Instrument Rating Training: Learning to Fly All Over Again!

One of my 2020 New Years Resolutions was to finally stop talking about how I wanted to get an instrument rating and to actually go and get it done. With the COVID-19 pandemic injecting chaos across the world, cancelling all of my work trips and with me working from home, this seemed like the ideal time to make this happen. My plane came out of annual in April, I flew for a couple of months, and decided to make good on my journey.

A little background: I had actually started training for the instrument rating about five years prior, going so far as to take the written exam and to start taking some lessons. My head was unfortunately not in the game as much as it should have been, and I was not in a position to fly as often as the instrument rating training regiment really demands. The adage of “fly as often as you can” rings true. So, I let my training lapse and pretty much had to start from the beginning once more.

The Written Exam

The IRA (Instrument Rating – Airplane) written exam is known for being pretty challenging. I got a 93% thanks to Sporty’s, Sheppard Air, and being heads-down for a week and a half.

Before starting to train in earnest, I decided to focus all my efforts on passing the written exam first and foremost. There is a two year timer for passing your checkride that begins once you pass the written exam; whether real or perceived, this timer gives me a sense of urgency to take my flying seriously and to focus.

After researching various home study course options for the written, I purchased the Sporty’s Instrument Rating course. There are other perfectly fine options out there, including the ever-present King courses, free options on Youtube, and some others, but I picked Sporty’s for two reasons:

  1. The material seems up to date and well presented. The presentation itself is professional and accessible.
  2. Sporty’s makes their content easily accessible and synced across multiple devices. While my PC is usually my primary method of studying, I have a Roku and there is a Sporty’s channel that you can add. I found myself using the Roku channel for learning almost exclusively after a couple of hours, and then I would use the smartphone app to take post-lesson quizzes.

After finishing the Sportys course, I used Sheppard Air for test prep. I would say that I was prepared to pass the written after finishing the Sporty’s course but Sheppard Air helped me identify the gaps that I had. I started studying with Sporty’s on May 28th, purchased Sheppard Air on June 1, and passed my written with a 93 on June 9. Twelve days from zero to hero wasn’t a bad turnaround, I’d say!

The topics that I found myself having the most difficulty prior to the test were related to hold entries and “which airplane are you based on this HSI readout”. For the HSI questions, I found this blog article particularly useful, and for hold entries I used a hold entry circular calculator to help visualize everything.

A holding pattern entry calculator like this one can really help visualize entries and will help you score a few extra points on the written.

I don’t know the exact questions I got wrong, but the FAA tells you the knowledge topic codes of the questions that you got wrong, which you can then cross reference with the Airman Certification Standards. In my case, I had five incorrect answers. They were on the topics of:

  • temperature (IR.I.B.K3c)
  • personal weather minimums (IR.I.B.R1b)
  • IFR airworthiness, to include airplane inspection requirements and required equipment for IFR flight (IR.II.C.K2)
  • Determine airplane position relative to the navigational facility or waypoint (IR.V.A.S2) (I’m assuming this was one of those HSI questions!)
  • Procedures and limitations associated with a precision approach, including determining required descent rates and adjusting minimums in the case of inoperative equipment (IR.VI.B.K1)

Prior to receiving an endorsement to take the practical exam (checkride), the CFII will ensure that any missed FAA knowledge test questions are remediated (ie, they’ll ensure that those topics you missed are gone over).

After the pass, I let my instructor know I was ready to begin in earnest and we agreed to start flying as often as our schedules would allow. Time to get out of the books and into the cockpit…

Day 1 of Instrument Flight Training: Basic Attitude Flying: Ground Lesson

Lesson 1 was on the 13th of June. We had a brief ground lesson before flying where Doug emphasized that the number one issue that pilots run into in IFR flying is having a weak instrument scan. This can manifest in a variety of ways, including fixation on things like the airspeed indicator or turn coordinator, or just not switching your focus between instruments often enough. Another problem that occurs is incorrectly interpreting what the instruments are telling you. The attitude indicator is the only instantaneous source of information that we have that tells us what the plane is doing; chasing the altimeter or directional gyro and fixating on them is how we find ourselves deviating from our assigned altitude or finding ourselves overshooting our course. The result of “chasing the needles” is a course or altitude track that oscillates from where we want to be. Another big problem that instrument pilots run into is a loss of situational awareness. Now with modern avionics (which I am lucky enough to have in the form of a GTN 750) and with EFBs, instrument pilots have more access to information than available ever before, and they should be used during your instrument scan.

The golden rule, as Doug put it, is always know your heading. We will be making liberal use of the heading bug, and any time you are assigned a heading, we will be bugging it.

If a deviation does occur, we don’t want to over-correct; this is how an unstable situation arises and how those oscillations that we spoke of manifest. What we do instead is correct to neutral; that is, get back onto the course or stop the climb/descent, and then apply correction as necessary. This also applies to wind correction, as we were about to find out during our flight.

Finally, Doug said that boiled down, instrument flying is not just about maintaining control of the aircraft via a rock-solid instrument scan and maintaining situational awareness, but it is doing those things successfully during transition points. Takeoff transitions to the en-route phase, en-route transitions to the terminal phase, and the terminal phase transitions to landing. Each of these points is a “hot spot” for pilots, and being able to tackle these transitions is key to safe IFR flying.

With our ground lesson out of the way, we went to the plane for our flight!

Day 1 of Instrument Flight Training: Basic Attitude Flying: Flight Lesson

The conditions at North Central State Airport were winds flitting between variable and out of the north at around six to nine knots, scattered clouds at 6000 feet. There existed a cold front off the coast that was moving away to the south, and visibility was excellent. After starting the engine, we programmed the GTN750 to have a flight plan from KSFZ, the PUT VOR, the ORW VOR, the SEY VOR, and then back to KSFZ. We also explored the screen setup of the GTN750; I am constantly amazed at how much information that this unit can display, and how versatile it is. We set up the screen to have a variety of IFR related functions on it, including ground speed, time to next waypoint, and a few other things.

We took off from runway 33 at North Central, the shorter of the two runways at 3200 feet, but more than sufficient for the Archer II. Shortly after reaching 1400 feet, Doug had me put on the foggles and we began. We worked on my scan and setting appropriate power settings for different phases of flight (2300-2400 RPM for cruise, 2000 for cruise descent), and we worked on different maneuvers, including standard rate and half-standard rate turns (more than 30 degrees of directional change? Standard rate. Less than 30? Half standard.), leveling off from climbs, and so on. This all involves a rock-solid instrument scan, and I found myself focusing mostly on the attitude indicator. Despite us encountering light chop the entire flight, I found myself able to maintain a reasonably precise heading and altitude at all times, even after “transitions”. Certainly not checkride ready, of course, but there does seem to be some truth to all of this “trust the instruments” stuff 🙂

A beautiful day out… and I couldn’t look outside! Pic taken by CFII near Block Island

Other things of note on this flight: the vacuum-driven directional gyro has a tendency to drift. You must set the DG every fifteen minutes or so to ensure you’re on the correct path, and this requires you to be in straight-and-level, unaccelerated flight to check against the magnetic compass. Other thing of note: when in approach, you should be configured for landing well ahead of time. By the time that we were approaching KSFZ and Doug had me take the foggles off, I was pretty fatigued from the constant instrument scan (which did degrade after a while, something that I was warned would happen), and found myself diving at the runway because I delayed putting in flaps and taking power out. Staying ahead of the airplane is critical!

We landed and wrapped up for the day with 1.4 hours logged, 1.3 simulated instrument. All in all, it was a successful end to our flight and we scheduled the next lesson in a few days time.

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