EASA Instrument Rating – Practical Training at Gloucester

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A full Instrument Rating allows pilots to fly in cloud (Instrument Conditions) anywhere worldwide, fly instrument approaches to minima and fly in Airways with an IFR flight plan. There is also the useful IMC rating (now IR(R)), a unique UK rating which allows flight in IMC but not outside the UK and excludes Class A and airways. Although an IR(R) holder, now that I had access to an aircraft capable of European touring (the TB20), I had a long term goal to attain a full IR. Having logged just 300 hours in 4 years, I don’t claim to be either very experienced or particularly proficient – probably better at the theory than the practical skills.

Only at most 20-30 private pilots have gained this rating annually in the UK in recent years because of the very high cost in both time and money. The course content isn’t comprehensive or particularly relevant to private IFR. This contrasts sharply with the US where as many as 26% of private pilots held an active IR at end 2013. There are quite a few US registered aircraft flown by several thousand European private pilots using US PPL/IR pilot licences, simply because the cost and regulatory complexity are so much lower.

This PPL/IR article from 2011 ponders if the scope and content of the IR skill test and syllabus should be radically revised. From my limited knowledge, there does seem to be merit in many of these points.

Competency Based Instrument Rating (CB-IR)

This is about to change with the introduction of the CB-IR (Competency Based Instrument Rating), which allows the practical training course to be reduced to take account of a pilot’s existing experience and capability. The same IR skills test is used and the same privileges are awarded. The theory syllabus has also been reduced, slimmed down by removing irrelevant and/or outdated aspects.

With this in mind, I had studied for and passed all 7 of the IR Theory exams last year (April 2013). I now had three years (until April 2016) to complete the practical training and pass the skill test, or these passes would become worthless. There was no real hurry, but I had hoped that the CB-IR would become available early in 2014 and I could start. With access to the TB20, I had been making more practice instrument approaches and flying more in IMC. I spoke with a couple of other PPL pilots who had recently completed the full IR and warned me that it could easily take 40-50 hours to get up to the current IR Skill Test standard – it’s a very demanding and comprehensive test.

Although the EU Parliament formally approved the new regulations on 2nd April 2014, it will still take some time for training organisations to submit courses for CAA approval and have them reviewed and approved before the first courses start. Given that it took 12 months for the first LAPL course to be approved, I estimate that it could easily be the latter half of 2014 before an approved CB-IR practical course becomes available.

Another factor includes the possibility that several hundreds (or possibly more than a thousand) FAA IR pilots may need to convert to EASA IR by April 2015, putting immense pressure on the system to provide adequate training and skill tests. Starting the training at the onset of winter didn’t seem to be a great idea to me either.

The legal situation and options available are described clearly in this document from PPL/IR.

An opportunity to train for EASA PPL/IR through Rate One Aviation

I’d been in contact with Jim Thorpe, ex-PPL/IR Chairman and a leading instigator in creating the CB-IR regulations. He had trained my co-owner Rich to IR standard the previous year through a Bournemouth ATO (Approved Training Organisation). He had setup a PPL/IR flight training company in Gloucester (Rate One Aviation) and this organisation had received formal ATO  approval from the CAA late in 2013. He had also invested in a Redbird flight simulator. This is classed as an FNPT II (Flight Navigation Procedure Trainer type 2), so that up to 35 hours of time spent in it counts towards the total 50 required training flight hours.

While working towards providing CB-IR training, his company is refining and adapting the traditional training methods originally developed for commercial airlines to better suit the needs of private pilots. This includes challenging some of the long held practices used when training and testing for instrument flight. Some of the rules have already been relaxed, perhaps more than some people realise, but there is still a long way to go.

One example is that Rich had to make all his training flights from Bournemouth because that’s what the flight training organisation’s operations manual stated. The cost of updating the Bournemouth ATO’s manual to add approval to fly from Gloucester would have been significant and time consuming. Flying to France (where airports are much less busy and there are plenty of low cost instrument approaches available) also wasn’t feasible. By contrast, any CFII (Certified Flight Instrument Instructor) in the USA can conduct training from any airport in the country or abroad. Some IR training courses there involve doing just that – making an intensive cross country tour for a week or two to give huge variety of real world situations they might encounter. By contrast, most UK IR trainees will only ever have flown to two or three airports and rarely fly more than 100 miles from base.

An attractive package

At this stage, I was offered the opportunity to receive the full IR training package as one of the company’s first candidates. This would be mainly in the simulator with about 15 hours flying in a real aircraft. Jim had acquired a TB20 and was refitting this out with a mix of steam (round dial) and glass (Aspen display) avionics.

This was very attractive to me for many reasons:

  • It was based at Gloucester, my home base
  • It used a very good simulator, and also meant instruction could continue regardless of bad weather
  • Flights would be on the same model of aircraft that I normally fly
  • The course content would be more oriented towards a private pilot
  • Instruction would be from a very experienced private IR pilot with lots of real-world single pilot IFR flight experience. This emphasised the most crucial factors while also including those additionally necessary to pass the skills test
  • Dates for training could be agreed in advance to suit my/Jim’s schedule and include some weekends, rather than a continuous 6 week Mon-Fri block as found in most commercial flight schools
  • I wouldn’t be just another client in a sausage factory but a part of refining a course which could be adopted by others and may even help simplify/clarify some of the regulations. I was confident that Jim would tailor the course to my needs and give me the best chance of passing on the day.
  • As a bonus, I could also expect a formal sign-off for glass cockpit differences

The trade-off would be that as one of the first trainees, the training methods and course were under refinement and there might be a few glitches. The aircraft was also not yet airworthy but was expected to be available by the time I needed it.

Simulator training started in January, with airborne instruction scheduled for March with a view to completion during April. This worked around my own schedule as much as that of availability of the newly refitted training aircraft. The simulator was easiest to schedule and wasn’t affected by weather or technical faults. Fewer, concentrated blocks of time are more efficient. We scheduled several blocks of 4-5 days including some weekends, spaced by 3-4 week gaps.

Redbird Simulator

After the usual preliminaries, where I had to read the operations manual, be told where the fire exits were etc., the course scope was laid out. At that time, this requires a total of 50 hours logged dual instruction (there is no solo flying) – more recent regulations reduce that to as little as 10 although I think candidates should expect to need (much) more. Time on the simulator counts from block to block, which is very efficient – almost all time sitting in it is useful. A recent rule change means that only airborne flight time counts for the real aircraft training – typically cutting up to 30 minutes off the engine start to stop times.

The rules allow up to 35 hours in the sim with the balance being flown. In typical ATO training, the relatively high cost of sim time encourages some private pilots to fly all of the course in their own aircraft, because the marginal cost per hour (fuel, hours related maintenance) is lower. I found the value of time spent in the sim extremely useful and would recommend at least half the course is spent in it. This means that when you do finally get out on to the aircraft, you already have the routines, checklists, procedures, and radio patter all sorted out in advance. But I was advised that once you’ve moved onto the airborne part of the course, it’s not a good idea to switch back to the simulator except to focus on very specific problem issues.

Redbird Sim
Rate One Aviation’s Redbird Simulator FNPT2

The Redbird simulator is very popular in the US but there are only a handful in Europe. This is the first one to be installed and approved in the UK. It’s also designed to be used to teach VFR to PPL students, not just for IR, and priced to be accessible to PPL flying schools and clubs. One of the major costs is CAA approval which can easily stretch into 5 figures. The regulations treat this as if it were a large airliner-type full motion simulator. You would have thought that installing a duplicate unit should not incur the full approval work and fees, and I hope that may become the case in the future.

The simulator has a motion feature but this is optional. Most of the sim sessions were made without this switched on. A large red button stops motion in case of any problems. It is very realistic, with six screens spread out in front and to the side giving a panoramic view. The screen refresh update rate isn’t always sparkling, but much of the time you are looking at cloud, so I didn’t find this a problem. The instruments always appeared to realistically reflect current status and respond immediately to control inputs.

The simulator has glass screens consisting of G1000 PFD and MFD with “steam gauges” for airspeed indicator, attitude indicator and altimeter. There is a row of toggle switches, rocker switches for battery/alternator and avionics master, and a row of circuit breakers (which do pop out prior to start sometimes). A push/pull knob handles the parking brake and a rotary mag switch completes the lineup.

The yoke can need quite a firm push or pull and the trim wheel adds a very realistic load to balance that out as required.

Navaids included ADF, VOR and GPS. There are two columns of buttons used to turn on/off the audio, simulating the morse code ident. The mantra of select, identify, display (SID) was driven home hard – with checking prior to use. This despite the G1000 automatically doing that for you and displaying the code on the screen. I agree this is important for the ADF, which has no failure mode, although (unlike steam guages) the needle disappears from view (i.e. not shown on the HSI anymore) if the signal is out of range. This happened very realistically at about 22 miles from the airport.

Simulator Sessions

Simulator sessions were briefed beforehand. We made several flights to Cardiff, Coventry etc. with Jim pretending to be ATC. I just spoke the radio calls and responded to ATC directions. The radios and navaids have to be tuned and switched across at the right times. Jim also announced the ATIS recording when required.

We logged anything from about 2 hours to 4h30 on any given day across 2-3 sessions in the sim, depending on the depth of briefings and time available. The NDB Hold technique was discussed at length – there are quite a few different methods used by instructors – and a procedure clearly explained to me. IR candidates in most other countries don’t have to do any NDB holds, but this is a major part of the UK skill test. I do wonder if many PPL/IR pilots would ever have to perform one in real life, but this has become a major criteria to demonstrate flying skill. You are not allowed to use the GPS in OBS mode as you would if this was done for real. In recent years, it has been said that the tolerances have been relaxed a little, but it is still a difficult manoeuvre to perfect.

One extra bonus that I hadn’t expected was that the headwind/crosswind was shown on the screen. Apparently this is allowed during the test and makes the calculation of wind drift/compensation angle a little easier. We could practice holds by continuing to fly around them without stopping, but it was also possible to be repositioned for subsequent attempts – particularly useful when practicing hold entries. Pausing the simulation with 60 degrees of the final turn onto inbound was useful – we could both look at where the ADF needle was compared to the final inbound course – and discuss what to do about any discrepancy. They should both be aligned at that point because the 7 degree ADF dip error (caused by the aircraft being banked in the turn) matches the closure angle.

Realistic views

One other factor of using the simulator is that no artificial view limiting devices such as foggles or screens are required. The view outside the cockpit is very realistic, and after takeoff quickly becomes a murky cloudy sky. Sometimes you can see the glow of the sun moving across the screen as you turn. Occasionally you pop out on top of a cloud layer. Most of the time you don’t have the capacity to look because you are concentrating on the instruments. In that sense, it gives a good idea of how you can be distracted.

Another very good learning point from the simulator that wouldn’t be so easy to demonstrate in a real aircraft involves the views as you descend on final approach in bad visibility. In one scenario, you can clearly see the runway ahead at about 1000 feet, then it disappears again in cloud and reappears just above minima. Another good example is a circle to land from 400 feet, leaving little time for quite major VFR course adjustments and aircraft reconfiguration.

Flying the ILS approach, the needles become much more sensitive as you get closer to the runway threshold. At that point, only very minor movements are needed to keep on track and it was easy to get out of alignment. Working to lower minima is much more difficult than (say) 1000 feet or more because:

a) You need to make much more sensitive course adjustments closer to the ground because the instrument needles increase in sensitivity nearer to the ground
b) The time left to reconfigure for landing after becoming visual is much shorter
c) You can be proportionately much further off the runway centre line and need greater VFR flight changes if you get (a) wrong
d) You are much closer to the ground and objects which you could hit. Go-arounds need to be executed cleanly and quickly

We did try to do some partial panel work on the sim, but it’s too realistic! It has a “steam gauge” Artificial Horizon and Altimeter rather than a turn co-ordinator. If there was a failure, both flatscreens have their own battery backup, either can be used as a Primary Flight Display. If that fails you still have the “steam gauge” AI. This reflects what is found in many IFR SEP aircraft today. However the test requires demonstration of flight using only the turn co-ordinator, airspeed indicator, altimeter and compass, so we’ll have to train for that in the air. If you want to take the test in a modern aircraft that only has a standby AI rather than turn co-ordinator then you have to prove you’ve done that bit a simulator – clearly the Redbird couldn’t be used for that reason.

Time spent on the sim is logged in a special section of your logbook and doesn’t count towards total hours flown.

Airborne Training

The aircraft wasn’t quite ready to use for the training flights planned on our schedule, so we flew a few hours in G-CORB (my TB20 share-o-plane). My first proper flight was really depressing – very poor height keeping and general handling. It had been a while since I’d flown (only one TB20 flight in two months), I was too hot and became a little nauseous with the recovery from unusual attitudes. It must have given Jim food for thought about how on earth he was going to get me up to test standard. Easterlies meant we couldn’t fly the ILS at Gloucester either, but we tried a couple of NDB approaches and some general tracking.

Soon, the school aircraft was pronounced ready for service and Jim flew me on a short familiarisation flight.

G-VPPL Socato TB20 training aircraft
G-VPPL Socato TB20 training aircraft
G-VPPL Instrumentation
G-VPPL P1 side with GTN650, G430, Aspen Evolution
G-VPPL P2 side
G-VPPL P2 side

Jim had put enormous effort into designing and upgrading the avionics of his TB20 to make it suitable for IR training. An Aspen Evolution 1000 fits into two of the traditional round dial slots, but provides a huge amount of data – replacing the AI and DI with a full AI and HSI. This is driven from a Garmin GTN650. A separate Garmin 430 drives a more traditional HSI instrument, with separate turn co-ordinator, airspeed indicator and VOR completing the P1 line up. On the P2 side there is a comprehensive engine monitor display, fuel meter, VSI and transponder.

Aspen Evolution
Aspen Evolution PFD

It took at least one flight just to get used to the new instrument panel layout. It’s sufficiently different to the G1000 in the sim to need re-familiarisation. The checklist and procedures were refined and revised. After a few flights, I was starting to get the hang of it. Initially I made quite a few mistakes – busting minima (going below minimum heights on short final and during step down stages), not descending promptly enough, failing to acquire the localiser/inbound track, poor radio technique…. let’s just say it was quite a long list. I have to say that both Jim and Mark were very patient with me and I always felt safe under their tutilage. There was certainly more than one point where I really did wonder if I was capable of achieving the required standard.

Towards the end of the course, we focussed more on the likely test route itself and flew this profile several times. This included filing a real IFR flight plan and flying airways for a short time. Cardiff was a common destination, providing both radar vectored and procedural ILS. Once we were asked to maintain best speed, and it certainly felt that things were happening very quickly – I got overloaded and only just managed to pull up and keep on track at the decision altitude. I also found myself far too high on an NDB/DME approach with a strong tailwind at Gloucester, leading to an awkward and ungainly low level circuit to land.

I learnt that technically it’s OK to go below minima on an ILS go around (as long as you have already taken action to start climbing before that point) whereas there is zero tolerance for going below minima on a non-precision approach. Many candidates fail to maintain the track after a missed approach or don’t raise the nose when making a go-around, so its important to keep flying in the right direction as well as positively climbing away. [Interesting point – did you realise the clearance used when designing ILS approaches can be as little as 97 feet according to PANS OPS]

The time in the sim had helped tremendously with my holding technique, and we didn’t have to spend too much time revising/refining those. However the ADF in the aircraft didn’t perform quite the same, showing slightly different dip error characteristics.

Various commitments led to a break of about 5 weeks before a final push with 3 flights spread over a week to become test ready. We flew a typical test profile once on each of those days with an extensive debrief, picking up on refining the RT calls, regular checks and approach procedure. My test was applied for through the CAA and an examiner allocated and date set. Unlike other countries, you can’t just contact any authorised examiner directly in the UK – the CAA has to ensure it’s taken its hefty fee first.

Initial IR Skill Test

It was a good day for the test with relatively calm winds and fairly clear skies. Light or variable winds mean you can’t be sure of which runway will be in use, but should make holds and tracking easier. I was at the airport in good time, having prepared the aircraft and documents thoroughly the previous day. The A-check included setting the transponder code to EXMnnn, where nnn is the examiner number – another UK anachronism. You can even lookup the names of all the approved examiners and their assigned codes in the Flight Examiner’s Handbook. The use of the call-sign indicates an exam is in progress and may lead to some priority from ATC and other traffic.

The structure and content of an IR skill test is documented in UK CAA Standards Document Number 1.

I believe the outcome of the exam ranges on a scale something like:

  • Absolutely Amazing: Skygod (first time pass with commendation). If such people exist, they probably wear their underpants outside their trousers 😉
  • Pass
  • Pass with reprimand/wrap on the knuckles
  • Partial Pass, where you retake a section of the test. This can include recommended or mandatory training before retest.
  • Partial Pass with reprimand/wrap on the knuckles. Ditto training
  • Fail. Usually some mandatory retraining before retest.
  • Somewhat dangerous: Fail (with your IMC rating privileges withdrawn, limited to VFR only)
  • Downright dangerous: Fail (with your licence suspended pending further training and re-examination)

Recent figures from the UK CAA indicate roughly 60% pass, 30% partial pass and 10% fail. A partial pass means you retake the departure and just the section of the test you failed. If you fail either of those again you have to retake the entire skill test.

The examiner put me at my ease from the outset but was quite clear in his briefing of what needed to be done. He looked through all the relevant documentation (photo ID, licence, medical, aircraft docs) and discussed the W&B, takeoff/landing performance and PLOG. His brief was thorough and covered most of the points I had wanted to ask. I was offered the choice of the RNAV or NDB/DME approach at Gloucester for the non-precision approach element of the exam. I chose the NDB/DME because that’s what I’d been training on. If I’d known for sure that the RNAV option would be available, I would have preferred to train more thoroughly for it because that’s what I’d actually use for real. I don’t imagine doing a native NDB/DME approach by choice apart from IR test/training/revalidation purposes, but it’s always possible.

The test profile consists of an IFR departure from Gloucester (on an IFR flight plan), climbing and joining the airway at BADIM at FL80, routing ALVIN, ERNOK then direct to CDF. A radar vectored ILS with missed approach followed by general handling with a series of recoveries from stalls and unusual attitudes with full and partial panel, plus some timed turns under partial panel. On return to Gloucester, we would take up the hold and after at least one good/full hold in addition to the hold entry, fly the NDB/DME procedure to land. Airborne time would be around 1:30.

It was permitted to navigate using GPS after departure towards the airway, but you need to track the airway with two VORs. I could use the autopilot when settled in the cruise in the airway.

Most significantly, I was allowed to wear a hood rather than using the cockpit screens commonly used in UK flight training schools. I only know of one other person to take the UK IR Initial Skill Test with a hood rather than using screens (another Rate One student). This requirement was relaxed only last year, and commercial pilot flight schools don’t appear to have changed their methods but on the day it was a complete non event. In fact, none of my training involved screens at any time.

My biggest error on the test was not dealing properly with the radar vectored ILS at Cardiff. The controller had routed me with a relatively short track and I had too little time to descend from FL80. He asked me (twice I think) if I had enough distance and I stupidly said yes, leading to a rapid descent which wasn’t complete by the time I was intercepting the localiser. This meant I never really got into a stable approach and lost the glidepath well before minima. If only I had asked for extra track miles, dropped the gear early to help the descent or possibly even binned the approach at an early stage and asked for re-vectoring. As the examiner pointed out in the debrief, pilots need to manage the situation and not just accept what ATC gives them.

Let’s just say this wasn’t my only error during the flight 😉

As we taxied back to parking, the examiner confirmed this wouldn’t be a pass but after some thought did award me a partial pass (with reprimand). He recommended (but did not mandate) one hour of further training on the ILS. A retest would require a departure (so include all the taxi checks etc.) and the ILS at Gloucester, which could be procedural, radar vectored or even self-positioned. The stakes were high – if you fail a retest, then you have to do the full test again – but my instructor suggested that I would find the retest less stressful than the initial one.

IR Skills Test, Take #2

It’s best to take the retest as soon as possible after the first, certainly within a week. It’s not allowed to do it the same day, but could be as soon as the next one.

After a bit of nimble footwork, it was scheduled for 3 days later, with one training flight beforehand. Jim let me practice 3 ILS approaches at Cardiff and one at Gloucester, together with a short bit of stall recovery practice in between to fill the transit time.

I felt much more pressured for the resit than I had first time around, and arrived tired and somewhat stressed for what should be a fairly straightforward exercise. The wind was south east, as forecast, ruling out the option of the ILS at Gloucester. I had booked a slot at Cardiff in anticipation from the weather forecast. The paperwork and briefing were easier than the first time, with the only difficulty being to ensure the CAA got paid their fee in advance. It would be useful if they could add this to their online form/payment system. After departure, we flew VFR and I put the hood on before we entered controlled airspace. With no other traffic around, Cardiff vectored me directly onto the ILS at 2500 feet, and it was pretty tight to intercept the localiser before the glideslope cut in. I later realised that I could and should have asked for a further descent on base leg – the plate shows the glide slope intercept normally at 2000 feet – but the idea didn’t occur to me.

Once stabilised on the approach, the practice from the previous day allowed me to fly down to minima and go around, maintaining track and climbing. At about 2,000 feet, the examiner told me “that’s good enough for a pass” and took control to fly us back to Gloucester. I think he quite enjoyed the chance to fly a TB20 on someone else’s dime, while I was more than happy to avoid any risk of embarrassing myself on the flight back or landing.

After what seemed like several hours of paperwork later (you wouldn’t believe how detailed the application form for an IR rating is), we were done. As a bonus, my IR(R) rating was revalidated for a further 25 months (only relevant if I don’t revalidate my IR within the next 12) and Jim signed off EFIS differences training valid for glass cockpits such as the G1000. The IR rating can’t be used until it’s formally added to my licence by those nice people at the CAA in Gatwick.

Some learning points

I’m sure there are many small points I picked up during my training. Here are a few off the top of my head:

  • The major legal limiting factor before commencing an instrument approach as a Single Pilot isn’t the cloudbase (although you can’t land if you don’t see the runway by minimum height). It’s that the RVR (Runway Visual Range) must be at least 800 metres when you descend through 1000 feet above the threshold, unless a higher figure is stated on the approach plate. The RVR could be less than that both before or after, and you can continue the approach. A below limits cloudbase or above limit crosswind doesn’t stop you making an attempt (although you might be considered reckless for doing so). An even lower RVR is possible if you have an autopilot coupled to an ILS, in which case you can use the legal minima on the plate (subject to some other parameters of the autopilot, approach lighting, day/night etc.). If this interests you, there is an extensive article in Instrument Pilot Magazine issue 81 Page 6 (Free to download).
  • The R/T theory exam was the most trivial of the seven and I had easily passed with 100%. I felt it didn’t prepare me for the key phrases I needed to use or understand. A lot of the practical training is taken up explaining and reinforcing that. Examples included stating the altitude or flight level I was passing (if climbing or descending) when talking to a new controller. (e.g. G-ABCD, passing altitude 4300 feet climbing flight level 80), or exactly what the clearance means: e.g. “Resume own navigation” means you can fly in pretty much any direction you like towards your destination, but doesn’t mean you can climb or descend. “Cleared for the procedure” does allow you to descend all the way down to the runway but not land. So if you’ve been cleared for the ILS, you can descend when you intercept the localiser and glide slope and don’t have to wait for the controller to specifically state that (although they usually do say “descend with the glide slope” after you report closing the localiser).
  • Aviate/Navigate/Communicate really is key. I found I was too keen to ensure I switched from approach to tower, or respond to my landing clearance than ensure I was maintaining a stable approach. ATC know where you are and can cope if you don’t respond – after all, that would happen if you had radio failure.
  • Circle to land at low level isn’t a great concept and should be avoided if possible. Better to take a crosswind landing than circling at minima. Our TB20 aircraft has a large rudder and can cope with 25 knot crosswinds. Tailwinds would be another matter entirely.
  • Aircraft trim should be second nature. It radically reduces the workload if you’re not actively flying the plane with two hands all the time – it should be in balance and only need a little tweaking now and then. Obviously that’s difficult in turbulence, when the priority is to keep the aircraft flying rather than maintain an assigned altitude.
  • I think I probably flew through quite a few dark clouds at times, but don’t know (because you can’t see out). I certainly heard rain pounding on the roof from time to time, usually associated with more dififculty maintaining the height. So you don’t learn what colour of clouds are OK and what to expect if you go into one.
  • Don’t try to use electric gear retraction and electric flaps at the same time. The most likely time for failure is during overload just after takeoff. Best do these one at a time and only after a positive rate of climb.
  • Follow the checklist rigorously. There’s a reason for all the (boring) procedures and process, which makes it less likely to forget to do something important. This includes frequent in-flight checks, where I picked up an error on setting the altimeter, remembered to switch tanks, and ensuring the radio/navaids were preset well in advance.
  • Join PPL/IR. A great range of information available. Good magazine (especially the extensive online repository of back issues). A very knowledgeable bunch of people on the forum who quickly answer any sensible question. This small organisation has really moved private IR forward throughout Europe and deserves all the support it can get.

So what’s next

Just like a fresh newly minted PPL, I would want to take a few tentative steps first before maximising the use of the privileges awarded. Jim recommended making a few airways flights, possibly in gin-clear CAVOK conditions, to get use to the procedures and build some self-confidence. Pretty much like the hours building process for VFR. Launching immediately into the London TMA in bad weather conditions with forecast minima at the destination might be legal but far from sensible. It’s not my intention to deliberately get into situations where I need to fly to minima anyway.

Two of my fellow share-o-plane owners have IR’s themselves and are open to some joint flights where we share a leg each. I can see a mix of solo and buddy flights would be useful.

I think I’ve had my fill of dual instruction for quite a while and don’t have any immediate plans for any further qualifications. My IR must be revalidated within 12 months otherwise I’d need to retake the full IR Initial Skills Test (and probably extra training). This can be done after 9 months while retaining the validity for a full further 12 month extension. Effectively this means the first renewal needs to be scheduled 9 months after passing and thereafter every 12 months. This gives you 3 months leeway should there be any problems. You really don’t want to do another Initial IR test if you can possibly avoid it. Once in a lifetime is enough for anybody.

There’s also a question of learning that part of the PPL/IR syllabus that’s not in the course – the practical stuff you actually need. The list identified so far includes:

  • Practicing coupled approaches with the autopilot. Already frequently done at Gloucester but so far little elsewhere.
  • Holds using the GPS OBS function rather than the ADF/NDB, also combined with the autopilot. This is something John had demonstrated in our short trip to Cranfield a few months ago. I doubt if anyone actually does NDB holds in real life – I’m not even convinced that I would be asked to do holds on the type of flights I’d be doing – but if that happened it would be useful to have perfected this.
  • Learning more thoroughly about the different RNAV approaches. I have witnessed the LPV approach at Alderney and did one myself in the US. I need to understand better why the advisory glideslope shows at some LNAV/VNAV approaches and not at others.
  • Weather forecasting. Understanding more about real world constraints. This ranges from being able to interpret the darkness/characteristics of clouds as to whether they are sensible to enter to further research on different briefing options available online. Wearing a hood during training, I never saw the colour of the clouds we flew through, only heard the rain on the roof and felt the turbulence.
  • How to create and file a valid flight plan for a longer route. There are two or three routing engines that do this for you, and validate it against the Eurocontrol computer. Especially in the UK, with its unusual option for IFR outside controlled airspace, this doesn’t mean you would be allowed to fly the filed route. Elsewhere, you may simply get a “Direct” routing after departure. Understanding how to negotiate and push ATC for better routings, avoiding weather and priority treatment comes from experience.
  • Dealing with the transition from VFR to IFR (or vice versa). That’s not just filing a Y or Z flight plan, but also when/where to cancel IFR and just fly VFR to the destination, and appreciating the subtle differences in ATC handling in foreign countries (I’m told IFR is pretty much the same worldwide).
  • Figuring out if Oxygen is a worthwhile option for the type of flights I’ll do. Without it, you are mostly limited to FL100 and that constrains the routing especially if flying over the Alps.

…and much much more.

Thanks to all

Finally, my deepest thanks to Jim and Mark at Rate One Aviation for some really top notch instruction, excellent facilities, boatloads of patience and a can do attitude. The professional team at Gloucestershire and Cardiff Airports, especially Air Traffic Control who do a marvellous job. And at the risk of sounding like an Oscar’s speech, the support and encouragement from fellow students and other pilots throughout the course. Last but not least, my long suffering family who haven’t seen much of me in recent months. Hopefully they will see some benefits in our future expeditions.

Dual instruction (FNPT II Simulator): 33 Hours
Dual instruction (Airborne): 20 Hours
Total Time: 357:50 (excludes 33 hours FNPT II simulator time)


  1. Superb David. Congratulations.

    Me.. I’m off to Naples next Saturday to start this journey all again!

  2. That’s Naples in Florida presumably rather than Italy. Good luck – a full-on, intensive course somewhere with predictable weather is undoubtedly the most efficient way to learn flying, and the US is not only cheaper but much more accessible for private flying. I’m sure it will be tough but you’ll thoroughly enjoy it. Let me know how it went.

  3. Thanks for the interesting piece – especially since I’m about to move from North East England to the Cotswolds, so looks like Gloucester may well become home.

    I’m interested to know how many IFR hours you had on your IMC / IR(R) before you started the full IR training – it’s something I’ve often wondered about doing.

    1. As you know, there’s a difference between IFR (Instrument Flight Rules which can be done in broad daylight – you just log the time if at a suitable altitude and call it such) and Instrument Flight Time = “flight by sole reference to instruments” which is either in training (using a hood, screens etc.) or inside real clouds. I logged about 25 hours FBSRI during my IMC training, then about another 10 hours before starting the IR course. That’s out of a total of about 300 hours total time.

      Gloucester would be a good place to consider if you want full instrument approaches etc. It’s a very well run operation and accomodating of all types of GA.
      I also enjoyed my time at Kemble, which doesn’t (yet) have any but who knows in the future.

      1. Thanks – helpful info. I have about 80 hours of Flight by reference to instruments on my IMC ticket, so plenty to be able to think about an IR.

        1. Glad that reading about my experience was useful. 80 hours FBSRI is quite a lot in my book (for a non commercial/ non full IR pilot), so you should have a good baseline of flying in cloud to start from.

  4. I think this is the next step I have to take if I’m not to find myself repeatedly stranded in France and returning home ignominiously on Easyjet. Your really helpful and informative post has made it seem scary but possible.

    1. Well if I can do it, anyone can – it just needs some determination, time (and money). I hope you’ll embark on the course soon – the theory isn’t nearly as extensive as it was when I did it (still seven exams but about 50% of the syllabus), so best to get that out of the way first.

  5. Hi David. Love reading your blogs – only just found this last week and looking to get my CBIR and found this very useful. I flew into Popham airfield on Monday and met one of your co-owners. Find the blogs really useful in terms of how an IR route works. I also have a share in a TB10 and potentially looking at a share in a TB20 for when I start my training. Thanks for the great blogs. Cheers, Chris

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