My IFR Checkride ...Oct 13, 2015 
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Q: What has two thumbs and an IFR rating?
A: This guy!


DPE Contact Info: John McLaughlin (VAF username 'CopterJohn')

Approaches Flown:

  • RNAV (GPS) RWY 17 (Hand Flown)
  • RNAV (GPS) RWAY 35 (Partial Panel)
  • VOR/DME-A (Hand Flown)


Installment #1: My IFR Checkride

Partial Panel setup: cardboard taped over the PFD

Why Claremore, Oklahoma?

Meet John McLaughlin. In the VAF forums his username is CopterJohn. He has built an RV-6A and currently flies an RV-6A. He is also restoring an RV-10 that needs some love. He is a DPE and lives in Des Moines, Iowa. So, he is a DPE and can do a checkride in an RV, but probably the most important part of this situation is that he has two sons that live and attend college in Claremore, Oklahoma.  He's about an hour fifty from Claremore and I'm an hour twenty five.

I have a good friend (Clayton McMartin) who lives in Claremore, and have been meaning for about a year to go up there and visit him. One of my CFIIs, Gary Platner, is also very good friends with Clayton, and he is always looking for an excuse to go up and visit. He could go with me for free, so we solved that problem in one stroke.

Speaking of that part of Oklahoma, you know who was born near Claremore, Oklahoma besides Will Rogers?  Steve Gaines of nearby Miami. You may not know who he is, but you know some of his music. He was one of the guitarists in the band Lynyrd Skynyrd. There was a song written by the band the Drive-by Truckers called "Cassie's Brother" that was written about Steve joining the band.  More info: lyrics / meaning of song / listen to song.

"If he ain't no good
We'll just leave him right out of the mix
But he proceeded to give some tired mules
A coupla kicks"

You might be wondering why I mention Steve Gaines.  He died at age 29 in a plane crash. NTSB determined fuel mismanagement. Things to think about as you're flying up to do your IFR checkride near his hometown. This is an endeavor with risk, and the hobby is unforgiving of inattention to detail.  Things like IFR flight.

Preparation for the Oral

I've been working towards this instrument rating on and off for 18 1/2 years. In about the last five months or so I thought it might be a good idea just to finish this thing up and knock it out. That involved many things: getting the transponder IFR cert check, doing a VOR check, making sure all the databases were up and current, gathering a pile of PDF documents on my iPad that I could use for the open book oral part of the exam. And I had to cross some T's and dot some I's on the website to get all of my ducks in a row.  I passed my written a year ago, just before my Mom passed - the reason for the delay.   Lots of practice approaches.  Lots.

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The RV-6 isn't known as the most stable IFR platform on the planet, but I have over 1,000 hours in mine and I'm pretty familiar with its idiosyncrasies and how it communicates what it's doing through the stick. It's just very sensitive mostly. I don't think I would've been brave enough to try the IFR checkride in this airplane with 250 hours under my belt.

As for the PDF documents, go to this link and download pretty much everything that says instrument flight rules and/or airplane in the title. You will end up with something on the order of 3000 pages of information.  All searchable.

Some include:

For me I used the iBooks application on my iPad Mini as it allows me to search the documents. This comes in pretty handy, for example when you're DPE asks you about RAIM on your Garmin 430W. I pulled up the PDF owner's manual and found the answer in about 15 seconds.

Screen capture from my iPad mini:

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Screen capture of my 'checklist' album of pictures below.  Note that several of them are those complicated-to-remember items like airspace, runway signs, weather symbols and more.  It's nice to have all this two feet from your eyes accessible in four seconds all the time in the thinks:

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In installment #2 we'll pick up with the flight to Claremore.  Hope you're enjoying it so far.



Installment #2: My IFR Checkride - Flight up to Claremore, OK

Before I get into the trip up to Claremore, Oklahoma, I'd like to answer a question I've gotten from a few people regarding how I studied for the instrument written. Pretty simple. I went to this free website (click on 'INSTRUMENT STUDY BUDDY', then 'Learning Mode') and used a free screen capture utility to copy/paste enough questions to make sure I knew it.  Only the question, the right answer, the relevant part of the figure/legend if applicable and the explanation into a Microsoft Word document.  I used the annotate feature in Microsoft Word to annotate with red arrows the relevant parts of the figures.

A screengrab from 'Part I':

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A couple of zoomed-in screen grabs from my study guide below should help make better sense of it.  Microsoft Word, and pretty much every word processor, will allow you to save a document as a PDF file.  Email the doc to yourself, open the email on your iPad and select 'Open in iBooks'.  A copy is now on your iPad or phone so you can study at Wendy's during lunch without having to flip pages.

The process of creating this coupla hundred page document was what I did to learn.  Passed on my first try. That document lives on my iPad, my iPhone, and my home computer.

Okay, picking up our story where we left off…

Gary and I launched for Claremore around 0830 in the morning, climbed up to 5500 feet and turned on the autopilot so I could conserve energy :^). About 30 min. out of Claremore I loaded and activated the RNAV (GPS) RWY 35 approach, selecting DAVLE as my IAF, affixed my partial panel cardboard over my primary flight display, pulled up the chart on my iPad, and mentally started to work through the process of flying that approach partial panel when we arrived.

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NW is up......52F direct DAVLE (KGCM)

That little bend in the upper right corner of the picture above shows where I crossed DAVLE and turned on the inbound course. After crossing the initial approach fix, I turned off the autopilot and started using the display on the other side of the cockpit. The purpose of the exercise was twofold: number one, I was going to have to do something like this on the checkride and I needed to practice, and number two, I needed to find out which part of my bifocals work best looking at the display across the cockpit.  Do I lean in a little bit and use the up-close part, or keep my head where it is normally and use the the long vision part?  It turned out that using the up close lens and leaning my head in a little bit into Gary's personal space work best from a vision standpoint.  Probably wasn't Gary's best choice...

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Received an LPV annunciation on the 430W, descended to 983 feet MSL (the decision altitude of 250' agl), got my head outside the cockpit and landed the airplane. Taxied up to the gas pump and topped it off.   Easy cheezy in the still morning air.

John should arrive in a half hour or so, so I have time to rest a little bit, visit the head and eat an Oats 'n Honey crunch bar.

More tomorrow…



Installment #3: My IFR Checkride - The Oral

John landed in his RV-6A around 11 o'clock as planned. Introductions and handshakes and off to the pilot lounge for the non-flying part of the test.  Gary Platner, my passenger and CFII, grabbed the crew car and headed off for a 20 min. drive to go visit our friend Clayton for a few hours.

One of the first things John had to do was log into the IACRA system and "start the clock".  This proved to be a little more difficult than either of us had anticipated. The computer in the pilot lounge would not allow pop-up windows, and the IACRA system uses those. Plan B was to use my iPad, but that didn't work either. Plan C was John using his laptop, but as fate would have it the power supply decided to give up the ghost, and he had a pretty dead battery, so it kept powering down. Last but not least I pulled out my laptop and we got it to work. We "started the clock" and I electronically signed the FAA-required documents John presented me. The testing begins…

He needed to see my logbook endorsements, and this was when we discovered that one of the required endorsements wasn't there. Time to call Gary on the cell phone. "Can you turn the car around and come back here and endorse my logbook?  You and I forgot to." "Yes."

He wanted to see the piece of paper proving that I passed the written.  I remember how I kept this piece of paper under lock and key for a year.  The testing facility made a big deal about not loosing it.  John looked at it for about .4 seconds - just long enough to verify the embossed seal.

We dragged a small end table into the center of the room and spread out all our stuff.

Gary showed back up and entered the logbook endorsement. At that very instant Gary's phone rang with a call from Clayton. "We're back from our trip and I'll fly over there and pick you up." Gary looked over at me and said "fly over and pick me up at Clayton's after your test.....if you pass." :-)

The oral has begun…

"Plan me an IFR flight from here back to your home airport.  Use current weather conditions."

I opened up the iPad and the Garmin Pilot app and started pressing away. I chose various Victor Airways and intersections, checked the icing levels, convective activity, turbulence, and more, and demonstrated to him that I knew how to pull up that information.  These iPads make it seem like cheating.

"How would you activate your IFR flight plan from this non-towered airport we're at?"  On freq per the plan filed via 1.800.WX.BRIEF.

"How would you look to see what the RAIM predictions are on your GPS?" I opened up the PDF owner's manual of my 430W and did a search. It's on the utility page. Here's a picture of it.

"Look at this enroute chart over in the Phoenix area. What is this little symbol mean?" The process continued like this for several minutes, then we turned to weather.

John's day job is chief meteorologist at a television station in Des Moines (KCCI). Did I mention that?

Know your weather if you use John as your DPE.

"Show me a weight and balance for you and me with full tanks and 20 pounds of baggage." I pulled up the tools section of on my iPad, my RV profile, and showed him the graph with the dots inside the envelope.  You remember how to do that, right? <g>

I think the oral lasted something like an hour, but I honestly don't remember.  It went fast.  The thing that I took away the most was that John wasn't looking for me to know the answer of every single question, but he did expect me to know where it was, and be able to look it up quickly. Having about 5000 pages of material in PDF format on my iPad with the search button proved invaluable.

Did you know that the document which describes all the symbols on all the aviation charts is (86) pages long? Let me list a few words which you may not be familiar with, but have unique depictions in that document...

Single versus double versus more than two tracks versus electric versus nonoperating railroad tracks. They all have different symbology.

Pipelines, dams, passable locks, weirs and jetties, seawalls, breakwaters, peers, wharfs, quays and more. They all look different.  And what is a quay?

You get the idea, but let me end with streams. Perennial, non-perennial, fanned out alluvial fan, braided, disappearing, seasonally fluctuating with undefined limits, and with maximum bank limits prominent and constant.

I hope maybe I've made the point that having a PDF document on your iPad that you can search through during the oral isn't the worst of ideas.

Maybe I studied more than I needed to.  On second thought, can you be too prepared for something as serious as this?

I did OK.  John suggested we break for lunch. Actually he gave me the option to fly then eat lunch, but I asked if we could eat lunch and then fly.  Doogie need food.  He said he would ask me a few more questions over lunch.  How VSI's work was among those questions if I remember correctly.

Crew car quick drive.  We walked into a BBQ joint in 'downtown' Claremore, and while walking through the doors of this supposedly country-western barbecue place, I was greeted with the notes of 'Crazy Train' by Ozzy Osbourne.  In F#.  And for you metal aficionados out there, you already know where I'm going with this…

Randy Rhodes, the guitar player on the song 'Crazy Train', was killed in a plane crash on March 19, 1982.  Buzzing the tour bus...and the bus won.  I was a junior in high school at the time and I thought playing guitar was just about the most important thing in the world. It wasn't lost on me that I was in the middle of a test for some of the most dangerous types of flying, while listening to the music written and performed by someone who was killed by the same hardware I was hoping to use safely.  It gave me an opportunity to remind myself to be the safest pilot I could be.

If you have John as a DPE someday, ask him about his REO Speedwagon story. It's pretty good…

More tomorrow.  I've passed the oral.  We drive back to the airport to fly...


All this time
I've been workin' them angels overtime
Riding and diving and flying
Just over the edge.

-- -- Neil Peart


Installment #4: My IFR Checkride - The Flying

The oral part of the instrument check ride is over, and I passed. On to the flying.  It is 1:34 in the afternoon and the heat and bumps are increasing.

With a full stomach and full tanks John and I went out to the airplane and launched. Plan A was to take off and do some unusual attitude recovery under the hood first, which is exactly what we did.  West is up in the screen capture below. You can see we took off to the north, did a climbing right turn to the south, and I put on the hood. John did a few turns (apparently), getting the fluid in my inner ear sloshed around adequately. "You have the aircraft." If memory serves we were in a climb near stall speed slightly turned to one side. Full power, pushed the nose forward and get the wings level. Recovered to John's satisfaction so we carried on to the next task…

Again, West is up in the picture below. The story picks up with us on a heading of 180° (lower left corner). John asked for a right turn to heading 360, and instructed me to contact Tulsa approach and ask for a practice ILS on either runway 18L or 36R to missed with a hold at the TULSA VOR. 

As luck would have it, Tulsa approach was clobbered and told us to get lost. They said it much nicer than that, of course.  They were rifling off instructions very fast and were obviously working a few fighters in the pattern. Maintain VFR, stay clear of our airspace and have a good day, or something like that. So, while on a heading of roughly 360, John asked me to set up for the RNAV (GPS) RWY 17 at the airport we had just departed.  I selected Direct To KGCM, pressed the PROC button, selected "Select Approach", chose "RNAV RWY 17", and chose the CAMOB transition.  You can see the ground track turn NW up to CAMOB.

And here's where I screwed up.

I'm hoping it was the tryptophan in the turkey that I ate, but I couldn't remember if the sequencing would have me do a procedure turn or if it would keep me in the hold until I told it to do something else. Of course, the answer is it was going to have me do a procedure turn right there at the hold and then would sequence me automatically to the next part of the approach if I didn't touch a thing.   I touched a thing.  I was starting to sweat, wasn't enjoying the bumps very much and I was in the middle of an IFR stress could have been a factor. I pushed a couple of buttons to check the flight plan sequence, and I obviously fat fingered something. In hindsight I suspect I hit the OBS button which had the SUSP annunciation above it. Pressing that suspended the flight plan sequencing, but I didn't catch it.  I flew the procedure turn and started inbound towards CUMOL, where I was expecting to intercept the glide slope. I never got the glide slope.

"Work the problem. Don't make it worse. Don't do anything stupid."

- - - -  every CFII in the world

"John, I've obviously screwed something up here, so I'm going to hold this altitude until I get to the missed approach point, and then I'm going to climb straight ahead to 2400 feet direct DAVLE per the missed approach instructions." John's reply to that was something to the effect of "that sounds like a good course of action".

At 2400 feet headed south, John was kind enough to pretend to be approach and gave me a left turn to the north east. I hit the procedures button, selected the RNAV 17 approach, and chose GAFWU as my transition.  Everything worked as it was supposed to.  Talking to a friend later, I was reminded that if I had just hit the flight plan button I would've seen that it was going to give me a procedure turn instead of a hold. But it was bumpy and hot. That's my story and I'm sticking with it.

At the LPV DA of 968 feet I executed the missed and proceeded direct DAVLE per the chart.  John instructed me to next set up for the RNAV (GPS) RWY 35 with DAVLE as the transition, and to affix my cardboard mask over my primary display. 

Time to go partial panel.  We'll pick it up there tomorrow....


Installment #5: My IFR Checkride - More Flying

This is the working hour
We are paid by those who learn by our mistake

     - - - - Tears for Fears (The Working Hour)

The picture below shows the RNAV (GPS) RWY 35 practice approach down to minimums. This was performed partial panel and west is up in the screen grab. On the flight up to Claremore earlier in the day, Gary and I practiced this very approach partial panel.  You can see the grey line that joins the DAVLE IAF.  John asked me to simulate this approach as if I did not receive the LPV annunciation on the Garmin 430W, or any vertical guidance for that matter. LNAV it is... That raises the MDA to 1200' msl (500' agl).

West is up.

RNAV (GPS) RWAY 35 (Partial Panel)

I'm a little over an hour under the hood at this point, and was starting to get mentally worn.  I remember saying the number 1200 out loud several times on the final approach course (minimums). I wasn't so sure I was doing the math correctly in this tired state, subtracting 1200 from my current altitude to get a "how many feet until missed approach" figure. When the tape finally got down to 1300 feet I remember thinking, "I can do that math!"  "100 feet to minimums."  The minimums bug was set earlier, but I wanted to make sure I knew it was coming.

You'll note by clicking on the image above that I knocked off the approach at 1207 feet. Not horrible for a Baylor entrepreneurship/marketing major.

The missed approach procedure called for a straight ahead climb to 2500 direct CAMOB, but at 2500 John in his role as a stand-in approach vectored me out to the southeast so I could set up for my final approach.   VOR/DME-A.  On this leg he said I could take the partial panel mask away from the PFD, which felt great.  Interesting to think how good it felt to be back on regular old full "can't see anything outside" gauges.  Feels weird even typing that...

John said, "let me fly here for just a second." "Birds. I'm just steering around them."

VOR/DME-A (Hand Flown)
North is up

The VOR/DME-A circling approach was the least stressful of any of them, believe it or not. Loaded the approach, turned the OBS for the 240* inbound course and read the DME radial distance off the GPS in digital form.  Cross-referenced the moving airplane on the chart. Although the ground track looks like I was all over the place, it really only fluctuated between 27.4 and 27.6 miles from the Tulsa VOR. The DME arc called for 27.5 nautical miles.

Many miles away
Something crawls to the surface
Of a dark Scottish lake.

   - - - - Sting (Synchronicity II)

About this time I started to think that I just might pass this checkride. And that's when the devil appeared on one shoulder, and an angel appeared on the other.  Just like that scene in Animal House. The devil was whispering in my ear "You've got this thing nailed. Let's start working out the article and what we'll say on the Internet later in the evening." Right as the devil finished that sentence, the guy on the other shoulder screamed in my ear, while kicking me in the man vegetables, "Fly the flocking airplane. Write your stupid article when you're on the ground, you idiot."  Good advice.

MDA is 1620' MSL.  In the grab above I crossed the field at 1629'.  It was bumpy and hot, so I'll take it.

Just before getting to the 16.2 nautical mile DME missed approach point, John said that I could take off my hood. "You have the aircraft." "I have the aircraft." Hood off. "You have the aircraft." "I have the aircraft." John told me that if I climbed 50 feet I would be 'back in the virtual clouds', and that I needed to stay within 1 mile of the airport for the circle to land.

That was not going to be a problem at all, because that is the normal pattern at my home field. We keep it nice and tight there, not going north of FM road 1171.

Landing checklist. On speed. Trim as needed. Stabilized, descending circular approach. Tiny power bump in the flare to achieve slightly tail low wheel landing with minimal vertical velocity. Don't touch one switch or knob until you are off the active runway.  Post-landing checklist.


I just passed my IFR checkride.  What a wonderful feeling.

Some miscellaneous thoughts on Monday (and maybe Tuesday). 



Installment #6: My IFR Checkride - A Week Later

I obviously didn't do it to save time

Fuel run over to KSWI Monday ($3.35).  I filed IFR for some more experience in the DFW class B ATC system (IFR ticket still has wet ink).  No clouds were harmed....OVC 2,000' above my cruising altitude.  Once I reversed course in the hold and was inbound on the RNAV 34, I had the field in sight so I canceled IFR (well, actually I had it in sight the whole time).  VFR back to my home field with mostly full tanks and a tiny bit more IFR experience.

Tiny, tiny baby steps with good judgment and thorough planning.

Thirteen years after its first flight, this RV-6 is still giving me new opportunities to learn and be a better pilot.  Thank you again Van and Co.!!!

May I present for your viewing FIRST IFR entry for N617AR....

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1. Altitude/Speed graph.
2. DFW Skew-T showed about a 1,000'
thick layer starting around 5,000' ft.

I know it's not a big deal to anyone with an IFR/CFII/ATP rating, but this was my first time to file IFR by myself (a small victory 18.5 years in the making).  Pic above on autopilot, on an IFR altitude, being honest-to-God vectored to an approach.

Queue fist in air scene from the Breakfast Club...



Installment #7: My IFR Checkride - Thanks and Misc. Thoughts

John McLaughlin photo pre-checkride.

The last part is where I get to thank the folks who helped me get this rating.  The following daredevils outstanding Americans sat in the right seat of various aircraft over the course of 18+ years while I sloooooowly accumulated required hours staring at gauges with a bag over my head.  Thirty six flights, all but seven in the RV-6.  I took the checkride with 44 hours of hood time in the logbook.  Knowledge passed on from many of these gents courtesy experience gained flying for the U.S. Navy, U.S. Air Force, U.S. Marine Corps, Southwest Airlines, American Airlines and Delta Airlines.

Many sources...all top shelf.

Many others offered notes of encouragement in emails, PMs, phone calls and in person over the years.  Thank you for motivating me to stay focused on a challenging goal - one that fought for attention alongside raising a family and running a business.

I won't forget this experience, and I'll pass this knowledge on the best I can.  Spent Thursday morning as a safety pilot for my friend Clayton while he logged .7 under the hood.  See one, do one, teach one I think they say.

Roll call of thanks below...and then I'll shut up. 

FAA Designated Pilot Examiner



Gary Platner

Stan Price

Harold Kestel

Bill Goeken

Ross Burgess



Safety Pilots

Danny King

Jerry Lawlor

Kay Frizzel

Charlie Kearns
Randy Richmond

Rob Ray

Rob Reece

Sidney Mayeux

Joe Ferraro
Tony Newburg
Don Turner
Clay Wilson
Leo Collins
Sam Chirco

I hope you enjoyed this.