Martin’s Story about gaining his PPL/IR

Setting the Scene

This is a story about how one person gained his PPL IR told from the perspective of the ATO, the Approved Training Organisation who are required by regulations to provide at least 10 hours airborne instruction during a CBM IR course.

Our hero

The central character in our story is determined, likeable, perhaps slightly ill informed as to the task ahead. Think of the young soldiers of the First World War proud to do their duty, nervous, excited and certain they will be home by Christmas. Let us call him Martin. He is a successful middle aged European businessman. By historical accident has maintained a UK PPL and a lapsed IMCR. As he lives outside the UK he has not had much opportunity to log PIC time using his IMCR so needs rather more qualifying flying hours than the norm. He has passed his CBM IR theory exams and visited Rate One for a day’s assessment. He owns a Cessna 172 SP but accepted the advice that it would be more effective to use Rate One’s own aircraft with its skill test specific instrumentation.

He had created a 10 day gap in his busy diary and at fairly short notice called to say he wanted to complete his IR. Rate One Aviation operates by dedicating an aircraft and instructor to one candidate but as it happened we could accommodate his timings.

An ideal candidate, the ideal scenario. A dedicated aircraft and instructor, a well prepared candidate doing the course in the best possible way. Even the weather looks good with high pressure looking to establish.

What could possible go wrong……?

The supporting cast

There are three or four individuals who deliver and support the training. They do this on a more or less voluntary part time basis because they are enthusiastic about instrument flying. None of them are in the first flush of youth. Together they have approaching 40,000 hours flying experience of which 10,000 have been spent teaching instrument flying. They have held senior posts in airlines, the CAA and numbers of training organisations. They have between them managed flying schools, ATO’s AOC operations, maintenance companies, aircraft engine rebuilding companies. They have been intimately concerned with the development of the CBM IR. They have in their past lives been approach designers, airline pilots, airfield inspectors. They hold between them a good proportion of the whole range of instructor and examiner qualifications. There is probably no greater concentration of knowledge in the very specific area of instrument flying for the PPL anywhere in Europe. Two of them –  Roy and I – are directly involved in Martin’s story.

With all this expertise what could possibly go wrong…….? 

ATO Approval

Before the training can commence the ATO has to be approved. This is a tortuous, costly and time consuming process that can take many months. The main product of this process are approved manuals which, in the eyes of the authority define the way that the ATO operates and specifies the course content in some detail. Nothing in this manual once approved can be changed without re-entering the approval process with its attendant costs. It is hard to overemphasise how useless these documents are. Even in the old 45 hours IR course which was a fairly static system circumstances and procedures changed all the time, so every ATO sets up parallel systems to deliver useful information to their students. In the CBM IR it is doubtful if a course in the old sense even exists – it’s a flexible 10 hours finish up.  Our hero must skim the document and sign that he has read it. The ATO’s approval plays no further part.

Arranging a skill test

In opera, it’s over only when the fat lady sings. In the IR, it’s over when the examiner agrees that the candidate has met the required standard in the skill test. Most examiners are now independent. There are very few UK CAA staff examiners and they are mostly involved in administering higher level tests and in testing IR candidates who have needed to retake the test multiple times. The ATO is required to book an examiner with the CAA in advance using an automated Email process assuming every aspect of the test is completely predictable. The authority then allocates the examiner. In reality a skill test is a messy business. The date chosen depends on the candidate’s progress, the weather, availability of IAPs etc. A splendid British compromise emerges. The ATO rings round and finds an examiner who is available in principle and flexible. They suggest to Flight Test Bookings that X is available and in 99% of cases that suggestion is approved. Then the ATO pays the CAA fee of £785 (of which the examiner gets less than half).

Flight Test Bookings are a very efficient department and Emails to them receive almost instant responses. However the link with the CAA finance department is unpredictable. Without confirmation of payment, no test can take place. Sometimes the finance department acknowledge receipt of the payment almost instantly and the flight test bookings department pass this on to the ATO. Sometimes the system breaks down and a flurry of Emails and phone calls is needed to get the necessary acknowledgement. Being able to show the examiner that the money left the ATO’s bank account is not enough.

Very unusually in this particular case there was no response from Flight Test Bookings. Eventually it emerged that a staff examiner had been allocated. Several phone calls later it emerged that because I had, and I quote ‘caused waves’ in suggesting that the way the skill tests were administered was less than ideal, they were going to ‘have a look at us’. This was hardly welcome news. Although CAA staff examiners are scrupulously fair to candidates, they have more potential to demand the unexpected. We kept this unwelcome development hidden from Martin.

The Aircraft

Although the aircraft was not due for its 100 hour maintenance check for another 10 hours that check would fall due during the training. Therefore it would have to be carried out early at the expense of 20% of its validity period. We did not expect any problems. The aircraft was maintained by an organisation we had used for decades. They had seen the aircraft for checks and snag rectification three times in the previous 4 months. In the event as this check continued another gloomy and bizarre scenario developed. This became peripheral to this story so is not considered further. It became obvious that Rate One Aviation’s own aircraft would be unavailable for Martin to use.

Martin had pre booked commercial flights to the UK. We tried to delay his visit and offered to reschedule and meet the cost of the loss on his air fares. Martin, having created a slot in his diary was reluctant to reschedule. He decided to fly his own aircraft over from Denmark. The weather looked as if it would cooperate for a VFR flight over the North Sea and this was agreed on.

Plan B Emerges

Thus on a Monday morning Rate One Aviation was presented with an unknown and unprepared aircraft to use for IR training and a skill test. The aircraft was a relatively recent C172 SP.

What could possibly go wrong…..?

The plan was for Roy to take the lead in instructing while I dealt with the administration. We had a skill test booked and 8 training days available. After the first few flights, it is clear that there were many issues some simple to resolve, some potentially serious.

  1. The fixed card ADF was only usable to about 10 DME
  2. The number two com did not transmit even though it displayed a T
  3. The owner had done the last 50 hour check so the aircraft was not eligible for skill tests
  4. The engine was running on condition both on hours and calendar time so might or might not be OK for a skill test
  5. The aircraft had a DI not an HSI, the DI was ‘lazy’ needing frequent resetting.
  6. A GTN 650 was fitted but there was no database subscription
  7. The insurance was in Danish and CAA examiners were not covered
  8. The transponder was not configured for exam call sign inputs
  9. Speeds appropriate for use in the skill test needed to be established
  10. Checklists suitable for a skill test needed to be developed and printed
  11. Martin was unlikely to be test ready in time
  12. The aircraft needed instrument covers for limited panel work

Roy continued the instruction working to overcome the practical hurdles presented by the aircrafts limitations and bring Martin up to speed. I started to resolve the other difficulties.


This was an easy one. The Danish insurers Emailed a confirmation in English to the effect that CAA examiners were covered and we checked with the CAA that this would be acceptable


Avionics engineers were asked to look at the number 2 com and they established that the unit was faulty. It emerged that the owner had removed an identical unit in order to fit the Garmin GTN 650 and sent the old NavCom to the USA to be sold. Arrangements were made to recover it. While the avionics engineers were working on the aircraft they configured the transponder, a simple 10 minute job. After a couple of days the UPS tracking system claimed the radio was in Gloucester. I battled the system for an hour or so and established the radio was still in the USA. It seemed unlikely it would arrive in time so I spent another hour on the problem and tracked down an identical unit in an aircraft which was grounded and so the unit could be borrowed for a few days. That was installed and worked properly.

Since our own aircraft was still out of service our own data subscription was used to update the Garmin GTN 650 in the Cessna. For some reason the terrain update became corrupted in the process. It was not clear if using the update in a different box mattered but since what we had was good enough for the test that problem was deemed solved.

The Aircraft

The CAMO in Denmark that looked after the aircraft sent a work order for a 50 hour check. The first UK maintenance organisation approached insisted that they needed authorisation from the Danish CAA to do the check. This seemed unlikely and the second organisation approached said all they needed was the work order. The 50 hour check commenced. Unfortunately the engineers discovered that one engine mount was seriously degraded. It seemed doubtful that the engine would have fallen out in the next few months much less the next few hours and it could have been dealt with at the next annual. Nevertheless this company was being helpful and was the only game in town. The required item was available next day from the suppliers and was ordered.

Will Plan B work?

Whilst the above issues were in progress it was becoming obvious that the planned test date was hopelessly impractical. Neither the aircraft nor the candidate would be test ready. Training continued. Martin was struggling a little. His basic IF flying was excellent but the combination of a fixed card ADF and somewhat variable DI which needed frequent setting was adding hours to the time needed for him to come up to standard. Being a self-confident person and flying the aircraft he was used to he had ingrained habits. In high workload moments he slipped back into normal VFR mode and IFR checks and procedures were sometimes abandoned.

CAA examiners are busy and inevitably less flexible than industry examiners. Eventually with some negotiation a different CAA staff examiner was found who could do the test on a later date. This date was less than ideal but it was a day on which it was just barely feasible that the candidate and the aircraft would be ready.

Martin was on a three line whip from his wife to be home for a christening. We became boxed into that most undesirable corner that all ATOs try and avoid. A skill test on a fixed day with zero flexibility. Any delay or failure to get a full pass would mean the whole plan would unravel. I insisted that Martin book a cheap commercial flight home to de stress the situation a little. At worst it would be his aircraft and not he himself stuck in the UK so he might avoid divorce.

Skill Test Location

Given that we had been allocated a CAA Staff examiner there was more potential variation on where the test might take place. As the aircraft was now in maintenance and unavailable we made best use of the time by putting him in the simulator and flying at those airfields where it is near impossible for us to book practice approaches but where it was just possible the CAA Staff examiner might negotiate a beacon slot.  The chances of a first time pass are significantly reduced if a candidate has to fly at an airfield they have never visited.

It’s going to the wire…..

On the day before the rescheduled test, we were expecting to have the engine mount fitted by mid-morning allowing most of the day to fly a practice full skill test profile. So far we had not really achieved this. Martin had shown he was capable of all the required elements but circumstances meant he has not demonstrated them all together in a single flight. A UPS van duly arrived but it proved to be a false dawn when it emerged it contained the radio we did not need. Hours passed and there was no sign of the second UPS van carrying the engine mount. We delayed the practice beacon slot till the afternoon.

By good fortune the CAA Examiner called and selected a route to Coventry where we had pre booked the last practice slot. However it was now clear that the aircraft would not be available. Martin went with Roy to revise the procedure in the simulator while to add insult to injury I paid the import charges for the redundant replacement radio. I took the rough checklist we had developed, typed it into a booklet, printed off and spiral bound two copies ready for the test. I then booked beacon slots at two airfields to suit the test timing and profile required. We were lucky and in this case both Coventry and Gloucester could offer the ideal slot timing.

Along the way cockpit ergonomics became a training issue. Martin was struggling to handle his knee board, PLOG and plates. I managed to find an old style Garmin portable yoke mount and adapted it for his control column so that he could put the plate in use on the yoke and free up some space on his lap. Also we had a few “Blue Peter” moments with scissors and card to make up some instrument covers for the limited panel exercises.

What could possibly wrong…….?

A look back to the Paperwork

Earlier in this process I had asked our head of training who is highly knowledgeable on the minutiae of licenses and CAA forms to run a critical eye over everything I had done. The candidate has a colour vision problem so is expecting a day only IR which is unusual but available. The only thing I had missed is that he had been logging our dual time in a PIC column so he needed to tidy his log book. Martin’s log book was not a shining example of calligraphy. I always go through a candidate’s log book and stick in an ATO certificate to say that the book has been examined quoting the applicable prerequisite hours. This is intended to ensure that the CAA examiner and the subsequent log book examination at the CAA office during licence issue do not throw up problems. This took me some considerable time but I have had two years positive results from this approach. Every candidate has a training file with each flight described in some detail with the comments and performance grading signed for by both the candidate and the instructor. The file also contains copies of licenses and other documents. The ATO is required to show proof that the candidate has passed the CBM IR TK exams. Even though only the candidate can download the CAA exam results form from their website the ATO is required to confirm the facts of the situation and annotate the form to this effect. We also produce a course completion certificate that duplicates much of the information provided elsewhere. All this was material was in place and was reviewed without any issues.

What could possibly wrong…….?

Afternoon – Skill Test Day minus one

Martin had been with us for 10 days. I had spent the greater part of 5 days doing nothing but completing administrative tasks and resolving issues related to making this skill test happen. My colleague had dealt with the practical business of delivering the instrument training on most days although I did a couple of day’s instruction over the weekend.  While they were in the simulator I anxiously awaited the UPS van with the engine mount. At 15.30 it arrived. It emerged that UPS had driven their route in reverse order. The maintenance engineers agreed to work late and the aircraft emerged at 18.00 just in time to be refuelled, the exam call sign loaded in the transponder and general accumulated junk removed. The Cessna was parked in a test ready state.

What could possibly wrong…….?

Test Day

Roy, myself and of course Martin were in the office early. One of us at least is always present on test days. We support the candidate and sit in on the post-test debrief with the examiner.  Martin had spoken to the examiner at 0730, the weather had been discussed and the test was on. Preparations were complete with all performance calculations, flight plan and most documents ready for inspection. When Martin went out to do the Check ‘A’ he discovered that the aircraft had cross fed during the night and lost fuel via the overflow. It was necessary to hurry to the pumps and add fuel.

The release to service and related aircraft maintenance forms were naturally missing since the work had been completed after normal closing time. I walked to the maintenance company’s offices and stood over them for half an hour to obtain the documents. Then I hurried back to our own office to find that the CAA examiner had arrived to commence his briefing. We had just about managed to have everything in place. The examiner, as we expected, was very professional and did everything possible to put the Martin at his ease. The aircraft departed on schedule for the test.

To be honest Roy and I were nervous. We had in fact advised Martin that, given all the delays and hurdles he was not as “test ready” as we had hoped and a pass was certainly not guaranteed. Fortunately he was the sort of candidate who ups his game when under pressure and he gained a full pass with only minor comments. The fat lady has sung and we end on a high note. For Martin that’s true to the extent that the weather was holding and he left almost at once to fly back to Denmark.

The Aftermath Phase 1

 Given the time pressure, I agreed to complete all his paperwork. Unusually for an ATO we do the IR application for all candidates as the forms are very complex and it is easy to make mistakes. We after all are the experts.

What could possibly wrong…….?

However this time more work was involved. The examiner had kindly signed Martin off for his IMC renewal. He also needed his UK licence to be converted to an EASA licence. There were therefore three applications and two examiners test reports to submit. Additional material was needed and I had to get this scanned and sent from Denmark. I assembled the bundle of forms plus his log book and having copied everything for our own records was ready to send them off.

On reflection I have been too kind in my descriptions of the log book. It looked as if it was the result of a drunken spider running through spilled ink. The use of columns was incorrect, pages had been used to scribble calculations and pages were not properly totalled. Along the way I spent an extra hour or so with the log book and double checked the calculations. Martin had plenty of total time but his qualifying time was only slightly more than the minimum so I made sure that the relevant hours were totalled correctly.

Given that the application includes the precious log book I asked my wife take it to the post office for recorded delivery. I am somewhat paranoid about this since an earlier CAA application to a named recipient at the CAA was signed for at reception with an illegible scrawl and been irretrievably lost.

Aftermath Phase 2

A week or so later I received a copy of response from the CAA sent to the candidate pointing out that the application was incomplete.  I took on the task of resolving this and another half days work was involved. I initially challenged the reasons for rejection. One related to the logging of simulator time in the candidate log book. The time had been certified in two separate places in the application pack and I was unaware the sim time needed to be entered in the log book in the same way as flight time. The CAA were willing to accepted training records as an alternative so I just photocopied these and prepared to send them to the CAA

The second point was that a form required for the IMCR issue was missing. You will recall that I had nothing to do with Martin’s IMCR. The Examiner had been helpful and used the skill test to fulfil two functions. In the past the examiner would have signed the page in the candidates licence and that would have been it. Now as part of the process of adding the IMCR (now IRR) to an EASA licence the CAA were required to complete a record. However it appeared they had no form for this and so required the initial issue IMCR form to be completed.  Almost no section of this form other than the name and personal details of the candidate appeared relevant. I filed in what I could which mostly consisted of writing not applicable across the boxes. However there was a box for the name and number of the examiner. This appears on other forms and it is normal practice for us to complete this from our records. On this form however there was a block for the examiners signature.

Without really thinking I signed by own name together with a large asterisk and annotated the form that I had Emailed the examiner explaining what I had done. This Email generated an explosive response from the examiner copied to several other people accusing me of malpractice and fraud, and failing to complete the candidate’s log book correctly by entering and signing for exercise numbers and being personally responsible for global warming.

Ok, I am exaggerating about global warming but the rest was both upsetting and puzzling. I had not been involved in the IMCR training which had taken place many years before, had received no financial reward and had not conducted any test. I wrote a very bland reply suggesting there had been a misunderstanding. Perhaps he would look at the forms when they reached the CAA. I few days later I got a terse Email to the effect that he now agreed there had been a ‘misunderstanding’ and accepted I had done ‘the best I could in the circumstances’. I breathed a sigh of relief. This was the end of a sorry story.

What could possibly wrong…….?

Some days later I received another Email from Martin. He had called the CAA and discovered that nothing was happening because ‘the ATO had not provided the necessary documentation’. I had no idea what else was required.

I was fortunate in my early career to be mentored by an excellent MD who had no formal qualifications but had started life as a London PC on the beat and had seen life. I was operationally responsible for a quite high profile high risk activity and dealt with complaints.  I can still recall the MD’s words when reviewing my early efforts at writing responses. ‘Success is not about winning the argument it’s about getting them off your back while keeping them happy enough to be sure you never hear from them again’

I contacted the CAA to enquire and discovered they now wanted copies of the whole training record. I copied the 20 pages of records and put them in the post first class. A couple of day later I received confirmation that the rating had been issued.

This was test day plus 47.

What could possibly wrong…….?

Aftermath Phase 3

Martin called. It emerged that his SEP rating expired in a few weeks’ time. I had no idea why this had not been revalidated with the licence issue. Martin said that they had offered to do this if he sent his licence back together with the fee. Naturally he was reluctant to give up his precious document. There is one CAA authorised examiner in Denmark so given a hundred mile car journey this could be resolved. 

Well at least ATO was on a nice little earner !

Rate One Aviation employs no admin staff. There had been no time during the training for proper invoicing so we had just asked for an interim deposit. In fact, through no fault of his own we were paying Martin to fly. His fuel and approach fees were being charged to our account in order to avoid wasted time and to allow him to benefit from the local training rate.

In summary about 15 person days were needed to deliver 32 hours of IR training and a test ready aircraft. We have invoiced for 9 days training. No charge is made for unanticipated administration and when instructing my charges go to meeting the not inconsiderable Rate One Aviation overheads. Neither Roy nor I charge for the test day spent supporting the candidate. No charge was made for the unscheduled use of the simulator. There have been almost 100 Emails exchanged.

Forums and blogs splutter at the outrageous cost of getting an IR. An ATO approval is a licence to print money.

What could have possibly have gone wrong?