Features  / 10.11 /

Do over

6 reasons why checkrides go south


Your checkride day is approaching. Good news! The odds are in your favor. Of the 17,355 private pilot checkrides completed last year, 77 percent of applicants passed. The bad news: 23 percent didn’t.

What happened? The answers are often as varied as the individuals themselves, but one thing is clear: Not all checkride tasks are created equal. More specifically, because of the complexity and required skills, applicants often find themselves in the “danger zone” with several of the many checkride tasks.

The FAA-mandated practical test standards (PTS) describe, in detail, specific knowledge areas, tasks, and skills that must be demonstrated to successfully complete the test. Each task presents a different set of challenges. While checkride failures can occur for many different reasons, comparing the specifics of checkride failures reveals several common elements. Understanding where these potential land mines are located may help you to prepare more effectively.

Before the flight portion of any checkride can begin, applicants must successfully complete the ground portion of the practical test, sometimes referred to as the oral exam. Failures during the ground portion are less frequent, but a few areas seem to be responsible for a greater percentage of these failures.

Common failure 1—Weather. The most common weakness during the oral exam is an inability to effectively interpret aviation weather charts, reports, and forecasts.

The sheer scope and complexity of aviation weather and related pilot services make this a uniquely challenging task. Successful applicants have obviously spent many hours diving into weather theory, including the various frontal behaviors and characteristics, hazardous weather phenomena, and the aviation weather services and products available to pilots.

An early indication to the examiner that this effort may have fallen short often comes when the applicant produces a printout of decoded aviation weather reports and forecasts for the checkride. There is no law that says pilots must be able to read the official coded weather products, but an inability to do so is a warning sign that other shortcuts may have been taken. The ability to accurately and confidently interpret aviation-coded weather products will demonstrate your preparation efforts.

Consider this: The FAA does not provide decoded weather reports for its knowledge tests, so don’t expect this practice to impress your examiner during the big test either.

Common failure 2—Airspace. Many unsuccessful applicants arrive on checkride day with only a vague, rote level of knowledge regarding the various airspace details. Pilots do not fly by rote alone, and DPEs have marching orders to test to the correlation level of learning as much as possible. So don’t expect rote questions, especially on the topic of airspace. Instead, be fluent enough with the airspace rules and procedures to answer the “what-if” scenario-style questions. For example, you should not have to strain or squirm to determine, at any given point along your intended route and cruising altitude, what airspace you are in and what your minimum legal VFR requirements are. Confidently knowing, for example, whether you need one, three, or five miles visibility, and how close to any clouds you can fly throughout your flight, is an essential skill the examiner will need to evaluate. And discussing Special VFR operating requirements and procedures should not produce any extra stress either. If it does, just imagine the stress you’d feel in a real encounter with SVFR conditions!

Common failure 3—Emergency landing. The many variables that make each engine-failure scenario unique also make the task of demonstrated emergency approach and landing especially challenging to master. Successful applicants consider several variables—nature of the emergency; altitude available; potential landing sites; and wind and surface conditions—while taking positive and timely corrective actions necessary to maximize the safety of the flight, never placing the flight in any undue, additional risk. Similar to juggling, the simulated emergency landing means carrying out the several steps described in the pilot’s operating handbook (POH) in a timely manner while evaluating and maneuvering the aircraft to the proposed landing site in a variety of conditions (mechanical and environmental). It requires dedicated practice and time to master.

A common pitfall is becoming distracted and bogged down by spending too much time attempting to restart the engine prior to initiating the process of seeking and locating a suitable landing site. If accomplishing both tasks simultaneously is not feasible, then locate and proceed toward your planned landing site first—then attempt to restart the engine while continuing to maneuver toward your selected field. Examiners are never happy to observe an applicant run out of altitude, airspeed, and ideas—all at the same time. Because this task demands going the extra training-mile, skills are frequently lacking come checkride day. Don’t just practice this until you can finally get it right—practice it until you can’t get it wrong.

Common failure 4—Landings. Much has been said and written about the various landing maneuvers required for the private pilot checkride: normal, crosswind, soft-field, short-field, forward slip, and go-around. But the most important advice is proper practice, and lots of it! Proper means practice it correctly—not sloppily—so you won’t be learning bad habits from the start. This equates to stabilized approaches at a constant, correct airspeed. (See “Kiss the Runway,” June 2011 Flight Training.) Remember, if you cross the runway threshold at the correct height and airspeed, you almost cannot go wrong with the landing. The approaches that cause the most problems are the ones that scare the examiner so badly that he or she feels a strong urge to either bail out or grab the controls.

The forward slip is also a maneuver that seems to get so little training attention that it sometimes appears to surprise the applicant when the examiner calls for it. And worse yet, if the examiner hadn’t specifically requested it, the applicant would never have even considered the forward slip tool as a viable option for losing excess altitude. Again, correlation-level learning is demonstrated when applicants can select and utilize their own set of tools for the job at hand instead of waiting for the examiner to call for that specific tool to enhance a particular maneuver.

For example, an examiner testing correlation might prevent a normal descent in the pattern until turning onto the final approach, at which point a forward slip to land would be a great recovery tool. Taking it a step further, if the otherwise properly performed forward slip will still not permit a landing in the normal touchdown zone of the runway, executing a well-performed, non-DPE-initiated go-around would be an excellent way to demonstrate good judgment, skill mastery, and correlation.

Common failure 5—Stalls. Next in line are the dreaded power-on and power-off stalls and spin awareness. While spin demonstrations are not called for on the checkride, most applicants are not only aware of spins, they are terrified of them. Knowing spins are the result of poorly coordinated stalls and stall-recovery attempts, students are often loath to practice stalls. This, naturally, produces applicants who are woefully underprepared for this task. Their palpable fear of stall recovery is readily apparent to the examiner and presents a huge warning flag that the skill is lacking in mastery.

Many applicants will initiate the stall recovery just prior to the stall. For the private pilot checkride, per PTS direction, the stall recovery should begin after the stall occurs—not before. This confirms to the DPE that the pilot knows what a real stall looks and feels like, and also knows how to recover from it properly.

A common problem with power-on stalls is to increase the pitch to an excessively high attitude (greater than 30 degrees nose up) before stalling. Although rare, some applicants allow the stall to progress to a spin entry. Depending on the situation, most examiners would not fail an applicant if an unintentional spin develops, provided the spin recovery is prompt and effective—another demonstration of great correlative learning. Unfortunately, this is usually the first spin the applicant has ever seen, which results in an examiner intervention and checkride failure.

Common failure 6—Navigation. The last problem area on our hit list is, ironically, the first task typically demonstrated after departing the traffic pattern: cross-country navigation using pilotage skills. The biggest problem with this task often comes as a result of selecting inappropriate visual checkpoints along the planned route of flight. I call this ineffective technique “needle-in-the-haystack navigation.” Proper checkpoints should be items that can be easily seen from many miles away: larger lakes or rivers; larger cities; large highway systems. These are the “haystacks” of pilotage navigation. Avoid selecting checkpoints that are very difficult to spot unless you somehow manage to fly right over them: small towns; radio antennas; power lines; smaller roads; railroad tracks; ponds; and even airports. These are the “needles.” Yes, needles can be found, but only (reliably) after you first locate the haystack in which they are hidden. Knowing where the needle is relative to the haystack makes finding that needle as easy as locating a tiny doorbell on any huge house.

By choosing landmarks that you can’t possibly miss seeing, even on the poorer-visibility days, you turn your cross-country flight into something very similar to crossing a stream—one steppingstone at a time. This way you are always in visual contact with a solid checkpoint (even if you’re not directly over it) as you locate the next one off in the distance and progress toward your destination. But woe is the applicant who is attempting to locate a nearly invisible checkpoint to confirm a position that becomes more uncertain with each passing minute.

Applicants can become lost for a variety of other reasons: distractions; improperly set heading indicator; winds that were not forecast. But for whatever reason, should you become lost on your checkride, all is not necessarily lost—pun intended. It simply presents another opportunity to demonstrate your correlation skills with regard to “lost procedures,” which, incidentally, is also a required task. For example, applicants who realize they have become lost or disoriented can still pass their checkrides by determining the two crossing radials of nearby VOR stations that allow them to re-locate their approximate position, and from there, confidently proceed to their destination. Voilá—problem solved!

This list presents several of the most common problem areas many applicants face during checkrides, but each person is different, and so is each checkride. So, for you, the best advice might be simply: Be honest with yourself and your instructor in identifying your demons so that you can confront and deal with them before your checkride day arrives.

Bob Schmelzer is a Chicago-area designated pilot examiner and a United Airlines Boeing 777 captain and line check airman. He has been an active flight instructor since 1972.


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