Beyond the PPL: CB-IR
The agonies and ecstasies of a private pilot undertaking the new Competency-based Instrument rating, part one — the theory
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 substantially more than that putative eighty hours”
Stephen, an experienced pilot who already has an IMC rating, with his group-owned Cessna 182