Beyond the PPL: CB-IR
After months of intense training, Stephen finally takes the Competency Based - Instrument Rating Skill Test
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!