How to get an FAA Instrument Rating

image I took my instrument rating test at the end of 2004 in Orlando Florida on a Cirrus SR-22.  This article describes the test and gives hard-won tips and advice for other people who are thinking of taking the FAA IR checkride.

My background

Before I started my IR training, I had about 250 hours and a UK IMC rating, with about 15 hours on Cirrus aircraft.  I completed about 25 hours of training in the UK with John Page from TAA and finished my training with Air Orlando at Orlando Executive Airport, Florida, where I had another twenty or so hours of training (most of this was familiarisation with the local area and mock tests – I was ready to take the test when I left).

Paperwork, booking, requirements

Getting a temporary airman’s certificate

  • If you don’t already have an FAA licence, you can take the tests for an FAA PPL or CPL (see my other article How to get an FAA CPL) or you can get an FAA licence on the back of your UK licence and add the IR to that.  This is the route I chose because I didn’t want to take another, unnecessary test. Later, if you get a standalone FAA licence you can transfer the IR to it with no problems.
  • To get an FAA licence on the back of your UK one, you’ll need to get a letter of authenticity from the FAA.  They will check with the CAA that you are who you say you are.  The CAA in turn need a form and payment to confirm your details to the FAA.  Once you get the letter in the post, you can make an appointment with the local FSDO to pick up your temporary airman’s certificate.  The actual pick up takes an hour or so.
  • Check the detailed instructions on the FAA’s website, the CAA’s website and the Orlando FSDO’s office website.
  • You will (probably) need the letter of authenticity to take the IR test, even if you already have an FAA licence based on your UK one.
  • The process isn’t time-consuming. It took me about an hour to get all the documents together, faxed and the confirmation letter came back in less than ten days.

VISA requirements

  • I have updated the advice in this section. It is not practical or sensible to try to take the IR test without getting an appropriate visa. US immigration officials take a very wary view of people turning up for flight training and you don’t want to get caught in a lie or barred from entry.
  • Most people will need an M-1 non-immigrant, vocational education visa route. To get this, you need to make an appointment with the embassy, complete forms DS156, 157 and 158 and get the flying school to complete I-20.  The process will take several months.  The details are on the US embassy website.  You can also check the US immigration people’s website for more details about the M-1 / I-20 process.
  • Check with your flying school for more details.

Foreign students security check

  • You’ll need to get security cleared by the TSA before beginning any flight training in the US.  You can do this online.  For more information see the TSA’s website.  This will take a few weeks at least because you have to get digital fingerprints taken.

Application form

  • Your instructor and examiner should check the 8710 form very carefully but you can save time by finishing it in advance.
  • Take a digital copy with you in case you need to make changes.

Calculating hours

  • You need to calculate your times to complete the IR application form.  You’ll need totals for each of the headings in the 8710 form and also total hours on Cirrus SR-22s.  The same flight may appear in several columns.  I had to go through my whole log book and it took me four hours so it’s worth doing in advance.

Cross-country qualifications

  • You need 50 hours of cross-country as P1.  Check out the Part 61 FAQ which contains (among other things) a description of what qualifies as a cross-country flight. To make things simpler, I basically logged every trip where I landed in a different place than I started and the trip took more than one hour.  Although the requirements are a bit more specific than that this seemed to work and saved me calculating the length of each trip as my instructor advised.  I had a print out of the spreadsheet with all the flight logged carefully to show the examiner.  Warning: this might not be acceptable to a different examiner.  You need to be very careful to have met ALL the requirements and to be able to evidence them all before you turn up for the checkride.

Night qualifications

  • Make sure you have ten take off and landings at night in your log book. This is a requirement of the FAA PPL and consequently of the FAA IR, even though it is not listed in FAR/AIM as an IR requirement.

Log book

  • Make sure your instructor has signed each IR training trip.
  • Log the type and location of each instrument approach.
  • Make sure you get a high performance sign off and fill out Air Orlando’s rental paperwork before you take the test. They’re happy for you to fly off with examiners but it can take a while to fill out the rental paperwork if you have to do it on the day of the test (as I did).

Time

  • Based on my experience, you should allow about five to seven days and 15-20 hours of pre-test flying in Orlando.
  • It is best if you can give yourself a couple of days to get over jet lag before starting.
  • Air Orlando also advise getting an open ended flight home or allowing two or three days clear at the end of your trip in case you fail your check ride and need to retake. I took my JAR PPL, FAA IR and FAA CPL in Florida and every single time I ended up taking the checkride in the last day or two. Don’t make your life too stressful – allow plenty of time.

Medical

  • As I understand it, you can keep your FAA temporary PPL certificate valid by keeping your UK licence and medical current.  However, the PPL/IR website says that you need a US medical for your IR when it is issued on the temporary PPL certificate.  Playing safe, I have a US medical (I thought I was going to take the FAA PPL) and I have a UK medical plus the IR-required hearing test.  This is worth double-checking with the examiner / flying school / AME.

Booking in advance

  • Book the written test in advance with Lasergrade so that you can get it out of the way in the first day or two. You need to give them 24 hours notice. The test costs $80, paid on the phone with a credit card, and you can take the test at Air Orlando. www.lasergrade.com.
  • Book your plane and instructor with Air Orlando before departing. They operate a paper and pencil booking system like Cabair so it’s worth confirming everything with operations very carefully before you leave.
  • My examiner, Mark Griffin, is usually available on 24 hour notice and the other Cirrus-qualified examiner, Bob Raskie, is a United Airlines pilot and has less flexibility. Discuss your choice of examiner with Air Orlando and try to book up the examiner in advance. I also highly recommend Janeen Kolchan who did my CPL check ride.

Nailing the written exams

Test tips

  • For the written, you must take two forms of photo ID, such as a driver’s licence and passport.
  • Allow 30 minutes to set up, do paperwork and be briefed on the computer testing system before taking the test.
  • You can use a Jeppesen style calculator but it has to be inspected first so no PDAs. There is also an effective onscreen flight computer.
  • Don’t worry if the computer crashed after you have completed the test – this is normal and you won’t have to do the test again.

Test preparation

  • Read the FAA IR book.  There are other books available but you can download it as a PDF from the FAA.
  • Watch the King DVDs at least twice, taking notes where necessary.
  • Take and retake all the questions using the King computerized testing program until you get them all right. This is like using the PPL Confuser. Since some of the questions are ambiguously worded actually seeing the answers to the real questions can be a real help.
  • Aim for 100% in the written exam. It will help you with the oral but remember that using DVDs to get through the written is a different kind of learning compared to the information and approach you need for the oral exam.
  • Read the practical test standard scarefully so you know what you will have to do on the test and can highlight any areas you need to revise.
  • I didn’t use it for the IR but I found Dauntless‘s computer based oral test prep software very helpful for my CPL.

Oral exam

My oral exam lasted two and a half hours. A friend of mine with the same examiner had a four-hour oral. This is on top of an hour or so of paperwork and preparation. This means that I was tired before I even get in the plane.  The instructors at the school were a little surprised at how long it took and suggested that with other instructors the exam might be less arduous.  Certainly, if I was a US-based pilot a lot of the core knowledge, such airspace categories, would be obvious.

Test format

Before the day of the test, you’ll probably be given a cross-country flight to plan using airways. Discussing this in detail will be part of the test so it’s worth studying the plates, the charts etc.

Most of the questions are in the form of extended dialogues rather than straight Q&As. For example, he’ll have you discuss the cross-country flight you’ll have prepared in advance and talk you through the entire en-route chart, approach chart, minima, alternate requirements etc.
Typical questions:

  • “If you have to circle to land, what is the maximum distance you can go from the airport?” The answer involves explaining how aircraft categories are defined (1.3 x Vso etc.), knowing that these relate to specific radii from the runways and so on. I nearly failed on this point.
  • What are the reception distances of VORs at different altitudes? (memorise the table)
  • “What should you do if your PFD loses air data in IMC?” (know / explain the limitations of the different systems, what is minimum equipment in the Cirrus, whether or not you can reset it etc.)
  • “Now you’re above a cloud layer and you’ve lost your entire electrical system on both buses.” (Set up a trimmed descent and maintain it using the compass and balance ball – apparently).
  • “How can you check your VOR(s), what at the allowable tolerances, how often do you have to do it and how do you record the tests?”
  • “What are the failure modes of the pitot static system and what are their symptoms”
  • “Describe the icing system on the Cirrus SR-22” The answer requires the words titanium, glycol, not cleared for known icing and limited supply among other things.

My examiner walked me through some questions when he felt that I didn’t understand what he was getting at but the experience was sometimes a bit stressful.

Tips

  • Learn EVERYTHING by heart. I can’t emphasise this enough. You need total, instant recall of all the data in the ASA IR Oral Test guide. You will also be expected to be familiar with the Cirrus POH, Garmin manuals and other aircraft documentation.
  • It helps to have index cards with basic information about aircraft systems: engine, TKS, pitot/static, electricals etc. etc. so that you can memorise the specifications and set up of the plane you’ll fly.
  • Ask for a break between the oral and the flight test if you need it. You can even cancel the rest of the test if you are too tired. Examiners typically charge 50% of the test fee for a retest so you can get the oral done on one day and then the flight test done the next day.
  • Book the examiner early enough in the day to get the oral and flight test done before dark.
  • If you’re stuck, think about what actually happens in a plane when you are actually flying it. For example, this worked pretty well for me in describing how to recover from an unusual attitude – like describing how to tie a bow tie it is easier to do than to say.
  • Give examples. For example, I talked him through a departure out of Denham to airways at CPT and what I would have set on the various frequencies and so on. This covered me pretty well because I couldn’t have said the same stuff for a trip out of Orlando. It didn’t stop him asking me about it later but it did show I had a good grasp of the issues in my own environment even if my answers for Orlando where short on specifics.
  • The “I’m English, we don’t do that” defence is really only usable once or twice and then only to cover partial answers to non-failing questions but it can be a lead into describing what we do do (e.g. how we get weather).
  • Be wary of giving him more information than he wants. For example, it’s tempting to try to impress him with some esoteric knowledge that you may have but he knows more stuff than you do and he’ll just keep gnawing away at a topic until you’ve run out of smart things to say.
  • American weather sources are hugely complicated and fiddly and you have to know a ton of stuff. I blagged it (and it may not work for you) by describing the KINDS of weather information I would need with reference to the information I had gathered for the test ride. This showed I knew what I wanted and that I could get it, even if I couldn’t say what the wretched forms were called. He suggested that we could go out to the computer weather briefing system and go through it but since I had prepared a briefing for him we didn’t actually do this.
  • Get all your instructors to continually pop quiz on you stuff.  This is the best way to learn things.
  • To learn the stuff in the IR book, make revision flash cards with the question on one side and the answer on the other.
  • Don’t leave your completed revision cards in Einstein’s Bagelry where they will be thrown out with the trash, never to be seen again.

Check ride

Flying the plane

  • DME arcs. As with holds, it helps to draw them before you fly them. They’re not difficult but typically, the examiner will give you a few minutes warning of when he wants you to turn onto the arc so you have to be quick.
  • My instructor taught me a great way to do DME arcs with an HSI or EHSI:
  1. Draw it out
  2. Work out which way to make your 90 degree turn. This will be useful because it helps you remember which way to cut in if you want to reduce the DME distance.
  3. To increase the DME distance, just keep flying straight.
  4. Lead the turn (I always forgot) by about half a mile.
  5. As you turn, press the left-hand button on the PFD to centralize the CDI on the current radial.
  6. Roll out straight once the HSI is horizontal and aligned with the little east/west dots on the outside of the EHSI and the CDI is also horizontal but two or three dots above the lubber line.
  7. As you near the next radial and turn, the CDI will fall and line up with the lubber line.
  8. Adjust for wind by having one side or the other up a few degrees.
  9. Just turn ten degrees and twist the OBS ten degrees until you are five to ten degrees off your inbound track.
  • Air Olando expect you to arm the parachute for every flight.
  • You will be expected to use a stopwatch to time from the FAF to the missed approach point on ILS approaches in case the glideslope fails so it’s really important to get in the habit of doing this. I found it helpful to get my flaps in before the final approach fix so that all I had to do was start my stopwatch and pitch forward. One less thing to do.
  • Approach briefs need to be more in-depth than just scanning the briefing strip on the Jepp plates. You have to be clear on the timings, rates of descent required and whether or not you need the marker beacon receiver armed. The later is usually switched off because so many approaches fly over beacons but don’t use them.
  • They expect you to fly the holds in such a way that the inbound leg is a minute and adjusted for wind and they think you should use the outbound leg(s) to calculate wind correction. It’s not just enough to get back to the beacon on a straight line.
  • ATC between Sanford and Orlando can be very busy and you may not be able to pick up the ATIS. If this happens, as a backup, you can 1) get the ATIS on the trip page of both SR-22s because they have weather downloads (how cool is that!), 2) get the pressure setting from the approach controller and the wind from the tower.
  • You won’t be allowed to use the autopilot except when using it will distract you and make you press the wrong button. You won’t be allowed to use the map on the MFD. Putting it up is inviting your examiner to fail the whole MFD and it’s better to have it there for engine instruments or weather than lose it altogether.
  • On the other hand, you will probably do at least one ILS using the autopilot so you need to be very practiced at this and you need to include the autopilot set up in your approach briefing.
  • They will expect slow flight under the hood, ditto with departure stalls and approach stalls.
  • The FAA expects you to put on your landing light within ten miles of an airfield and below 10,000 feet. This is the entire Orlando area so put it on before take off whatever the time of day.
  • Work out where to go before you start taxiing. Executive is a big airport and there are jets and stuff. They’re very big on avoiding runway incursions so make a big deal of holding short or checking when crossing 13/31 to get to 25 threshold or coming back from landing on 07.
  • You will fly a GPS approach. It’s worth reading the FAA IR book. They’re pretty easy – easier than flying an NDB using the GPS.
  • They will expect you to have every approach loaded in the GPS even if you are hand flying the aircraft. The GPS approach will likely be done with a failed PFD so you need to be able to fly using Garmins for guidance and the backup instruments to fly the plane.
  • Flying partial panel, you can use GPS one to show the HSI presentation and GPS two to show the compass page. This makes turning onto headings easier than just using the TRK number display. If you just use the track, holding a turn for three seconds and straightening up will edge the heading around without overshooting.
  • ATC regularly turn you late onto the final approach course so be prepared to fly it through the heading and be vectored back in from the other side. If you think approach has forgotten you, you can call and ask if you’re cleared for the approach.
  • ATC will tell you to speed up or slow down quite often. You need to be completely happy nailing different speeds at 5 and 10 knot intervals, both on the approach or going down finals. Of course, you can tell them to resequence you or refuse but it’s better to get used to different speeds. The test standards require +/- 10 knots.

Typical checkride

  • A typical check ride is:
  1. VOR radial simulating SOAPS1 departure from Executive
  2. Hold on that radial
  3. Vectors to ILS at Sanford for touch and go
  4. Out to the Lake Apopka practice area for air work
  5. An arc into GPS partial panel at Leesburg with a circle to land
  6. Back to Executive for a VOR approach
  • Try to avoid doing the trip during busy times, such as Friday afternoon, to cut down on the ATC stuff.
  • Remember that if your instructor doesn’t tell you to stop the check ride, you haven’t failed. They have to tell you if they’re going to fail you for something. So if you don’t hear anything, press on and leave self-criticism to the post-flight debrief. Even if you do fail on something, they give you the option of continuing to do the rest of the checkride, so you can fail the precision approach, do everything else and then (after a remedial flight with an instructor and another endorsement) you can take the check ride again and only have to do the bit you failed.
  • The examiner will probably do a lot of the radio work for you but you shouldn’t expect him to do any. In other words, you’ll need to be ready to get clearance into class bravo, get clearance for approaches, pick up the ATIS from different places and switch between the various Orlando Approach frequencies as directed.
  • The controllers are good but very busy and the procedures are different. For example you might call “Orlando Approach, Cirrus 2468 Sierra with request” when you want to get a clearance into the Class Bravo. I recommend listening to the various Orlando frequencies on the Internet before you go to get your ear in (www.liveatc.net).
  • Study the plates for Executive, Sanford, Leesburg and Kissimmee before you go.
  • Fly all the approaches in a flight simulator lots of times so you can anticipate the mandatory heights and get the procedures down pat.
  • Executive has a backcourse approach to runway 25. The trick to flying this is 1) to turn the OBS through 180 degrees so that you get positive course guidance and 2) remember that the localizer is four times more sensitive than a VOR. Apart from that it is just like a VOR approach.
  • You will do a circle-to-land approach on your test and it’s worth practicing them because the heights and circuit pattern will be different than a regular visual approach.

Where to stay

I stayed at a number of places because I was researching a travel article on Florida at the same time. My recommendations:

  • Ritz-Carlton Grande Lakes: Upscale near Disney etc. About a 30-40m drive to Executive.
  • Westin Grand Bohemian: smart boutique-y hotel in Orlando city centre. About a 10-15m drive to Executive.

Both are likely to cost $200-400 per night. A cheaper option might be the Veranda B&B (www.theverandabandb.com). The website looks good and you can get a suite for about $130 and it’s 10-15m drive to the airport.

Air Orlando recommend staying in one of the soulless hotels on 436 from the international airport to Executive. The problem is that the road is very slow with lots of traffic lights and the commute will take a long time. Also, it’s a pretty desolate strip.

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9 Responses to How to get an FAA Instrument Rating

  1. Lucas Noia February 1, 2012 at 20:10 #

    To study for the written there are programs like our software that do not teach you mindless memorization but instead teach you the material itself through time tested techniques. I have been personally teaching written exam classes for over 10 years and here is the result of my experience:
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    Feel free to download our trial version and see if this teaching technique suits your needs.

  2. Florian December 23, 2013 at 09:31 #

    Very helpful post! Thank you! Now I feel a little bit closer to my IR. 😉 happy landings!

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