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
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