No one wants to fail when taking an exam, least of all a checkride for a pilot certificate. But there are some easy-to-learn ways of making sure that you pass your test on the first try, including how you train, what you study, whether your paperwork is in order and finally whether you can actually relax during the test.
If you want to be successful in your practical tests for your aviation certificates and ratings, you've got to get a good start. Find an instructor and school that you feel comfortable with, and then take charge of your own destiny.
The first publication you purchase should be a copy of the FAA's Practical Test Standards for the certificate or rating you are aiming for. (You can also download these from the FAA's Web site but they take time to print. It's probably quicker and cheaper to hop down to the local pilot shop and pick up a copy.) You should also get a copy of the knowledge test question bank for the certificate or rating you're seeking. You can find all the published FAA questions on that FAA Web site, but be advised that the FAA is no longer releasing the whole question bank, no matter what advertisements for study materials may claim. So you may see questions on your airman knowledge test that are not among those you download, but you should have similar questions on the same subject. If you understand the subject matter, the exact questions shouldn't be necessary.
The same FAA Web site has copies of FAA training materials like the flight training handbooks, but these are large files that would probably cost you more to print than they would be to buy at the local pilot shop. One good thing about the electronic files, however, is that you can search them to quickly find the terms you want to study.
The Practical Test Standards (PTS) will tell you exactly what you will be tested on for your certificate or rating and the tolerances and standards for successful completion. If there's ever a disagreement between what your instructor tells you and the PTS, the PTS will be considered the final authority -- that's the book all examiners use to judge your ability as a pilot. Refer to it often. Gauge your progress by it.
As I mentioned above, the FAA's Airplane Flying Handbook and other training books are available free, online, to anyone who cares to download it. Get a copy for reference. One of the very best all-around study aids for your private pilot certificate would be Rod Machado's excellent Private Pilot Handbook and Private Pilot Workbook. You'll get all the information you need to know for your certificate, and a little humor to lighten the load. Some folks study best by themselves, and some do best in a classroom setting. You know yourself and how you learn best, so seek out that learning and get it done. You'll probably find the book work a little easier if you do it along with your flying -- you'll have something to relate some of the abstract-sounding concepts to and it may make learning a bit easier for you.
FAR 61 tells you everything you need to accomplish and every sign-off you need for your certificate or rating. Study this regulation and make sure that your instructor has put every necessary sign-off in your logbook and that your student pilot certificate (if pertinent) is current and properly endorsed. Make sure your time is totaled on each page and that you have the necessary minimum times for your certificate or rating. Make sure that any required cross-country flights are properly signed off, logged and complete. Be able to prove that they are of the required distance. This is your responsibility -- your instructor can share in that responsibility, but it is primarily yours.
Okay, so you've studied and you've practiced and you and your instructor agree that you're ready for the practical test for your certificate or rating. What now? Well, of course, there's the standard advice to get a good night's sleep the night before. Have a nourishing breakfast (or lunch) and relax.
Showing up for the practical test with all your (and the airplane's) paperwork organized will go a long way towards convincing your examiner that you have the skills necessary for the certificate or rating for which you are taking the practical test.
The 8710 -- This is the Airman Certificate and/or Rating Application. You can download a copy from the FAA (in Adobe PDF format) that you can fill out on your computer then print. There are a few gotchas about this form, however. Notice the place where you type your name -- it should be listed as Last, First, Middle, and that name must match the name on your current certificate. If you don't like the way your name is listed, see the local FSDO and have it changed before you show up for a checkride. Most designees do not have authorization to change your name, so list it exactly the way it is currently on your certificate. Also take note of the address block. If you are using a post office box or rural route number for your address, you'll have to justify your reason for using those on a separate signed statement to accompany your application. Also, in the case of rural route addresses, you may have to provide a map or directions showing how to find you if necessary.
Note the citizenship block. Again, designated pilot examiners have no authority to change this block, so if you have changed your citizenship since your last certificate was issued, you'll have to see the FSDO to correct this. If you are a citizen of the U.S., just check the block. If not, enter the country where you are a citizen. Note there is no country called French or Greek or English -- you would need to enter France, Greece or United Kingdom, as appropriate.
The record of pilot time entered in Block III must reflect at least the minimum required for the certificate or rating for which you are applying. The FAA recommends that you enter all pilot time here, however, since it can be used as a record of your time in the case of lost logbooks. Make sure that the time you enter is the same as the time recorded in your logbook.
Make sure that your instructor signs and dates the reverse of the form and also legibly prints his name in the signature block. The pilot examiner may wish for you sign the form in his presence. Some do, some don't.
Your Logbook -- Make sure that all the columns are totaled and that the entries make sense. (I've always wondered why pilots think that the total duration of a flight can be 1.6 hours and the time spent in actual instrument conditions can also be 1.6 hours. How is that done?) Go through your logbook and locate all the entries that the examiner will need to see to verify that you do, indeed, have the experience requirements for the certificate or rating. You can either put tabs on the pages, or you can provide a list of the dates and pages on which the entries are found. Do the same for all required endorsements. Be prepared to show that any required cross-country flights are of the required length.
Your Certificates -- Make sure that your pilot certificate is signed and, in the case of a student pilot, that it has not expired and has all the proper endorsements. As I mentioned above, make sure that your name on your pilot certificate is exactly the same as the name entered on the 8710 -- or see your local FSDO to get it changed.
Make sure your medical certificate is up-to-date, and remember that only a third-class medical is needed for any practical test now. You'll need the proper grade of medical to exercise the privileges of your new certificate or rating, but a third class is sufficient for your checkride. (Of course, be prepared to explain to the examiner what class medical is required.)
Your Knowledge Test Report -- Have your knowledge test report handy and make sure your instructor has endorsed your logbook attesting to the fact that he's gone over with you all areas in which you missed questions. Be prepared for the examiner to emphasize those areas on your oral exam.
The Airplane Papers -- Get a photocopy of the aircraft registration, airworthiness certificate, weight and balance and equipment list and make sure that the original documents are properly stowed and/or displayed on the aircraft. Go through the aircraft logs and tab the pertinent pages so that you can show the examiner that you know which maintenance and inspections are required for the aircraft you are flying and that all inspections are done and current.
Take all the stuff we've talked about above and make two (or possibly three) file folders. The first will be your personal file. That should include your completed 8710, your knowledge test results (if required), your current airman certificate and medical certificate, your photo ID, and copies of each of the above documents for the examiner's files. (The examiner may not want them, but it never hurts to offer.) Clip the original documents together with the proper fee for the examiner. Place these on top of your file and put the copies beneath. Also include your pilot logbook and any lists you have made so that it will be easier for the examiner to find the pertinent entries.
The second file will be for the airplane. Include the copies of the aircraft documents and the logbooks with the entries tabbed, or a list of the pages that contain the pertinent inspections. If you can't bring the logbooks, bring photocopies of the pertinent entries or some other reliable means for determining the aircraft is legal for the flight you contemplate.
The third file will contain any pre-flight planning you have done for the cross-country portion (if necessary) of the flight the examiner has asked you to plan. At the very least, you should have printouts of the weather for the flight and a completed weight-and-balance for the flight.
Okay, so the practical test is about to begin. First of all relax. I can't say that enough. Most examiners are not there to humiliate you -- they are there to determine that you are adequately prepared to safely exercise the privileges of the airman certificate for which you are applying. Having been an examiner, I know that examiners really don't like to bust folks -- it's just that some days applicants appear who are not well-prepared; and then there's the occasional applicant that just freezes and has a complete brain fade. It happens.
Be prepared to fully explain every bit of paper you've shown up with. It's not difficult. Just take your time and be systematic. Thoroughly answer the examiner's questions. There's no harder job for an examiner than having to pull answers out of an applicant. It becomes difficult at times to determine whether the applicant is reticent because of a lack of knowledge or because someone gave him some faulty advice about not giving more than one word answers. Don't make it hard for your examiner to make that distinction. The oral is not a one-question test -- in other words, you need to answer the majority of the questions correctly (70%) not every one. There may be some deal breakers that if answered incorrectly would result in disapproval, but they're few and far between. For example, if you turned up for your exam in a Cherokee 140 and told the examiner it was a Cessna 172, I think you'd be headed for a pink slip; but other than huge errors of that nature, you are allowed to miss a few.
When you finally get to the airplane, relax and have fun. You may be asked to explain every item on the pre-flight inspection. Be sure to take the manufacturer's checklist, if available, with you. Be sure to give the examiner a pre-flight briefing on seat belts required by FAR 91.107 and make sure that the belt is fastened. You may also want to brief the examiner on exits, other safety items and smoking. The briefing for seatbelts must be done before the aircraft moves.
Treat the examiner like a passenger. You are pilot-in-command and you must show the examiner command authority. A thorough reading of the Introduction to the PTS the night before the test will tell you exactly what the examiner is going to be looking for, what the special emphasis areas are and what the tolerances for the maneuvers are. Remember, all those tolerances assume good flying conditions and you will not be failed for a minor deviation so long as you correct immediately and do not make a habit of those deviations.
Have fun! Show the examiner that you are a competent and confident pilot and that you enjoy flying. Your attitude will go a long way in influencing the attitude of that very important right-seat passenger. And, above all, if you do not understand a request from the examiner or a clearance from ATC, immediately ask for clarification. Don't make a mistake just because you didn't understand what was required.
Good luck and keep the shiny side up and pointy end forward -- at least on checkrides!
Editor's Note: Just before this article went to press, Linda had knee replacement surgery. She's getting better every day, but she won't be able to respond right away to comments and questions posted by readers (below). Please feel free to post messages anyway, and Linda will respond when she's out of rehab.
For more From The CFI, check out the rest of Linda's articles.