Practical CPL Course and Skill Test

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I had put an enormous amount of time and effort into passing the CPL theory exams in 2017/18 which are required to become a fully qualified Flight Instructor. I didn’t want that to go to waste or to have to repeat them. These exams are only valid for three years after the final test and so I decided to complete the practical side of the training and gain my Commercial Pilot Licence before they expired.

I passed a Class 1 Medical last November at Heathrow, which can be revalidated by my usual AME.

Since I already have a full Instrument Rating, I needed a minimum of 15 hours dual training at an ATO followed by a skill test.

Choosing an ATO

There have been many extensions and deferrals as a result of COVID-19 but none have affected the expiry date of my CPL theory exams. I had originally pencilled in a course for sometime during 2020 but that was first delayed by the national lockdown. There was then a period of intensive instructing as schools caught up with the backlog, meaning I was quite busy with instructing myself but also making it difficult for me to find a suitable training place. I thought it best to wait until the backlog cleared and aim to do this in the Autumn. With a further national lockdown looking quite possible, and commercial flight schools remaining busy at least until the BREXIT/EASA deadline at the year end, I investigated options. Almost all commercial ATOs provide both IR and CPL training courses, with only two listed as CPL only. I thought the latter might suit my profile more since I am not typical airline pilot factory material.

I flew with a friend in a lovely Glass cockpit equipped PA28 Arrow from Thruxton. It’s only about an hour to commute from home and would have been ideal. Sadly the school has withdrawn their CPL course approval due to high annual CAA fees although said they were considering renewing it. Other ATOs didn’t have availability until mid winter of 2021 when weather might seriously delay the training. A cancellation at Andrewsfield offered me a place starting soon which I accepted. It has a very good reputation for Flight Instructor and Examiner courses and is clearly run as a passion rather than a money making exercise. A phonecall with the CFI (Carol Cooper) and then my instructor confirmed our expectations were aligned.

Andrewsfield is a grass airfield in Essex, north east of London, very close to Stansted Airport
Andrewsfield (centre of chart) lies a few miles east of Stansted Airport

Aircraft and Instructor logistics

I originally proposed completing the course in my TB20 share-o-plane on the basis that it would be cheaper. Andrewsfield were prepared to let me do that, but on further investigation the difference in price wasn’t significant after factoring the cost of ferrying the aircraft. Furthermore, it’s clear that training in the PA28 Arrow that the instructor is very familiar with is going to be easier for them – they know the speeds, instrumentation and procedures very thoroughly. It would have been possible to fly 10 of my 15 hours in a cheaper PA28 Warrior but my research indicated that this is a false economy because you’ll end up needing more hours. Finally, having a car onsite at a remote airfield like Andrewsfield is essential – it would be impractical and inconvenient to rely on taxis or arrange a hire car. I did later find out that they can arrange some temporary accommodation which may suit some students.

The school had another concurrent CPL student and we were scheduled for half a day each weekday, sharing the PA28 Arrow. I hoped to complete in around minimum hours, with flights averaging between one and half to two hours, so about 7 or 8 days training and a skill test. In the end it took a month with 14 days onsite.

My main instructor was a retired commercial airline pilot who had flown a Dornier twin-prop based at London City for five years, then instructed at Stapleford (one of the aforementioned ATPL factories), so knew the course and required standards inside-out. There are a couple of other CPL instructors on the team, all closely aligned on procedures, technique and standards. The school CFI, Carol Cooper, is a highly experienced FI and CPL examiner and would conduct my course completion check. An external CAA CPL examiner would conduct the test itself when I was ready.

With my 1400 hours of which 500 are flight instruction and a full Instrument Rating, you might think the course and skill test should be a breeze, but I wasn’t approaching any of this nonchalantly. My daughter thought I’d probably learn how to make passenger announcements (which do feature in the training), including how to make them almost inaudible. I was sure it would sharpen up a few aspects of my flying technique, especially VFR navigation using the well-worn deduced reckoning techniques that have relatively little teaching time assigned during the Flight Instructor course.

Since I have an Instrument Rating, the minimum course requirement is for 15 hours dual instruction followed by a skill test of between 90 and 150 minutes. I could skip the 10 hours instrument familiarisation but would have to demonstrate competent full and partial panel skills during the test. It’s easy to say I’ve done a lot of that in recent years, but it’s often been from the right hand seat instructing rather than directly myself.

Prep beforehand

I read through the Andrewsfield CPL course syllabus and researched the airfield and local area information.

I found a book on the UK CPL course written by an instructor based at Stapleford and published within the last few years. Their course is also taught in a PA28 Arrow, so it was highly relevant and relatable.

There were several documents on the CAA website worth reading in advance too, specifically Standards Document 3 which provides guidance for the CPL skill test.

I spent a couple of hours on my flight simulator flying around the area to familiarise myself with it – this helped identify the likely agencies I’d be talking to for LARS radio services and MATZ/controlled airspace transits, plus the limits of controlled airspace both horizontally and vertically.

Andrewsfield Airfield

The main entrance is by the hold for runway 09

It’s a fairly long hike from my home in the west country across to Essex – about 3 1/2 hours drive – but I felt a car was essential onsite. The airfield is in the middle of farmland, nestled between a few villages in the Essex countryside. I found a nearby B&B which offered a self-contained granny annex building that suited my needs perfectly, and avoided a busy hotel or bar/pub that reduced mixing with others in these difficult times.

A marquee allows for more socially distanced tables than available inside.

The airfield has developed a sensible set of COVID-19 procedures (and published them on the AOPA website for other clubs to use). Temperatures are taken on arrival, masks are worn indoors and when airborne, sanitising gel is available throughout. The restaurant/bar is open throughout the day for table service only, with tables spaced outside augmented by a marquee with its own portable heater. There are plenty of briefing rooms for instructors, a fleet with a mix of Cessnas and PA28s, fuel pumps and onsite maintenance organisation.

There are two parallel grass runways, one with some matting at the end. It’s fine during the dry summer but as you would expect gets quite muddy during the wet winter months. There is an air/ground radio service and circuits are free for home based training.

Training Sorties

These involved the usual sequence of briefing, flight and de-brief with records written up by the instructor and signed by the student. I came well prepared for the first day with paperwork filled in and copies of my licence, medical, qualifying hours, qualifying cross country and enrolment form which were all checked and found to be in order.

It’s been a while since I’ve flown an Arrow (even though I have instructed in one), especially for general handling, so it took a few hours to refamiliarise myself with it’s flying speeds and characteristics. It cruises comfortably at 120 knots and climbs easily at 90. But with full flaps and gear down it has all the flying capabilities of a concrete bollard! This makes Practice Forced Landings and glide approaches more tricky, but it became easier once I got used to the sight picture. Steep turns differ from the PA28 Warriors I’m very used to, due to the heavier weight of the aircraft.

Flying to a CPL standard involves tighter tolerances than for PPL and you are encouraged not to let the altitude or heading drift or speed vary. I can confirm that it’s much easier to berate a student for doing that than to consistently perform for two hours yourself, so it was good discipline to sharpen up all round. We progressed through all aspects of the syllabus and skill test profile:

  • a very thorough pre-flight check sequence involving inspecting and talking through each flight and engine instrument before start
  • very specific radio calls to check both radios (using the terms COM 1, 2 rather than BOX 1, 2 etc.)
  • very specific phrases to call out during checks (e.g. airspeed increasing rather than airspeed alive)
  • using declared take-off, climb and cruise speeds
  • navigating to a briefed destination, then to an unplanned diversion giving estimated time
  • MATZ and controlled airspace transit
  • Circuits at a controlled airport (we went to both Cambridge and Southend), with a flapless and glide approach at each
  • General Handling: Stalls including fully developed, base turn, landing configuration, steep turns, spiral dive
  • Instrument Flight: Climbing, descending, stall recovery on full panel etc.
  • Partial Panel: Timed turns, climbs, recovery from unusual attitudes
  • VOR position fixing, intercept and tracking
  • In flight emergencies including engine fire, engine failures etc.

The Instrument Flight section that I didn’t need to do is the only really new element compared to a PPL, and effectively it is an IMC course without approaches (although an approach would be flown during the training). There was some practice and refinement to check I was up to standard.

While a few of the procedures and R/T calls were specific to Andrewsfield or to the course syllabus and didn’t match exactly what I’ve been taught elsewhere, I would say this resonated with the training elements I have encountered before. I’d like to think it was largely a case of polishing and refining my flying skills rather than breaking out of bad habits but overall it did sharpen up my skill set. It also clarified and consolidated a few aspects of the syllabus that will be useful for my regular PPL instructing.

Navigation is one area where I have seen several techniques used. The CPL course hasn’t evolved to include the popular GPS tablet applications in use today. Students must learn and demonstrate they can plot a line on a chart and create a plog, flying accurately to reach their destination without feature crawling. The flat Essex countryside is quite demanding for that task, with fewer natural features other than the coastline. There seemed to be plenty of disused airfields for target practice, several of which barely resemble an airfield anymore. I was pleased that I was able to do this quite accurately, including the diversion, and it is really a case of trusting your instruments – in this case a stopwatch and direction indicator – flying a constant heading for a set time.

Homework generally consisted of planning a route for the next day, including PLOG, W&B, take-off/landing performance, NOTAMs, weather forecast etc. I also spent some time “chair flying” the checklists and procedures, especially for emergencies.

Weather and progress

Given the course was in October in the UK, I was expecting some disruption due to winds, rain and low cloud. My first week went remarkably well, with just one day unflyable. The second week was delayed, with both Monday and Tuesday cancelled early. I travelled up on Wednesday unsure if I would fly, but managed three days including two sorties on Friday. I was now up to 12:30 of the 15 hours minimum and my instructor scheduled me for a progress check with Carol the CFI for the following Monday.

I flew over to Andrewsfield in the TB20 for the day in order to fly with Carol. She switches to examiner mode for these, role playing exactly how it would work on the day of test. She went through the examiner briefing and ensured I had everything ready (paperwork, pre-flight, equipment etc.) and understood what to expect. As you’d expect, this is a gruelling wire-brushing session that is quite humbling and she highlighted a few points that needed attention. I had expected this and planned for a further 1 hour session with my instructor to address any issues that arose.

The weather for the rest of that third week looked troublesome, so we planned that in the following week I would fly once more with my instructor and then take the test. In the end I took three more instruction flights to ensure I was confident and in the right frame of mind to proceed.

Examiners are allocated by the CAA flight booking department, but ATOs can indicate if they know of one that is available. Skill tests cannot be applied for until the minimum hours have been flown, and it may take a few days to approve a test especially since the department doesn’t work weekends. At least there isn’t a 21 day prior notification required as is apparently the case in Ireland.

A calm south-easterly wind for test day

CPL Skill Test

The format of the skill test is extensively documented in CAA Standards Document 3. My examiner had conducted hundreds of such tests in a long career, and put me at my ease while he checked my paperwork and briefed me on how the test would run. The test takes around two hours and involves a navigation section with a diversion, circuits at a controlled airport (Southend or Cambridge), general handling, instrument flight (including partial panel) and a return to base. This is pretty similar to a PPL skill test but more extensive but to a higher standard.

Each examiner has their own callsign (EXMxx) which you enter into the transponder and use for all radio calls. Since it’s the first time you do this, I found myself correcting several times after starting with the normal G registration. I’m really not sure of the value of this. It’s supposed to alert ATC so they handle you carefully.

The wind was fairly calm on the day itself, with a 5 knot southerly/south-easterly wind on the surface. I confirmed that from smoke on the ground. My navigation tracking did not go to plan and I had to make corrections to regain track. There was a weird inversion layer which at 2,500 feet seemed to have a wind 180 degrees opposite to that forecast. The examiner commented that it helped him assess how I dealt with track errors and regained my position.

The only other notable event was having to take avoiding action for a Cessna on a converging course, just as Southend was giving me clearance to enter controlled airspace.

The training prepared me to be confident in the various elements of the test. The intention is to train to a higher standard so that you will pass even when having a bad day.

The examiner told me I had passed before we shutdown the aircraft, then we debriefed and completed the paperwork. I took my time to put the aircraft to bed, reset the transponder ID code and refit the covers before heading home.

It’s always a relief to pass a check or test successfully and today was no exception.

My thanks to the Instructors, CFI and staff at Andrewsfield who were professional, enthusiastic and supportive throughout.

Reflection on the course content

I’d break down the CPL course into three basic components:

Procedures and checklists, clearly following and calling out checklist items

Some have told me beforehand that a CPL is effectively just a PPL but with tighter tolerances and a higher overall standard. I’d say it goes a little further than that, requiring something akin to a stage performance as you work through the checklist procedures mechanically and phrase the checks verbally in a formal way. It’s not considered professional to look at the engine guages and simply say they are OK, you must use the words Engine T’s and P’s in the green, approach checks complete, airspeed increasing etc. This is intended to set you up for multi-crew cockpit operations where the other pilot needs to know and understand exactly what you are doing and have done. Reading out the passenger brief seems quite surreal, but when I do have new passengers I have pointed the same things out although perhaps not quite so formally.

What was slightly hard is adapting to different checks and especially different phrasing than those I am required to use elsewhere. It must be much easier having a consistent set of checks/phrases throughout your training.

Hands-on aircraft flying skills including manoeuvres, basic Instrument Flying and emergencies

Most of these techniques are the same as I have been instructing at PPL and IR level but they were thorough and did include engine fire in flight (involving an emergency descent) and a cockpit fire prior take-off (requiring a rejected take-off). The Arrow has slightly different handling and thus slightly different procedures/speeds from the other aircraft I generally fly, so I was pleased to have opted to do the entire hours training in it.

VFR Navigation using paper chart, stopwatch and plog.

This sharpened up my navigation technique and is relevant for both PPL and CPL practical training courses. In my view, it isn’t directly relevant for how PPL or CPL pilots actually fly anywhere today. Almost everybody uses some form of moving map tablet App combined with certified GPS, for which there is almost no training and it forms no part of the skill test profile. Other departments of the CAA, keen to reduce the rate of infringements strongly encourage use of such tablet Apps while the formal training actively discourages it. At least it is now formally included in the PPL syllabus although implementation is patchy. For the CPL skill test, you are allowed to use the panel GPS to find your way back to base (typically using a Direct To) but only after proving you can navigate using the chart/compass/stopwatch including for a diversion.

I believe this part of the training is thought to instill situational awareness of drift correction as well as flying consistent heading for a given time to reach a set destination. It has evolved only slightly in the past 50 years, where earlier a more detailed 1:250 000 chart would have been used to find even more difficult turning points. Although EASA no longer mandate use of a Whizz-Wheel slide rule for the navigation calculations, I was told that some CAA examiners still insist on confirming that candidates can use these methods. I can’t imagine many actually using a whizz wheel after the training course is complete. Surely a rethink of this aspect of pilot training is urgently required, ensuring basic understanding of navigation involving demonstrating competence when using GPS based equipment including dealing with failures.

What a CPL allows me to do

A CPL allows me to conduct any commercial flight other than Commercial Air Transport.

I am too old to be allowed to fly single pilot passenger carrying aircraft commercially and not currently expecting to progress to multi-pilot aircraft (where it is possible as long as one member of the flight crew is younger).

However I could instruct for CPL at an ATO after standardisation training although I’d expect reduced demand for commercial flight training given the number of laid-off professional pilots today.

I can now charge money for my services other than flight instruction. This would include ferrying aircraft should there be demand. I’d also be interested in a role as a pilot’s assistant, where you aren’t formally part of the (single) crew but support the captain and provide confidence to passengers who see more than one at the front.

There may be other opportunities that arise as a result of the additional qualification. We’ll just have to see what crops up. I’m very aware there are many unemployed pilots around at the moment so there is plenty of competition.

BREXIT

I have a UK CAA issued Part-FCL licence and I don’t plan to move that to another EASA country. If I haven’t done that by end 2020 (which is almost impossible to do now anyway), I will lose the chance to retain an EASA licence so can only fly G-Reg aircraft and instruct for UK CAA qualifications.

When issuing my CPL licence, I will be given an updated licence number (with the letters for CPL rather than PPL). I believe this renders my piggyback FAA airman certificate invalid, and I will need to have that reissued or pass a test for an FAA CPL in order to fly solo in the US again.

My CPL licence is non-expiring and there are no additional tests, revalidations or checks to retain it. I still have to revalidate my SEP, IR and Flight Instructor ratings on the same basis as for my PPL licence.

So I can call myself a CPL/IR now but doubt I will consider getting epaulettes to impress my passengers.

A Cut Above Uniforms Pilot Quality Epaulets

CPL dual training: 16:40
Total PIC: 1197:15
Total Time: 1404:00

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