Nothing strikes more fear into the heart of a pilot than the dreaded checkride. Despite the stress, the butterflies and the stupid mistakes, thousands of pilots each year manage to take a checkride and pass it. How do they do it? AVweb's Howard Fried offers up some tips on what to expect and — most importantly — what the examiner expects of the applicant.
June 28, 1999
|About the Author ...
Howard Fried started flying with the Army Air Corps in WWII, where he
served both as a multi-engine instructor pilot and in combat piloting B-17s.
After a stint teaching sociology and on-the-air and management jobs in the
radio business after the war, he turned to teaching flying again full-time.
Over 40,000 general aviation hours later, he is still instructing
and running his own flight school. Along the way he administered over 4,000 flight tests
as a Designated Examiner until victimized by rogue FAA
He has authored two popular flying books aimed at student pilots and
instructors, Flight Test Tips and Tales and Beyond The Checkride, and a
series of audio tapes, Checkride Tips from
Flying's Eye Of The Examiner.
takes checkrides. It simply goes with the territory if you want to fly, an
FAA Inspector (Fed) will examine you from time to time or you will be tested by
a Designated Pilot Examiner (DPE). In a 17-year career as a DPE, and
having administered over four thousand flight tests as a DPE, I believe I have
seen chickitis in virtually all its forms. Throughout my entire career as a DPE
I never spent less than 15 minutes (and on many occasions as much as a half-hour
or more) attempting to calm down each applicant that faced me. I had several
techniques for accomplishing this.
First, I would start out by explaining that I wanted to see the applicant's
best effort, and he/she certainly can't show me that if he or she is all tied up
in knots with an advanced state of nerves. I would then explain that at least
three people wanted the applicant to pass: the applicant him/herself, his or her
instructor, and me. The applicant because of the time, effort, and money
invested in reaching this point, his/her instructor because the result becomes
part of the instructor's permanent record, and me because it is much easier to
pass an applicant that to fail one. (There's a lot of paperwork involved in
disapproving an application for a certificate or rating, and I simply hate
paperwork, not to mention that I would have to get back in an airplane or glider
as the case might be for the re-check.) Therefore, I would tell the applicant
that I expect and want him or her to pass.
Another technique I used to calm an applicant down was to compare the
checkride to some other phases of the applicant's life. I remember one applicant
for a Private Pilot Certificate, a physician, who was so nervous when he came to
me that he had to excuse himself and go to the restroom and barf before we even
got started on the oral portion of the practical test! I asked him if, after
going through four years of undergraduate college, four years of medical school,
several years of internship and residency before taking the state boards for his
specialty, he was this nervous. He answered in the negative, explaining that he
was well prepared and confident. I then asked if he wasn't this upset then, why
on earth he would let a piddling little thing like a private pilot checkride
upset him so? This calmed him down and he gave me a good ride.
To help an applicant relax I would often ask this question; "Today is
May 5th, 1999. On May 5th, 2005, is it going to make any difference whether you
got your certificate (or rating) on May 5th, 1999, or on May 8th, 1999?" Of
course, viewed from that angle the applicant would have to answer in the
negative. Basically, applicants want to know that they met the standard. They
don't want the certificate or rating to be a gift they want to earn it. This
gives them the confidence to exercise their new privileges without the fear of
feeling that they don't really measure up. Although everybody wants to pass his
checkride, nobody really wants an "easy" examiner. They want to know,
deep down, that they have successfully met the standard of the PTS.
Every examiner enjoys seeing an applicant do a perfect job on the practical
test. It is a joy to see a well-prepared applicant breeze right through every
TASK in the PTS. The FAA tells examiners to take the onus of a bust off
themselves and place it where it belongs by explaining, "Look, I didn't
bust you, the regulations did." Of course this is true. The applicant
really busted him/herself by failing to measure up to the standard of the
Practical Test Standards (PTS). From the examiner's standpoint the nice, clean
passing test is easy. So too is the nice, clean bust the one in which the
applicant knows just what he did wrong and when. I once busted a six-month
instrument check by attempting to recapture the localizer with one engine caged
in a cabin class twin after a three-dot deflection of the needle. I knew exactly
what I did wrong and had no trouble accepting the bust. I just went back the
next day an did that approach right.
On the other hand, the ones that drive an examiner out of his mind as he
attempts to make the difficult decision are the marginal applicants who give the
examiner a ride that could go either way. The FAA emphatically says,
"There's no such thing as a marginal applicant. They either meet the
standard or they don't!" I don't know about you, but I certainly don't
believe that statement. The PTS does allow some leeway for the conditions that
exist at the time of the ride gusty winds, mild chop, etc., and if the
tolerances are slightly exceeded because of these conditions the examiner may
take this into account. Of course, some applicants use these conditions as an
excuse to cover up a poor performance. Here, however, I am referring to the
applicant who consistently operates right on the edge in good conditions. My
policy in those cases was to repeat the maneuver or a similar one with the
same objective a couple of times until I was certain the applicant knew what
he/she was supposed to do and did it right and until the objective as spelled
out in the PTS was satisfactorily met.
It seems like I've been taking checkrides all my life. At one point in time I
was taking five checkrides a year, all with the Feds. And somehow I would manage
to convince myself that I would go in and show the inspector how I fly, and if
it wasn't good enough, I didn't deserve to pass. This technique has always
worked for me, and I would go in relaxed and give the inspector an example of my
There was one exception when I met the inspector in a high state of nerves.
Just before leaving the office to go to the Flight Standards District Office
(FSDO) for the checkride my then-partner said, "You know if you bust this
ride, you'll lose your instrument privileges." The realization of the
veracity of this statement got me extremely upset, and when I met the inspector
(a nice guy, by the way), he observed that I was nervous.
He said, "What's the matter, Howard? Every time we've been together in
the past you have been perfectly calm, but today you seem to be quite
nervous." I responded, "I realize that if I bust this ride I'll lose
my instrument privileges, and I earn my living in the instrument airspace."
He replied, "Don't worry. If you screw something up, you'll just come back
tomorrow and do it over again." This calmed me down and I was able to give
him a passing performance. The technique of convincing yourself, emotionally as
well as intellectually, that you are ready really works for me, and it can for
Although as an examiner I worked very hard at attempting to see that each
applicant was not nervous in the flight test situation, there was one area of
the practical test in which I would actually heckle the applicant. Formerly, the PTS for
the Private Pilot Practical Test said that the applicant would plan his/her
cross-country flight near the range of the airplane within 30 minutes, taking
into account the existing conditions. With very few exceptions almost no
applicants were successful in meeting the 30-minute limit. Whenever the planning
process took over an hour, I would usually snarl at the applicant, "One
reason people fly airplanes is because they go fast. If it takes over 30 minutes
to plan a three-hour trip it is indicative of weak planning ability. Let's get
this wrapped up right now!" The applicant would usually answer that he/she
was trying to make sure that everything was right and all the bases covered, but
it did spur them on to work a bit faster.
Once in the air, examiners are instructed to throw a few distractions at the
applicant to ensure that the priorities are kept straight that the first duty
of flying the airplane is taken care of prior to the attention being turned to
handle whatever the distraction might be. One nasty technique I used was to
attempt to induce vertigo while the applicant had a view-limiting device in
place. I would drop my pen on the floor and ask the applicant to pick it up. If
he kept his head level and his eyes on the panel, all would be well, but if he
leaned forward and lowered his head as he looked at the floorboard, the chances
were he would experience vertigo. You might think this is unfair, but it
provides a graphic demonstration of the working of the inner ear.
The government does us aviators an enormous favor by publishing in the
Practical Test Standards exactly what is expected of the applicant on each
checkride for every certificate and rating. Yet, I have seen countless
applicants show up without ever having heard of the PTS, let alone seen one. I
believe it is almost criminal for an instructor to send an applicant in for the
practical test without having gone through the PTS for that test with the
applicant again and again.
The bottom line is simply this: As the Boy Scouts say, "Be
Prepared!" If an applicant is well prepared, he can meet the examiner
without cockiness but with confidence, and if he is well prepared there is no
excuse for busting a checkride.
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