I flew my 24-month renewal IFR flight test on Wednesday morning. It was a very different experience from my PPL flight test in 2002 and my initial IFR flight test in 2003. Back then, I had been in nearly constant training (PPL, night rating, IFR) and had many more dual than solo hours in my logbook — I was drilled up to my eyeballs in procedures, and probably recited them in my sleep. Now I’ve had two years of real flying to pick up bad habits and forget all the little things teachers like to see (like doing a weight and balance even when you’re flying alone 500lb under gross), so I was quite nervous; moreover, I haven’t flown a hold for real since I got my rating.
I was nervous for nothing. The examiner, a 20,000+ hour instructor who’s seen and survived every stupid thing a student could possibly do, threw me a curveball in the ground part with an unusual lost-comms question (lost comms at the start of an IFR training flight in low IMC, where I’d filed for a hold and several approaches) where there was no single, correct textbook answer, so I just ran through the options and said what I’d do in real life, basing it on the rule of least surprise for ATC. I must have bored the poor man almost out of his mind in the plane before takeoff, running through every possible post-startup check in slow motion and excruciating detail as if I were a 50-hour student pilot (“now I’m verifying the ADF ident on the terminal chart; now I’m swerving left to see if the needle tracks; now I’m turning on the pitot heat and looking for a jump on the ammeter … excuse me, are you still awake?”). In real life, I can get my plane rolling quickly, safely, and efficiently, but exams aren’t real life, and this wasn’t the day for a 30-second runup.
I flew my original IFR flight test two years ago in IMC with 400 foot ceilings. This time, I was in VMC under foggles, but a squall line had just passed through and there were small cells all over the place in its wake — I flew into a tiny wake cell like that last summer and never want to repeat the experience. The examiner was watching closely outside the window to keep us away from the darkest stuff, ATC was vectoring us all over the place, and I was keeping the stormscope in my scan, but we all knew what we were doing and the flight and procedures all went calmly, smoothly, and (dare I say it) professionally.
I used to wonder how airline pilots could stand the stress of checkrides and fear of failure every few months, but I think I get the idea. Two years ago, I was being tested on what I had just learned and barely practiced; this time, I was being tested on what I do every week or two and can handle almost by reflex. I didn’t fly perfectly by any measure, but I flew a bit better than I normally do, and that was a nice feeling. Hopefully, when my next IFR renewal exam comes two years from now, I won’t worry as much beforehand.