In this airline pilot hiring boom, we are seeing up-and-coming pilots post in online forums that they have worked hard to train and achieve all the certification and credentials to become airline pilots and are frustrated to discover that their multiple training and checkride failures are preventing them from landing at an airline.
To qualify for an airline pilot job, one has to have passed at least five checkrides: Private, Instrument, Commercial, Multi-Engine, and Airline Transport or ATP. Many also become Certificated Flight Instructors (CFI), which is a popular entry-level job and step on the career ladder.
One checkride failure can be explained. Pilots are human, after all. You can say in a job interview: “Here are the mistakes I made, and here’s what I learned about flying and about myself from this experience.” Two checkride failures can probably also be explained.
Three or more failures out of five or six checkrides, and now it’s a pattern. Past performance can be a prediction of future performance. Questions are raised in the hiring manager’s mind: Is this someone with weak flying skills? Or who has difficulty with learning? In this situation, you may need to go “back to basics” for more flight training, improved study habits, or management of checkride anxiety. Or, reconsider your choice of professions altogether.
A checkride failure requires the pilot applicant to return to their flight instructor for remedial flight training, before making another attempt at completing the checkride by demonstrating the failed maneuvers. When the pilot can do that, they have achieved that next pilot certificate or rating. But their prior failure is also recorded in FAA records.
The FAA authorizes highly experienced pilots to give these checkrides as Designated Pilot Examiners (DPEs), except that the FAA’s own Aviation Safety Inspectors often conduct the initial CFI checkride themselves, for quality control of flight instructors. The initial CFI checkride reportedly has the highest failure rate: 50 percent.
Numerous pilots have told of inappropriate conduct of DPEs, including reports of examiners making inappropriate comments about women to women pilot applicants, requesting quid pro quo sexual favors, groping during the checkride, sexual harassing communications during and after the checkride, and clear bias against pilot applicants who are female and/or people of color. A pilot posted one recent example in which a DPE failed six female pilot applicants in a row and no male applicants, all recommended by the same flight instructor.
Flight training and checkrides continue after a pilot is hired by an airline, of course, and here the FAA authorizes experienced company captains as Aircrew Program Designees (APDs) to conduct checkrides on behalf of the FAA. And once again, there is some discrimination, harassment, and bias against pilots who happen to be female and/or people of color. There are other examples of unprofessional conduct, such as the APD who announced to the pilot trainees, before the checkride even began, that they would be failed on this checkride because the APD believed the airline’s pass rate was too high.
The difference in the airline environment is that pilots train as a team of two, so there is nearly always a witness to the misconduct. Even so, typically both pilots keep their mouths shut, fearing the repercussions to new-hires on probation reporting misconduct by a company captain in a position of high authority.
All of this to say that while it is not uncommon for a pilot to fail one or more checkrides along the way to achieving the ATP, and/or to have training failures after getting hired by an airline, a failed checkride could represent a failure of the pilot examiner to conduct the checkride professionally and without bias, especially with pilots who are women and/or people of color. In such cases, even if the pilot reports the misconduct to the FAA, there’s no changing the FAA record, and the failed checkride is permanent. So now our industry is in a pilot hiring boom at a level not seen in 50 years, but the airlines are turning away qualified pilot applicants who have multiple checkride failures.
Why? Why are pilot training and checkride failures such a big deal, when testing failures for lawyers and doctors and other professionals don’t seem to haunt them?
Short Answer #1: Because a pilot for a major airline holds up to $1 billion in company assets and liabilities in their hands on every flight.
Short Answer #2: Because those other professionals can kill only 0 persons (lawyer) to 1 person (doctor) at a time, neither of which makes the local news. In aviation, an airliner hitting a bird and killing only a bird makes the national news. And when an airliner kills a person, or many people, the U.S. Congress holds hearings and makes changes to laws and regulations.
TL;DR Answer #1:
They say that every Federal Aviation Regulation (FAR) is written in blood. A plane crashed, people died, an investigation was conducted, and new laws and regulations were developed as a result. This is why aviation is the nation’s most regulated industry, higher even than the nuclear energy industry.
After a string of fatal accidents attributed to pilot error, in 1996 the U.S. Congress passed a law called the Pilot Records Improvement Act (PRIA), to allow a potential employer to learn about a pilot’s training and checkride record.
PRIA was amended in 2010. The year before, in 2009, Colgan Air Flight 3407 crashed near Buffalo, New York. Fifty people died. Everyone on board — two pilots, two flight attendants, and all 45 passengers — and one person on the ground — all died.
Many new laws and regulations came out of this accident, including the all-new Part 117 duty and rest regulations, the Airline Transport Pilot certificate requirement for all Part 121 airline pilots, changes to training the recovery from stalls … and short-term and long-term changes to PRIA.
The accident investigation found that the captain/pilot flying on Colgan 3407 had three checkride failures before getting hired, had revealed only one of these to Colgan, and subsequently had two training failures while a pilot for Colgan. The first officer/pilot monitoring also had a training failure that was not revealed before hiring. It was determined that Colgan Air failed to keep track of the accumulation of training failures.
The families of the victims of Colgan 3407, and the U.S. Congress, and the NTSB, and the FAA, put this issue in their crosshairs. As a result, airlines are now very leery of hiring pilots with multiple training and checkride failures. PRIA is being replaced with a digital Pilot Records Database (PRD), to be maintained by the FAA, that will include FAA checkride failures, FAA enforcement actions, accidents and incidents, airline training failures, drug and alcohol records, driving records, and employment records on disciplinary actions and termination or separation of employment.
TL;DR Answer #2:
But it isn’t just the regulations. Airlines are in the business of making money. Hiring, training, and employing pilots is a huge expense. I don’t know exactly what it costs to hire and train a new pilot, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it exceeded $20,000 to $30,000 each. Those amazingly realistic Category D full-motion flight simulators can cost as much as the actual airplane, and, for example, my large airline has at least 30 of them.
So, when it comes to pilot hiring, doesn’t it make sense, purely from a cost perspective, to hire a pilot with a solid track record of training and checkride success? Because a pilot with weak pilot skills or weak study habits or slow learning will cost more: More training days, more simulator sessions, and more expense.
And more liability. In the Colgan and subsequent air cargo accidents, each pilot was scrutinized to the Nth degree, which will only continue going forward. If you are involved in an airline accident or incident, the investigation will uncover who you texted or messaged, what you posted on Facebook and Instagram, what online games you played. It will reveal what you ate and drank and smoked and ingested in the previous 48 hours, how much you slept in the last week, and how you got yourself to work for that trip. And all of your flight training records will be dug up.
And the airline does not want the liability of a pilot who had training difficulties and then ends up in an accident. So they are being extra careful with pilot hiring now, ahead of full implementation of the PRD.
Question: How many training and checkride failures is too many, when it comes to airline pilot hiring?
Answer: I don’t know for sure. By all indications, the initial CFI checkride, with its 50 percent failure rate, is a “gimme.” So perhaps one or two additional failures in addition to that one is too many? Just a guess.
Question: Should I give up on being an airline pilot?
Question: Then how can I recover from multiple training and checkride failures?
Answer: In the many years I have been mentoring pilots, what I have seen is that when a pilot has multiple training and checkride failures or has been fired or is washed out of airline training or has other blemishes on their record — even when these are explainable — the way to overcome that setback and move forward in the career is to establish a new, more recent record of successful training event(s) and successful employment that demonstrates the ability to learn to fly a new airplane quickly and strong pilot skills.
One option, if you have access to a lot of money, is to pay for a jet type rating, such as the 737 type rating. With this training, you will not only learn to fly a large transport category jet aircraft and get rated on it, you will also learn the procedures and profiles that airline pilots fly, and hone your instrument flying skills in a fast-moving jet. All of this will help you with your new-hire airline pilot training.
That’s out of reach to most people, so establishing a new record of successful flight training will require accepting a pilot job that represents a smaller step forward, or a lateral move, or even a step back to a prior level. This may not be the message you want to hear, but this is what it will take.
Having said that, I would not recommend stepping back into flight instruction. A job flying cargo or passengers under Part 135 charter, or any flying job where you will get real-world flying and IFR and PIC decision-making experience, would be preferable.
After landing a job and establishing a good training and flying and work record over 6-12 months, a pilot will be viewed more favorably for hiring by an airline. Also, I strongly recommend paying for pilot interview counseling, where professionals highly knowledgeable in airline pilot hiring can coach you on how to discuss your past training failures.
I wish you all the best in your pilot career.
Captain Jenny Beatty flies for a major U.S. airline and is rated on the B737, B747, B777, B787, DC-9, BE-1900, seaplanes, and gliders. She is a longtime aviation researcher, writer, mentor, and advocate for women and other historically excluded people in aviation. Her website is www.JennyBeatty.com.