Instrument Checkride Done!

After months of training, practice, and several missteps and delays, I was finally able to successfully complete my instrument checkride!

There are a lot of things that having your own plane and being a pilot affords, or so you would think. Although you may have the ability to go anywhere you desire, and you might have the time to go, there are many factors that may have you cancelling or changing your plans. The most uncontrollable and unpredictable of these factors is the weather. As a private pilot, you can go as far as you want and you can fly as high as your aircraft will take you, but the weather must provide you with a minimum amount of visibility and you must always remain clear of the clouds. This may sound simple, but more often than not, unless you just get lucky enough to have a stretch of beautiful weather that fits perfectly into your schedule, you will experience delays in your plans, or may even have to scratch the trip altogether. It makes it quite difficult to schedule a trip and make plans in advance.

That’s where the instrument rating comes in. An instrument rating is an aviation certification enabling pilots to fly, rather than be grounded during periods of cloudy weather and lower visibility. In other words, rather than relying on your eyes to see outside the airplane, you must train your brain to unconditionally rely on the instrumentation in the airplane to give you indications of what the aircraft is doing. Sounds easy, doesn’t it? It’s much harder than it may seem. When you fly into a cloud and lose the ability to see the ground or the distant horizon, it becomes increasingly difficult to determine if the aircraft is climbing, descending, or turning.

Total IMC

Although I had started my instrument training quite a few years ago, I hadn’t done any work towards the certification in quite a while, so when I purchased this airplane, I was determined to resume my training and get it done. After countless hours of flying with my instructor under a sight-restricting hood and shooting many instrument approaches, I was finally ready to take the checkride. Or so I thought…

I originally was scheduled to take the checkride in October, and after being delayed for 3 days due to inclement weather, I met with the designated examiner and began the oral portion of the exam. After a few hours, we were ready to move to the practical portion of the exam and we boarded the aircraft. This is where the missteps come in… it didn’t go as well as I had hoped. Without going into all of the gory details, let’s just say that I was going to need to return to retake the practical portion of the exam. When flying on instruments, where you can’t visually see outside of the airplane and you are flying at lower altitudes, things happen very quickly. So quickly in fact, that mistakes tend to compound on top of each other, potentially leading to a disastrous outcome. I will never forget what my DPE told me as the exam ended abruptly. “I know that you hate me right now, and I can see that you are beating yourself up pretty hard over it, but this is going to make you a better pilot. You’ll get it done.”

What’s it like? Imagine getting in your car, wrapping all of your windows with thick bubble wrap, using your GPS for directions, and talking to someone on the phone that is attempting to give you navigation help. Now, program your GPS with your destination and start to drive there without looking outside, making sure that you don’t hit any obstacles and while keeping clear of other vehicles. Oh yeah, do all of this at 120 mph. Now, when you arrive at your destination, you also must parallel park between some very expensive cars. Needless to say, it’s a challenge.

Fast forward from October to March. I had taken my misstep pretty hard, and after emotionally beating myself up for a while, I set my sights on fixing what went wrong. I spent the next 6 months repeatedly practicing everything over and over again. I worked with several instructors to make sure that I would not make the same mistakes on my next attempt, and now, after a few weeks of scheduling conflicts and work getting in the way, it was time to right my wrongs. I was more determined than ever to get this done.

Since so much time had passed since my first attempt, I was not able to treat this as a “continuation” of the original ride, and I was going to have to sit through another oral and practical exam. I was far less concerned about the oral portion of the exam, since I felt pretty confident on my knowledge of the subjects that I needed to know. After the oral exam, we once again moved back out to the airplane to begin the practical portion of the exam. Although I was nervous, at least this time, I had an idea of what to expect and for some odd reason, that helped calm my nerves. “Just fly the plane like you normally would and put everything else out of your mind.” After departing the airport, flying 3 different instrument approaches, and a few holding patterns, it was over. We landed and started to taxi back to the FBO. For anyone that has taken a checkride, you know that is the longest taxi ever. Nothing is being said, and the examiner is taking notes about your performance. It’s dead quiet. Only after parking the airplane and shutting down the engine do you hear the results. “How does it feel to be an instrument rated pilot?”, he said. Woohoo! It was finally done and over with.

The Handshake

After taking a few minutes to regain my composure, ingest a little caffeine, and pay my bill, it was time to start planning for the trip home. While doing my preflight planning and looking at the weather, I started to realize just how important this checkride was to me. Although the weather was not terrible outside, I was going to be passing an area where a front was passing through, causing some lower cloud layers that I would most likely need to pass through as well as some light train showers. For the first time ever, I didn’t have to plan my flight path to avoid the weather, since I could now fly through clouds on an IFR flight plan and none of the weather was considered severe. I took on fuel to refill my tanks, filed my first ever instrument flight plan as an instrument rated pilot, and set on my way for the 2.5 hour flight home.


The first part of the flight was relatively typical. I could see the weather in the distance out of my left window, but again, nothing that looked concerning. After about an hour into the trip, I got rerouting instructions that would change my course a little in order to route me through the busy traffic corridor on the north side of Atlanta. As I reprogrammed my GPS onboard, I could see that the new course would take me directly into my first experience with complete IMC conditions. I wasn’t concerned about entering the cloud bank; this was what I had been training for, after all. It was a strange sensation to be doing something that I had been avoiding for so long, since I had not been certified to do it.

It’s hard to describe the feeling of flying into a cloud. Suddenly, you lose all visibility with the ground and sky and your primary focus must shift into the cockpit to closely monitor the aircraft instruments. The entire time, moisture is accumulating on the windscreen, as well as the leading edges of the wings and the wing struts. And then there is the “howl.” Some of my friends think I am crazy when I talk about the howl, but when my airplane enters a cloud, an eerie howl emits from the air vents. I can only assume that it’s because of the difference in the density and the humidity of the air as it passes over the small air intake ducts on the wings of the airplane. Either way, it’s quite noticeable while in the clouds.

Total IMC

Just as I was getting close to the Atlanta airspace, I was given instructions to descend to a lower altitude, and before long, broke free from the clouds and once again could see around me. The further west I went, the more the weather improved, and by the time I was at my destination airport, the weather had cleared up and I was able to shoot a normal approach to land.

It was a great day and after getting home, I was able to truly reflect and understand what that DPE had told me just 6 months before. Because of my mistakes, I had become a better pilot. I was able to take that experience, no matter how difficult it was to go through at the time and learn from it. There is a saying in aviation that a pilot’s license is nothing more than a license to learn, and a good pilot is always learning!