The Pilot's Lounge #133: The Checkout — What Does an Instructor Want to See?

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The Pilot's Lounge

I'd gotten to the virtual airport after a particularly unpleasant bout with rush hour traffic and had hoped to find the Pilot's Lounge empty as I wanted to practice my driving gestures in preparation for the trip home. It was not to be. Inside were some of the regulars busily trying to figure out why the coffee machine made lousy coffee no matter what was fed to it and a few instructors who were between students.

Within a few minutes, I was in a conversation with Dave, our resident Husky owner, who said he was thinking about checking out in the FBO's Cessna 182RG so he'd have access to a comfortable cross country airplane for those times he and his wife wanted to travel. We were just starting to discuss the airplane when I saw Old Hack walk past me and go up to a guy who was standing near the door of the Lounge and who was looking a little uncomfortable and out of place.

Hack is about five years older than dirt, owns a Piper Super Cruiser he bought almost new which he flies with ιlan and verve and carefully cultivates a reputation as a curmudgeon. Yet every once in a while, he threatens that rep by letting his true nature emerge when he does something nice. He walked up to the newcomer, stuck out his hand and said, "Howdy, I'm Hack. Welcome to the virtual airport, can I help you with anything?"

With the steady decrease in the number of pilots, I'm always glad to see a new face at the airport, so I let my ears out another notch. The guy by the door shook Hack's hand and said, "I'm Stan Whalen. I've just moved here and I'm looking to get checked out to rent airplanes and get to know the area."

"You've come to the right place," Hack responded, "Even if these socially challenged jerks haven't figured out that they have to greet visitors when they come in rather than give them the cold shoulder. No wonder aviation is hurting. I'll get you to the right folks who can set you up for a checkout, but first let me introduce you to some of the people here."

Hack started walking Stan around the room, making introductions as Dave and I talked a little more about the 182RG.

A few minutes later Hack and Stan walked up, with two of the flight school instructors in tow. He introduced Dave and me to Stan and then announced, "OK, here's the deal: Dave wants to get checked out in an airplane that's new to him and Stan wants to get checked out in one of the 172s here so he can have something to fly. He's flown 172s but he'll need a local checkout to make sure he really can fly and can get to know the area. The three of you instructors are going to take a few minutes and tell Dave and Stan what an instructor looks for on a checkout, whether it's for a new and different airplane or just at a new FBO or flying club. If they know what to expect, they'll be ready and can get things done without wasting time and too much of their hard-earned money on the likes of you. Make Stan feel welcome here. I'll referee."

Over the course of the next 20 minutes or so, the three of us did our best to outline to Dave and Stan what we looked for when we did an aircraft checkout. Our approach to the "pilot new to the FBO/flight school" and "new airplane to the pilot" checkouts had a lot in common. As we finished up, Old Hack growled, "Well, other than all three of you being most worried about the guy you're checking out killing you in the airplane you may actually have given some useful information. I'm going to take Stan down to get him scheduled for his checkout and you," pointing at me, "make yourself useful and write that stuff down in that column of yours and save pilots some money; we're in a recession, you know." With that, the informal gathering broke up and I headed for my computer to do as I was told.

Planning for the Checkout

Whether it's a new airplane checkout for the pilot or pilot checking out at a new operation, instructors greatly appreciate it when the pilot has an idea of what to expect ahead of time. While most flight instructors don't charge much money--amazingly, often less than a golf pro who doesn't have your life in his hands--it still costs money when you sit down to start a checkout. Therefore, it's wise to go into the session prepared.

You'll save money and things go more smoothly for the instructor. Instructors like that a lot. Your instructor also wants to get to know you a little bit before the checkout, because, at a basic level, believe it or not, the instructor is a little nervous at flying with a pilot he or she has not met before simply because virtually every instructor has had at least one god-solid scare at the hands of a pilot during a checkout or a flight review.

Prior to the time scheduled for your checkout, call the instructor and talk with him or her for 10 minutes or so. Ask specifically what the instructor will want to see on the checkout and take notes. Find out if there are any forms or quizzes that will be required prior to flying and if there is any way you can get them and fill them out before the session.

If possible, you want to avoid having the instructor sitting around while you go through the airplane manual looking for the amount of usable fuel it can carry or the number for Vy. It means either you are paying for an instructor's time when the instructor is not doing anything or the instructor is losing money by having to be an unpaid monitor of a pilot filling out forms.

If you want a flight review and/or instrument competency check as a part of the checkout, say so ahead of time. The instructor can tailor the session so the requirements of those signoffs are met. One way to really anger an instructor is to ask him or her to sign off a flight review as he or she is signing your logbook after the checkout. There are certain items that must be covered in a flight review and IPC and asking an instructor to sign them off without having done them is asking the instructor to lie to the FAA.

Make sure you have a current sectional chart for the area and an airport diagram with communication frequencies you may need. Have a pad of paper for taking notes as there is going to be too much to memorize. For a new area, you'll want to write down procedures the operation uses for renting the airplanes, how to get fuel, how to return the keys if you get back after hours – the stuff that may not be included with any printed rental agreement.

Mark up the sectional with the location of the practice area, altitudes to use and any communications practices specific to the local area. For a new airplane checkout, the instructor is probably going to have some operating tips that aren't in the manual. Be ready to write them down. If the instructor agrees, it doesn't hurt to take a recording device to help you remember details you go over before and after the flight.

See if you can get a copy of the POH prior to the flight. Ask what maneuvers the instructor will want to see and how the instructor wants them flown.

At the Airport

Arrive early. If you are new to the area immediately get to know the person behind the counter. He or she will be the one who you'll contact to schedule airplanes and who you'll call if you have a problem away from base. It's wise to turn that person into a friend. Hopefully, you'll be greeted pleasantly and not ignored, although a lot of aviation businesses have not figured out that they have to create a friendly, welcoming atmosphere for potential customers. The customers have had to run the gauntlet of security and the general unfamiliarity with the new experience of an airport. They should not be chased off by poor customer service once they walk in the door.

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. Plan on having to do at least a weight and balance problem for the airplane, find and write down all the pertinent airspeeds, calculate fuel burn and endurance, and answer questions on systems. You'll also probably sign a rental agreement. 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.

As 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 the paperwork is done, talk with your instructor and make sure you got the answers right on the airplane sheet. He or she may want to see your logbook. If you don't have it with you, it sets off alarm bells in the instructor's mind – what is this pilot trying to hide?

Find out precisely what you will have to demonstrate for the instructor to consider your checkout complete – there should be measurable definitions of success. For example, altitude hold within plus or minus 100 feet, airspeed within plus or minus 5 knots on climb out and approach, etc. Knowing what is to be expected as well as the passing grade makes the checkout process much less threatening for you. Your instructor will appreciate your professional approach. It's a good idea to go into the process of checking out in a new airplane, especially if it's high performance or complex, with the understanding that it may take more than one flight to complete.

Into the Airplane

The preflight means using the checklist and learning the airplane 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. It doesn't hurt to take notes. Find out local etiquette for startup so you don't blow dirt all over other airplanes or into open hangars. Once in the airplane, use the checklist, make notes of operating suggestions regarding the airplane and communications.

After startup, let yourself get to know the airplane and area before and as you taxi. Take it easy and take in the sight picture for a new airplane or the airport environment for a new airport. Are there blind spots? How responsive is the steering? The brakes? How does the attitude the airplane sits at when taxiing compare to landing attitude? How do things look when you are on the centerline? Find out how and where to do the run-up to avoid blocking other airplanes and blowing dirt where it should not go. Are there noise-sensitive areas for the run-up or on climb out?

On takeoff track the centerline. If there is a crosswind make sure you have the ailerons deflected into it. A first flight in a new airplane or new location is not a time to ignore the airmanship you've worked so hard to develop over the years. Raise the nosewheel off the runway at the prescribed speed and let the airplane fly off. Use the trim, set the desired airspeed and start getting a feel for the sight picture. You may be busy, so 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 (don't get in the habit of making a power reduction in an airplane with an engine that is rated for continuous operation at full power, it just kills the rate of climb and increases engine temps) and taking care of needed communication.

Your instructor is absolutely wide awake right now, paying full attention to what you are doing and how you are flying; it's pure self-preservation. Smooth, precise flying will go a long way to causing him or her to relax and also to decide the checkout isn't going to take several hours.

Once at altitude, go through the cruise checklist and make sure you understand how to set the power to get what you want per the POH and lean the mixture appropriately, then take care of any of the other systems that require attention and work on getting the feel of the airplane and the area. Make some gentle turns, maybe try some coordination exercises (the nose is held on a spot straight ahead with the rudders as you roll from left to right bank and back repeatedly – it's sometimes, incorrectly, called a Dutch Roll – Dutch Roll is an aerodynamic event in swept wing airplanes).

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. Make sure you understand operation of the autopilot and avionics. If this is an introduction to a glass panel airplane, this stage of the checkout will take some time (having used a simulator first will save you a lot of money).

Once in the practice area check for traffic and go through 45-degree banked turns, adjusting power as needed. Slow the airplane down and change configurations to see if there is a pitch change with gear and/or flap extension. See what it takes to fly it at 5 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?

Get a feel for trim changes needed, the pitch attitude involved and how to clean up the gear and flaps most efficiently. Then do the stalls, power off, with full flaps and gear down in a gentle turn, as if you were turning final and recover to a climb with a minimum loss of altitude; and power on, gear up and flaps set for takeoff, as if you slipped up just after takeoff with a recovery into a normal climb, again with minimum altitude loss.

Getting the maneuvers nailed down may take a few attempts as you sort out control forces, coordination and trim. It will come, but you may be working hard. The instructor is looking to see that you handle all of these maneuvers smoothly, that you keep the airplane going where you want it to go (which may take a couple of tries), and most importantly, that you know where you want the airplane to go.

If this is a new FBO checkout, the instructor is going to expect that you can do all of these maneuvers reasonably well the first try. She or he does not want to be made uncomfortable with your handling of the airplane or the decisions you make as to where you want the airplane to go. Your instructor came into a "new to the FBO" checkout assuming you know how to fly the airplane; this is not the time to disabuse her or him of that notion.

Next will come emergency procedures. They will be the ones you've done forever, engine failure (how to do a restart and then setting up a glide and selecting a place for a forced landing), fire in flight (with a new airplane you may find some specific differences than what you are used to, so plan on memorizing the fire checklists), jammed controls, system malfunctions, emergency gear extension and the rest. The instructor wants 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.

As you return to the airport the instructor will want to see that you plan the descent appropriately, 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. Work on establishing a routine for yourself in the pattern – something along the line of: power is set to fly level on downwind at a speed that does not eat up other airplanes or cause others to run over you; flaps are set to generate a relatively level deck angle so the nose does not block the view forward; the gear always goes down on downwind and the first GUMP check is run confirming gear down; power is reduced opposite the runway threshold and a descent initiated while decelerating to a target airspeed; a constant watch is maintained for traffic; on base the next flap setting is achieved and speed is at the desired number, trim is set and the rate of descent monitored while the GUMP check is again run; on final the prop control is pushed forward in anticipation of a go around at an airspeed that will not result on a lot of prop noise, landing flaps are selected and speed is at 1.3 Vso and trimmed and the final GUMP check is run.

You'll work on getting a feel for the sight picture, the power required to get the airplane to go where you want it to go and where to start the flare. Power should be at idle prior to touchdown, with the airplane flared to a nose high touchdown on centerline, with appropriate aileron input for any crosswind.

Make the first few landings to a full stop as you get to know the airplane and start practicing what needs to be done as you clear the runway: flaps up, cowl flaps open, strobes off, aux fuel pump off. Then taxi back and do it again, resetting flaps for takeoff, turning on strobes, activating the aux pump and so forth. Touch and goes do not allow ingraining the procedures you will be using on normal flights.

Your instructor is going to want 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. He or she is not going to be hypercritical regarding how smooth the landings are, control of the airplane is far more important. Plan on being able to demonstrate a short field takeoff and landing and on having a feel for how much runway is required for the way you fly the airplane.

For your own information you'll want to see what it takes to rescue an approach that is too high and too low and to make a couple of go-arounds from different spots on final and in the flare. Do at least one landing where you close the throttle near the end of downwind and see just what sort of glide you can expect and experiment with using the propeller control to increase the glide by going to low rpm, or as a speed brake by going to high rpm. Make landings with various flap settings, so you are comfortable with each. Your safest landing is the slowest touchdown (least energy to dissipate on rollout) which means full flaps, so make sure you are comfortable with full flap landings in a crosswind.

With a forward c.g. and full flaps in some airplanes the control forces in the flare can seem high, so make sure you have the airplane trimmed for the approach speed on final. However, if you have to make a go around that can have the effect of pitching the nose up significantly, so try a go around and see what you have to do to retrim while going to half flaps right away. With the instructor beside you is the time to learn what the airplane does in various circumstances – it's much better than being surprised later, with your family aboard. Your instructor is going to want to see that you fly the airplane on speed as the most common cause of landing accidents is coming down final too fast, that you have the airplane under control all of the time and can salvage a botched landing.

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 the instructor is going to keep the checkout short and sweet (read inexpensive) as she or he can see you are perfectly capable of flying the airplane and have done so before.

After the landings taxi in with aileron deflection for the wind and shut down per the checklist. Learn the procedures for securing the airplane per the manual as well as the FBO preferences, and make notes for yourself for the future. Then, sit down with the instructor and go over the flight; what went right and what you need to work on. Make notes, as this is often the time that your instructor will give you some very useful operating tips. If you have met the measurables you and the instructor agreed upon prior to the flight you can plan on being signed off after a successful flight and you will walk away with that good feeling that you didn't scare your instructor and become one of those stories he or she tells other instructors over adult beverages.

Want to read more from Rick Durden? Check out AVweb's "Pilot's Lounge" index.