Today was my IR Skills Test. The examiner must come from the CAA and they come to Flight Training Europe in one-week blocks every month or so to test the students, this adds on a tiny bit more pressure because if you fail and the examiner goes back to the UK, then you may have to wait up to a month to take the test again. This was not an option for Course 101, we all had type-ratings booked with our respective airlines and all of the slack in the programme had already been used up, there were no more ace-cards or jokers to play, we had to pass and then we had to start our MCC/JOC course immediately if we were to make our type-rating dates. Mine is scheduled to start with FlyBe at Exeter on the 26th March and the MCC/JOC lasts 5 weeks.
The IR Skills Test starts with a brief from the examiner, he tells you what the profile of the flight is going to be and then fires a bunch of questions your way, some are to do with the route and possible alternatives, others are aircraft technical questions, and the rest of operational procedures/air law questions – mine in particular revolved around carrying a large box of unknown weight and content. The examiner is looking to see if one can apply the knowledge gained over the last 15 months; what is in the box, hazardous goods? how heavy is the box and will it effect the mass and balance? are the contents banned at the destination? All of these are the sorts of questions one should be expected to think about.
With the initial brief completed I headed out to the aircraft and the examiner would meet me in 20 minutes. I wanted to get the Seneca III up and running because they aren’t great at starting in the cold and I didn’t want to be relying on instructors to get my aircraft started like I needed on my CPL. I climbed into the aircraft and went through the pre-start checks and decided that I would use the cold-starting technique which is in the Operators Handbook (but not in any of the operations manuals, probably because it is rarely cold enough to be required) to give me the best chance of getting the thing started. The Seneca is terrible at starting in the cold, it has a battery the size of my motorbike (and the cold makes it effectively half the size again) and has to crank a 6 cylinder hunk of iron that was actually designed to drive a now-ancient sewerage pump, this is not an ideal combination. I press the starter button and just get a loud “humming noise” as the prop turns about 30degrees then stops. I curse loudly and try again, nothing. I turn off all the other electric-draining items in the aircraft and try it again, it starts to turn but at about 30% of the speed required for it to fire up. Its happening again, its my test and all I want to happen is settle down and here I am faffing around trying to get this heap of junk started. I take the approach used in my CPL and decide to start the No.2 engine first then use the extra power generated to start the pitiful No.1 engine. The No.2 clatters into life and once it has warmed up, I feed in some extra power to get it up to 2000rpm, this should be plenty to give some extra amps to the battery to turn the No.1 engine. The No.1 engine turns over… and over, and over and over but nothing happens. After 30secs I leave it for a minute, then try again, same thing. The blasted thing was not going to start under the limited-hours/experience of my hands. My course-mate Jonathan Higgins called me over the radio and said he would go and get an engineer from the hangar. I called up operations and told them to delay the examiner because I couldn’t get it started, they gave suggestions on how to start the engine, all of which I had already tried in vain. The engineer came out after about 5 minutes and sat in the cockpit with me “your test today is it?” “yes unfortunately” I reply, “well lets get this bugger started for you then”. I cannot repeat most of the words used by this engineer after this, but I can summarise that it took another 15 minutes of colourful language and lots of petrol pouring out of the bottom of the engine before miraculously the engine fired into life (I actually thought the whole engine was going to catch fire with the amount of fuel that had previously leaked out). I was saved and could try and get the heaters on to have my hands turn back to their normal colour.
The examiner eventually came out and the aircraft was running ok and was also nice and toasty warm, I could feel my fingers and toes and felt this was a good thing, I really didn’t fancy doing what is known as the most difficult test a pilot will take without much feeling in the body parts required to control the aircraft.
With clearance to taxi I headed down to the runway intersection and lined up, “Exam 15 wind 220 5 knots, clear take-off runway 02”. This was it, I took a deep breath in through the mouth and out through the nose (so the examiner wouldn’t hear it through the microphone) and applied take-off power before rotating at 80knots and climbing into the icy morning sky. Due to the wind direction, the route had me following an incredibly short SID but thankfully, the wind was also blowing 30knots straight against me, this coupled with the very cold air meant the aircraft climbed very quickly and did not cover as much ground as it would normally, allowing me a bit more time to settle in the very short cruise. After 5 minutes in the cruise I made a call to Seville Approach “Exam 15 maintaining Flight Level seven zero, Hinajosa departure, request decent 2000 feet, radar vectors ILS Seville”, I then prayed that Seville were not going to faff me around and that I had a good controller. “Exam One Five, roger…. descend 5000 feet QHN 1023, heading right three two zero….. correction, left three two zero, left three two zero sir”. This was not too bad, perhaps I was going to be ok and not messed around too much, I called my response and following my checks setup the aircraft for the descent towards Seville. “Exam One Five, turn left heading zero seven zero”. This call meant I was going to have to make a 250 degree turn to the left, but turning directions in aviation are always by the shortest path unless the controller says otherwise. “Confirm left zero seven zero?” I queried. “Affirmative sir, left zero seven zero”. So left it was, perhaps he wanted to space me from other aircraft.
One of the problems with old planes like the Seneca is that they automatically turn the shortest direction, so if I simply dialled in 070 on the heading, it would turn right, so I had to gradually turn it left until there was less than 180 degrees to go and then I could set the heading. With 200 degrees to go a different controller spoke to me “Exam One Five, amend clearance, turn right zero three zero”. Rats, now I had to turn all the way back again; it must have been a student ATC person I was speaking to the first time. “Exam One Five, descend 2000 feet QNH 1024”, brilliant, I had a good controller now who was going to position me nicely for the ILS into Seville. I kept a close eye on the NDB needle as I set myself up to turn onto the ILS localiser, I was using the NDB because for some reason, my KNS80 would not pickup the VOR beacon. As it came towards 15 degrees I was awaiting the call to be cleared for the approach, but it didn’t come, so I made a call to remind the controller where I was “Exam one five, maintain zero three zero 2000 feet”. Bugger, he wasn’t going to turn me onto the ILS at all, he was going to send me off elsewhere before he could position me back onto the ILS away from other commercial traffic, I slowed right down to keep the distance flying away from Seville to a minimum. “At least I didn’t have that bloke who didn’t know his left from his right” I thought…
I was finally vectored back towards Seville and increased my speed to make a hasty return, I was cleared for the ILS and flew it beautifully, never more than a quarter of a dot from the required path, I was feeling nice and relaxed and knew I just had to do the EFATO, General Handling and then the non-precision approach next. The ILS approach actually is not a landing, it is a low-approach and go-around to check you are able to go-around under instruments, this happens at just over 200ft above the runway. I climbed the aircraft up and turned right heading back towards Jerez, I cleaned up and set climb power and then the examiner covered the power levers with his board. The examiner then simulates an engine failure by closing one of the throttles, the student then identifies the engine failure after controlling the yaw (when an engine fails, the aircraft wants to turn towards the failed engine before starting to roll, if left unchecked it will go into a spiral dive) and simulates a feather drill.
The examiner “failed” the engine, I quickly controlled the yaw and held the heading perfectly, my right foot was hard on the rudder which meant my left leg was “dead”, this helps the call for the engine that is dead – “dead leg left, dead engine left”, as simple as that. I glanced at the HSI again and decided a tiny bit less right rudder was needed so I squeezed the rudder with my left foot and as I did so I then called out “dead leg right dead engine right” and then started the practice feather drills. Now if this was a proper engine failure instead of a touch-drill, I would have realised I called the wrong engine straight away because I would have closed the throttle and noticed it was the wrong one. However with the touch-drills, there is absolutely no way of confirming because you only glance and touch the levers, so I simply automatically recited the drill I had done countless times over the last 3 months, the drill I had been given the highest mark available from the CFI only 2 days ago, and recited the drill calling the wrong engine out “right throttle closed, right propeller feather, right mixture idle cut-off, right fuel selector off”.
“Are you sure it’s the right engine?” the examiner asked after I proudly had finished my perfectly coherent drill, “No, its the left engine, otherwise I wouldn’t have controlled the yaw properly, plus I still have my right foot on the rudder, see?” I explained. “you called the right engine, but don’t worry about it, just carry on, nothing to worry about”.
Holy crap… I had just buggered up the simplest thing on the whole entire test and I now had to go and fly limited panel unusual attitudes and carry out a non-precision approach with 30kt winds. I was either going to sink or swim, I decided I was definitely not going to sink, besides, this guy was really nice and surely he could see I had just called out the wrong engine but done the right drill? I soldiered on.
Amazingly, the rest of the flight went completely without a hitch. My unusual attitudes and stalling were perfect, as was my non-precision approach, the examiner also made a comment that in his last 3 visits, I was the only person to land perfectly on the main wheels then gently lower the nose onto the runway using the yoke, I felt chuffed! Then unfortunately after the engines were shut down he broke the news. “It was a perfectly smooth flight, a pleasure to sit in and examine, but unfortunately I have to partial-pass you for the EFATO, I know you know how to do it, but I have to abide by the examination rules and see you do it”.
Rats… So I had passed at first go, but we would need to go out again sometime next week before he could sign me off. We would have to do a take-off, then he would simulate the failure and I would have to do the drill again, then complete the circuit land the plane. It could have been worse I guess, but I was about to spend the rest of the day and weekend at home kicking myself for doing something so stupid.
I packed up my bags in my room, loading as much stuff that I wasn’t going to need anymore at FTE in as possible, then went to check-in my bag at Jerez Airport for my flight home via Madrid. This hopefully, would be the last time I would be making this tiresome journey back to Heathrow T3, but one I would spend most of the way trying to read my Kindle to take my mind off getting my left and right mixed up, ironically, just like the junior ATC controller had done 20 minutes before.