How to Pass the IFR Flight Test

COPA Flight 8 Meeting 28 November 2007.

by Ruth Merkis-Hunt


Flight 8 members ordinarily meet at the Ottawa Flying Club for their monthly Wednesday night meeting and last night should have been no exception...except that it was. For reasons which remain a mystery as of the time of this writing, the doors to the flying club were closed and locked tight. Nobody knew why but, given the increasing number of members who were arriving on this chilled November night, it was increasingly evident that we needed a place to meet – and right away!

COPA Flight 8 member Dennis Pharoah saved the night by offering the use of his office at the Transportation Safety Board of Canada to hold the meeting. With 22 people we would need more than an office. We wound up gathered in one of the TSB's conference rooms, which was markedly warmer than hanging around outside on a cold November night!

With that problem solved, the meeting could begin. Ray Beland, Transport Canada Lead Flight Training Inspector in Ottawa, came to speak to us about passing the IFR flight test. He began by outlining what topics he wanted to cover. They included familiarizing pilots with the 4-point marking scale examiners use in assessing candidates as well as understanding the tolerances examiners use when grading individual exercises. Beland also wanted to review the changes made to the IFR Flight Test Guide (FTG), common errors candidates make and how to avoid them and, finally, a few scenarios for us to consider and how we would have graded them. The scenarios, Beland added, were from on actual flight tests.

Beland then asked us "Why fly IFR?" The reason's included that you can fly above the weather and in smoother air. It is not comfortable being bounced around the skies and so climbing above the turbulent lower layers solves that dilemma. Another reason is that IFR flight increases the chances of getting to destination and back. Not being held back by poor weather means increased flexibility and fewer cancelled trips. A third advantage is that ATC shares responsibility for traffic separation.

Yet, for all the advantages of flying IFR, there are some constraints, most notably having to deal with icing. The example Beland gave was about pilots facing broken cloud layers, scud and other weather up to a certain altitude only to face icing conditions above the weather. This tied into his next constraint, that of aircraft not suitably equipped for IFR flying. Particularly, Beland mentioned the need for redundant navigation equipment, especially when flying north where fewer navigation facilities exist, along with weather avoidance equipment, such as on-board weather radar and stormscope. A final constraint centered around the lack of proficiency that plagues many IFR pilots. It's challenging to remain current on IFR flying, stated Beland, although not impossible.

The next topic was the 4-point marking scale and the application of the various tolerances examiners use in grading candidates. Essentially, a mark of "4" means the candidate exceeded the standards for the exercise. In other words "excellent". A mark of "3" means the candidate met the standard with only a few minor deviations. A grade of "2" means the candidate's performance met the basic standard with occasional deviations which went beyond limits but which were recognized and corrected without compromising safety. A grade of "1" means the candidate's performance was below standard with unacceptable deviations. Essentially, the difference between a mark of "1" and a mark of "2" lies in whether the candidate recognized and corrected the error.

The issue of safety was a major point brought up by Beland as he discussed the elements of the marking scheme itself. Observations examiners make on the candidate's performance play a role in the grade is given. Some of the elements mentioned include: the overall performance of the candidate in meeting the criteria for the test item, overall aircraft handling, technical skills and knowledge of the aircraft systems, situational awareness, especially to do with shifting weather and traffic in the area and flight management skills. For instance, Beland said, how well the pilot organizes the cockpit itself, such as map placement, can certainly influence the candidate's grade.

But, how good is "good"; and what do examiners mean by "stays within acceptable tolerances"? This is where the application of tolerances for any given exercise comes into play. In short, to earn a mark of "3" means that the candidate was able to fly the aircraft on a given heading, plus or minus 10 degrees, at a given airspeed plus or minus 10 knots and at a prescribed altitude, plus or minus 100 feet. Flight that remained well within those limits would net the candidate a grade of "4" (excellent), while anything outside those limits would result in a mark of either "2" or "1" depending on whether the candidate recognized and corrected. Of course, anything that threatens the safety of the flight or where a candidate's deviations were more than doubled the allowable limit would result in a "1", even if the candidate recognized and corrected the error. Of course, examiners do take weather conditions, including turbulence into consideration and have a certain degree of discretionary powers when assessing grades.

The changes to the IFR FTG were numerous but overall candidates are expected to demonstrate much better knowledge and proficiency. For instance, Exercise 8 - Approaches, now makes cold temperature compensation for altimeter errors mandatory for temperatures below 0?C. In Exercise 2, IFR operational knowledge is now a ground item, rather than an air item, with Beland mentioning that candidates who fail 1 "ground item" do not do the flight.

Examiners are looking for demonstrated competence, good judgment and decision making, as Exercise 1B – Flight Planning states. In particular, examiners want to see candidates think far enough ahead that they can formulate and state a plan for virtually any situation, especially when it comes to deteriorating weather at the destination and alternate, loss of navigation equipment and in fuel management. Good judgement also allows for the flexibility of the candidate to execute a missed approach if the conditions warrant.

Beland talked about some of the more common errors candidates make, emphasizing that they are all avoidable. They include not having the most up to date weather information and especially not knowing the difference between PROB and TEMPO in the TAF. Weak communication skills, incomplete flight logs or pre-flight checks and out of date charts were also among the list of common errors made. The only way to avoid those and other errors, is through training and practice, practice, practice.

When training for IFR flying, Beland said, fly "real" IFR in cloud as much as possible. Interact with ATC as often as possible, practice emergency procedures with a qualified safety pilot and develop a good sense of orientation by knowing where you are using your navaids. Don't rush, added Beland. But, above all, know your stuff.