The 10-Day Challenge

Tackling PIC's accelerated instrument course

January 1, 1999

The time had come for the instrument rating.

Like many VFR pilots, I'd looked at Professional Instrument Courses' magazine ads and wondered, "How could anyone learn to be a competent instrument pilot in 10 days?" Every instrument pilot I knew took months to complete the process. Then my thoughts changed: "Could I do it in only 10 days?"

PIC, based in Essex, Connecticut, sends an instructor and a simulator to your location, and you provide the airplane. I signed up for the company's signature 10-day instrument training course. The checkride would be taken on the final day. Because I don't own an airplane, the next dilemma was what to fly. Although some FBOs may perceive PIC as a competitor, the FBO in Frederick, Maryland, readily agreed to rent me an airplane — but the available aircraft all had IFR approach-approved GPS receivers, and I didn't want to have to master an additional type of instrument approach before the checkride. Instead, I went with a Piper Archer II belonging to the AOPA Air Safety Foundation and available as a flying club airplane when it's not being used for research.

As my starting date drew near, ground school became a concern. PIC "strongly encourages" instrumentstudents to pass the knowledge exam before they begin flight training. Because of my busy work schedule, a two-day weekend ground school seemed the best choice. I passed the Aviation Seminars course with a score of 82.

Three weeks before my starting date, PIC training counselor David Craig called to make sure that I had appropriate en route and terminal charts, a lapboard, digital timer, yoke clip for holding approach charts, and an instrument training hood or a pair of Foggles — opaque eyeglasses that limit your view to the instrument panel. About this time, James Cabaniss, assigned by PIC as my instrument instructor, called to introduce himself.

With the realization that he had already scheduled my checkride, before the first lesson, I began to feel a bit stressed. Plus, I had been too busy to more than skim a few chapters of The Instrument Flight Training Manual, by PIC founder Peter Dogan, which the company sends to all its instrument students. How could I pass when I felt so unprepared?

Day 1: 0.8 hours simulator, 2.4 hours airplane

Businesslike and wearing a natty aeronautical tie despite Maryland's typically steamy September weather, Cabaniss was waiting for me in the lobby of the local Holiday Inn. We'd agreed to set up the ATC 610 simulator and conduct ground school in his hotel room. He proffered coffee and we talked as he reviewed my logbook. Cabaniss' first question was about my cross-country time (although there is no longer a minimum number of total flight hours for the instrument rating, the FAA still requires 50 hours of cross-country time). Not all students meet that requirement going into the 10-day course, Cabaniss explained; if I had been short, he would have ensured that we flew enough cross-country time during our training.

Cabaniss, who lives on Smith Mountain Lake near Lynchburg, Virginia, would fit almost anyone's image of a Southern gentleman. A former air traffic controller, he retired from the Washington Air Route Traffic Control Center in Leesburg, Virginia. It would be hard to get a better perspective on real-world IFR flying than from an active pilot and flight instructor who has spent as much time on the other end of the mic as Cabaniss, I thought. Does your instrument instructor know how much airspace ATC protects for you when it issues holding instructions? Hint: If you're flying a typical piston single, like an Archer, how you enter the hold really isn't that important — except on the checkride.

After an introduction to the simulator and lunch at the airport restaurant, it was time to fly.

The Foggles went on as we left the pattern and, except for one brief respite, stayed on until we landed 2.4 hours later. "Flying the gauges," unusual-attitude recoveries, and a healthy dose of partial-panel work — with the attitude and heading indicators covered to simulate vacuum failure — were the fare. PIC's curriculum is big on timed turns for partial-panel flight, and the theory sounded good until I forgot to start the timer while rolling into a turn. Switching to the wet compass and estimating the lag, I rolled out almost on my desired heading. We tried more turns both ways, and I tended to do better with the compass. Cabaniss reminded me that I could use whichever technique worked better for me.

Day 2: 1.6 hours airplane

We began the day with another dose of attitude instrument flying under the hood, and I learned that timed turns work much better when you keep the turn coordinator's ball centered. After a few attempts my steep turns under the hood — 45-degree banks never used in instrument flying, but a good training maneuver required by the Instrument Rating Practical Test Standards — were much better than yesterday's. Persistence paid off.

The rest of the day was spent discussing IFR charts, flight planning, and radio procedures. Cabaniss stresses proper phraseology more than most CFIs and feels strongly that "talking the talk" will garner a pilot better service from controllers.

He cautioned me that many students reach a saturation point and have an "off day" flying on the sixth or seventh day of the 10-day course, adding that all bounce back the next day.

Day 3: 5.8 hours simulator

The closest we came to an airplane today was the Cessna Skyhawk that we saw fly overhead as we walked to lunch. Nearly six hours was spent using the simulator to practice NDB tracking, DME arcs, and procedure turns, procedure turns, procedure turns.

Procedure-turn exercises demonstrated the value of the sim, which allowed continual repetition. As soon as I got back to the VOR (or NDB), Cabaniss placed a new approach chart on my lapboard. Then it was just a matter of chanting the five-T mantra that PIC recommends: Turn to the outbound heading, twist the OBS to the desired radial, and begin to time when the wings roll level. (Throttle, a reminder to check power setting and aircraft configuration, and talking to ATC would come later.)

During lunch, Cabaniss told me about some of the additions that he has made to his instructor repertoire over the years, as the result of experiences with specific students. I wondered what I'd do before the training ended to earn my place in his collection of stories.

Cabaniss also told me that I was doing well and that I would pass the checkride. We were not even doing full approaches yet, so I was immediately skeptical. Not all students pass, but most do, he explained — adding that completion of PIC's 10-day course does not guarantee recommendation for the checkride. As it turns out, my course was essentially nine days; Cabaniss prefers to schedule the checkride for the morning of the tenth day so that, if the student busts the ride, he can provide additional training in any deficient subject areas that afternoon before leaving. Cabaniss said that about 70 percent of his PIC students pass the checkride on the first attempt, and none has failed a second try.

Day 4: 3.2 hours sim, 2.6 hours airplane

The morning was spent on the sim, entering holds at VORs, NDBs, and DME fixes. Determining the proper holding pattern entry seemed easy — especially after the ground school, for which I needed intricate drawings and a measure of luck to select among direct, parallel, and teardrop entries. Knowing my orientation to the fix in (simulated) flight, the proper entry appeared obvious.

That afternoon, the procedures learned on the sim translated surprisingly well to the Archer. Well, except for a couple of times when I mistakenly set the OBS to the reciprocal of the desired radial. Although Cabaniss said that this was a common problem, I wondered why I chose to develop it in the airplane rather than the less expensive simulator. The 20-kt crosswind proved more challenging than the no-wind scenarios that we'd simulated.

Then it was holds, holds, holds. Around and around, nailing it one time and botching the crab angle, or missing station passage, or forgetting to start the timer on the next circuit.

Day 5: 2.9 hours sim, 2.6 hours airplane

Meet the nonprecision approach in two flavors, VOR and NDB. On the sim, NDB intercepts became a problem, but we persisted and my understanding eventually returned. Trading Room 117 for the cockpit of the Archer, a VOR-A approach including a hold at a DME fix worked out quite well.

Then it was the moment of truth: an NDB approach. I tuned the ADF, identified the station, set up to intercept the course...and the needle never moved. It wouldn't point to any other stations, either. The indicator had failed.

Practical test standards for the instrument rating checkride now specify the demonstration of one precision and two different types of nonprecision approaches. Although training in NDB approaches is still required, I was not required to perform one for the examiner — so my checkride date was still possible.

Instead we flew a series of VOR approaches, including full approaches with procedure turns, commencing the approach from the hold, and simulated vectors to the final approach course. Cabaniss threw in a few landings; completing one circle-to-land approach is worth several hours of discussion on the ground.

Day 6: 3.1 hours sim, 2.9 hours airplane

Today we filed-on Cabaniss' certificate, because I was not yet rated — and shot a VOR approach on a real, live instrument flight plan. Then it was ILSs in rapid succession. On the first, I wasn't consistently on the glideslope until the very end. We decided that we needed a lower power setting to achieve the desired 500-fpm descent, and the next two were much better.

My first landing from an ILS approach was a bit of an eye-opener. Foggles off — and there, straight ahead and only 200 feet below, is the runway. I hadn't given much thought to the transition to landing, and the 90-kt instrument approach speed is 20 knots faster than my VFR approaches in the Archer — so that one was a bit of a floater.

Day 7: 2.3 hours sim, 2.6 hours airplane

The training schedule has become routine, and I can't remember life before the course began. Although I don't feel as tired as I did yesterday, I made a few mistakes in the airplane. On one approach I tuned and tracked the radial defining an intersection instead of the adjacent transition route; on another nonprecision localizer approach, I missed the final descent to minimum descent altitude.

Day 8: 2.1 hours sim, 3.0 hours airplane

Today we prepared for the checkride, reviewing questions in the workbook and flying some approaches on the simulator. Then it was into the airplane for some partial-panel approaches. I felt that I wasn't looking at the compass often enough. Nevertheless, Cabaniss said that the approaches went "pretty well." But were they good enough to pass the checkride?

I asked to practice more steep turns under the hood, and they were perfect. From there the session became a series of a hundred details, things that I should do — or not do — on the checkride. "Stay on that altitude. Don't let it get off a hundred feet before you correct." "Watch that heading." "Don't forget to starttiming and run your prelanding checklist over the final approach fix." "Report the missed approach point." "Report entering and leaving the hold." "Tune and identify the next navaid as soon as you can so that you don't have to do it later." Could I remember it all?

Day 9: 5.3 hours airplane

I bade farewell to the simulator and the Holiday Inn; and Cabaniss, the Archer, and I launched on our IFR cross-country. The route, to Lynchburg Municipal and Smith Mountain Lake airports in south-central Virginia, was a little longer than the 250 nm required by the FAA, but we were game. PIC believes in training in actual IMC conditions whenever practical, but except for a thick summer haze the skies had been clear for the past eight days. I was afraid that I wouldn't log any actual during training, although I did get to punch through a few clouds on the way south.

On the return, however, the briefing indicated developing thunderstorms along our route, and the weather radar display at the FBO confirmed this. Cleared to our requested altitude of 7,000 feet after leaving Lynchburg, I requested 9,000, which put us at the top of the haze layer. A cell just east of our course was wreaking havoc on airliner arrivals into Washington Dulles International, and the center controller issued holds to several of them. In front of us, building dark clouds towered well above the haze layer. We asked the controller what kind of weather he painted on his radar, and he apologized for its paucity of precipitation information. "Nobody's gone through there," he added. I wasn't going to be the first, and our request to deviate west of course was immediately approved.

The en route IFR environment felt comfortable; and except for being able to fly through the clouds, it really wasn't much different from cross-country VFR flight with traffic advisories. More important, I felt ready for the check ride. This was Cabaniss' birthday, so after the flight I took him to dinner.

Day 10: The moment of truth

The day of reckoning had arrived. We filed an IFR flight plan for the 22-nm hop over to Leesburg Municipal Airportin Virginia, where I had an appointment with designated examiner David Pearce. The mist and fog had lifted by our departure time, however, so we flew over VFR, shooting the approach for good measure.

As requested by the examiner, I had planned an IFR flight to Cincinnati and obtained a weather briefing from flight service before leaving home. But the briefer mentioned rain showers moving into the Cincinnati area, so before we began the oral examination, I asked Pearce if I could walk next door to the Leesburg Automated Flight Service Station and check the current radar. He said that it was a good idea to take advantage of the resources at one's disposal.

Pearce reviewed my paperwork and that of the aircraft; then we began a discussion of the weather, my route of flight, and minimums and alternates. That led to a series of questions about the FARs, flight physiology, en route chart symbology, and instrument approach procedures. In an hour we were finished and I was back in the flight service station filing an IFR flight plan to Martinsburg, West Virginia, for the checkride.

The weather had improved to a 5,000-foot overcast, and it was as smooth as glass underneath while I flew to Martinsburg and shot the full ILS approach. The Archer just slid down the chute, with neither the localizer nor the glideslope deflecting more than about half a dot once I was established. "This is too easy," Pearce remarked. Cleared for the option by the tower, he instructed me to remove my Foggles at decision altitude and make a touch and go. "It's important to be able to land from an instrument approach," he commented.

The remainder of the checkride went pretty much as I'd expected, until the last approach. Completing the VOR-A to Martinsburg and cleared for the published missed approach — oh, no! — the vacuum pump went into simulated failure mode. The overcast had burned off, and convective turbulence joined the fray. Flying a transition route under partial panel to join the localizer approach back to Leesburg, my heart almost stopped when the Dulles Approach controller called and asked my intentions. My first thought was that I'd busted my altitude and the checkride was over, but I was still level at 3,000 feet. "Archer Two-One-Kilo, I show you west of the localizer," he said. "That's where I'm supposed to be," I thought, before telling the controller "Affirmative." Then I glanced at the compass and saw that I was about 10 degrees right of my desired intercept course; the controller must have thought that I thought I was established and heading inbound. With a quick correction, I completed the circle-to-land approach and we were finished.

"Nicely done," Pearce said as I ran the shutdown checklist. I was an instrument pilot.

Epilogue

In only 10 days, I earned a rating that takes most pilots six months or more to complete. The total cost of $6,396 was only about $700 more than I estimate that the training, completed entirely in the airplane, would have cost at my local FBO. PIC's course fee of $3,950 includes unlimited simulator time — significantly reducing aircraft expense — and the instructor's travel to your location; the customer is responsible for the instructor's lodging and local transportation. Had I opted for the FBO route, however, I probably would still be an instrument student today.

Temporary airman certificate in hand, I felt confident and ready to launch on an IFR flight immediately. Not on a flight that would require shooting an ILS to 200-and-a-half minimums — at least not right away. I'm a pretty conservative type, and I don't believe that a brand-new instrument pilot has any business shooting approaches that he expects to be at the minimums (see " Instrument Insights: The Secret to a Long Life in IFR," December 1998 Pilot). My instrument instructor and PIC's textbooks also recommend a period of "seasoning" in lighter IMC before tackling really low weather, and I view this as a continuation of the learning process.

A month after my checkride, I took an instrument proficiency check with CFII Rich Hunt at the local FBO, to satisfy myself that my PIC training had been effective. I felt that I had not forgotten a thing, and before we had finished, he was introducing me to the GPS approaches that had concerned me only a few weeks earlier.


For more information, call Professional Instrument Courses, Inc. at 800/435-9437 or 860/767-8263.


E-mail the author at mike.collins@aopa.org.