex­ams but the CB-IR has roughly half the the­o­ret­i­cal re­quire­ments com­pared to the tra­di­tional IR: around eighty hours as op­posed to 150. For some­one like me, whose brain cells are not quite what they were, that has to be a big plus. A sec­ond ben­e­fit is that the min­i­mum fly­ing hours for a sin­gle-en­gine rat­ing have been re­duced from fifty to forty. Best of all is that some of the time you’ve pre­vi­ously flown un­der IFR can count, in­clud­ing train­ing for the IMC. You still need to do ten hours min­i­mum at an Ap­proved Train­ing Or­gan­i­sa­tion (ATO) – and, de­pend­ing on your skill level, you may need to do a lot more – but, for the first time ever, a full in­stru­ment rat­ing has be­come a prac­ti­cal, achiev­able pos­si­bil­ity for a much wider sec­tion of the pri­vate pi­lot com­mu­nity.

Next stop was to find the right ground school. There’s noth­ing in the reg­u­la­tions to stop you do­ing the fly­ing part at the same time as the the­ory, but the work­load would be crush­ing. The sen­si­ble op­tion is to get the the­ory and those seven ex­ams out of the way first. Per­haps be­cause the rat­ing is still rel­a­tively new, there aren’t many places in the UK which teach the ground school. The one I chose was Ground Train­ing Ser­vices (GTS) in Bournemouth. My rea­sons were, frankly, ar­bi­trary, one be­ing fond mem­o­ries of go­ing to Bournemouth on hol­i­day as a kid. There’s an­other ex­cel­lent school at Lu­ton but I felt Bournemouth rather had the edge in that depart­ment. So, two weeks into the new year, I flew down in my shared Cessna 182 to meet Roger Hen­shaw, the man who runs GTS. EX-RAF (in­clud­ing mous­tache), with a breath­tak­ing wealth of knowl­edge at his fin­ger­tips, and very much a gen­tle­man of the old school, I took an in­stant lik­ing to him. I knew I’d be in safe hands. Roger pa­tiently ex­plained how it all works.

He di­vides the the­ory into two stages or mod­ules. The first cov­ers Air Law, Me­te­o­rol­ogy, Hu­man Per­for­mance and IFR Com­mu­ni­ca­tions. Then come Flight Plan­ning, In­stru­ments and Ra­dio Nav­i­ga­tion. Each mod­ule is fol­lowed by a day of ground school at Bournemouth and then the ex­ams them­selves, taken at one of the CAA’S test cen­tres. (Un­like the PPL, you must take these ex­ams at a spe­cific lo­ca­tion.) Along the way there are prac­tice pa­pers to test your knowl­edge. You go at your own pace but Roger is al­ways there to hold your hand with a help­ful email or phone call. The whole course, in­clud­ing both class­room days, would cost just over £800. I took a deep breath, pulled out my wal­let, paid the first in­stal­ment and stag­gered off to my air­craft with a large card­board box con­tain­ing a set of dis­tinctly heavy man­u­als. For­tu­nately, the Cessna 182 is a proven load car­rier. Fi­nally, I was on my way!

The first four sub­jects posed very dif­fer­ent chal­lenges. Some of the ma­te­rial still seems hope­lessly ir­rel­e­vant and more suited to the ATPL, de­spite the best ef­forts of those who framed the CB-IR. By the end of Air Law, I felt I had enough knowl­edge vir­tu­ally to de­sign an in­stru­ment ap­proach pro­ce­dure, let alone fly one. Do I re­ally need to know all the de­tails of the EFIS on a Boe­ing 737? And don’t get me started on the gob­bledy­gook that fills some of the syl­labus in Hu­man Per­for­mance... But much of the course is gen­uinely fas­ci­nat­ing, not to men­tion es­sen­tial. Met, in par­tic­u­lar, is an eye - opener − far more de­tailed than the stuff I learned at PPL level, and nec­es­sar­ily so. Those clouds con­tain some fright­en­ing mon­sters and it’s cru­cial to know what’s in­side them. A favourite test area is to iden­tify ex­actly which types of clouds at which range of tem­per­a­tures con­tain which kinds of ice. It might save your life one day.

The next months passed in a whirl of learn­ing as I got down to the books. There’s a lot to cover. My es­ti­mate, and it’s purely sub­jec­tive, would be per­haps ten times as much as for the sin­gle IMC the­ory exam. It prob­a­bly says some­thing un­flat­ter­ing about my abil­i­ties, but I

The CB-IR has roughly half the the­o­ret­i­cal re­quire­ments, com­pared to the tra­di­tional IR: around eighty hours as op­posed to 150

needed sub­stan­tially more than that pu­ta­tive eighty hours. The key was to be con­sis­tent, to try and do even a lit­tle each day. The man­u­als went ev­ery­where with me: on the tube, on buses, on hol­i­day, dare I say even to the lit­tle boy’s room.

I found my­self recit­ing sep­a­ra­tion min­ima out loud in the street, at­tract­ing cu­ri­ous stares from passers-by. And I quickly picked up a cou­ple of very use­ful tips. One is to join an or­gan­i­sa­tion called PPL IR, many of whose mem­bers are in­stru­ment rated pri­vate pilots pro­vid­ing a fund of in­cred­i­bly help­ful ad­vice. Their fo­rum be­came a key part of my jour­ney, and will long con­tinue to be so. An­other tip is to use a com­mer­cial ques­tion bank to sup­ple­ment the man­u­als. The EASA mul­ti­ple choice ex­ams have their own quirks (one of which is an oc­ca­sion­ally un­cer­tain grasp of English) and it re­ally helps to know what kind of knowl­edge they’re af­ter. The best one for me was Avi­a­tion Exam. At €12 per sub­ject it’s rel­a­tively cheap and will def­i­nitely speed up the learn­ing process. The whole thing can be down­loaded onto your phone or ipad, which al­lowed me to use such spare mo­ments as still ex­isted in my life to prac­tice ac­tual exam ques­tions from the thou­sands on of­fer.

Two months af­ter sign­ing up I took the plunge and sat the first four ex­ams at Ox­ford. These days the book­ing is all done on­line via the CAA’S web­site. Un­sur­pris­ingly, it’s a fussy sys­tem, but once you get the hang of it it’s ef­fi­cient enough. Equally un­sur­pris­ingly, the CAA takes a cut, charging a whop­ping £68 for each exam. The pass mark is 75%. You’re al­lowed to sit them sev­eral times, but I sup­pose one ad­van­tage of the cost is that it pro­vides the best in­cen­tive not to have to. The ex­ams are taken very se­ri­ously, as they should be, but as I lis­tened to the litany of dire warn­ings from the in­vig­i­la­tor should can­di­dates fail to fol­low the rules, I had to re­mind my­self that this was sup­posed to be a hobby! The pres­ence of thirty or so ner­vous ATPL stu­dents for whom the ex­ams were most def­i­nitely not a hobby added to the pres­sure, but in the end this per­haps helped my per­for­mance.

Ev­ery­thing is mul­ti­ple choice and nowa­days taken on a com­puter. The­o­ret­i­cally, the re­sults are known the mo­ment you click ‘sub­mit’ af­ter each exam, but the CAA leaves it to the end of the week − an ag­o­nis­ing wait − be­fore it emails your marks. Amazingly, I passed in all four sub­jects. Drinks all round− but there was still that sec­ond mod­ule and three more ex­ams to go.

Af­ter a fur­ther two months jug­gling work com­mit­ments and lug­ging Roger’s ex­cel­lent man­u­als about the daily rou­tine of my life, I felt just about ready to sit the fi­nal round. By now I had de­vel­oped a sort of glassy stare, mum­bling (I am re­li­ably in­formed) all sorts of IFR ar­cana in my sleep. My con­ver­sa­tion was limited to rapid-fire recita­tion of such things as NDB errors (of which there ap­pear to be so many I’m amazed the things ac­tu­ally work at all) or the clear­ance re­quire­ments for ev­ery class of airspace. Friends and col­leagues were def­i­nitely be­gin­ning to avoid me.

If all this is putting read­ers off, please re­mem­ber that I was rac­ing to the fin­ish line rather faster than is ac­tu­ally nec­es­sary. Four months from sign­ing up to pass­ing all seven ex­ams is prob­a­bly a touch ambitious, but then I was anx­ious to get the the­ory over and done with and move on to the fun part − the fly­ing. You can take much longer to com­plete the the­ory, and in ret­ro­spect it might have proved a health­ier life/work bal­ance if I’d slowed things down a bit.

De­spite the irony that I ended up sit­ting the fi­nal ex­ams at, yes, Lu­ton (Ox­ford be­ing full up), mat­ters went bet­ter than ex­pected. Some­how the whole thing just came to­gether at the last mo­ment, and off went my an­swers to that great com­puter god in the bow­els of the CAA. Two days later I learned I’d passed all three ex­ams, and what a re­lief that was! Never again would I have to be tested on the ex­act VHF fre­quen­cies for GPS satel­lites. Never again asked to de­fine the pur­pose of a lat­i­tude nut in a di­rec­tional gyro, or enu­mer­ate the pre­cise ob­sta­cle clear­ance min­ima for all three stages of a missed ap­proach, or a thou­sand and one other things. At the risk of start­ing a bun fight on the fo­rums, I cheer­ily con­fess I’d al­ready for­got­ten a chunk of this stuff by the time I’d reached the car park at Lu­ton. But much of it will stick for good, and one day I know I will be grate­ful for that.

So that’s done then. Ac­cord­ing to the rules, I now have 36 months to fin­ish the fly­ing train­ing and pass the Skills Test. Oth­er­wise I have to take the whole lot all over again. It’s a thought which keeps me awake at night. I need to get crack­ing. The next task is to find the right fly­ing school which specif­i­cally of­fers the CB-IR. But that’s a whole other story and I’ve only just started. Watch this space for more!

Find­ing the right ground school is essen­tial — there aren’t that many places that cover the CB-IR Wad­ing through the ‘dis­tinctly heavy’ train­ing man­u­als. “It prob­a­bly says some­thing un­flat­ter­ing about my abil­i­ties,” says Stephen “but I needed...

Stephen, an ex­pe­ri­enced pilot who al­ready has an IMC rat­ing, with his group-owned Cessna 182

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