Be­yond the PPL: CB-IR

With all the Com­pe­tency-based In­stru­ment Rating writ­ten ex­ams un­der Stephen’s belt, it was time to start the prac­ti­cal in­stru­ment fly­ing side and find out if he could make the grade

Pilot - - CONTENTS - Words Stephen Walker Pho­tos Gabrielle Levene

Ex­ams all passed, Stephen found the ac­tual fly­ing far more chal­leng­ing than ex­pected, and the test loomed...

I’m sit­ting in the left-hand seat of my group-owned Cessna 182, nine thou­sand feet above the Glouces­ter­shire coun­try­side, ex­cept there’s sod all to see out­side the win­dow apart from a solid mass of white and streaks of what at first looks like rain splat­ter­ing the wind­screen, but on sec­ond thoughts might be snow. Yes, it’s def­i­nitely snow. And is that ac­tu­ally ice form­ing on the strut? One part of my be­fud­dled brain thinks it looks rather pretty out there while an­other part is hys­ter­i­cally yelling at me to do some­thing about it, and fast. Next to me, my in­struc­tor Mark is mak­ing ex­actly the same point though with­out the hys­te­ria.

For a mo­ment, my mind main­tains its state of to­tal paral­y­sis be­fore, fi­nally, I act. A quick re­quest to ATC, on with the de­frost, check the pitot heat, and down we go into the warmth and safety of the lower depths, where the ice grad­u­ally melts away and the chances of our be­com­ing an­other ac­ci­dent statis­tic are pro­por­tion­ately re­duced. Cold sweat trick­les down my back and my fin­gers feel weirdly numb. And I still have a fiendishly dif­fi­cult in­stru­ment ap­proach ahead of me. Wel­come to my won­der­ful new world of in­stru­ment train­ing.

Back in July last year, I wrote a piece for Pi­lot about com­plet­ing the the­o­ret­i­cal part of the CB-IR, the (rel­a­tively) new com­pe­tency-based in­stru­ment rating. To be hon­est, I was feel­ing the tini­est bit smug about the whole thing. The the­ory was done and dusted with all seven ex­ams passed within four months, which meant the only thing left to do was the ac­tual fly­ing part. With a cur­rent IMC rating−sorry Ir(r)−in­scribed in my li­cence, that couldn’t be too dif­fi­cult, right? Not least be­cause hours flown IFR now counted to­wards the full rating, a very ben­e­fi­cial change from the old sys­tem where you had to start ef­fec­tively from scratch.

In idle mo­ments of spec­u­la­tion, I was pretty cer­tain I’d be en­joy­ing the priv­i­lege of whizzing around in Class A airspace and shar­ing life with the big boys up there in their shiny jets within, say, a cou­ple of months−or maybe three. Cer­tainly not, as it turned out, al­most a year. And that’s if you don’t count the ad­di­tional month or two it took to find the right train­ing school.

I checked out three places in some de­tail, all of which looked like good bets to me with clearly ex­cel­lent in­struc­tors, de­cent pass rates, and also the chance to train on my own air­craft. This was a

bot­tom-line for me since I couldn’t re­ally see the ad­van­tage of train­ing on an­other steed, and then hav­ing to dis­cover a whole new set of power/at­ti­tude/speed set­tings once back on my own. I also laboured un­der the happy il­lu­sion that fa­mil­iar­ity with my 182 would help things along. As it turned out, I ba­si­cally found my­self re-learn­ing ev­ery­thing about the air­craft I thought I knew, not to men­tion all of its avion­ics, as my fly­ing un­der­went the equiv­a­lent of a pro­longed ma­chine wash on high spin.

The school I even­tu­ally chose was Rate One, an out­fit based in Glouces­ter, about forty min­utes fly­ing time away from my home base at Den­ham. There were two rea­sons I ended up there. One was its owner, a chap called Jim Thorpe who had been one of the key fig­ures in the chal­lenge to cre­ate the CB-IR and make the rating more ac­ces­si­ble to or­di­nary PPLS. As it tuned out, I never flew with Jim as an in­struc­tor, but his ex­pert ad­vice and en­cour­age­ment were vi­tal to get­ting me though the process. The sec­ond ad­van­tage was Glouces­ter it­self, an air­field with three ex­cel­lent run­ways, loads of in­stru­ment ap­proaches, top-notch ATC and al­most no com­mer­cial traf­fic. The per­fect IR train­ing base, in fact. Un­like most ‘ap­proved train­ing or­gan­i­sa­tions’ (in the jar­gon of the CAA), Rate One doesn’t train young com­mer­cial pi­lots. Its clien­tele is es­sen­tially peo­ple like me, mid­dle aged (or older) blokes−not many women, sadly−who per­haps al­ways fan­cied a crack at the IR but deemed it well be­yond their reach un­til now. The good thing about the school’s phi­los­o­phy is that it caters well to very av­er­age pi­lots such as my­self. It also ap­pre­ci­ates the no­tion that one’s brain isn’t quite what it was as the years roll by, and that in­stru­ment train­ing is bru­tally re­veal­ing of just how much it isn’t what it was. I fig­ured that if I could pass any­body could.

And so, back in June last year, I signed on the dot­ted line and took the plunge into what turned out to be the hard­est fly­ing I have ever done. The in­struc­tor al­lot­ted to me was Mark Bills, an ex RAF chap who seems to have pretty much de­signed half the in­stru­ment ap­proaches in the UK. He has an in­cred­i­ble wealth of ex­pe­ri­ence with thou­sands of in­stru­ment hours. Watch­ing him fly was like watch­ing a con­cert pianist play whilst I was hav­ing ma­jor prob­lems with ‘Twin­kle Twin­kle Lit­tle Star’, a si­mul­ta­ne­ously de­press­ing and in­spir­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. He was al­ways pa­tient with me but he could be jolly tough too, a good thing when you re­alise that one day you’ll be up there with your fam­ily or friends in what can be the very un­for­giv­ing en­vi­ron­ment of in­stru­ment fly­ing.

Rate One has (or had) a so­phis­ti­cated Red­bird sim­u­la­tor and this is where we started, fly­ing ap­proaches and holds in the places where we would be do­ing it in the skies: Glouces­ter, Cardiff and Coven­try. Frankly I loathed the sim and was happy to be done with it af­ter a few hours. The han­dling felt−to me at least−noth­ing like the real thing, and I found the whole ex­pe­ri­ence faintly claus­tro­pho­bic. For­tu­nately Rate One didn’t much care for it ei­ther (and it’s since been sold) so we were soon on to the Cessna where, very quickly, all my fly­ing skills rapidly fell apart.

And I mean all. There’s a video on Youtube where an Amer­i­can IR in­struc­tor tells a pupil that his mind will be­come so rapidly over­loaded dur­ing train­ing that

My fly­ing un­der­went the equiv­a­lent of a pro­longed ma­chine wash on high spin

when asked his own name he will only be able to an­swer: “Standby”. I know ex­actly how that feels.

Over the fol­low­ing months, I came down to Glouces­ter ev­ery three weeks or so, and some­times more fre­quently, for two or three days at a time. We flew two ses­sions a day, about as much as I could han­dle, given Mark’s ruth­lessly de­tailed brief­ings ei­ther side of each flight. Evenings were spent in my ho­tel plan­ning the next day’s routes, mug­ging up on min­ima, and bury­ing my­self in a plethora of of­fi­cial pub­li­ca­tions with such catchy ti­tles as CAP 773, CAP 694, PART-NCO, or CAA Stan­dards Doc­u­ment 1, Ver­sion 09… You name it, I read it. And then I read it again.

From the be­gin­ning the pace was in­ten­sive and it never let up. Five hun­dred feet into the climb-out the hood went on. The next time I’d see the out­side world was at min­ima on the ap­proach. Most of the time I hadn’t a clue whether we were in or out of cloud. Over and over we prac­tised the sec­tions that would make up the skills test. Es­sen­tially, there are five of them for sin­gle-en­gined air­craft: de­par­ture; en route pro­ce­dures; gen­eral han­dling (which in­cludes un­usual at­ti­tudes on limited panel); pre­ci­sion and non-pre­ci­sion ap­proaches−not to men­tion the dreaded hold. Holds were a par­tic­u­lar night­mare, and I mean that lit­er­ally since they haunted me in my sleep. Back when I did my IMC rating we did them too, but never like this. Gate an­gles, hold en­tries, out­bound drift cal­cu­la­tions, sixty-to-go po­si­tions, ADF dip er­ror… a litany of pro­ce­dures to process and act upon whilst also at­tempt­ing to fly the air­craft sunny-side-up with noth­ing to look at but the in­stru­ments.

Ev­ery­thing dur­ing flight seemed to hap­pen too quickly and I kept find­ing my­self way be­hind the aero­plane. For in­stance, once es­tab­lished on the air­way you only had a few min­utes to or­gan­ise your­self for the next leg, per­haps a radar-vec­tored ILS into Cardiff. There was never enough time to get all the bits and pieces done, set­ting up the ra­dios, ident­ing the bea­cons, lis­ten­ing to the ATIS, brief­ing the ap­proach plate, not to men­tion do­ing the many, many checks−es­pe­cially ic­ing checks−all of which had to be learned by heart. Mean­while the tol­er­ances re­quired for the test seemed al­most im­pos­si­ble fan­tasies: you’re sup­posed to fly within 100 feet of nom­i­nated al­ti­tude, within five de­grees of track, and God help you if you let your speed drift above or be­low five knots be­yond what it was sup­posed to be. Five knots? My nor­mal VFR tech­nique was barely to look at the ASI while wan­der­ing all over the English coun­try­side in what I hoped was vaguely the right di­rec­tion. Lit­tle won­der that af­ter ev­ery train­ing flight my mind felt like it had been beaten to a pulp.

An­other big chal­lenge was the ra­dio. I thought this was some­thing I was quite good at, and man­aged an easy pass in the IR Comms pa­per. But I thought wrong. In the real world, much of the stuff I was taught in ground school−for­mally cor­rect though it was−bore very lit­tle re­la­tion to pro­ce­dures in the air. Things like po­si­tion re­ports, painstak­ingly ab­sorbed from the pages of CAP 413, rarely hap­pen in real-world IFR where the en­vi­ron­ment, at least in the UK, is tightly con­trolled by radar. I lost count of the times Mark barked at me−fig­u­ra­tively, you un­der­stand−un­til at last some of the lessons were rammed home, and it slowly be­gan to click.

Holds were a par­tic­u­lar night­mare... they haunted me in my sleep

It didn’t help that there were some big gaps in my train­ing sched­ule. Some of them were self-in­duced, with work com­mit­ments eat­ing up time but also hope­fully earn­ing me the money to af­ford all this. Oth­ers were weather is­sues, an in­creas­ing prob­lem as sum­mer turned into au­tumn and fi­nally win­ter. As the trees grew bare the freez­ing lev­els dropped un­til air­ways fly­ing be­came im­pos­si­ble. But Mark kept at me with the whip hand, bless him. We flew when­ever we could, in all sorts of hor­rid weather, an eye­opener for me since I did my IMC train­ing, where the in­struc­tor did his best to stay out of any cloud down to the tini­est cu­mu­lus hu­milis.

Of course, it wasn’t all pain. There were some un­for­get­table mo­ments too, like the first time I pierced the magic floor of Class A airspace en route to Daven­try and spoke to Lon­don Con­trol. How strange, but gen­uinely thrilling, to use my fa­mil­iar call­sign with all the Speed­birds and Ryanairs dom­i­nat­ing the air­waves. Per­haps the whole thing ap­pealed to some closet air­line pi­lot in me, but it was a great feel­ing and helped to re­mind me what I was ac­tu­ally do­ing all this for: to fly to places, and per­haps far­away places, in a way I’d never flown be­fore. Hav­ing de­voured the fo­rums of PPL/IR, the mag­nif­i­cent or­gan­i­sa­tion which ex­ists to pro­mote all forms of in­stru­ment fly­ing in Europe, I was cap­ti­vated by the pos­si­bil­i­ties that lay ahead af­ter I’d passed the test. That is, if I passed the test.

Soon into the new year, af­ter sev­eral months of on-and-off train­ing, that dreaded test be­gan to loom on the hori­zon. By then bits of the fly­ing were start­ing to come to­gether, even though I was ut­terly in­ca­pable of com­plet­ing a skills test pro­file with­out mak­ing some stupid er­ror such as fail­ing to get rid of ex­cess height to in­ter­cept the glides­lope, or on one oc­ca­sion fly­ing very pre­cisely the wrong way on an NDB ap­proach, head­ing due east when I was sup­posed to be go­ing due west. I called these ‘mo­men­tary lapses in in­tel­li­gence’. Mark called them brain farts. And they cropped up with em­bar­rass­ing reg­u­lar­ity.

De­spite all this, Mark main­tained a cu­ri­ous faith that I’d get there in the end, al­beit with­out ex­actly spec­i­fy­ing when that end would ac­tu­ally be. It didn’t help that ev­ery­thing I’d read sug­gested it was just about the tough­est fly­ing ex­am­i­na­tion in the world. But the costs were mount­ing−over £10,000 by this point− and with the test it­self cost­ing a whop­ping £775 the pres­sure was on to get it done and, I hoped, walk away with a pass. The con­se­quences of not pass­ing and cough­ing up an­other huge sum to do it all over again didn’t bear think­ing about. Which meant, of course, that I thought about it all the time.

By March we’d moved the train­ing from Glouces­ter to Bris­tol, which was where Mark was based. This added a new di­men­sion be­cause Bris­tol is a fairly ma­jor air­port, with Boe­ings and Air­buses us­ing the same nav­i­ga­tion fa­cil­i­ties as we did. There’s noth­ing that con­cen­trates the mind quite like tear­ing down the ap­proach at 130-plus knots in thick cloud know­ing there’s a 737 some­where on your tail. A sec­ond plus about Bris­tol is that you some­times wit­ness even the big boys get­ting it wrong. To hear the pi­lot of a well-known no-frills air­line mak­ing pro­fuse apolo­gies to ATC for to­tally mess­ing up his cap­ture of the lo­caliser is a wel­come ex­pe­ri­ence when you’ve been do­ing ex­actly the same thing your­self all day.

Such was the state of af­fairs when Mark de­cided that he’d ei­ther had quite enough of me or that I was prob­a­bly as ready for the test as I was ever ca­pa­ble of be­ing. Af­ter a fi­nal spurt of train­ing−bring­ing my to­tal to 49 hours−he out­lined four al­ter­na­tive out­comes: a pass; a pass with an ad­mo­ni­tion to do bet­ter in fu­ture (the equiv­a­lent of a heavy rap over the knuck­les); a par­tial pass, which meant re-tak­ing the test sec­tion I’d failed. Or a com­plete fail. With these stir­ring pos­si­bil­i­ties in mind, we booked an ex­am­iner for the fol­low­ing week in April. I left Bris­tol that evening and flew home to Den­ham. The next time I re­turned, I’d be tak­ing the test. Part Three of Stephen’s CB-IR odyssey will ap­pear in the Septem­ber edi­tion of Pi­lot

How strange but gen­uinely thrilling to use my fa­mil­iar call­sign with all the Speed­birds and Ryanairs dom­i­nat­ing the air­waves

In­struc­tor Mark Bills in­tro­duces the sim­u­la­tor — Stephen looks suit­ably scep­ti­cal

Stu­dent Walker re­sponds to a point made dur­ing one of the ‘ruth­lessly de­tailed’ brief­ings de­liv­ered by in­struc­tor Mark Bills

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