Checkrides — Once the busiest DPE in the Great Lakes Region, AVweb's Howard Fried has taken many and given many. He reflects on the experience in the latest
May 8, 2002
|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.
I first started writing the Eye of Experience, fresh after seven years of
writing the Eye of the Examiner for FLYING magazine, I indicated that many of
the Eye of Experience columns would deal with the subject of flight testing.
With 17 years' experience as a Designated Pilot Examiner, and having
administered over 4,000 certification flight tests, one would think I
had seen it all. Far from that, each applicant taught me something by showing
me something I hadn't seen before. I enjoy teaching, and although the
evaluation process is far different from teaching, it is a part of the
education process. For three years I taught sociology in a large university, and
in a class of 30-odd, there would be one or two with a spark that made it
worthwhile. In flying, on the other hand, almost all the students are well-motivated. I get my kicks out of seeing a student develop and grow as an
aviator, particularly a primary student.
Everybody takes checkrides. Personally, it seems like I've been taking
checkrides all my life, for over ten years at the rate of four a year, and I
have adopted a philosophical attitude toward the experience. I simply convince
myself before I go for the checkride that I'm going to show the Inspector or
Examiner how I fly, and what I know, and if it isn't good enough I don't
deserve to pass. Going in with this attitude I invariably pass the test,
although I did fail one once. I'll tell you about that one later. From my
viewpoint as a DPE (Designated Pilot Examiner) there is no greater joy than
issuing a pilot certificate to a well-prepared applicant who has given me a
letter-perfect practical test.
The FAA assumes the posture that the applicant can do no wrong. That
whatever the applicant does on a checkride is the result of the instruction he
or she has had. If an applicant is well prepared, there is no excuse for
busting a checkride. And it is up to the instructor to get 'em well-prepared!
However, in spite of the best effort of the best instructor, some applicants
will go ahead and bust anyway. Remember, the applicant makes the instructor
look good or bad. Of course, the world's greatest instructor can pour his/her
heart and soul into training a hopeless applicant, and finally, in desperation
throw up his hands and say to himself, "I'll go ahead and send him/her in
and if he has a good day he just might pass." Then the examiner, after
seeing a marginal ride, whether the applicant passes or fails, thinks to
himself, "Boy! That one must have had lousy instruction."
On the other hand, the world's worst instructor could have a natural, a
well-motivated student who taught himself how to fly while the instructor just
sat there and prevented him from committing suicide while he taught himself
how to fly. Then the applicant gives the examine a letter-perfect ride, and
the examiner thinks, "Boy! This one had superb instruction!"
Being a flight instructor carries a heavy responsibility, but it doesn't
compare with that of the examiner. When I was first designated I felt the
heavy weight of the frightening responsibility on my puny little shoulders.
Suppose I mad a mistake and certified an individual that should go right out
and kill him/herself? I discussed this with an FAA inspector friend and he
told me that all you can do is make sure they meet the standard of the Flight
Test Guide, later the PTS (Practical Test Standards). He told me that, as a
DPE (Designated Pilot Examiner) prior to joining the FAA, he had issued a
Private Pilot Certificate to an individual who had flown in for his checkride
from an airport several miles away. On the way home he flew into a
thunderstorm, crashed and died. He said that he had consoled himself with the
fact that the applicant had met the standards, and that's all he could assure
as a DPE.
I lived in terror, thinking that it might happen to me. Sure enough,
several years later, a man to whom I had issued a private certificate and an
instrument rating foolishly flew an airplane with known deficiencies and went
down over the middle of Lake Michigan, the bottom of which is virtually paved
with dead airplanes. I don't feel the least bit guilty over this one. The guy
just showed poor judgment, but on those occasions when I tested him, he did,
indeed, meet the standard.
Today, when nobody seems to be willing to assume responsibility for his/her
actions and anybody seems ready to file a lawsuit for any imagined slight,
concerns about potential liability have become a real factor of life. With
juries awarding judgments so large that it is impossible to buy enough
insurance to cover the potential loss, more than one flight instructor of my
acquaintance has given up teaching for fear of losing everything they own. And
more than one of my friends who would be an excellent instructor refuses to
become one for the same reason. In my own case, I decided many years ago that I
would simply assume the risk. I would do whatever I could to cover myself by
carefully documenting everything I cover with my students, and hope for the
best. So far, knock on wood, it has worked out. In many thousands of hours of
giving instruction I've never been sued, but if I should be, I am prepared to
defend myself. (Besides, I'm not exactly wealthy; what could a plaintiff take
Even so, I know of a case in which a pilot examiner was involved in a
frivolous lawsuit that cost him a bunch. He had given a private checkride to
an applicant who had flown in from an airport some 30-odd miles away. A
year later the pilot to whom he had issued the certificate rented a PA28-140
(Cherokee 140) from the FBO where he regularly rented. The FBO looked out the
window and saw the pilot loading four heavyweights and a bunch of baggage
(hunting equipment, including a tent, stove, etc.) into the airplane. The FBO
rushed out shouting, "Stop! Do a weight and balance." The pilot did,
and off-loaded the heaviest passenger and all the equipment, saying, "You
drive with the stuff, and we'll meet you there."
The other three got in the airplane and flew to a nearby airport where they
met the fourth guy and reloaded everything back into the airplane. You guessed
it. On the takeoff attempt they crashed, killing all four. The pilot's estate
then sued the examiner, who hadn't seen him for about a year, for issuing the
certificate! Although the examiner worked for an FBO that had insurance
covering him, it cost him personally some $80,000 to back up the insurance
company's lawyer. It took some 80 depositions and affidavits from former
applicants, all testifying that weight and balance was thoroughly covered on
their flight tests, to get the examiner dismissed from the lawsuit. Although
there is a principle in the law called "malicious prosecution"
designed to penalize those who bring unjustified actions against innocent
defendants, the courts are very reluctant to apply it. I guess they think that
there may be some merit to the case and are willing to let a jury decide.
Wouldn't it be nice, though, if the folks who bring these baseless lawsuits
had to pay the defendants for doing so?
When I was first designated as a pilot examiner, back in 1972, I was called
in to the GADO (General Aviation District Office), later a FSDO (Flight
Standards District Office), a combined GADO and ACDO (Air Carrier District
Office), handed a copy of the Examiner's Manual ("This describes your
authority."), a set of the old Flight Test Guides for Private,
Commercial, and Instrument, ("These are the standards you must
apply."), several pads of Temporary Pilot Certificates, ("Give these
to successful applicants."), and a few pads of Disapproval Notices,
a.k.a. "pink slips," ("Give these to unsuccessful
applicants."). And then I was told, in effect, "Bless you my son;
now go out and give checkrides."
Having been taking checkrides for all my certificates and ratings, I sort
of knew the procedure what to do and how to do it.
A few years later (I believe it was in '75 or '76) the PEST (Pilot Examiner
Standardization Team) was established. A small group of eight people, headed
by Chuck Steuben and including Ron Bragg, was charged with seeing that flight
testing whould be the same in New York and in California and all points
between. Teams of three were sent to every FAA District Office in the world
and they conducted a five-day clinic on the administration of flight tests.
Attendance was mandatory for all pilot examiners.
This was a terrific educational experience for me. They used what for that
time was very advanced teaching techniques. They made excellent use of video
as a training tool, and if you've ever had the pleasure of hearing Ron Bragg
speak, you know how well he blends humor into his presentation. They used the
psychodram technique very effectively. The examiners were broken up into
groups of five. One would play applicant, one would play examiner giving an
oral portion of the test, and the other three would serve as a panel of
judges, evaluating the evaluator. The entire thing was videotaped, and if you
ever want to see just how bad you sound, watch yourself on videotape
After that first go-around with the five-day program, the teams would come
to each District Office every two years with a three-day updated program. I
visited the office of the PEST at the FAA Aeronautical Center in Oklahoma City
several years ago and watched them work on updating their program. On
alternate years when the PEST isn't visiting a District Office there is a
mandatory examiner meeting in each District Office. All new examiners are also
required to attend an initial program in Oklahoma City prior to starting as an
examiner. This is a far cry from the way I was thrust into the evaluation
There are a few things an examiner can do to get in serious trouble. If an
examiner attempts to substitute his own standards for those of the PTS, he or
she is practically asking the FAA to take away his/her designation. I've seen
this happen to two examiners. If an examiner repeatedly stands up applicants
or is repeatedly late for appointments with applicants he or she is asking for
trouble at first a counseling session at the District Office. Then, if the
problem persists, the loss of his or her designation. I've seen that happen,
I was told to try to be available when an applicant is ready for his/her
checkride. Nobody had to tell me this. I believe the time to give the test is
when the applicant has his graduation certificate or recommendation in his/her
hot little hand before he or she has a chance to either go stale or work up a
set of nerves worse than he/she already has. Therefore, I adopted a policy of
canceling anything else I might have on my schedule to accommodate an
applicant. I always managed to accommodate an applicant within two days (three
at the most). Beside the fact that I had a reputation for being strictly
impartial, I believe the factor of availability is what made me the busiest
examiner in the Great Lakes Region, administering well over 300 certification
flight tests per year for all certificates and ratings.
The FAA emphatically states, "No second chance!" However, I don't
believe there is a single examiner anywhere who, on occasion, when an
applicant has blown a maneuver, hasn't given him or her another shot at it.
Personally, I would grade an applicant up who, after making a mistake, would
catch it and make a self-correction. I didn't consider this giving the
applicant a second chance. I believe exery examiner wants to pass the
applicant, I know I did. (It is a lot easier to pass an applicant than to bust
him or her there's less paperwork involved and you don't have to fly with 'em
again on a recheck.) So what happens is, after you get a really good oral,
you've already decided that this one is pretty good, and you find yourself
making excuses for him or her if the ride itself is less than perfect. (It was
too gusty, or whatever.)
At the annual examiner meetings the local FAA District Office Manager kept
telling us that the FAA is looking for a 15% bust rate. After one such
meeting, as we were filing out, the inspector running the meeting stood at the
door handing out pads of temporary certificates and pads of pink slips
(Disapproval Notices). When it came to the examiner in front of me in the
line, the inspector asked if he needed any temporaries. And the answer was,
"Yes, about a half dozen." The inspector then asked how many pinkies
he required. Unhesitatingly he answered, "Oh, about 15%!"
I never kept track of my pass-fail rate throughout the year, but every year
at renewal time I would run the stats, and it always came out the same
between 12-14%, so I guess it worked out OK. I did know, however, at least one
examiner who deliberately looked for an excuse to bust an applicant because he
felt that he had been passing too many.
And on the subject of pass-fail rates, at an examiner meeting one time I
was sitting next to an examiner who was the Chief Flight Instructor at his
flight school. I turned and asked him what his bust rate was. "He said,
"About 15%." I then asked how many busted from his own school. He
looked startled and said, "None, of course!"
Even so, like our government, with all its flaws, the pilot examiner
program is the best we've got, and overall it is pretty damn good.
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sending it to me by direct email. That way others may benefit from your input.