It was a rare sunny February day in Seattle. Between the long months of gray and rain starting sometime in October and ending somewhere in May, there was one day on the weather app showing a sun symbol, and that was my instrument check ride day. As the date got closer, I figured I was just lucky to have a perfect VMC day and not to have to reschedule the check ride like many others in the Pacific Northwest this time of year. So, what could go wrong?
I had started my instrument rating training a few months earlier, immediately after earning my private pilot license, in fact. I had always considered the instrument rating an important tool for any pilot, and I wanted to earn the rating as soon as possible. It opens new possibilities for flying when the weather is less than perfect, increases pilot confidence flying in controlled airspace, and can help in weather-related emergencies.
The flight school I attended was based out of Renton Municipal (KRNT), which is a Class Delta airfield tucked under the Seattle-Tacoma Bravo airspace. Understanding the complex airspace in that region and proper radio communication with ATC is extremely important.
Come Prepared, Assume Nothing
I have a tendency to over-study for such tests. I always believe that the one thing you can control in any event, meeting, test or presentation is how well you prepare. In my professional career, which unfortunately doesn’t involve flying, I’ve had my share of executive reviews, presentations to thousands of people and critical customer meetings.
Over time, I developed the habit of allocating enough time to prepare properly. A day before an important presentation in a conference, I lock myself in my hotel room and rehearse the presentation word by word, over and over. This event was no different. Prior to the check ride, I took some time off from work, properly reviewed regulations and weather theory, and squeezed in a couple of practice flights. The night before I printed all the relevant weather maps, prepared the weight and balance sheet, and again went over the planned nav-log that the designated pilot examiner (DPE) asked me to prepare for the check ride.
The atmosphere was relaxed as we started going through the formalities of the check ride, and I felt pretty good about the day. Both the DPE and I know each other from the private pilot practical exam I had taken a year prior. I knew she was fair but would hold me to the letter of the Airman Certification Standards (ACS).
The ground portion of the check ride was a breeze. We went through regulations and emergencies, evaluated the cross-country flight plan and weather, and, after about an hour, completed the ground portion, all with no squawks. We covered pretty much all sections of the ground portion of the ACS, and we were ready to start the practical portion.
Here’s where things started going sideways. During my training and just prior to the practical test, my instructor and I flew a few profiles that are often used for instrument check rides in the Seattle area. Here’s how the profile goes: “Shoot” the ILS 17 in Tacoma (KTIW), go missed and then fly to the published hold, brief the next approach, shoot the LOC 17 to Tacoma, go missed and then shoot the GPS 35 circle-to-land 17. Because the winter weather in Seattle normally calls for southern flow, the profile mostly works very well. You can shoot your precision and non-precision approaches toward the south and complete the check ride in under 1.4 Hobbs. That all works well, until the only clear day in Seattle in February calls for a northern flow.
Practice Makes Perfect, Until…
The DPE asked me to file a flight plan I had never flown before: Take off to the north from Renton, hold as published at the SCENN waypoint; from there, request the LOC 17 approach to Tacoma circle-to-land runway 35 and then go missed. After that, request the GPS 35 LPV approach in Tacoma (which is considered a precision approach) and then the GPS 35 LNAV approach to the MDA and go missed.
Realizing this was a new profile and wanting to make sure I didn’t run into unknowns while flying at 140kts, I instinctively started running the flow through my head. How should I enter the hold from the direction we would be approaching SCENN from? What autopilot settings should I use for the hold? How should I brief the approaches, and what would I need to request from Seattle Approach? I didn’t plan the next two things—I planned the next 10 things.
For the southern-flow profile, I practiced the IFR clearance, autopilot programing. The briefing from and communication with Seattle Approach are pretty standard for the short 13-minute hop from Renton to Tacoma. Once you know the button sequence by heart, what the controller will say next, and the next two things you have to do, flying the profile is no big deal. You just have to focus on the readbacks, not violating the ACS standards and paying attention to what the DPE asks of you. Now, with the new flight plan, with no presets, I had to rely on my training to figure out a new routing on the fly.
During my training, Mark, the CFII I was flying with, and I would do what I called “approach hopping” between the many airports in the Puget Sound. We would fly the ILS at Paine Field to a Localizer in Arlington. Or we would shoot the ILS in Port Angeles to a circle-to-land in JeffCo, or an ILS to Tacoma and from there an ILS to Olympia, and so on. Since all the airports are really close to each other, I became proficient at programming the navigator and briefing the approaches. It’s a skill that you don’t often need in real-life IFR flying, when you usually have to program and brief a single approach at a time. But it’s a skill that could prove helpful later on.
The Flying Part
After the oral was done, I filed the flight plan, took a 10-minute break, and then headed to the plane, a very nice 2017 Cirrus SR20 G6. I walked around the plane doing the preflight and verbalizing what I was doing as the DPE walked next to me, before we climbed in. I went through the start sequence, and the 215-hp Lycoming was well behaved and started on the first try. I called ground and got the clearance; “Cleared to the Tacoma airport, BELVU4 SID, then as filed. Expect 4000, 5 min. after departure, Freq…” Over time, I’ve developed the habit of writing everything down, which really helped me build my confidence communicating with ATC, probably the biggest challenge in transitioning from VFR to IFR flying.
As we were holding short waiting for our release, I noticed that the pattern was full. This is normally what happens in Seattle on the rare occurrence of a sunny day in February—everyone plays hooky and goes flying. I figured we would see the same at Tacoma, and I started getting nervous that even though I mentioned in the flight plan remarks that this was an “FAA check ride,” the heavy traffic might preclude from being as accommodating as it normally is, like letting me shoot approaches in the opposite direction to the flow of traffic.
After takeoff, the controller vectored us around the SeaTac Bravo airspace and toward Tacoma. I pulled the throttle back to 50% power to slow us down a bit. Things can move pretty fast in a Cirrus, and I wanted to buy myself as much time as possible and not end up behind the airplane. I kept running through my head “the next two things” I have to do (thank you, Rod Machado) and made sure I knew what would be the required airplane and autopilot configuration and exactly what buttons I would need to press.
Are you an aviation enthusiast or pilot? Sign up for our newsletter, full of tips, reviews and more!
The hold entry at SCENN was smooth; I went through the 5 T’s (turn, time, twist, throttle, talk) and made the proper calls. Once established in the hold, I made the request for the LOC 17 circle-to-land runway 35 approach at Tacoma and started briefing the approach during the hold. After a few moments, the controller (who obviously missed or chose to ignore or really couldn’t accommodate the “FAA check ride” remarks on the flight plan) came back with, “Unable, say intentions,” and asked what we wanted to do next. Without hesitation, the DPE changed our check ride plan—“Let’s do the Loc 20 circle-to-land 02 approach at Bremerton, then we can go back to Tacoma for the rest.” I made the request with Seattle Approach and started going through my flow—GPS flight plan updated, pulled the required approach plates on my iPad and went through the briefing. I knew I needed a bit more time to complete the transition from Tacoma to Bremerton and let ATC know I would be doing a couple more turns in the hold. Did I mention I can slow down time? I felt in the zone and took the time to do everything right. I knew exactly what I needed to do, and although I had never flown this profile, it didn’t matter.
What Else Could Possibly Go Wrong?
As we were heading toward Bremerton, I heard the controller trying to contact a Cherokee on an IFR plan that apparently forgot to cancel the flight plan after landing at Bremerton, which is a non-controlled airport. After few unsuccessful calls, the controller called me and asked to see if we could relay the request to close the flight plan. I acknowledged and told him I’d go off-channel to make the call. After a few unsuccessful attempts, I tuned back to Seattle Approach and notified the controller we were unable to contact the Cherokee as well. The controller informed us that unless the pilot called to close the flight plan soon, he wouldn’t be able to clear us for the approach in Bremerton. “This can’t be happening,” I told myself. “I guess it’s not meant to be.” Indeed, after few minutes, the controller came back letting us know he couldn’t clear us to Bremerton and asked what we wanted to do next.
At this point, the DPE and I were smiling at each other. “What else are they going to throw at us today?” I laughed, and she also admitted this was one special check ride. I asked the controller to vector us again for Tacoma, hoping we could complete our approaches there first and then go back to do the circle-to-land at Bremerton. Again, I started going through the flow—GPS flight plan updated, correct approach plates up and briefed.
In retrospect, I could tell that Mark didn’t prepare me for the check ride but, far better, prepared me to be a good instrument pilot in any environment or scenario.
Then, after exactly two minutes, the controller came back: “Hey, Cirrus 123ZM, Bremerton is open now. Do you want to continue to Tacoma or back to Bremerton?” Before I even turned my head to the DPE she asked me to go back to Bremerton. I let ATC know, and as they were vectoring us back, I went through my flow again—GPS FPL, Approach briefing. Did I mention that having a full QWERTY keyboard on the Cirrus is a blessing? This time we were able to finally complete the approach. I stayed above MDA, made a nice touch-and-go on the circle-to-land and went missed. From there, the rest of the check ride was event-free. I was finally able to complete the two approaches in Tacoma and returned to Renton VFR.
After landing and taxiing back, I started getting nervous. The DPE was sitting quietly next to me, not saying a thing.
I wondered to myself, “Did I bust an MDA? Fail to follow ATC instructions?” I wasn’t sure what to expect. “So?” I asked. “Did I pass?”
“Oh, yeah, that was a good flight!” she replied with a smile. We pushed the plane back to parking and walked to the FBO to debrief.
As we entered the room, the chief instructor gave me a puzzled look. I gave a big thumbs-up and followed the DPE to complete the check ride debrief. Apparently, the chief pilot had followed the flight track online and couldn’t figure out what was going on. Later, I gave them the rundown, and we had a good laugh.
Stop Training For Your Check Ride!
That check ride gave me more confidence in my IFR flying abilities than many of the actual training flights I had done in preparation for it. In retrospect, I could tell that Mark didn’t prepare me for the check ride but, far better, prepared me to be a good instrument pilot in any environment or scenario.
Mark honestly cared about every element of the training, from the plane to the flight plan. When we were in the air, in a very laid-back demeanor, he would keep me focused on the next two things, let me make my mistakes and point out those small things I would miss. Mark is a true craftsman and taught me the craft of flying IFR. And I almost missed it.
I was so focused on the check ride, working the hoped-for profile over and over in my head to make sure I’d get everything perfect, that somewhere along the way I missed the point that the idea wasn’t to train for the check ride but to be a confident, proficient instrument pilot.