170A Skills Test

All the training I have received up until now has been geared towards preparing for the Instrument Rating Test (IRT).  After my final flight with my instructor I was placed on a waiting list for a test that is referred to as the 170A.  The 170A is a skills test that is carried out before one can be put forward for the IRT and verifies the applicants ability to pass the IRT.  When I was put on the list I was something like #7.  I was still #7 on Monday and Tuesday due to the high winds we were experiencing.  Enough people got done on Wednesday and Thursday for me to be scheduled to do the test on Friday.  I went into a minor panic mode, I originally thought I would have the weekend to prepare myself for the test but there it was, on the schedule, at 13:10z.  I dashed into school on Thursday afternoon to meet my examiner and ensure all the relevant paperwork was done.

Friday 07:00 and the alarm rings.  Naturally, the first thing I thought of was the upcoming 170A.  I slept surprisingly well, I think that’s mostly due to how tired I was when I went to sleep.  I heard my next door neighbour leave for a simulator session somewhere about 05:00 but I quickly went back to sleep.  I got up with plenty of time to get ready for the day, I don’t mind rushing some things, a flying exam is not one of them.  I managed to eat some breakfast, that’s a good sign!  For some of my flying tests in the states I was way too nervous to eat beforehand but today I felt fine.  Yeah, a little nervous twinge here and there but mostly fine.

It got to the airport at about 09:00 and checked the schedule to make sure I was still there.  I was – and I took a look at the arrival/departure slots board which showed I was due at Bristol for 14:00z and that the slot had been approved.  I then went into the crew room to take a look at what the weather was doing.  I was then greeted by the following:

The zone B1 was supposed to be in the shown position at around 12:00z, only a couple of hours before I wanted to be in Bristol.  Looking at the descriptions on the right, the general visibility, weather and cloud for the B zone looked all right but with the additions of B1, they looked rather unfriendly.  +RA/+TSRA and ISOL EMBD CB 015 / XXX.  Heavy rain and thunderstorms accompanied by heavy rain with isolated embedded cumulonimbus clouds.  At the bottom of the chart, TS implies hail, severe icing and severe turbulence.  The Seneca isn’t certified to fly into severe icing conditions.  From that summary it looked as if it wasn’t possible to go.  I looked at the TAF (Terminal Area Forecast) for Bristol and it gave no mention of thunderstorms.  The only thing of concern was winds forecast to be gusting to 25kts but even then they were only 20 degrees off the runway heading.

I decided to crack on with the planning and I’d take another look at the weather later.  I knew the aircraft I was to be flying had inoperative propeller de-icing equipment and so I spoke to ops who put me on another aircraft.  The route was to depart to the north-west to a way-point known as MORTN.  There I was to turn south-west towards BADIM, and intersection on the L9 airway.  Upon reaching BADIM I was to turn towards ALVIN and once there, turn southbound towards the BRI (NDB at Bristol).  This is what the route looked like on my map:

The diversion back to Oxford was planned to take pretty much the same route, leaving tracking away from Bristol 035 degrees.  All the route information on the map is entered into a navigation log which is the route represented in numbers.  This shows the leg (from/to), altitude, MSA (minimum safe altitude), wind velocity and direction, magnetic track, calculated magnetic heading, calculated ground speed, distance, time, ETA, ATA and fuel.  Numbers all over the place.  Having all this info on the PLOG enables you to anticipate the use of navigation aids and when to tune them into the radios.

After submitting my flight plan and getting all the other paperwork necessary (NOTAMS, mass and balance, performance (take-off and landing distances) done, I had a briefing with my examiner.  We went over the route and he asked me various questions about the map, airspace and air traffic procedures.  Nothing too complex fortunately!  We then arranged to meet up again once the aircraft was back so I could inform him whether we were going or not and if we were, go through the aircraft documents.  The aircraft arrived back at about 12:40z and I was supposed to have my engines started at 12:55z.  Not ideal.  I couldn’t get fuel right away and so I went inside for the documents briefing.

That was nice and straightforward.  I just went through the various documents, pointing out how I knew they were valid and applicable to this aircraft.  I then went back outside to get fuel.  All fuelled up and checks done (thanks to my flying buddy) I got in, sat down and there remained for the next two and a half hours.  I didn’t really have time to be nervous, I just got on with what I knew I had to do.  After carrying out all my before take-off checks I received my departure clearance: Brize Radar clears Oxford — standard BADIM departure, hold MORTN, climb 2,500ft, QNH 1009 squawk 5440 and next frequency Brize on 124.275.  I read the back to the tower controller and then she proceeded to give me my airways clearance information.  I was told I was cleared by London instead of Bristol and thought, wait a minute, where am I going?  The controller then corrected the clearance as being issued by Bristol.  Panic over.

At 15:00z we were cleared to take-off, only 35 minutes late!  Fortunately ATC didn’t seem bothered by it.  The tracking towards MORTN went great and before long I was heading south-west towards BADIM.  At the beginning of the leg there was quite a bit of turbulence but that settled down before too long and I was able to keep the aircraft within the altitude holding limit of +/- 100ft.  The radar controller gave me an odd radio call when I was approaching the airway that contained my routing but I never heard him state that I was cleared to enter controlled airspace and so not wanting to bust straight into it I called him up and asked whether I was cleared to enter.  He stated that I was.  Panic over.

I joined the airway, and then left a few minutes later and then headed south towards Bristol, tuning the radios and getting ready for the approach.  Shortly thereafter I began getting radar vectors and descents as the approach controller guided me towards runway 27.

Please note: plate use with permission; neither the CAA or NATS accept any liability or responsibility for the content of the information; plate is for information purposes only and not intended for operational use.

Drawn very roughly on the chart are the radar vectors that were given to me.  I was approaching on a heading of 170 degrees and then was turned onto a heading of 130, then 180 for the base leg and then an intercept heading for the ILS.  The approach was then in my hands as I guided the aircraft towards the runway closely monitoring the HSI, speed, altimeter and my distance from the runway.  The approach was deliciously smooth, those gusts that were forecast were nowhere to be seen.  There was a bit of a crosswind and some correction was required to maintain the centreline but nothing extreme.

I got down to minima, screen still there (still in cloud!) and so initiated a go-around.  Bristol had instructed me to turn right onto 360 degrees and to climb to 3000ft.  While I was climbing out my examiner gave me a simulated engine failure and I carried out the engine failure drills:

With that dealt with I continued the climb and started my diversion back to Oxford.  Before long we did the general handling section where I was to handle the aircraft with several of the instruments failed (covered up!).  I was without my attitude indicator, HSI and RMI so I had to rely on the standby compass for heading information and the turn coordinator to know if I was turning or wings level.  During that time I was required to hold heading/altitude, climb, descend and change to new headings.  After that I did some unusual attitude recoveries (where the aircraft is put in a steep turn climbing/descending and I have to recover back to straight and level).  Once done with that we did some stalls and then once I was orientated with where we were, took us back to Oxford.

Back at Oxford I carried out the NDB 19 procedure (with a simulated failed engine), flew down to minima, saw the runway and continued the approach until ACA (asymmetric committal altitude) at and then carried a go-around on one engine, flew a circuit and then landed on runway 19.  I’ll describe the 19 procedure some other time, this post is already hideously long.

It was so good to be back on the ground.  They were probably the most intense two and a half hours of my life.  Watching everything so closely, talking on the radio and handling the aircraft for during that time while being examined was rather demanding.  My examiner taxied back while I carried out the after landing checks.  After engine shut down he jumped out and went inside while I tied the aircraft down and gathered various items together.  I was hoping he would tell me the result of the exam before he left but he didn’t.  He left me hanging which made me ever so nervous!

Back inside I put the aircraft documents away and then went to meet my examiner for a debrief.  We went over the answers to a couple of questions he had asked me earlier and then he said ‘in order to carry out the debrief appropriately I’ll tell you the result and we’ll go from there.  I have given you a pass.’  My goodness, the relief was immense.  Indescribable actually!  We went over some points that I can improve on for the IRT and then went our separate ways.  Win!

I hope this has given some insight into what trainee pilots have to go through in order to gain an Instrument Rating.  It’s probably way too detailed, sorry about that.  If you’ve stuck with it, you’ve passed – a test of patience.

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