Checkrides: The Examiner's View

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You’ve been through the Checkride experience, and you’ll fly through a few more before you fold your wings. Ever wonder what goes on in the mind of the DE?

Instrument pilots take far more checkrides than their more visually oriented counterparts. In addition to the initial rating check, you occasionally face an instrument competency ride when you are more than six months out of currency. Most times when you add a rating, like a multiengine ticket, you’ll be expected to show off your gauge gazing skills in order to pass.

I have been instructing and giving checkrides for a long time and I currently give ATP and rating exams in the venerable DC-9 for an airline school. They all involve instrument evaluations of my applicants.Type ratings, like the ones we provide for the DC-9 and 767, follow the PTS (practical test standards) for the Airline Transport Rating. Even if you show up with a Private Pilot, multiengine rating, you will be expected to meet the requirements of accuracy and knowledge for the ATP. This is a significant factor for most applicants. By the time you get to the level of training for a type rating, your instruments skills have been proven in dozens of professional checkrides and hundreds (if not thousands) of hours of flying through clouds.

What about the straight-up instrument rating or instrument competency check? The standards for those are close to what the ATP applicants have to do. Obviously, if you are headed in that direction it is incumbent upon you to be intimately familiar with the PTS for the appropriate rating.

This article will view my side of the equation. What does an examiner look for when you walk through the door with a fresh application form and a smiling face? Are there any secrets to having a smooth ride and a happy outcome?

Incompatible Des

There is no requirement that you finish a checkride with an examiner if you think he or she is giving you an unprofessional and a biased ride. Check pilots are people and their personalities vary just like the rest of the pilot herd. Sometimes, a personality conflict can arise or your check pilot could be an egotistical jerk (rarely). You are perfectly within your rights to stop a ride and ask to fly with another examiner.

This almost never happens but it has happened to me once and I am glad I stopped the ride before I smacked the guy in the head with my flight bag. I had to wait a few days for the next examiner, but it was worth the wait.

If an examiner is abusive, disrespectful or goes way outside of the PTS in terms of what he asks you to do on a checkride you should terminate, walk away, and get another person. If the problem is you—meaning you are flunking the ride due to the fact that you can’t get the job done—dumping your examiner won’t help you because you will have to take the entire ride over anyway with the new person.

What Do I Look For?

Most examiners, including this one, will tell you that they can predict how the checkride will go within ten minutes of sitting down with the applicant. In addition to a bright and eager attitude, there are a few key things you can do to make your ride go smoother. Some of these are so obvious it is silly, but you’d be surprised at some of the things your friendly neighborhood instrument examiner sees in terms of applicants.

First, show up prepared. This means on time, dressed to do the job and prepared for any contingency you can think of. A young student I worked with on his private had a bad stage check at his college a while back. His examiner, a kind of quirky professor, sent him home because he didn’t bring the required materials. This really bothered the student, who is such a sharp pilot (and not just because I taught him) that we will probably all call him the Administrator someday.

There was a book he was supposed to bring to the ride and didn’t—so he was sent home. How, he asked me, was he supposed to know which book to bring next time? Easy, I said, bring all of them. The Instrument PTS has a list of what you should have available to study—bring those. I also recommend you bring a bottle of water for when your mouth gets really dry and at least a few of your favorite headache remedies. There is almost nothing worse than having a headache during a checkride.

Being prepared also means showing up with all of your memory items—memorized. The first thing I do, after checking the applicant’s paperwork, is ask them the aircraft limitations; all of them. Next, we go through the initial action items that should be committed to instant recall. Finally we review some must-know instrument memory items. When a pilot is going for a type rating they have already gone through a long oral equipment exam. On the rating ride they typically aren’t asked to describe the DC Transfer Bus, but they can be asked about limitations and a few aircraft specific questions.

On your instrument ride you can expect at least a few questions from your examiner about aircraft systems having to do with instrument flight. Pitot static systems, what powers what instrument, and specific questions about your avionics set-up are fair game. The rest of the questions in the oral part of your instrument ride will have to do with regulations and operations. You don’t have to know everything, but if I see you are floundering around trying to remember something basic and simple like where and when you have to make required reports to ATC, we may have a problem brewing.

Over the years, some new topics are now covered in the Instrument Rating Practical Test Standards (FAA-S- 8081-4E) under the heading of Single- Pilot Resource Management. These include Aeronautical Decision Making, Risk Management, Task Management, Situational Awareness, Controlled Flight Into Terrain Awareness, and Automation Management—factors that all too often show up in our In The Crunch segment.

On To The Plane

I try to get to the simulator (or the airplane) a little bit before my applicant to hide a few Easter eggs. These are little surprises that I leave for them to catch. I make them as obvious as I can and I limit myself to things which happen often that I’ve seen in the real world and that can affect the safety of their flight. For example, on the DC-9, the battery is a big deal and is necessary for the safety of flight because in a pinch it powers the emergency AC and DC busses. If I pull the battery charger circuit breaker and they don’t notice that the battery isn’t charging that is a serious oversight.

On general aviation aircraft my favorite Easter egg is to put a big piece of masking tape over the pitot tube or static port. This happens a lot out in the world and is easy to spot during their walk-around.

A Word On Tricks

With the exception of leaving an Easter egg or two, a good instrument ride has absolutely no surprises. You did all the learning during the training portion of your program. The checkride is there to prove that you learned what you need to know. It is not time for an examiner to play stump the dummy. If you show up prepared and take your ride from a good examiner the whole thing will be a sort of anti-climax with no hurry and little stress. The ride is done in real time, which means if you feel you are hurried you can do what you would do in the real world and ask for delaying vectors or a hold until you are ready.

A checkride is no time for an examiner to try to teach you a trick he learned over Hanoi back in ’72. It is a quiet time to follow the PTS and determine if you will be safe flying through the clouds. A good check pilot’s demeanor will help you relax so you can do your best. Help him, help you, by never being contentious. If you make a mistake, admit it and move on. Part of how he assesses your performance is how you recover.

You Passed!

With good examiners, you have either passed or you have not. For me, this means that even if you were pushing the edges of the limits of a maneuver, you pass if you stayed inside of them. If I don’t think you are safe, for whatever reason, I would not issue you a temporary certificate.

Some examiners will tell applicants something along the lines of: “well, you were really sloppy, but you passed.” This sort of attitude bugs me no end. You either passed or you didn’t. There is no such thing as a sloppy pass. Complete the ride within the rules of common sense and the PTS and I’ll congratulate you as a brand new Instrument Rated Pilot or a successful IPC.

Of course, any good examiner will also tell you that a brand new instrument rating is a license to learn. You are still a newbie and probably shouldn’t start your solo instrument flying career by taking on a hurricane or a blizzard. Get your feet wet as soon as possible, but do it on a semi-crappy day, not a totally crappy one.

This article appeared in the May 2013 issue of IFR Refresher magazine.