Preparing for your Private Pilot Practical Test (generically called the checkride or flight test] is a whole different matter than the written.
First, there’s the need to understand aeronautical knowledge topics in depth beyond just the simple answers.
Next is the obvious aspect of performance — proficiently completing the tasks spelled out in the Airman Certification Standards (ACS).
A third factor in successfully passing flight tests is attitude; the examiner will be looking for just the right combination of care and confidence.
And finally, there are the potential effects of stress to deal with. Beyond the specific items listed in the ACS, how can we prepare?
The examiner wants you to pass.
Before taking your test, it’s extremely helpful to contact other pilots who have recently completed checkrides with the same examiner. Not only can they share intelligence helpful in preparing for the test, but they’ll generally reduce your stress by relating that the examiner was pleasant and reasonable to deal with, and expressing their comfort with the experience.
If you’re the nervous type, go a step further and ask your instructor to arrange a brief get-to-know-you meeting with the examiner, ahead of time. War stories notwithstanding, you’ll find that the examiner wants you to do well and pass the first time as much as you do.
A Good First Impression
Sure, every pilot examiner is supposed to be totally objective, evaluating with clinical precision each applicant’s performance relative to the ACS without regard to personality, circumstance, or conditions — superhuman, in other words. Hey! Examiners are people, too, and should be addressed accordingly.
As with anyone you want to impress, it’s worth the effort to prepare ahead of time to make a good impression. For example, any applicant who doesn’t dress nicely for the checkride is just plain nuts. Examiners can wear anything they want to the test, because no one’s evaluating them, but your objective is to convey competence, good judgment and professionalism. Looking sharp creates the expectation that you’ll do a good job. That’s a nice way to start any personal evaluation.
Reserve the nicest trainer at your flight school; preflight it the day before in case anything needs to be fixed. The airplane should be clean, and all trash removed from the seat pockets… helps you look like the professional you are.
Collect and review all your pilot and aircraft paperwork ahead of time with your instructor. Those paperwork requirements are printed as a checklist in the front of the ACS, and any applicant who doesn’t go through it item by item is looking for trouble.
1. Review your pilot logbook with your CFI to make sure all experience and endorsement requirements are met.
2. Review the aircraft logs and paperwork for the specific plane you will fly for the test, with your instructor. Know how to identify current registration, and key maintenance entries such as transponder check and annual or 100-hour inspection.
3. Paperclip all your pilot paperwork, including a check for the examiner’s fee, into a bundle. Now do the same with the aircraft paperwork. When you walk into the examiner’s office, hand over that packet of documents and logbooks following your initial handshake.
4. Organize your planning and cockpit gear in some sort of convenient carrying case (needn’t be a $400 flight bag – just something neat, clean and organized).
These simple actions show the examiner that you and your CFI are organized, and that your paperwork and plane have been reviewed ahead of time. They also avoid the embarrassment and discomfort of searching your wallet, flight bag, and airplane for some errant document.
Get a thorough weather briefing before the checkride; be prepared to express any concerns to the examiner, and if necessary, to make a go or no-go decision. The examiner expects to see decision-making, so be prepared to unilaterally decide whether the weather is adequate or not, preferably on the conservative side. Keep in mind that after hearing a no-go answer, the examiner may then decide that the weather is adequate for your checkride anyway – in that case don’t worry about it. But if you say, “Sure, let’s go” when the weather may not be safely flyable, or don’t raise the issue when you should, well that’s not a promising start.
Your own biggest checkride weather concerns probably relate to performing within the test standards. Most applicants are petrified at the thought of taking their practical tests on a “bumpy” day. Well, don’t worry too much about it. Examiners have the latitude to flex a little on the tolerances, when justified by conditions. Do your best to fly within the numbers, of course, but if the flight is subject to 1000-foot-per-minute updrafts, the examiner will take that into account. Just be sure to get back to correct altitude and heading pronto. In many cases, it’s actually easier to pass a checkride on a bumpy day since smooth conditions don’t mask any pilot errors.
The oral exam
The obvious key to passing the oral portion of your pilot practical test is preparation; if you know everything there is to know relating to the certificate or rating at hand, the oral exam is likely to work out just fine. It’s not easy, however, to anticipate every possible question the examiner might ask.
Most applicants have two concerns about the oral. First is gaining confidence: after studying so much material and realizing how much there is to learn, how can one confidently go in for the test? A related concern is, “What if the examiner asks me something I don’t know?”
Aside from the obvious technique of having your instructor quiz you in preparation for the oral, several other things can be done to prepare.
First, understand that the oral exam is not a closed-book test. Since few exams in other fields allow the use of reference materials to answer questions, the average pilot applicant assumes the need to understand and memorize every detail of the entire aviation universe in preparation for the test. No wonder we’re apprehensive!
While the examiner obviously won’t let you read the whole oral from a book, it’s perfectly acceptable to look up occasional facts that don’t come readily to mind. There’s nothing wrong with saying once or twice during the oral, “I don’t know that answer off the top of my head, but I know where to find it.” Not only does this relieve pressure on you, but you can use the knowledge to organize your test preparation.
Examiners generally recognize only FAA-approved publications as source materials for answering questions, so familiarize yourself with official materials including the FARs, the AIM, the aircraft’s POH, and relevant advisory circulars.
A great way to accomplish this is to label key sections of each publication with adhesive tabs and highlighters so you can easily find things. In the course of doing this, you’ll learn lots about the organization of the material inside.
Now, if anything needs to be looked up at the oral, you can find it quickly. What’s more, you’ll be more confident knowing that you can easily find answers to important questions. An additional benefit to tabbing your books is that even before asking the first question, the examiner can see that you’ve invested some heavy-duty work into studying the materials and preparing for the test.
Similarly, it is perfectly okay to occasionally refer to keys and legends on aeronautical and performance charts during the test. Again, many people tend to think they’re somehow cheating by looking at such references; that misperception could result in a pink slip.
Finally, it’s helpful to understand the general line of questioning at oral exams. Examiners are guided by the ACS as to topic, but not specific questions. So to cover the material they commonly ask a general question or two on each topic, and then dig deeper into potential problem areas where the applicant’s answers are weak. Accordingly it’s important to have a broad understanding across the spectrum of topics, with additional concentration on problem areas where you feel weak.
The flight test
The beauty of today’s Airman Certification Standards is that they precisely spell out what must be accomplished on the practical test, to very specific tolerances. Instructor, student, and examiner all play by the same rules in this regard, and that’s to everyone’s advantage.
One problem faced by applicants, however, is that they view every individual tolerance as a place to fail. The effect is like trying to plug fifty leaks in a sinking boat with your hand… panic. Sure, we must strive to perform every maneuver within tolerances. But it’s equally important to understand that the examiner’s overall objective is to determine that you can safely and proficiently operate an aircraft. So strive for an overall good performance on the test. If you do a safe, thorough, and credible job, you’ll have a high likelihood of passing. Sure, examiners can technically fail you for wandering a hundred feet off altitude, but they won’t likely do so unless you are consistently off altitude and fail to correct.
The trick is to fly like a professional, doing your best on each maneuver without getting flustered by the details. What’s more, keep in mind that examiners are concerned about the conduct of the entire flight, not just the ACS tasks – so continue to maintain your heading and altitude between maneuvers. And be sure that your habits include clearing turns and otherwise safe and sensitive operations.
Another important checkride objective is avoiding misunderstandings with the examiner. Not every pilot does every maneuver exactly the same way. So don’t be alarmed if the examiner quizzes you about the way you do a particular maneuver, or perhaps uses different terminology. Just listen carefully, and ask for clarification if you don’t understand a request or instruction. The time to avoid confusion is before executing a given maneuver, not afterwards, so if in doubt, ask first. Whatever happens, don’t get into an argument with the examiner; just take the approach of, “here’s an opportunity to learn something.”
Technically, examiners are not supposed to instruct on checkrides, but many still enjoy sharing useful tips. So in general, don’t get concerned if the examiner wants to demonstrate something. Just take advantage of the opportunity to learn. (One guarantee that you have flunked the test is if the examiner must grab the controls “when the outcome of a maneuver is in doubt” – say to rescue the plane from a stall, spin, or botched landing.)
What if I “goof up” in the airplane?
If you don’t like the way a maneuver went, say, “I can do a better job of that,” and ask to do it again. Examiners aren’t supposed to allow you to repeat maneuvers, but often enough they’ll say, “Sure, go ahead and do it again.” Other times they’ll say, “It wasn’t perfect, but since you understand what you did wrong, let’s move on.” Of course, if you get a second try and screw it up, no one can fault the examiner for issuing a pink slip.
Unless specifically told otherwise by the examiner, assume at all times that you are passing. Many applicants fail checkrides because they’re unsatisfied with how they performed a maneuver, think they “might have failed,” and then nervously botch everything that comes afterward. Technically, examiners are supposed to tell you at the moment you’ve failed, so no news during checkrides is generally good news. If something goes poorly, just devote your full attention to the next maneuver. Besides, if you do fail the test, it’s customarily only required on the retake to perform the specific tasks missed on the initial checkride.
Strive for an overall good performance rather than getting hung up on individual details. First, though you might feel that you goofed up, the examiner might have been satisfied, and doing the rest of the test well means you pass. Secondly, even if the examiner is dissatisfied with one maneuver, he or she may still pass you if the rest of the ride went well, and the error wasn’t too far out of tolerance. And finally, by completing the checkride in good form, even a failing applicant benefits by likely limiting what must be accomplished on the retest.
What if I fail?
You’ll probably pass on your first attempt, but what’s the worst thing that will happen if you do fail? Not much! You’ll brush up on your weak areas with your instructor and retake the test a week or two later, a better pilot for the experience. As pilot Sibte Hassan says, “Think of it as a Go Around.” And if you’re an aspiring pro pilot, don’t let the rumor mill scare you into thinking that failing will ruin your career. As the saying goes, “every pilot flunks a checkride sooner or later.” Sure, you don’t want to make a habit of failing, but in general, what’s the big deal? Prepare as well as possible to pass on your first attempt, but don’t let fear of failure stop you from pursuing your dream of flight!
Trust yourself and your instructor!
Finally, here’s CFI Gene Bishop on the importance of Trust:
“Trust that your instructor, who by way of signing you off to take a checkride is also subjecting him/herself to the examiner’s scrutiny, knows that you are fully prepared and ready to meet this challenge.
“But most importantly, trust yourself. You know the maneuvers. You know the information. You know where to find the answers. Trust that you are ready and that you will pass this test.
“Nobody is expecting perfection, and the worst thing that can happen is you have to repeat part of the checkride. In the grand scheme, that’s not a big deal at all.
“So by all means study and quiz yourself, but also make sure you eat right and get plenty of rest leading up to your checkride. Don’t let your nerves get the better of you. You’ll do fine.”
Here are some of DPE Jason Blair’s Reflections and Tips from Recent Checkrides.
Best of success on your checkride!
For more checkride tips, see Greg’s book, The Savvy Flight Instructor, Second Edition.
©2014, 2016, 2018, 2020 Gregory N. Brown
For more guidance on this topic, see Greg’s book, The Savvy Flight Instructor 2nd Edition, available in print and ebook.