Overcoming Multiple Checkride Failures

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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?

Answer: No.

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.

Here’s a link to my article with 8 How-Tos for successfully transitioning into your first jet. And here guidance to Halt Harassment in Aviation.

I wish you all the best in your pilot career.

Bio:

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.

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18 COMMENTS

  1. At the end of my career as a DPE I retested and passed a woman who had endured exactly this kind of behavior on her first try for PP. That DPE was not removed, and I subsequently heard that his behavior toward female applicants is well known in the region. I heard too many times about similar unfair behavior in other regions directed at women and non-white applicants. Attitudes that were current 50 years ago persist in aviation, while other industries have made great strides in eliminating them. It’s a pity aviation is still in the dark ages.
    On the other hand, I tested many initial CFI applicants in accelerated program schools who were woefully unprepared, and an uncomfortable proportion of applicants for other ratings who simply were deficient. The training department in my former airline was absolutely professional in every way, so it is possible to establish and maintain high standards and also possible to enforce them rigorously and fairly.
    The problem starts with GA. The FAA must figure out a better way to observe and scrutinize the behavior of its designees.

  2. I failed my first checkride. It was on the maneuver I never had a problem with, steep turns. I overshot my reference point. Nailed the rest. I was overly focused on my altitude because, for some reason that day I was descending too much and I was attempting to keep my altitude. And there we went. It cost me another $500 the next week to go up with another examiner and do a single steep turn to get my PPL. The most expensive turn I’ll ever do, I think. I was so mad at myself because I was quite prepared for the ride.

  3. The article states: “The initial CFI checkride reportedly has the highest failure rate: 50 percent.” From what I’ve seen via a 10 minute googling session, that’s just not true. A 2018 AOPA article from Jason Blair (recently interviewed on Avweb, DPE and expert on pilot training) stated that “the pass rates (including those conducted by DPEs and FAA inspectors) have averaged somewhere near 70 percent over the past decade and aren’t changing significantly. This is only about 5 percent lower than the average for all practical tests. ” And, the Blair article stated that in the most recent year for which data was available (2017), the initial CFI pass rate for DPEs was nearly 68% while the pass rate with FAA inspectors was 73.5% (if you can get them to do the free practical tests, I also take issue with the statement in the article that many CFI checkrides are given by FSDO inspectors, I think that’s largely old and outdated news and at best a small minority). The thrust of the article is clear and good: multiple checkride failures are not good for hiring, even in this environment of pilot scarcity: there have been enough NTSB investigations of accidents where the pilot under scrutiny busted multiple checkrides or company training events. More source checking on the factual details might be helpful here when authors stray from hard facts.

  4. A “10 minute googling session” and aggregated pass/fail data doesn’t present a complete or even accurate picture.
    DPEs run a business and must remain sensitive to how their passing rate compares to the other DPEs in their FSDO.
    If a DPE enforces the ACS/PTS to the letter and fails to track his pass rate, eventually flight schools will stop calling.
    Am I saying the Jason Blairs calibrate their pass rate for business purposes? Yes.

  5. This article would have been a lot better had the subjective gender/racial factor been left out.

    I guess I was lucky. Back in my day the only DPEs around were for the Private and a couple for the Instrument rating.

    I took 5 check rides with the FAA before I got hired by TWA. They were are free, which was important because I was very limited on money being on the GI Bill and going to college.

    (I also had a Link Trainer Operator practical with the FAA but that doesn’t count as a check ride.

  6. I agree with Terps. The article should have left out the subjective gender/racial factor. After a 40 year career with an airline I have seen many times over how hiring a weak candidate can have repercussions during a persons entire career and it should never be related to gender or race. When I got hired I had to do an evaluation in the simulator as well as having several thousand flying hours before I was considered for the job. A weak pilot is a liability for the airline and also for any crew that they operate with in the flight deck. They cost the airline more in training costs and may never get promoted to a Captain position if they “can’t make the cut” and that’s the way it should be. When I was in the training department the mantra that always came to roost at the end of the day for me was whether or not I would be comfortable putting my family on a plane if that pilot was flying. That’s really what it’s all about. Doesn’t matter what race or sex you are but can you do the job to a required standard

    • It IS about meeting the standards and should NOT be about gender and race. I’m an old white guy, and I have witnessed over the years – as you may have – disparaging comments, slurs, resulting ultimately in unearned and illegal checkride failures.
      So, for the article to leave that out obviously makes no sense. Someday, race/gender/etc will not matter, but we’re not there yet.

  7. I did not know about the airman’s check ride failure rates are available to airline management.
    A good check.
    Not available to the companies in the early ’60s hires, but would have been helpful for the company to weed out undesirables.
    My take

    • I don’t believe in regulation for regulation’s sake, but it might simplify things if the FAA declared what each region’s DPEs can charge for checkrides. It would eliminate one form of competition between DPEs (and there really shouldn’t be any degree of competition between them).

  8. Your basic premise is flawed in so many ways.

    Those who have “failed” checkrides ( quotes to be explained below) are in no way less qualified than any other pilot. If failure indicated unsuitability, retakes wber ould not be allowed. Your assertion that those who fail are unqualified basically makes a mockery of the certification process and disallows its validity. ANY checkride or test of any sort is a one time instant appraisal. It indicates nothing about past or future performance – only the performance demonstrated in that instant.

    It’s also necessary to remember that examiners are humans. The article illustrated several possible avenues for this, but of course left out many. Personality issues – even if not vocalized or outwardly acted upon – can play a major factor. Remember the old saw, Aviation is 99% personalities. Sadly we’re still dealing with that. Our subset of society ( Aviation) has an overrepresentation of what we politely refer to as “strong personalities.” Many of those preclude true objectivity – or in many cases even compliance with regulations.

    And something some folks don’t know that really effects your argument, is that DPE’s are required to fail a given percentage of folks by the FAA. Honest! It’s true! I’ve spoken with at least 4 DPE’s and former DPE’s who have said the same thing. As long as that persists, DPE’s cannot be effectively trusted.

    And if none of that dissuades you, then how about this? Send someone for their checkride after their first lesson. Likely they’ll fail, but after enough training they will pass. SO a failed checkride is not an indicator of lesser performance, but merely a premature attempt.

    Your suggestion that anyone change career paths due to a failed checkride is shortsighted at best – and that’s being kind. Get off your high horse and realize that the certification process is what it is for a reason.

  9. OP wasn’t suggesting that someone with a single checkride failure should reconsider their career path. Anyone can have a bad day. It’s when that bad day turns into groundhog day that there’s a problem. I’ve seen posters on other forums ask about their chances of landing that sweet airline gig when they’ve literally never passed a checkride on their first attempt. I usually tell them that some soul searching is in order.

    Race and gender plays more of a role than we like to think. I don’t jump to that conclusion when someone fails a ride but it does happen. The vast majority of pilots would never fail someone for those reasons but I’ve also met some remarkable Neanderthals in my time who would have no problem doing that. It’s a real thing.

    What a lot of pilots don’t realize is that until you get that interview, it’s likely a human being has never seen your application. They use computer algorithms to sort through applications and decide which ones a further look. So if certain flags in the algorithm are tripped (like greater than X number of checkride failures), then the app never even sees the light of day. There are ways around this, but it takes a lot more legwork to get that application in front of a decision maker.

    I’m an outlier. I got hired at a legacy with 4 checkride failures (CFI 3x and CMEL 1x). But those checkrides were 25 years ago when I was younger and much dumber. It was part luck with the current hiring frenzy. Even so I had to work hard to compensate for those failures. I’ve been on double secret probation my entire life. A single incident/accident/violation, or a more recent checkride failure, or a DUI probably would have torpedoed my chances for good. It’s not a comfortable situation in which to be.

  10. I would have liked to see more data on how many actually get turned away for multiple checkride failures. The article doesn’t mention why it may be good for pilots that bust so many times to not continue as professional pilots – as in the FO for Atlas who killed himself and two others by augering a perfectly good 767 into a bay in Texas.

    As for bias in race and gender, again, it’s disgraceful and good data will expose those who hold harmful biases.

  11. One thing no DPE will ever probably say on the record, is that in fact, they are less likely to fail a female, gay, minority or any applicant that represents a potentially “protected” category that checks a box. In any case of these scenarios, the applicant need only make a potential, or real complaint of “discimination” and most DPEs would hesitate to issue a failure out of the fear of the problems that even an accusation would cause. Many would not like to hear this, but in many cases extra leeway is given when it probably should not be. Sure, there are some bad actors out there, but those stories get very over-shared and are few and far between. The overwhelming majority of DPEs are stand up pilots trying to hold a standard and in many cases the pressures on them make doing their job harder when articles like this share false generalizations. It is pretty disappointing that these perceptions keep getting shared. Some may not like to hear this truth, many who give tests would not ever say it on the record.

  12. What about poor training as a cause of failed checkrides? At age 60, I got offers from two regionals and attended FO school. I was the oldest in my class, had 2000 hours as a flight instructor but almost no glass cockpit experience. Aced all my writtens and orals for the CRJ. After completing 10 sessions in the Level D Simulator, I still wasn’t recommended for the checkride. Why? THE SKY POINTER. If you come from GA and are thinking about an airline career and your flight school doesn’t train you with the SKY POINTER attitude indicator, you have a huge strike against you. GET SOME TRAINING. Choose a school that has the capability to train you with THE SKY POINTER because that is used by most jets and ALL the airlines and the miliary. The roll index on the EADI reads OPPOSITE the one on the conventional GA attitude indicator ! No mercy shown by my ex-military instructors in the airlines ! For an article with a little explanation, read IFR Refresher February 2019 “Transition Trauma”. Or email me at wingsnwind9000@gmail.com

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