FAA IR at Chandler Air Service, Chandler, Arizona


This page is the final part of a longer process of obtaining the FAA PPL/IR.

I allowed two weeks for this. Based on previous reports of other UK pilots' FAA IR experiences, there was a possibility that I might finish with a few days to spare, but in the end the exercise proved to be a lot harder and two weeks worked out just right. At the time, I had a UK PPL, Night, the UK IMC Rating, and a standalone FAA PPL. I had about 550 hours total time of which about 450 were done, over a period of 3 years, on a Socata TB20GT. I had already passed the FAA IR written exam (in the UK) and had all the required FAA IR logbook requirements except the 250nm cross-country flight with 3 different instrument approaches. I had about 70 hours instrument time, comprising of about 30 hours of various instructional flights; the remainder being lots of little bits of instrument time logged in actual IMC without the use of the autopilot.

The FAA IR written exam had been done in the UK at an establishment in Norwich; cost about £230. Having done this first was essential and it would have been quite impossible to do the IR in the two weeks while studying for the theory also.

The other preparation I had done back home involved watching the rather tedious King video training material. This is worth sitting through but I did wonder just how many times Martha King was going to explain what a VOR was.... I think this is best watched shortly before the written exam and - except for a complete novice pilot with no IFR knowledge and experience - it is of limited value for the actual IR training and checkride. A good section in it was a movie of the FAA IR oral exam, where the examiner explains that his task is to observe quietly and not deliberately distract the candidate.


I flew from Heathrow direct into Phoenix, British Airways. The Immigration officer at Phoenix was very careful to check my TSA and Visa paperwork. I had the papers in the suitcase which one does not retrieve until after passing through Immigration; this got the officer pretty cheesed off and she said "well get your suitcase then and come right back HERE"...

The hotel, Chandler Inn on Arizona Avenue, is a low-cost self catering motel-like place at about $280 per week inc tax. The price is standard for motels and it is OK for this purpose. Unfortunately my apartment (self catering) had all the windows screwed down so they could not be opened, so there was no ventilation except when I was in and then I could leave the front door open. This was a problem as the gas cooker was making copious quantities of carbon monoxide - very evident from the way I felt until I realised it. Self catering (shopping at a nearby Safeway, etc) is highly desirable; this isn't Washington or San Francisco and eating out without getting a heart attack before the IR is a major challenge.

Having a business to run, I needed internet access for doing business emails. There was no wifi at the hotel which made doing business emails etc a bit of a problem as I had to use ultra-expensive GPRS; probably about $30/MB. It was fast though; at least 2x faster than GPRS in Europe. It was interesting to realise that the PCMCIA GSM/GPRS card I had in the laptop was evidently tri-band; must have been to work in the USA. Eventually I started buying wifi time at a Starbucks which was on the way to the school, expensive at $10 per 24hrs and throttled to 10k bytes/sec. This was with T-Mobile; they did offer cheaper longer-term options but all appeared to involve recurring credit card debits which continued until stopped with a phone call... Later, the school kindly lent me an ethernet cable, which worked perfectly. There are plenty of hotels that offer wifi but all of them are about 3 times more expensive to stay in. I had forgotten to bring my driving licence so could not rent a car but in any case the original plan had been to borrow a bike and the school had a few of them, left there by previous students who were doing the same thing. The ride was 35-45 mins each way.

I never adjusted to the local time, going to bed 7pm and getting up 3am. This somewhat bizzare approach suits the training quite well as the first lesson often starts 0730, and there was nothing much to do in the evenings. The neighbourhood is a lot of Mexican businesses, mostly to do with car parts, tyres, snack shops selling absolute crap, and lots and lots of chrome plated car exhausts. Perhaps unexpectedly, there was no social scene at the school - another good reason for going to bed at 7pm. However, given the intensity of the flight training, I don't think I would have been in much of a condition for boozing late at night! This 2-week visit was planned to be a 100% "get your head down and get it done" project. This tactic also avoids the 7-hour jet lag upon return to the UK which would otherwise take a week to fully get over.

They do have absolutely spectacular sunsets if there is cloud, because the cloudbase is very high (8000ft+) and there is dust around:

The early morning temperature was cold, around +2C, so I was cycling in well wrapped up, only to come back in the afternoon in +25C. However, +2C in AZ feels nothing like +2C in the UK because the air in AZ is very dry. The dew point is a good 20C below the OAT much of the time.

Chandler Air Service is based at the Chandler Municipal Airport (KCHD) and they seem to own a fair chunk of the airport. They have about 25 planes and do a lot of aerobatic training alongside the PPL and IR stuff. The staff are really nice and pleasant and the instructors are a lot more competent than most of those I have had in the UK. Most of the instructors seem to be real instructors, not the ATPL hour builders common in the UK. The planes are mostly PA28 Warriors; some were newish and others old - as is normal in the training scene. However it was obvious that the utilisation was very high, with anything up to 6 one-hour flights every day the maintenance book was full of 100-hour checks. On a PA28, the 100-hour check is similar to the Annual so they got "looked at" frequently enough. The school is owned by John Walkup who is also an FAA DPE examiner.

The training aircraft are basic but everything in the panel worked - except the autopilot (marked "INOP") on the one I was flying. There was no GPS taught here; just the traditional VOR/DME and lots and lots of it, mostly on partial panel. There were no more NDB procedures taught because they are being phased out so they are no longer in the syllabus - although, apparently, if the aircraft used for the checkride carries an ADF the examiner might give you an NDB approach. The lack of installed GPS means you don't learn GPS approaches, but that hardly matters since they are just about nonexistent in Europe. It's probably a good thing for this purpose because learning to use an IFR GPS correctly is a job for a few days, and one can learn GPS approaches closer to home, if it's ever needed. The procedure of flying an approach with a GPS is highly GPS unit specific anyway. The only real problem with the aeroplanes was the dreadful DI which would lose anything up to 20 degrees following a 180 turn.

Initially, the school didn't know anything about how good or bad I was so they just marked up a load of flights, usually two per day, for each day of the two weeks I would be there, followed by a checkride 1 day before the end. In retrospect they got it exactly right.

The first 2 days were really hard. I could not understand much of the rapid, casually abbreviated and often heavily accented radio traffic, and got very confused by the fact that the actual flights were all done under VFR but I was doing the IFR radio calls to the instructor only who pretended to be the controller, and he was giving me IFR clearances, vectors, etc. After day 3 I was starting to get the hang of it. All flying was under the IFR hood, which came on immediately after takeoff. However, a few times they made me do the whole takeoff under the hood, maintaining the runway heading using the rudder. This "zero visibility takeoff" is apparently not illegal under Part 91 (private flights) and isn't illegal in the UK either if one has a full IR, so they make sure you can do it. It's easy enough to do although obviously one would never actually do it for real in real zero vis; one cannot see if there is somebody else on the runway, and any local departure minima will apply anyway.

About half the training, and most of the checkride including unusual attitude recoveries, was flown on partial panel.

The training area is very small; within about 30 x 20 miles, which makes it intensive because you get little time between leaving one thing and having to do the next. Every flight is packed with stuff from takeoff to landing, with barely a minute's rest. There is no "cruise segment". You get just enough time to trim the plane for level flight and you are intercepting the first VOR radial, the next radial comes up 2 minutes later and the VOR approach 3 minutes after that. This is quite unlike most real flying because one normally has more time to think and plan. The short distances, if combined with random vectors from the "pretend-ATC" instructor, also mess up any situational awareness which you think you had. A pilot with 500 hours, current, including a fair bit of UK IFR, should already know how to do the individual flying bits, but this intensity is something else. It's easy to end up on the wrong side of some radial because you shot through it so fast you never noticed. The training uses a procedure where you need to be able to look at two VOR (CDI) displays and immediately tell where you are relative to the two radials. This is a neat trick but in my view close to worthless for real IFR flying because it works over about 160 degrees so you could end up with an intercept that is uselessly far away. One needs a bit more than that for decent situational awareness. A proper position fix requires a VOR/VOR or VOR/DME fix but this of course takes longer...

Every approach was flown to minima. Upon reaching the decision height you would announce "decision height" and the instructor or examiner would tell you if you were going to land or go missed. As I expected having done a fair bit of ILS back home, I flew good ILS approaches. Unexpectedly I also flew reasonably good partial panel (DI and AI covered up) VOR approaches and holds, using timed turns only. As always, getting the plane trimmed makes everything much easier, but this is easier said than done if there is a lot of thermal turbulence (common in Arizona after the early morning) or when the next radial to intercept comes up 20 seconds after you have reached top of climb... In fact, flying approaches was the easy part. The hard part was intercepting one radial, then another one a few miles later, then getting vectored about 5 times in rapid sequence, then (when the vectoring has made you lose all situational awareness) being asked to intercept another radial. They expect you to be able to take one look at the two CDIs and know right away where you are and which way to turn. It's doable but having to do radio calls as well really raises the workload. Turbulence just finishes you off!

After the first few days, it became a bit easier. I was doing the approach and pre-landing checks a lot sooner. However I was still making a number of mistakes on every flight. They were little ones, mostly to do with radio calls and nothing dangerous flying-wise. In fact, I would say that from the start and throughout the training my flying was safe. Even the partial panel stuff with timed turns was OK. I just did not work fast enough...

The PA28-161, with its low wing loading, is amazingly unstable (for a "tourer") in the thermal turbulence, and would tip into a 45 degree bank and change heading by about 30 degrees in less time than it takes to pick up a pencil. This obviously drastically increased the workload, to the point where I was sometimes unable to do anything else even when flying straight and level. The other little thing I noticed, having been flying behind the TB20 constant speed prop for a few years, is just how harder a fixed pitch prop aircraft is in updraughts and downdraughts: you get an updraught, you have to point the nose down, and the faster airflow causes the engine to rev up quite dramatically, so pulling back on the power is a lot more essential than with a CS prop. I had never realised this huge benefit of a CS prop: superior pitch stability.

The only FAA logbook requirement that I did not have prior to going to the USA was the 250nm cross-country with an instructor and three different approaches, so this was done after the first week. We flew IFR down to Tuczon and then to Nogales. Nogales is a really odd place; a tiny airfield close to the Mexican border but the Customs presence gives it the "Nogales International" title.

The flight was uneventful and due to the generous airway MEAs most of it was done around 10000ft. This radio work on this flight was entirely for real as it was flown under an IFR flight plan.

America is truly the land of aviation freedom. There are hard-runway airfields everywhere, and most of them have instrument approaches. There are even many air parks (residential communities with an airfield attached) with ILS approaches!! This is quite unlike anywhere in Europe. The USA is covered in VORs in vast numbers which form the airway intersections. All the charts, en-route, terminal and instrument approach, are free which is a huge contrast to "rip-off Europe" where everything is copyrighted and tightly controlled, enabling the principal aviation chart provider, Jeppesen, to charge many times as much money for the same amount of information.

2 days before the checkride I flew with an examiner (not the one I was finally to have), for a mock checkride. He was relatively outspoken but I liked him; he was very fair and he made good points and made them well. Again I made a few mistakes but nothing major.

The day before the checkride, I met the final examiner who gave me an assignment to plan. This was a flight of about 300 miles to an airfield in New Mexico (KLRU). The job was to plan it back home, as an IFR flight obviously, taking into account the various rules on the chart and the approach plates, etc. It is like European airways flight planning but very different in the detail; for example there are no mandatory Standard Route Documents so no need to plug away at some CFMU-like website to design a valid flight plan. I was also to fill in a real flight plan form (which differs from the ICAO one and is simpler) - but not actually file it because as far as the outside world was concerned all this training was under VFR. It took a few hours to do the flight plan. One has to work out the altitudes (no "flight levels" below 18000ft in the USA) and get the winds aloft along the route. Traditionally this is done with a phone call to 1-800-WX-BRIEF and unless you are lucky the forecaster will talk so fast you won't catch any of it, initially. There is also a way to get the same data off the web but I never found it. So I used the GFS data which we use in Europe, mainly for longer range forecasts, and Avbrief for TAFs and METARs. They allow the use of any method of working out the wind corrected plog, so no need for the circular slide rule. One instructor there told me the examiner will not like any electronic device and will turn it off (which turned out to be incorrect; a PDA running an E6B program is just fine).

Incidentally, note that the circular slide rule, so much loved by aviation traditionalists, is not required in any of the FAA written exams either; they just don't permit anything with a "memory" unless the test supervisor can clear the memory and verify that it has been cleared. This can be somewhat difficult if the test supervisor doesn't know anything about calculators! I don't think there is much prospect of being able to use a PDA in a written exam - unsuprisingly.

The flight plan TAS, for each altitude, comes from the PA28-161 POH, from the "best power" setting, the OAT and the altitude, for 65% power. Given the crude leaning procedure to get what one thinks is 65% power and its corresponding fuel flow, this kind of stuff (common in flying schools everywhere) needs to be done with fat fuel margins!! There isn't the instrumentation in the aircraft to meter fuel accurately. Nor is one going to get the planned TAS. However, there is no point in arguing about any of this; it gets you nowhere. Just do as you are shown. During the checkride, the planned flight is started but isn't completed (it would be much too long).

The following morning I turned up with a load of weather printouts and the flight plan. Luckily I had a portable inkjet printer; the Canon IP90, and I used it to print out approach plates, from Jeppview, in a familiar format throughout the 2 weeks.

I had to come with the right documents for myself: a proof of picture (passport) and a separate proof of address (this was a problem; a UK utility bill would be fine but luckily I had some TSA paperwork showing my address) with neither being a pilot-related document. Plus the medical. All in original, no copies. I also had to retrieve the maintenance documents and the POH from the aircraft, and "prove" to the examiner that the aircraft was airworthy. This is slightly bizzare since he was the owner of it... Curiously they store the maintenance records in the boot - a practice which is as far I know banned in Europe because they are likely to be destroyed in a crash. I suppose the maintenance firm has to keep copies for a while. Plus US$300 in cash for the examiner.

The examiner took one look at the weather data and didn't like it at all. He said "just tell me what the weather is along the route; I am not interested in all these graphs". Eventually I realised he wanted a very brief summary like "unlimited visibility, wind 250/15". It's a different culture, to be able to work adequately from a telephone briefing. I found it a bit bizzare to hear a description of a warm front somewhere without being able to see a proper weather chart... However I gather real private pilots in the USA do just use the internet... He told me to go away and phone the 1-800-WX-BRIEF weather service. I came back with almost the same winds and temperatures aloft as I had in the GFS data; unsuprising since the US aviation forecasts probably come from GFS anyway. A slight complication was that there was quite a lot of "weather" in the area (a warm front) and there was no data available for the destination so one had to take a wider view of the area. The examiner was an old chap who looked really laid back but in reality he was as sharp as they come. Then he came to examine my flight planning. Apart from trivial points, he could not fault it. As he was going through this, he would ask various related questions - just like a tax inspector. He also went through the standard regulatory stuff like required documents on the pilot and in the aircraft, lost comms procedures (picking a point along the route where a radio failure occurs, and asking where you will go from there both laterally and vertically all the way to destination), required aircraft maintenance, etc. He was very thorough. I knew nearly all of it and he did not catch me out on anything of substance. He also explained a lot of stuff, which was good. I understand the official FAA position is that the candidate should learn something from every examination. The oral lasted about 2 hours and was a good learning experience; not what I would call aggressive, and nothing like that clown of an "examiner" I had for the FAA PPL in the UK in 2004 who spoke such heavily accented English that I could not understand most of what he said.

The long time of revision, using the ASA printed and computer material, paid off but the most valuable and easiest to absorb stuff was in the form of practice questions from the instructors. Clearly they knew what sort of questions come up regularly. Ground school was about $40/hour and I had about five hours of it during the 2 weeks.

Then we went to fly. He started off very quiet and no doubt he planned to stay that way. But I made various errors in the radio calls; the usual confusion as to who to talk to for real or not for real; this man played it slightly differently from the instructors. So he soon started reminding me of missed radio calls. Some of it (notably the reporting requirements while flying an approach procedure) appeared different from what I had been taught. He got really going when I wasn't doing things fast enough due to pressure. But in retrospect I did all the actual flying well, with the worst thing being the glideslope going to just half scale (on the safe side) at the 200ft DH, which is OK. This was followed by "runway visual, land" instruction at the DA so we did a low approach and a missed.

Stuff like a fully developed stall, partial panel, while holding a heading and altitude, I did perfectly, and same with all unusual attitude recoveries. On the return flight, he progressively failed instruments and in the end I was flying a partial panel VOR approach, with just the TC, the compass at the top, and one VOR receiver which had to be rapidly switched (and retuned) between two VORs; one to track and the other for the crosscuts. This verges on the ridiculous and if you can do this you can probably do anything. I did it pretty well in terms of overall accuracy but was unable to do much else like radio calls. At one point I took my feet off the rudder pedals and he said if I do that again he will fail me! He made a big thing out of that, saying that it is as bad as taking my hands off the yoke. But then he is an aerobatics instructor...

I suspect that if I had actually messed up badly, e.g. turned the wrong way somewhere, he would have failed me. One can read the IR Practical Test Standards booklet (worth reading) but basically you will fail if you do something where the examiner has to take the controls. You will probably also fail if you make a gross nav error, or mess up some instrument approach. But I doubt they will fail you for not doing the radio when under pressure. What this implies is that if you can do all the flying and do it safely and reasonably accurately then you should pass.

One is expected to hold altitude to within 100 feet. In turbulence this often cannot be achieved; what they are looking for is an immediate detection of the deviation and a corrective action taken.

It is hard to say how much of the training was applicable to European IFR, especially as in reality one would be doing it only in a well equipped aircraft and not those I was flying, with the DI drifting so badly it made any navaid tracking much harder than it should be. The training is traditional VOR/DME stuff which one doesn't actually use for European airways flying on BRNAV routes. The partial panel situations are perhaps a little unrealistic as multiple instrument failures are a major emergency and one would not choose to load oneself up with extra work like flying a complicated instrument approach and making all the right radio calls. Still, that's training...one is trained for the emergency situations and anybody can fly on autopilot while twiddling the heading bug. The radio call and clearance formats are occasionally inapplicable to Europe (they are more concise, a single clearance tends to be more extensive, etc, but that isn't the point) and the quicker one forgets some of that the better. The lost comms procedures are potentially important but anyone who flies IFR without a handheld radio as a backup (and a handheld GPS) is taking a considerable gamble on not getting a total electrical failure; in most light aeroplanes - including twins - there are several single points of failure for all electrics.

The flying was much too intense to enjoy and two flights per day was the maximum I could take. A lot of people go to fly in the USA hoping for a holiday and "picking up an IR" while they are at it; this is not going to be the case! It was readily apparent that the criticism of the FAA IR, widespread in the UK aviation press and the various pilot forums, is complete rubbish and written by people who have never actually done it.

Being under the hood, there was very little to see outside but I quickly established that the whole area was very barren - quite spectacular in places:

The IR checkride also counts as a BFR (bi-annual flight review) for the FAA PPL so that now runs for two more years also.

On the last 1-2 days I was tempted to do a flight to Bryce Canyon in Utah - an incredibly spectacular place I had been to before - but it was 350nm away and this would have been a major trip in a PA28, so I didn't bother.

On the last day I sat and passed the 3-hour Commercial (FAA CPL) written exam. It cost only $90. In Europe, there are only a few of places where one can sit this and they cost many times as much. I thought the content was mostly very good and relevant; lots of technical stuff on aircraft performance and plenty of trick questions you have to think about. Very relevant to the IR. I plan to have a go at the FAA CPL one day...

Would I recommend this school? If you want a hard, thorough but basic IR done at a school which is very straight, honest and makes sure you do it right, then certainly yes. If you want more fancy aeroplanes with glass cockpits, there are schools that fly those but allow an extra week to learn the avionics and the extra stuff which you will get tested on. However, due to the variations between the different kinds of these relatively advanced avionics, it will be a waste of money unless you fly with similar equipment back home. I would also avoid the summer in Arizona; it gets extremely hot and the thermals will make flying very hard.

On reflection, a UK IMC Rated pilot who has had a good instructor back in the UK, with good IFR currency (probably an aircraft owner) and with good technical knowledge should already be able to do most of what is required, and 2 weeks of additional training should be enough. He will still find it very hard to work at the required speed though, and (as described above) there are enough differences between the UK and the USA to use up several days' training. Doing 150 hours a year I had more currency than most UK private pilots but I still found it very hard.

It's hard to guess how much work it would have been for a plain PPL with no instrument experience. Probably a good 2 months and that assumes one has passed the written exam already and knows the theory. The UK IMC Rating is an excellent preparation for the FAA IR because you already know about 60% of the theory and most of what is involved in actual IFR flight. The IR then involves a significant improvement in one's standard of flying (and a considerable amount of technical stuff) and this is much harder than one would expect.

The training intensity in the IR raises the issue for any European aircraft owner of whether he can do the IR back home, in his own aircraft, rather than go to the USA. Obviously it is desirable, currency-wise, to train in the same aircraft type as you fly the rest of the time. Unfortunately, most European owners of "better" aeroplanes will not have the option of doing it in the same type in the USA (the schools, US or elsewhere, just don't have them) which leads to the desirability of training back home and locating an FAA examiner who will come out and do the checkride. It's easy enough to find an FAA CFII to fly with and meet all the FAA training requirements (both paper and the practical test standards) but the checkride is now nearly impossible in the UK which just gets you into a very expensive dead end. Checkrides can (reportedly) still be done elsewhere in Europe, however. Arranging FAA training and checkrides in say France or Spain (which are an easy flight for any reasonable touring aircraft) should be an excellent business opportunity. Or even Eastern Europe - I can't believe the new EU members are going to have the anally retentive regulatory regime (driven largely by domestic flight training industry protectionist issues) on foreign license training and operations which the UK has. The USA option is by far the most popular but is a huge hassle, with the Visa and TSA issues.

The other drawback of doing an IR back home is that there is the temptation to squeeze it in between one's personal and work commitments. This makes it much harder to do.

The IR was the hardest thing, flying-wise, that I have ever done - by far. Finishing it was a massive relief. Now, for the first time in about 2 years, I can pick up a normal book or a magazine and read it, without feeling guilty that I should really be reading the FAR/AIM or the ASA training guide.


This page last updated 29th March 2006.