It’s no secret that less than 3% of the population succeed at soloing an aircraft, but what many people fail to realize is less than 1% of pilot hopefuls ever actually complete their FAA check ride. With AOPA and the general aviation community placing so much emphasis on student retention and completion rates we often scratch our heads in response to this question. Perhaps the real concern is what really is happening inside the minds of these soon to be pilots is clouded with thoughts of “what if I fail?”, whats next? and most importantly “do I even know what the questions are?”.
Ok, so now what?
The best way to approach a check-ride is with your instructor and with enough preparation so you arrive with the perception you are already minted a safe pilot by your CFI who only needs an FAA designee’s signature initializing you have demonstrated you have met the standards.
As a flight school owner, and with extensive experience sending students to check-rides, and extensive experience watching other instructors send students to check-rides, I get the privilege of observation and mentor ship almost by default… so for fun, lets just quickly compile a basic list of items you should certainly review before any check ride , and a mentality you should take on before attempting flight training in any capacity.
1. P.T.S (Practical Test Standards):
The Practical Test Standards are the Federal Aviation Administrations method of informing you and your instructor of you rights as a pilot in a flight test, and it’s the minimum standards you must meet prior to becoming a pilot. In most cases, if that flight examiner would trust you to carry their precious cargo and you abide by these standards… you can start planning the celebration of your new pilots license…
More times than not, I sit down with an instructor student team, and listen as they both try to make heads of tails of their readiness, reviewing the Special Emphasis Areas, the POH, Weight and Balance, Logbooks (both pilot and aircraft). That instructors reputation is going to go with you on that checkride, so it’s in their best interste you meet the standards. The PTS booklet you should have received in training is quite simply a reference guide for you to begin self assessing your own performance. What most of our students are required to meet is a standard we set together which is higher than the PTS (EX: PTS minimum atlitude loss +/- 100ft., we set the standard of +/- 50 ft., then +/- 20ft etc…) Why show up at the minimums when you are capable of so much better?
So take the PTS minimums and the required information and measure each flight against the standards published and create a scenario where your instructor merely has to guide the level of your own self critique… you are guaranteed to show up more than prepared if you will take this posture
2. You Need a Check Ride Checklist
I know, it sounds like an oxi-moron right? A “Checkride” “Checklist”. I could come up with some really intelligent incredible sounding checklist that would wow your socks off, but I don’t need to, neither do any of the incredibly talented and even nominally intelligent instructors I know, because you already have one. Thats right, you already have a checklist and it’s located right in the front of that PTS we listed in the first suggestion of this article. Check out the “Examiners Checklist” prior to Task I. (If you are going for your IFR, Commercial, etc… I can email you a copy): I can tell you from experience, 80% of the instructors and students I meet with as a consultant don’t even seem to know this specific document exists in the PTS; but it’s a simple easy way to make sure you are ready for your official checkride day.
3. Aircraft Squawks and Logbooks
Ever hop in a plane only to find that something is wrong? I know I have experienced this numerous times and had to ground the flight to the dismay of the student.
Nothing is more important than your ultimate safety, if you don’t believe me just ask your mother and I assure you she will share this sentiment.
When we shrug off an annunciator light because So and So down at hangar XYZ told us “it’s fine” ,”we just fly ‘em” or ” they are all like that” down at our local hangar, we develop a sense of normalcy about genuine safety items and begin to engage in a very dangerous game of russian rulet with the lives of our passengers, those living below us and ourselves. Check the airplane BEFORE each flight and definitely WELL IN ADVANCE of an FAA examiner showing up to do your test. These examiners have to fly in various aircraft daily and do not want to be placed in an unsafe position because of your ignorance about safety. Get the mechanic and the instructor to walk you through the aircraft assuring each component works properly every flight but especially before your test . Aircraft squawks should get entered into a log whether electronic or printed and you must have access to them in the aircraft for each and every flight, and prove a qualified A&P mechanic corrected all issues prior to each flight.
4. Paperwork organization
How would you like to show up at court with an attorney to contest a major false charge against you and the attorney keeps fumbling for papers, stuttering for answers and looking at you for approval? I know what I would do, I would fire that attorney! Well, at your FAA check ride, you need to have your cross country planning to the destination the examiner gave you, your weather (printed or visible on your iPad or Notebook), an applicable weight and balance for that date with the proper weight and balance calculations, the aircraft logs (tabbed for all inspections), and your own logbooks tabbed for the applicable solo times and cross countries including other criteria for your test. Once again, just like our disorganized attorney, when we are scrambling to show we are “prepared” with half finished weight and balance, and uncertainty about the limitations of our license and aircraft, yet we expect a professional pilot examiner to believe that we’ll be super safe once they leave the aircraft and entrust a ton of metal to carry you across the sky without incriminating them if you auger in?. So use the checklist in the PTS, arrange your paperwork according to the PTS tasks and make the entire process very practical so you are literally planning an entire flight from start to finish in flying colors.
5. Don’t Guess
If you don’t know the answer, admit it… then quickly point yourself verbally in the right direction to look it up. This is honest, and keeps you from having to invent new terminology, non-existent procedures, and keeps that pink slip where it belongs… “out of sight”. Obviously, you can’t go looking up every answer and there are those foundational items like, airspace and emergency procedures that you just have to know. A good example of things you need to know comes from the annals of my own student experiences. On a check-ride a friendly examiner brought me into the equation and invited me into that room with my student. The question was simple, when you turn on the master switch, what instruments energize and become operational? Once I showed up the student hurriedly stated, “It’s in the POH”. Examiner: “Okay, lets take a look” Student: “uhhh uhhh” Examiner: ” Okay, I understand, here lets take a look at the electrical diagram to help you remember”. Now, this student and I had reviewed the diagram and the actual wiring in the aircraft with a mechanic just a week prior, however, the students continual detour from admitting he didn’t know or remember landed him in hot water, first with the examiner then with me when he began vehemently denying I reviewed the information with him, until I showed the examiner where I had reviewed this information with him in ground training one week previously ad logged in the “ground training’ portion of his logbook.
6. Take control of the oral and flight exam as though you are the captain
It’s easy to get comfortable just relying on your instructor to trigger your next move, but it’s quite harmful if you want to pass the “pre-solo, and pre-checkride” phases. And if your instructor is worth their salt, they will begin a series of exercises of “Forcing you out of the nest” so to speak early in the training. A mental posture that will help you in the testing involved in a pilot license is to just ignore the fact an examiner is with you and just fly fly fly the plane, and follow the checklists and procedures as outlined in the AIM (Airmen Information Manual) combined with the FAA approved procedures of your school and local area.
Remember, you are showing off your skills as the “Pilot In Command” and are assuming full responsibility for all of your actions. Everything you have learned to this point has been an effort to prepare you for the “worst case scenarios” and only minimal time has been available to turn you into a seasoned pilot. The key is to stick with the training, verify all of your training with the appropriate reference materials, “fly the plane”, and abide by the nitty gritty of the P.T.S. and you are a licensed pilot. It’s not really that difficult, it’s just so “all encompassing” you have to be on your toes and make believe you are carrying your most precious cargo on every flight, by approaching it with this mentality, even the weekend warrior can grab that $100 hamburger with both confidence and pride, knowing they are a member of the most elite group of people on the plane, “Pilots”.
This information obviously doesn’t replace your recommending instructors directions, but is meant to offer material and data for you to create a continuous dialogue with your school, instructor and local aviation community about safety, training, and flight tests. If you would like additional information feel free to contact me.
Jonathan Johns, a CFI, CFII MEI and Commercial Pilot is actively involved in the General Aviation community and has a real passion to see new aviators both young and old to succeed at flying and safety.
FAA Pilot License Check-Ride Suggestions