-This piece originally appeared in AOPA Pilot magazine in October, 2018. By Natalie Bingham Hoover
Throughout history, mankind has wrestled with certain questions, questions that are so crucial that people have devoted entire lifetimes to finding the answers. What is the meaning of life? Did humans evolve from apes or were they created instantly? Who was the greatest baseball player of all time, Babe Ruth or Willie Mays? In aviation, we have our own essential question, asked again and again in hangers around the world: What can I do to make sure I will pass my checkride?
It is a question I certainly asked my instructors as I was earning various ratings. They all gave different answers, or maybe different versions of the same answer. Now that I have become an FAA Designated Pilot Examiner myself, I’ve developed my own answer to that age old question. Passing the checkride is easy as long as you remember one thing: Do not scare the examiner. While we have the FAA’s Practical Test Standards or Airman Certification Standards to determine whether or not someone will make a safe, competent pilot, the answer is not always black or white. What I have found is that there are certain red flags that pop up on checkrides that cause me to fear for the safety of that pilot and his or her future passengers. Quite simply, if I am concerned for someone’s safety, I cannot, in good conscience, issue a pilot certificate. Here are the things that scare me as an examiner:
PTS or ACS- In the pre-checkride brief, I announce that the checkride will be conducted according to the Practical Test Standards or Airman Certification Standards that apply to that rating. Then I say, “Do you know what the ACS is?” Blank looks here are concerning. If the entire checkride is going to come directly from one book, wouldn’t it make sense to be familiar with it? The ACS describes, in detail, exactly which subjects and maneuvers will be covered. No more. No less. It also says some reassuring things like, “The tolerances represent the performance expected in good flying conditions.” In other words, if turbulence is causing your altitude to fluctuate, the examiner will take that into account. The ACS also outlines common reasons for an unsatisfactory performance such as “consistently exceeding tolerances stated in the objectives” or “failure to take prompt corrective action when tolerances are exceeded.” These words should serve as a comfort to applicants. The FAA recognizes that pilots are human and make mistakes. As long as those mistakes are corrected and are not an indication of an unsafe condition, then a satisfactory outcome is still probable.
Use Your Resources- Another thing I tell applicants is that the test is mostly open book. If they don’t know an answer, try to find it in the POH or FAR/AIM. Granted, it is not acceptable to look up every answer. Certain things need to be part of a pilot’s knowledge base in order to operate safely. But a lot of things can be looked up. Do you remember in high school when the teacher announced that the test would be open book? There was always a resounding chorus of relief when students realized they would have some help recalling information. I expect a similar response when I inform pilots they can use their resources during the oral exam. However, several applicants have told me, “I brought my FAR/AIM but I don’t know how to use that thing.” This is a problem. If you cannot use various resources to find the answers to your questions now, when all of the information is fresh in your mind, how do you expect to be able to do it ten years down the road?
Maintenance Records- According to the ACS, the applicant is supposed to demonstrate that he or she can determine airworthiness by finding the current inspections in the maintenance logs. Several applicants have told me, “This is the first time I have looked at the logs.” This usually begins a painful process of he or she reading every word of every endorsement for the last thirty years before the student can point out the annual, 100 hour, ELT inspection, etc. Please, do yourself a favor, and review the maintenance logs before checkride day so you can zip through that section quickly, without adding additional stress.
Special Emphasis Items- Be familiar with the abbreviations and acronyms listed in the special emphasis items section of the PTS. (For the ACS, those items have mostly been incorporated into the risk managements sections for each task.). These are topics, listed near the beginning of each PTS, that highlight the FAA’s special safety concerns. When I ask an applicant about CFIT or LAHSO or TFR’s (all special emphasis items), it is concerning when the applicant is not familiar with any of the terms. How can one operate safely if a briefer warns of a TFR, but the pilot does not understand the significance? That TFR stands for temporary flight restriction? That flying into it will not only be detrimental to the safety of the pilot, but also to those on the ground?
Aircraft Limitations- For the flight portion of the checkride, consistently exceeding aircraft limitations scares me as an examiner. When an applicant repeatedly extends flaps outside of the white arc or exceeds maneuvering speed on a steep turn, I become concerned that they either are not aware of the aircraft limitations or just don’t see them as important. Either reason is not good and points to a pilot who may put him or herself into unsafe situations in the future.
Safe Landings- What goes up must come down. If you cannot safely land the aircraft, then you are not ready to hold a pilot certificate. On the short field landing task specifically, a common mistake is to approach high or fast then bounce the airplane or land nose first in an attempt to hit the assigned spot on the runway. Please understand that forcing the airplane onto the intended landing spot, rather than landing slightly long or going around, points to risky decision making and will make the examiner think twice about issuing a new certificate.
Clearing Turns- The ACS states that “failure to use proper and effective visual scanning techniques to clear the area before and while performing maneuvers” is a common reason for a notice of disapproval on checkrides. Examiners understand that applicants get nervous and may forget to do clearing turns. However, if a pilot becomes so focused on maintaining checkride margins of airspeed and altitude that they fail to look outside at all, then they are a danger to themselves and others. Many mistakes can be corrected in an airplane, but hitting something is not one of them.
In addition to avoiding certain pitfalls, there are things you can do to make the examiner more comfortable with you. One idea is to verbalize your thought processes. For example, if you decide to turn to a certain heading or choose a different altitude, tell the examiner why, even if they don’t ask. Likewise, perform checklists out loud so that there can be no confusion as to whether it is actually completed. You are Pilot in Command on the checkride, so be assertive with ATC, other traffic, or even the examiner if they ask you to do something you are not comfortable with.
Remember, most examiners understand that nobody is perfect, especially not in the high stress situation of a checkride. Comfort yourself with the knowledge that the ACS/PTS makes allowances for mistakes and minor deviations, as long as you move towards a correction. As much as possible, try to relax on checkride day and fly the way you were trained to fly. If you want all to go smoothly, just remember one thing. Don’t scare the examiner.