Eye of Experience #16:
Killing the Checkitis Bug

  • E-Mail this Article
  • View Printable Article
  • Text size:

    • A
    • A
    • A

Nothing strikes more fear into the heart of a pilot than the dreaded checkride. Despite the stress, the butterflies and the stupid mistakes, thousands of pilots each year manage to take a checkride and pass it. How do they do it? AVweb's Howard Fried offers up some tips on what to expect and most importantly what the examiner expects of the applicant.

Eye Of ExperienceEverybody takes checkrides. It simply goes with the territory if you want to fly, an FAA Inspector (Fed) will examine you from time to time or you will be tested by a Designated Pilot Examiner (DPE). In a 17-year career as a DPE, and having administered over four thousand flight tests as a DPE, I believe I have seen chickitis in virtually all its forms. Throughout my entire career as a DPE I never spent less than 15 minutes (and on many occasions as much as a half-hour or more) attempting to calm down each applicant that faced me. I had several techniques for accomplishing this.

The Examiner Expects You to Pass

A Cessna 152
First, I would start out by explaining that I wanted to see the applicant's best effort, and he/she certainly can't show me that if he or she is all tied up in knots with an advanced state of nerves. I would then explain that at least three people wanted the applicant to pass: the applicant him/herself, his or her instructor, and me. The applicant because of the time, effort, and money invested in reaching this point, his/her instructor because the result becomes part of the instructor's permanent record, and me because it is much easier to pass an applicant that to fail one. (There's a lot of paperwork involved in disapproving an application for a certificate or rating, and I simply hate paperwork, not to mention that I would have to get back in an airplane or glider as the case might be for the re-check.) Therefore, I would tell the applicant that I expect and want him or her to pass.

Comparing the Test to Other Facets of the Applicant's Life

Another technique I used to calm an applicant down was to compare the checkride to some other phases of the applicant's life. I remember one applicant for a Private Pilot Certificate, a physician, who was so nervous when he came to me that he had to excuse himself and go to the restroom and barf before we even got started on the oral portion of the practical test! I asked him if, after going through four years of undergraduate college, four years of medical school, several years of internship and residency before taking the state boards for his specialty, he was this nervous. He answered in the negative, explaining that he was well prepared and confident. I then asked if he wasn't this upset then, why on earth he would let a piddling little thing like a private pilot checkride upset him so? This calmed him down and he gave me a good ride.

What Difference Does It Make?

To help an applicant relax I would often ask this question; "Today is May 5th, 1999. On May 5th, 2005, is it going to make any difference whether you got your certificate (or rating) on May 5th, 1999, or on May 8th, 1999?" Of course, viewed from that angle the applicant would have to answer in the negative. Basically, applicants want to know that they met the standard. They don't want the certificate or rating to be a gift they want to earn it. This gives them the confidence to exercise their new privileges without the fear of feeling that they don't really measure up. Although everybody wants to pass his checkride, nobody really wants an "easy" examiner. They want to know, deep down, that they have successfully met the standard of the PTS.

Marginal Performance

The Private Pilot PTSEvery examiner enjoys seeing an applicant do a perfect job on the practical test. It is a joy to see a well-prepared applicant breeze right through every TASK in the PTS. The FAA tells examiners to take the onus of a bust off themselves and place it where it belongs by explaining, "Look, I didn't bust you, the regulations did." Of course this is true. The applicant really busted him/herself by failing to measure up to the standard of the Practical Test Standards (PTS). From the examiner's standpoint the nice, clean passing test is easy. So too is the nice, clean bust the one in which the applicant knows just what he did wrong and when. I once busted a six-month instrument check by attempting to recapture the localizer with one engine caged in a cabin class twin after a three-dot deflection of the needle. I knew exactly what I did wrong and had no trouble accepting the bust. I just went back the next day an did that approach right.

On the other hand, the ones that drive an examiner out of his mind as he attempts to make the difficult decision are the marginal applicants who give the examiner a ride that could go either way. The FAA emphatically says, "There's no such thing as a marginal applicant. They either meet the standard or they don't!" I don't know about you, but I certainly don't believe that statement. The PTS does allow some leeway for the conditions that exist at the time of the ride gusty winds, mild chop, etc., and if the tolerances are slightly exceeded because of these conditions the examiner may take this into account. Of course, some applicants use these conditions as an excuse to cover up a poor performance. Here, however, I am referring to the applicant who consistently operates right on the edge in good conditions. My policy in those cases was to repeat the maneuver or a similar one with the same objective a couple of times until I was certain the applicant knew what he/she was supposed to do and did it right and until the objective as spelled out in the PTS was satisfactorily met.

Psyching Yourself Up for the Checkride

It seems like I've been taking checkrides all my life. At one point in time I was taking five checkrides a year, all with the Feds. And somehow I would manage to convince myself that I would go in and show the inspector how I fly, and if it wasn't good enough, I didn't deserve to pass. This technique has always worked for me, and I would go in relaxed and give the inspector an example of my best effort.

The Pilot's Handbook of Aeronautical KnowledgeThere was one exception when I met the inspector in a high state of nerves. Just before leaving the office to go to the Flight Standards District Office (FSDO) for the checkride my then-partner said, "You know if you bust this ride, you'll lose your instrument privileges." The realization of the veracity of this statement got me extremely upset, and when I met the inspector (a nice guy, by the way), he observed that I was nervous.

He said, "What's the matter, Howard? Every time we've been together in the past you have been perfectly calm, but today you seem to be quite nervous." I responded, "I realize that if I bust this ride I'll lose my instrument privileges, and I earn my living in the instrument airspace." He replied, "Don't worry. If you screw something up, you'll just come back tomorrow and do it over again." This calmed me down and I was able to give him a passing performance. The technique of convincing yourself, emotionally as well as intellectually, that you are ready really works for me, and it can for you, too.

Heckling the Applicant

Although as an examiner I worked very hard at attempting to see that each applicant was not nervous in the flight test situation, there was one area of the practical test in which I would actually heckle the applicant. Formerly, the PTS for the Private Pilot Practical Test said that the applicant would plan his/her cross-country flight near the range of the airplane within 30 minutes, taking into account the existing conditions. With very few exceptions almost no applicants were successful in meeting the 30-minute limit. Whenever the planning process took over an hour, I would usually snarl at the applicant, "One reason people fly airplanes is because they go fast. If it takes over 30 minutes to plan a three-hour trip it is indicative of weak planning ability. Let's get this wrapped up right now!" The applicant would usually answer that he/she was trying to make sure that everything was right and all the bases covered, but it did spur them on to work a bit faster.

Once in the air, examiners are instructed to throw a few distractions at the applicant to ensure that the priorities are kept straight that the first duty of flying the airplane is taken care of prior to the attention being turned to handle whatever the distraction might be. One nasty technique I used was to attempt to induce vertigo while the applicant had a view-limiting device in place. I would drop my pen on the floor and ask the applicant to pick it up. If he kept his head level and his eyes on the panel, all would be well, but if he leaned forward and lowered his head as he looked at the floorboard, the chances were he would experience vertigo. You might think this is unfair, but it provides a graphic demonstration of the working of the inner ear.


The government does us aviators an enormous favor by publishing in the Practical Test Standards exactly what is expected of the applicant on each checkride for every certificate and rating. Yet, I have seen countless applicants show up without ever having heard of the PTS, let alone seen one. I believe it is almost criminal for an instructor to send an applicant in for the practical test without having gone through the PTS for that test with the applicant again and again.

The bottom line is simply this: As the Boy Scouts say, "Be Prepared!" If an applicant is well prepared, he can meet the examiner without cockiness but with confidence, and if he is well prepared there is no excuse for busting a checkride.

Usual Boilerplate: If you have a comment regarding this column, please post it here rather than sending it to me by direct email. That way others may benefit from your input.