Your Checkout: An Instructor’s Perspective

The idea of checking out in a new airplane or at a new FBO can be daunting. To get a feel for what to expect, here's what your CFI is looking for during your checkout..


When the vast majority of American pilots want to go flying they rent an airplane from their local FBO, flight school or flying club. That means they have to go through some sort of a checkout with the aircraft provider before they can take the aircraft on their own. Whether the checkout is in a type the pilot hasn’t flown before or with a new-to-the-pilot rental facility, there is a certain amount of uncertainty and discomfort for the pilot—after all, it’s effectively a checkride. Plus, there usually aren’t published guidelines for an FBO airplane checkout; unlike having the PTS to study when you’re getting ready for a checkride for a rating. What should you expect? What will the instructor want to see?

Stripped to the basics, first, the FBO wants a new customer. It wants your checkout to go smoothly. Second, it also wants a customer who isn’t going to do something foolish that costs the FBO money because the airplane can’t be rented and/or has to be repaired because of damage that may or may not be insured.

With all of the above in mind, let’s go through a checkout from the eyes of the person who is going to say yes or no to you becoming a customer, the CFI. I’ll use “we” to refer to CFIs because this is based on not only my years of giving checkouts and taking FBO and flying club standardization checks, but also many, many hours of talking with other CFIs and FAA inspectors about checkouts and self-preservation when flying with someone I’ve never met before.


Whether it’s a new airplane checkout for the pilot or a pilot checking out at a new operation, we greatly appreciate it when you come to our first session with an idea of what to expect of us and what we’ll be expected of you. We want you to come to the session prepared. Frankly, we don’t like having to spoon-feed you all of the details about the airplane, from usable fuel to V-speeds because it’s too much to retain in one session, especially if it’s your first time in a glass cockpit. It also will take so long that, unless you’ve booked a very long time slot, there won’t be time to go flying. By showing up prepared, you’ll save money because you won’t be paying for as much time with the instructor on the ground—it will probably take less time in the air as well.

We would like to get to know you a little before the checkout, because, believe it or not, every sane instructor is a little nervous about flying with a pilot he or she has not met. That’s because virtually every one of us has had at least one good, solid scare at the hands of a pilot during a checkout. So, before the flight, arrange to call or exchange emails with us. That let’s us get to know you and start making plans as to how to tailor the checkout for you. It also allows us to arrange for you to fill out any forms that are going to be required, including the company quiz on the airplane details, and make sure you have access to the POH data so you can study it before the checkout.

If you want a flight review and/or instrument competency check as a part of the checkout, say so ahead of time. Not all airplane/new FBO checkouts meet FR or IPC requirements, so the CFI will need to make sure the session includes what’s needed for a FR and/or IPC endorsement. One way to really anger an instructor is to bring up the FR and/or IPC subject for the first time as he or she is signing your logbook after a successful checkout.

We want you to know what you will have to demonstrate for us to consider your checkout complete. After all, there should be measurable definitions of success. Let’s establish objective standards for airspeed, altitude and heading. Your level of comfort with the objective standards helps us understand if you’re a rusty pilot who may need a little time to flake off the rust or if the transition to a faster airplane than you’re used to, or both, means that the checkout may take more than one session to complete.

If you’re checking out in an airplane that has a minimum number of hours of dual required by the FBO before you can go off on your own, we’ll talk about that and how to structure a syllabus that makes those hours as valuable to you as possible.

Have a current charts, either electronic or paper, and a way to take notes or record the session. There’s going to be too much to memorize. You’re going to be buried with local knowledge and FBO procedures as well as the informal gouge we’ve picked up over the years for operating the airplane. Much of what we’re going to be discussing isn’t written down in the FBO materials or the POH, so at least taking notes is essential.

As a side note, if you are going to record the session, your state law may require that you have the permission of those you are recording. No matter what the law, it’s basic politeness to get your CFI’s permission to record and, if you intend to share on social media, get permission for that as well. CFI’s vary in their eagerness to be featured on the Internet.

At the Airport

Arrive early. If you are new to the FBO, immediately get to know the person behind the counter. He or she will be the one you’ll contact to schedule airplanes (if there isn’t Internet-based scheduling) and who you’ll call if you have a problem away from base. It’s wise to turn that person into a friend.

If you haven’t gotten the forms needed previously, get them from the receptionist and start filling them out. Your instructor may not be available yet (you’re early, remember), but that’s OK, you’re taking care of the stuff that doesn’t require an instructor’s presence. Have a copy made of everything, especially the airplane checkout sheet, as it will be a good reference for you in the future. The more you have done and have ready to go when the instructor shows up, the less time the checkout will take.

Another side note, many airplanes have optional fuel tanks, make sure you know which tanks are in the airplane you are to fly and how much fuel it can carry. It’s embarrassing to fill out a form regarding endurance with long-range tanks and subsequently experience that loud silence when you discover the airplane actually has standard tanks.

Once we sit down together, at a minimum expect to review FBO procedures, aircraft systems and speeds and FARs. We expect you to have a good working knowledge of the FARs and airspace. That’s pretty basic—if it’s not there, it’s a caution flag for us and it will extend the time it takes to complete your checkout. We also want you to ask questions. We know that what you don’t know can hurt you and your passengers. We’re always concerned that we may omit something important during your checkout. When you ask questions it allows us to not only answer the specific question but also identify an area where you might be rusty so we can bring you back up to speed.

Installed avionics, especially on older airplanes on FBO flight lines, can vary all over the map. We’ll take some time to go over what is in the airplane you’re about to fly and make sure you’re ready to handle all of avionics, including the autopilot.

Into the Airplane

We’ll take our time during the preflight so you can start getting to know the airplane and/or local procedures regarding how the FBO handles preflights, obtaining fuel and what to do if there is a major squawk uncovered on the preflight. We want you to know the local etiquette for startup so you don’t blow dirt all over other airplanes or into open hangars. Once in the airplane, we’re going to be watching for good cockpit organization and practice—stuff you should know, regardless of the type of airplane you’re flying—and that you know how to use a checklist.

Once you’ve started the airplane and are moving, we want you to have time to begin getting a good feel for the little things that matter for smooth operation of the airplane and at this airport, such as the overall sight picture, blind spots, steering and brake responsiveness, how things look when you are on the taxiway centerline. We’ll point out areas of concern on the airport such as blind or confusing intersections, where not to do a runup and noise-sensitive areas.

On takeoff, we expect you to do a reasonable job of tracking the centerline, or at least trying hard if it’s a new-to-you airplane. If there is a crosswind, we expect that you’ll have the ailerons deflected into it during the takeoff roll. Once in the air, we’ll be watching to see that you use the trim and work to hold desired airspeeds as you are getting a feel for the airplane. We know that you will be busy, but we expect you to be aggressive in watching for traffic and making sure you take care of things that need to be accomplished after takeoff such as gear and/or flap retraction, turning off the aux fuel pump, setting climb power and handling needed communications.

We are wide-awake right now. We’re paying full attention to what you are doing and how you are flying; it’s self-preservation. Smooth, precise flying will go a long way toward causing us to relax and decide the checkout isn’t going to take several hours.

Once at altitude, we’re watching to see that you go through the cruise checklist and make sure you understand how to set the power to get what you want per the POH. We want to see that you can lean the mixture appropriately (ROP or LOP), then take care of any of the other systems that require attention while you work on getting the feel of the airplane and the area.

We want you to take the time you need to feel the airplane and see what it takes to hold altitude within plus or minus 100 feet and to set the trim so it flies hands off or close to it. See what is involved in changing fuel tanks and how the detents feel as each is reached.

Once in the practice area we’ll have you do airwork to see that you can make the airplane do what you want it to do as you do. Plan on doing, at the very least, steep turns, slow flight and stalls. We want to see that you can get comfortable flying the airplane slowly as that it a common problem area we observe. We want you to slow the airplane down and change configurations to see if there is a pitch change with gear and/or flap extension and to see what it takes to fly it at five knots above stall speed and trim it to fly hands off. How much rudder does it take to keep the ball in the center? What is it like to make a go around from that configuration—similar to well into the flare on landing? What is involved in transitioning into a climb? This is your chance to fly the airplane near the edge of the envelope and learn what it’s going to do while you have someone right there to catch you if you slip.

If this is a new airplane checkout, we understand that getting the maneuvers nailed down may take a few attempts as you sort out control forces, coordination and trim.

If this is a new FBO checkout, we are going to expect that you can do all of the maneuvers reasonably well the first try. We came into a “new to the FBO” checkout assuming you know how to fly the airplane; this is not the time to disabuse us of that notion. Nevertheless, if it does turn out that you are demonstrating evidence of rusty technique, we’ll switch gears and work with you to bring your performance up to scratch.

The emergency procedures will be the ones you’ve done forever: engine failure, fire in flight, jammed controls, system malfunctions, emergency gear extension and the rest. We want to see you handle the initial “memory items” of each emergency correctly and smoothly and then pull out the checklist when time allows to make sure you took care of everything. You’ll be expected to follow the old simple rule of emergencies—fly the airplane, deal with the problem, fly the airplane, communicate.

Back to the Airport

As you return to the airport, we want to see that you plan the descent, run the checklist (printed or oral) arrive in the pattern on altitude and on speed and communicate appropriately. The whole process should be smooth and reflect your ability to plan ahead. In a new airplane it may take a while to get a feel for the speeds involved so that you do arrive at pattern altitude where you want to and with the speed where you want it.

Plan on doing a series of landings. In a new airplane we’ll work with you on establishing a routine in the pattern.

We are looking to see that you can fly the airplane on speed, are ahead of it in planning each part of the pattern, can handle a crosswind, know where to flare and can keep the airplane straight on landing and rollout. We are not going to be hypercritical regarding how smooth the landings are—control of the airplane is far more important. We will ask you to demonstrate a short field takeoff and landing and should work with you on developing a feel for how much runway is required for the normal takeoffs and landings. We’ll also work with you on handling any quirks of the airport location that affects approach and landing.

In many higher-performance airplanes, a forward c.g. and full flaps cause the control forces in the flare to be fairly high (the further forward the c.g., the more stable the airplane, so it resists your attempts to slow it down). We’ll want to make sure you have the airplane trimmed for the appropriate approach speed on final. However, if you have to make a go around, that can have the effect of pitching the nose up significantly—we’ll also work with you on go-arounds so you can see what you have to do to retrim while making needed changes in flap deployment.

Two of the big things we’re watching for on landing is that you fly the airplane on speed on final—too fast is a major cause of landing accidents—and that you can handle a crosswind and keep the ailerons into the wind throughout rollout.

If this is just a new FBO checkout, you’ll probably be doing the above in an abbreviated fashion. The more precise you fly early in the flight, the more likely it is that we are going to keep the checkout short and sweet (read inexpensive) as we can see you are perfectly capable of flying the airplane and have done so before.

After the landings we’ll watch to see that you taxi in with aileron deflection for the wind and shut down per the checklist. We’ll outline the procedures for securing the airplane per the FBO preferences. Once inside, plan to sit down and go over the flight; what went right and what you need to work on. Again, make notes, as this is often the time that we give you some very useful operating tips based on what we just observed. If you have met the measurables we agreed upon prior to the flight you can plan on being signed off and you’ll walk away with that good feeling that you didn’t scare us and become one of those stories we tell other instructors over adult beverages.

Rick Durden is a CFII and holds an ATP with Douglas DC-3 and Cessna Citation type ratings. He has been instructing for over 40 years and is the author of The Thinking Pilot’s Flight Manual or, How to Survive Flying Little Airplanes and Have a Ball Doing It, Vols 1 & 2.