| METAR (Weather Observed) :
Hourly observation on the 26th at 05:53PM, Wind from the Northeast (030) at 12 knots. Visibility 10 miles. A broken cloud layer at 6,000 feet. Temperature 26. Dewpoint 13. Altimeter 30.17.
The Instrument Checkride Experience
by Justin W. Moore
On April 26th, 2004 I completed almost a year of flight training by passing the practical test for the Instrument Rating. It was an amazing feeling when it sank in... that the long hours of studying and flying had paid off. The day was even sweeter because it represented a triumph over adversity. Adversity? Yes, adversity. Let me tell you my story...
A thick overcast layer of clouds greeted me the morning of April 12th, 2004. My wife and I were up bright and early at the Omni Hotel in downtown Corpus Christi, Texas where we had spent the weekend to do some birding and photography. I could feel the tension in the back of my mind. This wasn't just any day... I was scheduled to take my instrument check ride today around noon in San Antonio.
This hadn't been the plan when we left for Corpus a few days earlier. We were just south of Corpus Christi, taking some photos of birds near Indian Point Park when I got the call from my designated pilot examiner, Charles McDougal. Charlie advised me that his schedule had opened up and asked if Monday would work. Eager to get the check ride completed, I agreed.
...and thus the first link in a chain of bad judgement began. There I was...in Corpus Christi, Texas taking photos of birds with the sudden realization that I'd be tackling an oral and practical exam shortly after my arrival home in a couple of days. I shushed the little concerned voice in my head. After all, I was signed off and ready for the challenge.
By the time we arrived in San Antonio, it was about 10:00AM on April 12th. I had about 2.5 hours before I'd need to leave to meet Charlie for the check ride. I plugged in my laptop and hurriedly downloaded weather conditions for the cross-country flight to Midland, TX that I had been asked to prepare for. I tried to calm my nerves by perusing the POH for the Cessna 172S and thumbing through my trusty copy of the FAR/AIM.
Those 2.5 hours evaporated into thin air as I found myself driving to the airport. I stopped on the way to get some cash to pay Charlie and arrived about 5-10 minutes late. That bothered me. I am a founding member of the school of punctuality. What was my problem!!? Charlie was there and the wonderful folks at the International Flight Center provided a small room for us to conduct the oral exam. As I reached into my wallet to pay Charlie, I discovered that I had not withdrawn enough money and was shy about $25.00. What the...
Embarrassed, I promised to make up the difference (after convincing myself that there was an ATM machine down stairs... there wasn't...). I then got the bright idea of having the folks at IFC charge my account for $25.00 if they'd issue a check to Charlie. Once again, they were wonderful and came through for me. The underlying tension was growing stronger now. I'd showed up a little late, felt rushed from the Corpus trip and now was trying to recover the last vestiges of dignity after coming up short in cash for the examiner. I felt like I was swimming in an uneasy pool of bad karma and I didn't like it one bit...
After about an hour of questions and answers - more of a conversation than a "test", my confidence attempted a rally. I had successfully completed the oral portion of the practical test! I grabbed the keys to the airplane and headed downstairs to do my preflight. Out on the apron, I was greeted by a stiff wind. Cessna 614SP, my friend and ally, seemed to stare back at me with a timid expression as the fuselage bucked up and down in the wind. "This sucks..." I thought, "Nothing like a nice, gusty day to take your check ride." Winds at San Antonio International Airport were from the Northwest with gusts up to 22 knots.
Charlie joined me in the cockpit and it wasn't long before we were climbing on a northwesterly heading on our way to Kerrville for the VOR approach there. We climbed to 3,000 feet in clear skies. It was beautiful. It was also bumpy. Not your garden variety turbulence but some of the worst turbulence I'd experienced in my 200 hours of flying. I proceeded to become a sort of "sky surfer". I'd catch a thermal and watch as my altitude wound up. Down I'd pitch the nose and in a few cases I recall having the attitude indicator well below the horizon bar while still experiencing a gain in altitude. I was pleased with the fact that I'd managed to keep the altitude within +200/-200 feet of the assigned altitude. Enter large link of bad judgement. You see... the Practical Test Standards calls for +/- 100 feet of assigned altitude. I knew this but was obviously suffering from a turbulence induced form of dementia. I'm sure Martha and John King had reminded me of this at least a dozen times on their "Cleared For Approach" CD-ROM course. What a stupid mistake! Unfortunately, it would not be the last one...
Facing a stiff headwind, the flight to Kerrville took much longer than it should have. I had been tracking the Center Point VOR which would be used as the centerpiece of my approach to Kerrville - the VOR A approach. As I passed over the VOR, I entered a parallel holding pattern for the course reversal. Soon the approach course heading of 055 degrees was sliding into view and I captured the inbound course a few miles out. I did such a great job on the course intercept, however, that I let my altitude drop about 300-400 feet.
The cone of confusion followed, as we flew over the VOR. The course needle pegged the side of the OBS as we passed over the VOR and I waited for it to return with a FROM indication. The FROM indication arrived on schedule. But where was the needle? The needle remained glued to the side of the VOR. Moments passed as the cone of confusion started becoming a description of my state of mind, a numbing confusion that would wrestle and defeat what my trained mind knew was right. I grabbed the OBS and rotated it to the outbound course of 235. Nothing. I stared at the GPS which painted a beautiful, purple line straight to the airport. The airport was dead ahead.
I rotated the OBS back to 55 (where it should have stayed the whole time!) and continued to be bothered by the lack of course guidance. The GPS, however, tried to reassure me..."Look Boss... airport dead ahead... you're doing OK!". I descended. The links of bad judgement were now complete, and started to squeeze tightly. With almost perfect timing, Charlie reached forward and dimmed the GPS - this was, after all, a VOR approach! After arriving at the MDA and acknowledging the missed approach point based on timing from the FAF, I looked up to see the airport at my 12 o'clock. "Runway in sight" I said.
"You don't see the airport." Charlie said solemnly. I executed the missed approach. After establishing the missed approach, I heard some of the most disappointing words in my life..."Justin, I'm sorry, but I can't accept that approach." A heaviness set in. I felt like I was pulling 3 G's. It was the heavy weight of deep disappointment. It suffocated me. It was a caustic mix of anger, disappointment and embarrassment. I had failed and more than just the check ride. I had failed myself. I had failed my instructor. I had second guessed my knowledge of the approach. I had descended when I knew I shouldn't have. I had... acted unwisely.
On the way back to San Antonio, Charlie and I talked. It was a sobering discussion but an incredibly valuable one. He was not a happy camper himself. He knew I could do better. We talked about the flight and he provided some powerful insight. Devastated but not wanting to accept total defeat I advised Charlie that I wanted to complete the precision approach - the ILS - at San Antonio. I nailed my assigned altitude on the way back. To hell if I was going to let that needle slip outside of tolerances. In the depths of my despair, I executed the ILS runway 30L approach with a decent crosswind landing against wind gusts of 20-25 knots.
A week or so later, I was back in the air with my instructor... hell bent to fly right back to Kerrville to do the approach there. I nailed it. I circled for a low approach. I partial paneled at Castroville and returned to San Antonio. My instructor said, "Let me call Charlie so he can mail you your ticket!" - ah...if only it worked that way! A few weeks passed. My wonderful wife somehow managed to survive coexistence with a moody, depressed being that was trying to climb out of the quicksand of disappointment.
So it was that on April 26th, I was a man on a mission. A pilot seeking revenge. Revenge against his own self. After completing both non-precision approaches, unusual attitudes and steep turns Charlie advised me that I had earned the Instrument Rating. The weight was lifted. On the way back to San Antonio we chatted and enjoyed beautiful VFR flight in the last rays of sunlight as dusk approached. I realized that a whole new world of experience awaited my discovery. The challenging world of single pilot IFR. And thus, through failure, I achieved success. It was a painful journey, but one that I am convinced has made me a safer, more confident pilot.