License to learn

Checkride-itis

December 1, 2011

Rod MachadoAn FAA-designated pilot examiner once told me about the most anxious private pilot candidate he ever experienced on a checkride. Aside from sweating and mumbling during the oral exam (the applicant, not the examiner), the ultimate demonstration of in-flight nerves began when the examiner requested a steep turn. “We were about 180 degrees into the turn,” said the examiner, “when the student hurled up his breakfast. Were it not for the G-force, I might have worn a breakfast burrito. Thank goodness I didn’t ask [Hurlman] for a stall.”

Yeah, he might have gotten the whole enchilada.

Perhaps you’ve never been that nervous on a checkride, but many people experience nervousness and discomfort to such a degree that it inhibits their performance. Interestingly, studies show that a little anxiety can enhance your checkride performance. Too much, however, certainly works against you. So how can a person deal with performance anxiety on a checkride? Here are four strategies that might help.

One of the most effective ways of reducing your precheckride anxiety is to actually take the checkride before taking the checkride. Think of it as déjà preview. If you anticipate a case of checkride nerves, give those nerves a trial run by taking a simulated checkride with an FAA-designated examiner. That’s right. Contact the examiner several weeks before your checkride and see if he or she will fly with you for an interim evaluation of your flying skills. There’s nothing unethical about doing this. Some flight-school-based examiners provide stage-check evaluations for students before giving them their actual checkride. You might also elect to simulate only the oral examination, or the in-flight examination instead of the entire checkride, depending on your degree of anxiety.

Of course you’ll have to negotiate the fee with the examiner, who might charge his hourly instructor rate, or her typical checkride fee. This strategy isn’t for those on a tight budget. Either way, making a checkride dry run (which also means you’re unlikely to throw up on the examiner) is a great way to make your actual checkride a less stressful experience.

Another strategy used to reduce performance anxiety involves drugs. Wait, don’t call the DEA. These are actually legitimate prescription drugs in the beta blocker category. Beta blockers help reduce the body’s reaction to adrenaline, which can produce the feelings associated with situational stress. Reduce those feelings and you diminish your anxiety. A 1982 study of more than 2,000 symphony orchestra musicians found that 27 percent took beta blockers to reduce performance anxiety. Now, I’m not a fan of using drugs to handle normal cases of checkride anxiety, but some folks just don’t behave normally (think Hurlman). Just to be clear here, I’m not a doctor, but your aviation medical examiner (AME) is. That’s why you should consult with him or her about short-term use of beta blockers to reduce performance anxiety, and what approval—if any—is required.

Many other strategies for reducing performance anxiety involve what I call the “breathe deeply and think happy thoughts” method. Some are effective and a few are downright whacky. Fortunately, there is one method that works well and doesn’t involve robes or a trip to India.

In his book, The Relaxation Response, Dr. Herbert Benson published a simple five-step method of calming your body that you can use before taking your checkride. You begin by sitting in a comfortable position (1), then closing your eyes (2), followed by progressively relaxing all your muscles from feet to face (3). Next, you breathe through your nose and think about your breathing. As you breathe in and out you say the word “one” silently to yourself (4). Breathe in (say one—or any soothing sound), breathe out (say one) and so on. Continue this exercise for 10 to 20 minutes (5). With enough practice, your body will produce the relaxation response automatically by breathing to your pace word. And yes, you can synch your breathing to your pace word at any time during your checkride to induce relaxation. I wouldn’t, however, recommend saying your soothing pace word out loud, especially if you choose the word, parachute.

Finally, I’ve saved the most useful technique for last. An excellent solution to checkride-itis is to look at the experience from a different perspective. This is somewhat like renting the movie The Godfather and playing it backwards. Now you see a story about how a horse gets its head back and the humanitarian Mafia movement uses baseball bats to heal broken knees.

This strategy involves letting go of what you want in order to get what you want. Think of the checkride as an evaluation of your ability to be safe, not a pass-or-fail inquisition. After all, you wouldn’t want to fly if you weren’t safe, would you? Of course not. You’d be exposing your family and friends to potential harm. That’s why you should see successfully passing the checkride as a confirmation of your ability to fly safely. If you fail the ride, then a part of you should feel grateful about knowing that a wise DE spotted a deficiency in your flying skills. Correct that flaw and you can then have confidence that a representative of the FAA believes in your ability to pilot an airplane safely.

So four strategies for dealing with checkride anxiety. While one size doesn’t fit all, one size is sure to fit you.

Rod Machado is a flight instructor who owns a Cessna 150. Visit the author’s blog.