An Instrument Rating Check Ride Story

The following is an account of the check ride for my Instrument Rating, which I passed on August 1, 2005. I wrote it mostly for my own amusement, but figured I might as well post it on the web. Reading other pilots' stories about their check rides helped me feel better prepared for my own, and if my story helps other pilots prepare as well, so much the better.

The Night Before

The night was sultry.

Actually, no, the night was hot. Africa hot. OK, not Africa hot, but hot for Colorado, anyway. I'm a tightwad with no central A/C in the house, and I think the temperature in our bedroom that night was about 90. Throw in a two-week-old baby who only sleeps two hours at a stretch (but she's beautiful), and a good-old-fashioned case of pre-checkride nerves, and it wasn't the best recipe for a good night's sleep. I'd also spent most of the weekend studying, and the inability to wind down and stop thinking about airplanes probably would have been enough to kill any chance of a good night's sleep, even without the heat and the baby. I think I got 3 or 4 hours of shuteye. Ah well, I'll sleep when I'm dead...

Oh, and did I mention the nightmare? Yep, what little sleep I did get was rudely interrupted by a pretty vivid nightmare... about, would you believe, augering in an airplane... because I got disoriented flying on instruments! The dream included a post-crash view of shattered airplane parts all around me (at least I survived the initial impact, I guess) before waking up. How's that for a pre-check ride confidence builder?

The Morning Of

I had set the alarm for 5 a.m. but I finally gave up trying to get any more sleep at about a quarter 'til. Got up and hit the shower to get the cobwebs out, ate a decent breakfast, then set about final preparations. I wasn't scheduled to meet the examiner until 8 a.m., but had to ferry my airplane a few miles from Vance Brand airport in Longmont, Colorado to Fort Collins Loveland Airport to meet the examiner. I had also been asked to show up with a prepared IFR cross-country plan from Fort Collins to Casper, Wyoming, and I wanted to get updated weather, pick a suitable alternate, and print out an up-to-date flight plan before heading for the airport. This would just be a review of things I'd already looked at, and I didn't expect it to take long.

But you know that scene in Office Space where Peter is desparately trying to copy stuff onto a floppy and get out of his cube before Lumbergh shows up? Well, my "quick final prep" took a predicatable turn that way. After packing up the laptop on which I did my flight planning, I grabbed the approach plates to review my alternate of Scottsbluff, Nebraska), and realized that those plates didn't include the great state of Nebraska. Greaaaaaat. Well, I figured I'd just use the desktop computer to print them from AOPA. No big deal, I've got the AOPA airport page bookmarked, so I go there and type "KBFF", and get.... nothing. No characters in the box where you type in the airport name. I click the box again, re-type "KBFF", and.... nada. Greaaaaat. We've got a wireless keyboard on that machine, and something was clearly on the fritz with it. I tried re-syncing the keyboard with the wireless receiver, and even putting new batteries in the keyboard, but no luck. I didn't want to dig out the laptop again, and this isn't the first time something like this has happened to me, so I reverted to cut-and-pasting individual letters from the page into the Airport ID box to enter "KBFF". Took me freakin' forever to find a 'B' on that page to cut-and-paste, too ( 'B' is the 7th least common letter of the alphabet, who'da thunk?) After much swearing, I finally got the approach plates to come up, and predictably, there are numerous approaches for that airport, plus departure procedures, alternate minimums, etc., all of which I figured I'd better print out on my one page-per-minute (graphics) inkjet printer. I suppose it's no coincidence that Murphy's Law has its origin in aviation.

I finally got out of the house about 30 minutes later than planned, but I had padded my schedule enough that I wasn't too worried about it. The drive to the airport and the preflight were uneventful, and I was airborne a little before 7:30 a.m. I really enjoy solo takeoffs in the Mooney. Even with the heat (Density Altitude at LMO was already about 7000'), I got a nice climbout and "fun" deck angle. I headed for FNL at 2500 RPM and WOT, made a decent landing, and tied down with enough time to hit the head and get a drink of water before introducing myself to the examiner.

Jack Taylor was my Designated Examiner, and my experience with him was pleasant enough. Jack is a fair examiner, very knowledgeable, and easy to talk to. I particularly liked the fact that he seemed very progressive about technology - we had good discussions about picking up weather from the internet, computer-based flight planning (see below), and how to safely and legally use a handheld GPS in IFR flight (I actually got chastised a bit for not making more use of my GPS than I do). My only complaint about Jack was the number of interruptions he permitted during the exam. The oral was interrupted a couple of times by employees of his flight school who needed help, and he excused himself for a few minutes at a time to handle those issues. I wasn't too upset about that as it gave me a break, too. But I was pretty surprised when he took a cell phone call while we were taxing out to begin the flight test. To be fair, though, he did apologize at the end of the day and thanked me for allowing him to handle his various cases of "The Mondays" (his words, but there's another Office Space reference for you...)

The Oral Exam

After exchanging pleasantries, we started out by reviewing my current pilot certificate, medical, photo ID, logbook, and the form 8710 paperwork. I did the 8710 through IACRA, but I also brought a printout of the "Unofficial" 8710 form you get when you complete the IACRA process, as a backup. The examiner seemed to appreciate that, and he took a copy for his files, along with copies of my other paperwork. I had prepared some notes detailing how I met the requirements of FAR 61.65, but we did not go over these requirements in detail. Presumably he verified them from my logbook while he was making copies.

With the paperwork review complete, we launched into the oral exam. It ran about two hours, but that was including all the aforementioned interruptions. We started by reviewing my flight plan from FNL to CPR, which I felt was well prepared, and I tried to set the tone for the oral with my explanation of the route I had chosen. The most direct (via airways) route for this flight is KFNL -> RAMMS -> V575 -> LAR -> V118 -> MBW -> V589 -> ALCOS -> KCPR, but V575 has an 11,300' MEA. Our Mooney can fly that altitude on a cool day when lightly loaded. But I've never flown that route, it was a hot day, we had no oxygen on board, ATC could have easily asked us to fly at 12 or 14K, and in fact, the weather along that route was forecast to get marginal later in the day. Instead, I planned KFNL -> LPORT -> V81 -> CYS -> V547 -> DDY -> KCPR, which had lower MEAs, slightly better weather forecasts, and added less than 20 minutes to the ETE.

I had planned the flight using AOPA's Real Time Flight Planner, which gets weather information through DUATs. This was an experiment to see how the examiner felt about using modern software for IFR planning. I also brought a plotter and my good old cardboard E6-B, and was fully prepared to demonstrate planning the flight the old-fashioned way. But the examiner had no problem with the AOPA planner. In fact, he didn't really ask any questions about my choice of route, the weather forecasts, or other considerations for the flight. I like to think that I explained my plan well enough that he figured I was competent without digging deeper, but he may just have already decided to focus on other topics. He did hint that we would get into some "manual calculations", and I fully expected to break out the plotter and the whiz wheel, but it never happened.

Next, we pulled out the low altitude enroute chart for the flight and the examiner started asking questions about interpreting the chart. Much of what you're supposed to know to operate under IFR can be discussed in the context of enroute charts, and this wound up comprising the bulk of my oral. I did alright, but came away wishing I had spent more study time on enroute charts. I think it would have helped if I had gotten up to speed on them earlier in my training, and used them as my primary navgation charts during the trips I made to build X-C time for the Instrument Rating. But I built a lot of that time flying to a limited number of mostly familiar destinations, so I'm not sure how much that would have helped.

The enroute chart grilling started with a lengthy discussion on all those "M" altitudes: MEAs, MOCAs, MOROCAs, MCAs, MRAs, and MVAs. I had no trouble explaining those, but then things took a turn for the worse when the examiner asked a question about the "open" vs. "closed" arrows at intersections (for an example, see the MOIST intersection on V611 on the L-8 chart). I knew these related to which VOR should be used to identify the fix, but I had never looked closely enough to notice that there were two different types of arrows. I fessed up to my ignorance, and fortunately had the presence of mind to suggest I could look at the chart legend to figure it out. With the legend, and some help from the examiner, we determined that "open" arrows are used at intersections that can be identified with VOR/DME, and indicate the VOR from which the DME distance should be used. On a related note, the examiner asked about the D-shaped arrows with numbers in them shown near certain intersections. I knew these indicated DME distances, but blurted out the wrong direction (the arrow points away from the VOR, not toward it). My poor performance on these DME questions was undoubtably related to the lack of DME in our airplane, but that's not a very good excuse...

Continuing with the intersection theme, we discussed the difference between ordinary intersections (marked with triangle icons, the charts are chock full of 'em) and CNFs (less common, marked with an x icon, see AFWOX on V247 on the L-8 chart for an example). I knew that CNFs were essentially mileage markers used at doglegs in an airway, but wasn't sure why they were used in place of ordinary intersections. The examiner explained that CNFs are typically used when the angle between the navaids which identify the fix is too small to reliably ID the fix with good accuracy using dual VORs. This was another subtlety of enroute charts that I might have been more familiar with had I studied them more intensely.

A topic the examiner spent a lot of time on was navigating IFR direct, off the airways. Although I stumbled through this a bit (it didn't come up much during my training), it turned out to be a good discussion and I learned a lot from it. He asked what altitude I would fly an off-airway route at, and I responded that I would fly the MOROCA. He said that would work, but that all you're really obligated to do is determine the highest obstacle within 4nm on either side of your direct route (like the width of an airway), and meet the 1000/2000' clearance requirements along the route. Presumably you can do this by looking at the VFR charts. I commented that one reason I was a little ill-informed on direct routes is that our airplane doesn't have an IFR-certified GPS. The examiner then pointed out that you don't have to have an IFR-certified RNAV device to legally navigate direct between two fixes - you can legally ask for "direct via radar vectors". He said ATC frequently grants this request when you are in radar coverage, knowing full well that you are almost certainly using a handheld GPS rather than their vectors to get there. This John Deakin column from AvWeb expresses many of the same sentiments held by the examiner, including the emphasis on legal and safe use of a handheld GPS for going direct.

Another topic we covered was the difference in guaranteed obstacle clearance in mountainous (1000') vs. non-mountainous (2000') terrain. I explained what the difference was, and why it exists (winds in mountainous terrain can cause significant local pressure variations, in turn causing significant altimeter errors). But then the examiner asked what exactly constitutes mountainous terrain - a good question to which I didn't know the answer. It turns out that FAR 95.13 and 95.15 include maps of the continental U.S. (available in this PDF file) which define areas of mountainous terrain. I'd never seen these maps before, and was suprised to discover that nearly half of the continental U.S. is considered mountainous terrain for the purposes of obstacle clearance. That includes portions of Colorado well east of I-25, which I wouldn't ordinarily think of as mountainous.

Rounding out the enroute chart discussion were brief conversations about the service volumes of the different VOR types, VOR changeover points (which are sometimes further away than the guaranteed service volume of a VOR - that's OK because they flight test the specific installation), and other mundane details about airways. I didn't have any trouble with those, and managed to move on from my flubs about the arrows on the charts. The examiner also drew up a quick problem on the chart involving tracking an airway course with a wind correction, and asking what the relative ADF bearing to an NDB near the airway would be.

We finally moved off the subject of enroute charts, and onto other topics. The examiner next asked about lost communications procedures and I dutifully regurgitated the appropriate regs, and even pointed out some situations they don't really address (see This Don Brown column from AvWeb and it's followup for examples). We then reviewed the rules for filing an alternate, which also went smoothly with one exception recarding the definition of the "forecasts" you consult to comply with the rules. I had taken a practice check ride with a different CFI than my usual instructor, which included a mock oral. During the mock oral, I discussed the controversy surrounding what constitutes a legal forecast for determining whether or not an alternate is required, and the CFI adamantly insisted the forecast could only be a TAF. But when I related this story to the examiner, he just as adamantly insisted that an area forecast was sufficient for determining the forecast weather at the destination, and seemed agitated that anyone would support any other interpretation. I let him rant about it for a while and then said something to the effect of, "why yes sir, you are absolutely correct". I certainly wasn't going to get into an argument with the examiner! But I'm still not sure how the FAA would interpret this in a certificate action. This AOPA article mentions a "necessary terminal forecast" in the context of alternates, but I also found some message boards on the net where people take the position of the examiner in saying, "do you see the word TAF anywhere in the regulation?" I guess the controversy rages on...

As might be expected, the last topic of the oral exam was approaches, and the examiner asked what the criteria are for descending below the DH/MDA. I responded that you had to have the runway environment in sight, and that the runway environment could be identified the runway itself, runway markings, REILs, VASI and other items (I couldn't remember every one of the items from FAR 91.175.c.3). I did note that approach lights count as a visual reference, but that you cannot descend more than 100' below DH on a precision approach without an additional runway reference. But it soon became clear that the examiner was looking for something else, and I uncomfortably admitted that I didn't know what it was. He reminded me that 91.175.c specifies three criteria for descending below the DH/MDA, and having the required visual references in sight is only one of them. The other two are flight visibility not less than the specified minimum visibility for the approach, and having the aircraft continuously in a position from which a normal descent and landing is possible. I knew this from a practical standpoint, but it never occurred to me to regurgitate those words in response to his question. I think part of what tripped me up is the whole discussion took place in the context of a straight-in precision approach, and the "aircraft continuously in a position from which..." requirement is something that I had associated with nonprecision and/or circling approaches. Not discussing the visibility minimums, on the other hand, was a more inexcusable brain fart. This is another one of those areas where the practical training doesn't seem to help much, especially if it's almost all under the hood. I know it's technically possible to break out on an approach, be able to see the runway (one of the required visual references), but not have the required visibility. But it's hard for me to come up with a practical application where it would come into play. For the approaches that I've flown, the slant distance to the runway upon arrival at DH (precision approach) or time expiration (nonprecision approach) is greater than the required flight visibility, so if you can see the runway, you're OK. None of that is a good excuse for not having 91.175.c memorized, though. It's sure to be stuck in my brain from now on!

I'm not sure I remember everthing else the examiner asked about approaches. I recall a few questions about the details of the ILS approaches at CPR, including where/how to enter and fly the DME arcs in those approaches. The examiner also asked a softball question about the inverse triangle "A" icon (alternate minimums icon). Mostly I recall that the rest of the discussion about approaches went well, and that after that, the examiner was ready to go fly.

The examiner didn't offer any comments on whether he thought the oral went well or poorly, but I figured I must have passed, since he is supposed to stop the process immediately if you bust. Overall, I didn't do quite as well on the oral exam as I had hoped. But I recalled feeling the same way about my private pilot oral exam, and the subsequent flight test went OK then, so I just sucked it up and got ready to aviate.

One final comment on the oral exam: there was a lot of material I studied in preparation for the exam that never came up, including but not limited to:

There's only so much time alloted for the oral exam, so it's not surprising that some of these topics were skipped. I'm sure the examiner didn't think they were unimportant, but we just didn't cover them. I also think that despite the directive to be an "unbiased referee", most examiners probably make a guess about the candidates strengths and weaknesses early in the process, and focus primarily on the latter. I have no idea if I somehow conveyed that I was competent in certain subjects without discussing them directly, or if the direction of the oral was more random. In any case, I had neither the time nor the inclination to discuss it with the examiner!

The Flight Test

As we got ready for the flight test, the examiner made a clear effort to set me at ease about the process. He explained the maneuvers we would do, in the order we were going to do them (which I wrote down!). He also mentioned a couple of common mistakes that applicants make as a result of doing all their IFR training in a simulated environment: forgetting to call for a clearance on the ground, and forgetting to make the initial call to ATC after takeoff. He said he considered these to be instructor mistakes, and it was clear that he didn't believe mentioning them violated the "no hints" rules of the exam. My CFI was pretty good about simulating these things, so I wasn't too worried about them... but I still penciled them in on the pre-runup and after-takeoff checklists, respectively.

Before leaving to preflight the airplane, I had a couple of questions of my own for the examiner. I wanted to clarify exactly what he expected at the moment we would go missed approach in real life (should I look up and identify the runway, immediately execute the missed approach without looking, wait for his command, etc). He kind of laughed and said, "This must be the 'Does the examiner have fangs?' question". He said I should expect missed approaches to go the same way they did in my training, and that he wouldn't bust me for going below a few feet below DH while listening for his instructions. I also mentioned that in real life, I like to use the moving map on my handheld GPS for situational awareness during approaches, and asked if that was OK during the flight test. I was a little surprised to have him ask me in response why I would only use the GPS for situational awareness, since it was a perfectly good source of navigation data as well. We wound up having a nice little discussion about GPS utility vs. head-down time during approaches, and he formally OK'd my use of the GPS during the check ride - score another one for a progressive examiner! Finally, I described the vacuum-powered wing leveler in the Mooney, and explained how to disable it if (when) he wanted to simulate a vacuum failure. He said OK, but reiterated that I should feel free to use anything available in the airplane that he had not covered up or disabled - there would be no bonus points for doing things the hard way!

With that parting comment, I was dispatched to saddle up my airplane. The examiner said that I would have plenty of time to get ready, which was nice. I hit the bathroom, got a drink of water, preflighted, and then had a few minutes to just sit alone in the cockpit and focus on the tasks ahead. I'm not sure to what extent that extra time was planned - the examiner may have been trying to catch up unrelated work - but it really hit the spot.

The examiner finally sauntered out to the airplane wearing an honest-to-god Ten Gallon hat, and I realized he was also sporting a well-worn pair of West Texas cowboy boots. That actually set me at ease, since both the Mooney and I were born in Texas! I answered a couple of questions about avionics and the autopilot, gave the passenger briefing, and cranked up. Engine start and taxi were uneventful, aside from the aforementioned cellphone call, and shortly I was calling, "Simulated Clearance Delivery, Mooney 7028 at the runway 33 runup pad at Fort Collins Loveland, IFR to Casper, Wyoming, ready for clearance".

Well, that's when things got interesting. The DE came back with, "Mooney 7028 is cleared to Casper via the Yellowstone Three departure, Cheyenne Transition, then as filed. Fly heading 040 after takeoff, climb to and maintain eight-thousand, expect one-zero-thousand two-zero miles after departure. Contact Denver Departure on 123.85, squawk 4341. Clearance void time 1640 Zulu"

Now this is a perfectly reasonable clearance, that any competent IFR pilot should be able to handle. But it's also the most complicated clearance I had ever received, in simulation or in real life. And the only SID I'd ever actually been asked to fly. I managed to copy and read it back correctly. And I figured hey, I know what a SID is - I aced those questions on the written, I had looked over the SIDs associated with FNL, I had plenty of time before the clearance void time expired to study the SID, shouldn't be a problem...

...and it wasn't for the most part. In retrospect, it was cool to finally get a "complicated" clearance and handle it. But there was one wrinkle. I dug out the SID and read the textual description and looked at the chart, and became convinced that the SID required navigating to the DEN VOR. As I was saying this out loud, the examiner explained that the intent was just to intercept the 346 radial of DEN from the given 040 heading and then fly that outbound to the CYS VOR. Makes perfect sense now, but none of the examples in the written exam used an "intermmediate intercept" like this, and again, I'd never flown one for real. So the examiner cut me a break by explaining what was intended, but he chalked it up to an instructor error (he later suggested I should tell my CFI to have his instrument students practice a couple of local SIDs during training, since it was a common topic on his flight tests).

The only traffic at Ft. Collins was one guy in the pattern, so we were able to enter Runway 33 immediately after the runup. Takeoff was uneventful, and the foggles went on at 400'. I got the airplane cleaned up for cruise climb, on the 040 intercept course, ID'd the DEN VOR, and was able to relax for a moment in fortunately smooth air on the climb. The examiner then amended my clearance to go direct CYS when able, so I ID'd that VOR and took up a direct heading, at which time the examiner ended the simulated X-C and advised that we would now move on to air work.

The air work started with the examiner disabling the wing leveler, covering up the DG and asking for a timed 360-degree turn. That went fine - I rolled out on altitude and the examiner uncovered to DG to show us within 10 degrees of our start heading. He left the DG uncovered and asked for left and right 360s at 40 degrees of bank. I had a +130' altitude deviation partway into the first of these steep turns, but recovered quickly, and held altitude by varying the bank angle slightly. I guess the 130' deviation technically violated the PTS standards of +/- 100' accuracy, but the instrument PTS doesn't mention steep turns, either.

The next task was compass turns. The examiner covered the DG again, and asked for a right turn from our northerly heading to a heading of 170 without using a timer. I rolled into a standard rate turn, decreasing it to half standard rate as we passed through east, and started the roll out when the compass read 200 (taking into account an approximate 30-degree compass lead error turning to southerly headings). Things were going well. The examiner than asked for a left turn to a heading of 330, which I promptly screwed up. I correctly remembered the compass lags when turning to northerly headings, but got momentarily confused about whether the heading numbers increased or decreased in a left turn, and computed a rollout heading of 300 instead of 360. Halfway through the turn, I realized my mistake and recomputed the rollout heading, but then I got the lead/lag behavior reversed in my head, so I again incorrectly computed a rollout heading of 300. So when we rolled out, our actual heading was 270, a full 60 degrees of error. Damn. I explained my error, and the examiner than asked for a right turn to 120, which I executed correctly. Not a good effort, but correctable, and I like to think that I clearly explained the cause.

Next up was unusual attitudes, we did one nose low, and another nose high, and I had no problems with the recoveries. The examiner subsequently gave me a vector to the COLLN NDB, and cleared me to hold as published for the ILS 33 approach to FNL, except at 7500'. I caught a couple of breaks here: we had calm winds which made the hold easy; and the examiner blessedly chose to un-fail the wing leveler at that time, which had been disabled ever since the first set of timed turns. I flew a good parallel entry into the hold, re-intercepted the localizer inbound, and was cleared to descend to 7300' as we crossed COLLN inbound. I dropped the assigned 200' in the outbound turn, and rolled out nicely on a heading of 148, at which time the examiner cleared me for the approach. I flew 2 minutes outbound to give myself plenty of time to get set up (which the examiner had suggested might be a good idea during the pre-flight briefing). The turn inbound worked out perfectly, with the localizer needle centering up right as I rolled out on a heading of 328, and the rest of the approach was smooth. I reported COLLN inbound as requested, and flew the needles all the way down to the DH with no more than about 1.5 dots of deviation on the localizer and glideslope. We flew the missed as published back to COLLN and I was feeling pretty good.

The next approach was an NDB 33 full approach (sorry, no link anymore, the approach no longer exists) including the procedure turn. It was passable, though I was a little sluggish getting down to the MDA (a chronic problem of mine). At the 1 minute mark inbound from COLLN, I said out loud that I was high and needed to make the descent more agressive, which I did, going down as much as 1000 fpm. In the end, I reached the MDA at the 2:30 mark, which was the missed approach time for the ground speed we had reached by that point. The examiner had me look up, and I identified the runway off to our right. We were roughly parallel with the approach end, so I could not have made a straight-in landing, but I could have flown an upwind leg with a full pattern circle-to-land. Not perfect, but passable. On the missed approach I mentioned to the examiner that our airplane was consistenly off to the left on NDB approaches. That's a true statement, but I immediately realized how stupid it sounded - "Yeah Mr. Examiner, I was off course to the left, but this airplane always does that on NDB approaches". Riiiiiight.

Now for a side comment on NDB approaches: the books all say you should leave the ADF audio turned on during an NDB approach, so that you continuously hear the station identifier. Unlike a VOR/localizer/glideslope indicator, the NDB indicator has no nav flag to indicate loss of signal, so the identifier is necessary to maintain a positive indication of signal. But we almost never did this in training because none of the CFIs that I ever flew NDB approaches with wanted to listen to the identifier all the time - they would turn off the audio, while noting that in real conditions you shouldn't do that. Well, that's a recipe for screwing it up when the chips are down, and I was pretty concerned I would improperly turn off the identifier during my check ride. As it turned out, before we even crossed the station outbound, the DE said, "I'm going to periodically turn the ADF audio on and back off for you, since leaving it on the whole time is like Chinese Water Torture". Fair enough, I guess, but I'm now convinced that if I ever fly an NDB approach in real conditions, I'm practically guaranteed to forgetfully turn off the audio after initially ID'ing the station - law of primacy and all that. All the more reason to replace our ADF with an IFR approach-certified GPS!

After the NDB approach, we flew the missed as published again, and the examiner asked me to set up a localizer-only nonprecision approach (same ILS 33 plate from the first approach). He asked me to fly it using the #2 NAV radio, which I didn't think much about at first. In retrospect, it was a mistake waiting to happen. as a rule, I fly VOR and ILS approaches using NAV1, and consequently I'm used to concentrating on the #1 indicator needle. You can see where this is going... Flying outbound, I was right of course, and the indicator needle was showing a right deflection as expected (due to the reverse sensing on the outbound course), so I figured I was all set up for the intercept. But I was looking at the wrong needle! The "correct" indication on the #1 indicator might have just been coincidence, but I'm betting the examiner may have cleverly switched the frequency on NAV1 at just the right time to make it that way. In any case, I blew right through the localizer outbound, all the while waiting for the #1 needle to center.

I think I would have caught this mistake in pretty short order, because I had been doing a reasonably good job of double-checking the ILS/localizer courses against the GPS and ADF. But before it got very far out of hand, the examiner coughed and said, "Hmmm... I wonder why that localizer needle isn't centering up?". I think I actually said a Homer-esque "Doh!" out loud, and then quickly changed heading to re-intercept, announcing that I would go two minutes outbound to give myself time to correct the error. I also grabbed the post-it note on which I had written the N-number of the airplane for the examiner and stuck it over the #1 indicator to avoid making the same mistake again. I thought that was a reasonably clever recovery, but the examiner didn't comment on it one way or the other.

I successfully handled the procedure turn and once again managed to roll out with the needle centered on the inbound intercept, but I could tell that fatigue was starting to catch up with me. Not wanting to repeat my sluggish descent to the MDA, I got the gear out early during the initial step down to 6700', and drug it in to COLLN, which took forever with the gear hanging out. Once over COLLN, I pushed the nose over and made like a brick for the MDA, and got there well before time expired. The examiner indicated that he was much happier with the descent on that approach, and told me to go ahead and fly the approach to a full stop landing. Surprisingly, I greased it on for a really nice touchdown, though it was undoubtably all luck and almost no skill by that point.

I cleared the active, taxied back to the ramp, and endured that uncomfortable silence that happens at the end of a check ride. I think everybody wants the examiner to say something during taxi: "Congratulations, you passed.", or , "Well, you didn't completely screw it up!", or even, "Sorry, you busted". But as with my private check ride, and others I've read about, the examiner was silent and stone faced until we got out of the airplane. I guess they can't say anything before that - there's always a chance you'll retract the gear during taxi, or ram into another airplane while parking.

With the flight test over, I realized there were several things I expected to be tested on that hadn't come up:

After taxi and shut down, the examiner finally said, "Well, let's go get you a certificate", and I finally knew it was over. He headed straight for the office, as it was getting unbearably hot by that time. But I took my time gathering up my charts, sitting in the cockpit, and relaxing for a minute. I felt like I'd earned the privilege to just enjoy the moment.

Back in the office, the examiner did the required paperwork and printed up my temporary certificate. In addition to some small talk, I specifically asked him what I should emphasize in my continued instrument practice, and if there were any areas of weakness he cared to comment on. I expected him to review the mistakes I had made, but surprisingly, all he said was that he thought my flying was "pretty solid". As with the oral exam, I felt like my flying was alright, but that I could have done better in a couple of areas. But at least on that day, I met the examiner's standards with respect to the PTS, and I'll take it!

After the paperwork was done, the examiner was kind enough to come back out to the airplane for a quick picture. Then I went back in to the FBO for a quick look at the radar (the afternoon thunderstorms were beginning to pop), and hustled back home to LMO. The flight back was uneventful, but I bounced the landing pretty good - probably a combination of fatigue and karmic retribution for the greaser at the end of the flight test. Total time for the day was 2.5 hours, including both the flight test and the round trip to FNL.

Overall, the day went about like I expected. I expected to make a few minor mistakes, but I expected to pass, too. I wasn't especially nervous, and I'd even say that in many respects it was fun. But I'm glad it's over, too!

Vance Harral
August 5, 2005