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Under the microscope

Student pilots' checkrides spotlight your skills

When you as a flight instructor declare a student pilot ready to take a practical test, you certify that you have fully prepared your candidate to become a private pilot, and for taking the flight test. How conscientiously you did your job will determine whether there is a successful outcome, from the smallest paperwork details to meeting the practical test standards for the many flight and knowledge skills.

Do a good job and success will build upon itself, while you build goodwill with your local designated pilot examiners (DPEs). You may even find that the local DPEs cite you as an example to others of how to prepare student pilots for flight tests. But, send up an unprepared student, or sloppy paperwork, and there will be no presumption of competence for you--or your next applicant. Preventing that is more than just public relations. If your students regularly fail checkrides, your reputation will suffer. DPEs will become prejudiced against your applicants, and your right to call yourself a certificated flight instructor may even be called into question.

Under the federal aviation regulations, a private pilot applicant must present to the examiner a logbook documenting all required flight training, including three hours of flight training in preparation for the practical test in a single-engine airplane, which must have been performed within 60 days preceding the date of the test. Think of this as a minimum. Few instructors would be satisfied with only three hours of test prep; a single dress rehearsal could consume almost all of that time and still leave much to be done. Nor would most instructors allow a student who sat idle for nearly 60 days to go for a flight test and hope for the best. If delays crop up before a student can take a checkride, a conscientious instructor should get the student's performance sharp through drilling and practice before the test day arrives. Here are other details a flight instructor should attend to when preparing a student pilot for a successful flight test.

Good paperwork

FAA Form 8710-1, Airman Certificate and/or Rating Application, is a notorious deal-breaker for people showing up for checkrides, so much so that when you attend those periodic flight instructor refresher clinics, considerable time is spent getting the bureaucratic demands right in CFIs' heads. This is one reason why checkrides begin with a review of your student's paperwork (which you reviewed, then endorsed with your signature). If your DPE is using the FAA's Integrated Airman Certification and/or Rating Application then you must become familiar with the system as well (see "You What?" May 2008 AOPA Flight Training).

Know the PTS

Sending students up for flight tests without having used the practical test standards to prepare is a setup for a pink slip for the student and a royal scolding for you. The PTS is your comprehensive guide to the flight test. It explains the student's role, your role, and the examiner's role. It discusses ground rules for the test, tells you how to prepare (such as explaining that your student will be assigned to plan a cross-country flight on which much of the exam will be based), states acceptable tolerances for flying maneuvers, and describes what is considered a disqualifying performance. The PTS details the special-emphasis areas and describes how DPEs are required to use realistic distractions to check your student's ability to focus on his or her pilot workload. The PTS even gives the source publications for the knowledge the applicant must exhibit during the test.

Where are the answers?

There are some questions all applicants should be able to answer without hesitation when asked by the examiner. What color is the fuel? What is the emergency radio frequency? But not everything falls into that category: What are the hours of operation of the control tower at the airport to which the assigned cross-country is planned? Is Taxiway Juliet available at night? How would we contact flight service during the flight? How much baggage can be placed in the aircraft's rearmost baggage compartment? Such questions test the ability to find the answers in the appropriate source publications. Use your test-prep ground time to make sure the student can answer them.

Current publications

On a related subject, it's great to show how to look up flight information in the Airport/Facility Directory (AF/D) or on the sectional chart. But if you want flight test day to be a happy day, it had better fall between the publication's effective dates. Your sectional chart also expires, and you'll find the expiration date on the cover.

Clearing turns, clearing turns!

It is impossible to overstate the importance of traffic-avoidance maneuvering and scanning. Make sure your students know to perform clearing turns before every maneuver unless the examiner specifically instructs otherwise. (The DPE may be clearing the airspace to save time. Have your student discuss the clearing procedure the examiner wants before flying.) Presumably you long ago taught your applicants to lower the nose on occasion during long climbs, and check to the sides as well. Between tasks many applicants tend to drone along passively on a random heading until the examiner issues the next set of instructions. Make sure your students fly positively and keep an eye out for traffic at all times.


Do your students' feet press the pedals every time their hands apply pressure to ailerons or elevators? If not, they may be letting the aircraft slog through maneuvers in a disorderly fashion. A DPE won't have to check a slip-skid ball to see the sloppiness (that the student inherited from you) on display. He will feel it when uncorrected adverse yaw or left-turning tendency slings him sideways. But if the applicant's left rudder pedal goes into action when he begins a turn to the left, and if the right pedal goes down a mite when the applicant begins the rollout to the right, the examiner will stay centered in his seat. And he won't tense up during flight at minimum controllable airspeed or stall recoveries, knowing that a pilot who flies with coordination will perform neat, clean stall demonstrations.

Slow but smooth

How a pilot performs flight at minimum controllable airspeed tells a lot about the quality of his training. If you have not drilled your students on this at length during dual instruction, do so before the examiner flies with your applicant. Demonstrate that control coordination is at its most challenging during flight at high angles of attack, with its high drag component and reduced control effectiveness. Stall avoidance is a constant concern. Maintaining altitude and rolling out smoothly on assigned headings is real work. Turns must be made gently. Flying a few nautical miles with precision while the stall warning wails and the altimeter needles stay put takes practice, good training, and a clear understanding of what the pilot is trying to achieve (and avoid) during the maneuver.

Handling unexpected events

You know your students will be asked to perform a go-around at some point during their checkrides, so you must make them ready. The same is true for simulated engine failures. It is how they handle truly unexpected events on a checkride that gives an examiner a glimpse of your students as true decision-makers. Such situations will crop up during training. Discuss them and incorporate the lessons learned into your students' training. Examiners take great interest in students' situational awareness. Do your job well in this area and the results will show during the flight test.

Dan Namowitz is an aviation writer and flight instructor. A pilot since 1985 and an instructor since 1990, he resides in Maine.

By Dan Namowitz

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