Be­yond the PPL: CB-IR

After months of in­tense train­ing, Stephen fi­nally takes the Com­pe­tency Based - In­stru­ment Rat­ing Skill Test

Pilot - - CONTENTS - Words Stephen Walker Pho­tos Gabrielle Levene

After hours of train­ing, and sleep­less nights, Stephen is ready to take the fly­ing test – find out how he got on

Tests, I have to con­fess, are not my thing. Es­pe­cially if they in­volve any me­chan­i­cal el­e­ment, in which case they are re­ally not my thing. In decades past I man­aged to fail my driv­ing test three times, and I’m still not quite cer­tain how I ac­tu­ally com­pleted my PPL back in the nineties. Yet here I am, on a beautiful spring evening, fly­ing solo back to Bris­tol in my group-owned Cessna 182, about to face what is ar­guably the tough­est fly­ing test in the world. After ten chal­leng­ing months and forty-nine hours of train­ing, I will fi­nally take the In­stru­ment Rat­ing test to­mor­row morn­ing. My only hope is that it doesn’t turn out to be a re-run of the driv­ing ver­sion all those years be­fore.

A cou­ple of vec­tors from Bris­tol ATC took me slap over the mag­nif­i­cent Clifton Sus­pen­sion Bridge and a few min­utes later I was land­ing on the now fa­mil­iar Run­way 09, after fly­ing an un­char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally al­most per­fect ILS in gin-clear con­di­tions and nil wind. I’d re­cently been hav­ing real dif­fi­cul­ties fly­ing de­cent pre­ci­sion ap­proaches, so ei­ther this was a lucky one-off (likely, given the ab­sence of any weather) or an in­di­ca­tion that I’d fi­nally nailed the darn things. Or maybe I just flew bet­ter with­out an in­struc­tor on board wit­ness­ing my ev­ery mis­take−not to men­tion an ex­am­iner. To­mor­row I’d find out.

I tax­ied in to the light air­craft park­ing area where my in­struc­tor Mark Bills was wait­ing for me. Most of my in­stru­ment train­ing had taken place at Glouces­ter un­der the aus­pices of Rate One Avi­a­tion, but Mark lives close to Bris­tol and it made more sense to com­plete the fi­nal lap there. Rate One was still re­spon­si­ble for my over­all train­ing while the nice folks at the Bris­tol and Wes­sex Aero­plane Club were able to keep us flush with fuel, fa­cil­i­ties and ex­cel­lent food in their café.

The test was sched­uled for 0900 the next morn­ing. My ex­am­iner, John Dale, would be fly­ing over from Hawar­den, weather per­mit­ting, and we’d kick off from there. John and I had al­ready had a brief phone con­ver­sa­tion ear­lier about the ex­pected con­di­tions and they seemed within ac­cept­able lim­its. Noth­ing gen­uinely nasty was com­ing our way. The winds were ex­pected to be on the gusty side but not hor­ren­dous, and the freez­ing lev­els were

high enough for us to avoid. It looked like a go.

All that was left now was for me to pre­pare the air­craft for to­mor­row’s test. Tanks had to be topped up, equip­ment checked, hood placed within easy reach, var­i­ous air­craft doc­u­ments or­gan­ised− these would be sub­ject to close scru­tiny along with my li­cence and med­i­cal. I made sure I put new bat­ter­ies into my head­set and kept some spare to hand since, as we all know, bat­ter­ies have a habit of dy­ing at pre­cisely the wrong mo­ment. The devil, as al­ways, was in the de­tail. Even my pens were dou­ble-checked to make sure they ac­tu­ally worked.

The fi­nal op­er­a­tion was to en­ter the ex­am­iner’s spe­cific call­sign into the transpon­der. This, I be­lieve, is a pe­cu­liar­ity of the UK, de­signed to alert ATC that we were con­duct­ing a test and that they should there­fore be ex­tra nice to us, and give us plenty of lat­i­tude for er­rors at all times. That was the hope any­way. At any rate, out went my nor­mal call­sign, G-MICI, and in went the rather more alarm­ing Exam 101, a name un­com­fort­ably rem­i­nis­cent of Ge­orge Or­well’s tor­ture cham­ber in 1984.

The only thing left to do was to get some din­ner and go to bed. Mark drove me to the air­port ho­tel just down the road. For rea­sons that quite es­caped me, he was in ex­cel­lent spir­its and brim­ming with op­ti­mism about to­mor­row’s test, while I did my best to man­age the swarm­ing but­ter­flies in my stom­ach. Re­sist­ing the temp­ta­tion to plunge into de­tailed re­vi­sion of ev­ery pos­si­ble ap­proach and route we might fly to­mor­row−a sure guar­an­tee of a sleep­less night−i grabbed a quick bite and headed to bed. But the fates were against me. The wall of my ho­tel bed­room was, it tran­spired, un­usu­ally thin. On the other side of it was the loud­est-snor­ing man I have ever en­coun­tered in my life. He had gone to bed well be­fore me and there was no wak­ing him. I tried to move rooms but the ho­tel was full. I even con­tem­plated sleep­ing on one of the so­fas in the lobby, but this was not per­mit­ted. Back I went to my room and the sym­phony of gut­tural noises com­ing from next door. I stuffed toi­let pa­per into my ears, pulled a pil­low over my head and re­flected that, in the movie ver­sion of this story, the snor­ing bloke would al­most cer­tainly turn out to be my ex­am­iner.

When Mark picked me up the next morn­ing the sun was shin­ing and my eyes felt like poached eggs after a se­verely bro­ken night. I briefly won­dered whether to can­cel the test but then de­cided just to go for it. Per ar­dua ad as­tra! I drank sev­eral mugs of black cof­fee and went to shake hands with John who had just flown in from Hawar­den in his PA-28. He was the con­sum­mate pro­fes­sional, and im­me­di­ately put me at my ease. I was tempted to men­tion the snor­ing bloke but de­cided it was a bad idea. In­stead I poured my­self yet an­other mug of black cof­fee and drank the lot as we went through a very rig­or­ous brief­ing.

De­spite the ‘com­pe­tency-based’ bit in the name, the CB-IR test it­self is iden­ti­cal to the ‘nor­mal’ EASA in­stru­ment rat­ing test. Of course I was do­ing it sin­gle-en­gined so there was no asym­met­ric flight sec­tion, but oth­er­wise−as John pointed out−we’d be run­ning the full gamut of de­par­ture, cruise, holds, lim­ited panel, as well as pre­ci­sion and non-pre­ci­sion ap­proaches.

The route would be from Bris­tol to Glouces­ter and back−one that I was thank­fully very fa­mil­iar with. John then gave me time to pre­pare my Plog and file my flight plan, after which he pro­ceeded to ques­tion me very closely on both, as well as ask­ing me to pro­vide a com­pre­hen­sive weather, weight and bal­ance, and No­tam brief. This in­ter­ro­ga­tion is all part of the test it­self, and can be pretty ex­haus­tive. By now I was zing­ing on a com­bi­na­tion of nerves and sev­eral gal­lons of black cof­fee and just wanted to get crack­ing, come hell or high wa­ter. It was a re­lief when we fi­nally headed out to the air­craft to com­mit avi­a­tion.

It wasn’t the best of flights, but it wasn’t dis­as­trous ei­ther. I made a few silly mis­takes, but man­aged to spot most of them early enough to make the right corrections. De­spite the in­cred­i­bly tight tol­er­ances, ex­am­in­ers will give you some lee­way if you catch the er­ror of your ways and do some­thing about it quickly.

I think I flew an ac­cept­able de­par­ture, a fairly okay-ish NDB pro­ce­dure at Glouces­ter, and I even man­aged to com­plete the hold with­out hav­ing to do a se­cond one. It was pretty bumpy up there but, cru­cially, the winds were blow­ing down the in­bound track and not howl­ing across it, which made things eas­ier. Quite rightly John didn’t speak much in the cock­pit but when he did he was cour­te­ous and friendly, all of which helped. What also helped was that I was by now des­per­ate to have a pee after all that cof­fee, and my blad­der was urg­ing me on to the finish line.

But the finish line was al­most my un­do­ing. Given a radar-vec­tored ILS at Bris­tol, I very nearly man­aged to fly the glides­lope out­side half-scale de­flec­tion, which is the test limit. In­stead of prop­erly trim­ming the air­craft to the cor­rect speed and rate of de­scent and ba­si­cally let­ting it get on with it, I com­mit­ted the sin of chas­ing the nee­dles all the way down the ap­proach. Out of the cor­ner of my eye I could see John mak­ing notes on his pad. Thank­fully, I held the glides­lope just within that crit­i­cal half-scale and we landed. Not my best ef­fort but at least we were down and safe. But had I passed? As we tax­ied back, John gave no in­di­ca­tion what­so­ever one way or the other. My hopes drained away. By the time I parked the air­craft and switched off, I was ab­so­lutely con­vinced that I had failed.

The sus­pense con­tin­ued un­til, after the nec­es­sary visit to the gents, I was fi­nally sit­ting op­po­site John back in the brief­ing room. After metic­u­lously analysing my var­i­ous mis­takes, and with many sen­si­ble rec­om­men­da­tions about how to im­prove my fly­ing, he told me that I’d nev­er­the­less passed. In other words, a pass with a knuckle rap.

I was thrilled and could have hugged him. To be hon­est, I was also a lit­tle over­whelmed. I’d started this jour­ney way back on New Year’s Eve 2015 when, as the clock struck mid­night, I made the slightly drunken res­o­lu­tion to get my­self an in­stru­ment rat­ing. Now it was April 2017. After seven writ­ten ex­ams, nearly fifty fly­ing hours and six­teen months, I’d fi­nally got it. It felt good. I looked across at Mark who was grin­ning like a Cheshire cat. He gave me a big thumbs-up. After all the in­cred­i­ble work he’d put in, I reck­oned it was as much his mo­ment as it was mine.

So now I have the magic let­ters CB-IR on my li­cence. The big ques­tion is, was it worth it? On the debit side−and I use the word in its true sense−it cost me the best part of £16,000 to do it, in­clud­ing all the ho­tel stays, the po­si­tion­ing flights from Den­ham to Glouces­ter or Bris­tol, land­ing,

If a very av­er­age pi­lot like me can do it, then just about any­one can

park­ing and nav­i­ga­tion fees, the the­o­ret­i­cal course, and of course the time off work. That’s a se­ri­ous amount of money, and much more than I had planned, al­though I prob­a­bly needed a lot more train­ing hours than most pi­lots. But what about the plus side?

Well, my ac­tual fly­ing skills have sig­nif­i­cantly im­proved, as one would hope after all that cost and ef­fort. I fly much more pre­cisely. I know my air­craft’s per­for­mance far bet­ter, my ra­dio is slicker, and I do my checks prop­erly. And, of course, there’s also the huge bonus that I can now fly in weather that would once have kept me firmly on the ground. That doesn’t mean I’m now going to launch into a skulk­ing cloud­base at night, fly five hun­dred miles in IMC and not see the ground again un­til I’m 200 feet above it at the other end, even if I might be tech­ni­cally le­gal to do so. But it does give me op­tions, as well as re­spon­si­bil­i­ties, that didn’t ex­ist for me be­fore. It makes the kind of fly­ing I like to do much eas­ier, which is to travel around Europe−or even fur­ther afield−and dis­cover new places. And it al­lows me the priv­i­lege of see­ing the skies from a whole, and some­times stun­ning, new per­spec­tive.

So if get­ting an In­stru­ment Rat­ing is some­thing you’ve ever dreamed of, the CB-IR gives you the best chance of do­ing so right now. Yes, it’s not cheap and it takes a big toll on your time, but if a very av­er­age pi­lot like me can do it, then just about any­one can. Now all I need to do is ac­tu­ally put it to use, get up there into the air­ways, and start hav­ing some ad­ven­tures!

Test route drawn up on the air­ways chart

And the re­sult was...

Glouces­ter­shire Air­port — north­ern­most ex­treme of the test route

The new Sev­ern Bridge, close to Bris­tol on the re­turn leg

Ap­proach to Run­way 27, Bris­tol

Stephen let­ting off steam after hear­ing the test re­sult

In­stru­ments now to be used in earnest!

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