Safety Publications/Articles

A designated challenge

Could you be an FAA examiner?

Having been an active flight instructor since 1981, I pondered ways in which I could continue the process of learning, teaching, and sharing aviation knowledge and experiences gained. A logical step seemed to be pursuing the position of FAA designated pilot examiner while continuing to teach part-time. My instructor credentials included the CFI, CFII, and MEI (certificated flight instructor -airplane, instrument, and multiengine), and AGI and IGI (advanced ground instructor and instrument ground instructor). Would my credentials and experience hold up to FAA scrutiny and the selection process?

What I discovered about becoming an examiner became a learning process in itself. I felt that my qualifications and good flying record would be sufficient for consideration for selection, and this turned out to be true. However, this would be only half of the story on the path to becoming a pilot examiner. The process starts with requesting a National Examiner Board (NEB) Designated Pilot Examiner Candidate Application.

Actually, the FAA had been enticing me for years prior by sending me Designee Update, published by FAA Regulatory Support Division (AFS-600), and designed as "a quarterly publication to serve the examiner, designee, and instructor community." This publication is now only available on the general aviation-oriented AFS-600 Web site.

But did the FAA really need any designated pilot examiners in my area? According to John Lynch, chairman of the NEB, there are 1,632 active DPEs in the United States. "Going back to 1995, our records indicate that we receive about 250 applications a year by instructors wishing to become designated pilot examiners." Recalling all of the FAA examiners I had encountered over the years while acquiring my own certificates and ratings, I felt that I just might fit the mold. One disparaging thought that occurred to me in my reminiscing was that all of my examiners seemed to be senior, seasoned aviators. Should a forty-something youngster even bother to apply? "Of the 18 DPEs currently serving the flight standards district office [FSDO] in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the age range is anywhere between about 30 and 70," according to Dick Hanusa, supervisor of the Milwaukee FSDO Operations Unit. In 1995, the NEB issued General Aviation Operations Bulletin HBGA 99-03-A (amended in July 1999), depicting the national selection process, which involved a major change in the way DPEs are selected. "Previously, DPE candidates were subject only to local FSDO review after having applied for the position. Now all applicants must submit their credentials to the National Examiner Board first, and if eligible are placed in a candidate pool, the resource of candidates now used by each FSDO," explains Hanusa.

The application is available only on the AFS-600 Web page mentioned earlier. It is similar to any other federal job application: three pages of supplemental information and instructions and six pages of information about you, the candidate. The only time-consuming part of the application is the "Flight Experience" section, which asks in detail about your airplane logbook time. I recommend that you keep a precise record of all of your flying time for your entire flying career - you never know when you may need to present proof and documentation of your flight time. Even if you do not plan now to acquire additional certificates or ratings that require a logbook record, most pilots are curious as to how much flight time they have logged.

When you apply, you are asked which designation you wish to be considered for: private pilot examiner (PE), commercial pilot examiner (CE), commercial and instrument rating examiner (CIRE), or airline transport pilot examiner (ATPE). Within these four designations are the various categories, such as airplane, rotorcraft, glider, lighter-than-air balloon, and airships. Next, you can determine what type of exams you would be qualified to administer based upon the various eligibility requirements listed such as certificates required, certificate categories, ratings, hours as pilot in command, and hours as a flight instructor. For example, the minimum eligibility requirements you would need for private pilot examiner designee-airplane would be commercial pilot and flight instructor certificates, both with airplane category and airplane class ratings; an instrument rating required on the pilot certificate only; 2,000 hours as PIC; 1,000 in airplanes which includes 300 in the past year; 300 in airplane class; 100 at night; and 500 hours as flight instructor, including 100 in class. That's it!

Requirements to administer commercial and instrument practical flight tests are higher. I myself have not yet given 100 hours of multiengine instruction, so I would not be eligible to apply for the multiengine practical test designation. But as your experience level increases, you may add applicable designations through the application process. "The other qualification required is a valid medical certificate, and in the case of examiners, a Class III medical must be maintained," adds Lynch.

The application also asks in what FSDO region you desire to serve. You are also asked to list any other FSDOs in whose areas you can provide examiner service on a regular basis. Currently there are 89 FSDOs grouped into nine U.S. geographic regions, in addition to 10 international field offices.

The NEB meets four times per year to select candidates for the DPE candidate pool. If you are selected, you will receive a letter notifying you of your selection, contingent upon passing the pilot examiner-airplane (PEA) written exam. The exam consists of 50 multiple-choice questions written in the same format as other FAA knowledge exams. In fact, the questions are similar to those found on the certificated flight instructor-airplane knowledge test; a CFI-A knowledge test prep will give a sampling of the questions you can expect. A score of 80 is minimum passing, and once you have your satisfactory test results, you are expected to forward these to the NEB. Then you will receive a letter notifying you that you will remain in the candidate pool for a period of two years from your date of pool selection. If you are not selected within that period, you may reapply (same application) to the NEB to remain in the candidate pool for another two-year period, provided you still qualify.

Failure to fly a minimum of 300 hours each year seems to be the most common reason for loss of eligibility. You must also retake the exam to remain in the candidate pool. My first take on the PEA exam netted me a score of 96. Two years later, I had not been selected for the next step in the process, and I reapplied to the NEB and scored a 94 on the test to remain in the candidate pool an additional two years. Patience is definitely a virtue here, as I have been in the candidate pool now for more than five years. I believe the most difficult part of becoming an FAA designated examiner is just waiting for an opening. The FSDO you wish to represent is staffed with a specific number of DPEs based on practical test demand in the area, and openings can occur only through retirements, transfers, or an increased need for examiners. "Of the average 250 applications we receive each year, about 40 to 43 new DPEs will actually be certified, contingent upon the need for examiners in any given FSDO," comments NEB Chairman Lynch. I plan to reapply early this year, and of course I must also re-take the knowledge exam as part of the eligibility process. I hope my luck will change, as I understand there may be a need for a few additional examiners in my chosen region this year.

When there is a need for a DPE in a particular FSDO, the NEB provides the names of the three most highly qualified candidates seeking the position to the local FSDO's operations supervisor. Explains Hanusa, "For example, let's say we need a pilot examiner for single-engine-land airplane, or glider. We at the FSDO then request the names of up to three candidates wishing to serve as examiners in the area. The three candidates presented by the NEB from the pool are then interviewed by the FSDO's DPE Selection Committee, made up of the operations supervisor and two operations inspectors. This committee selects who they feel is best suited for the opening. The two candidates not selected are retained in the candidate pool for future consideration."

If you are selected, you then must attend a five-day Initial Pilot Examiner Seminar in Oklahoma City. "Topics during the five-day course include professional conduct, the Practical Test Standards, simulated oral exams given by the candidate which are videotaped and critiqued, correct completion of required paperwork for flight tests, and how to conduct tests," says Hanusa. It is interesting to note that this seminar is open to pool candidates before selection. Your advance participation could boost your chances of being selected. However, if you elect to attend in advance, you must pay a $300 fee. If you are selected after voluntarily attending the seminar, you would not be required to take the course again, provided you are selected within the two-year candidate pool time frame.

Additional evaluation and familiarization takes place at the candidate's FSDO. "Before designation is obtained, the candidates may be given a standardization checkride to determine they can also fly the maneuvers that they will be observing while administering flight tests. The FAA inspector may also observe the candidate actually administering a checkride while occupying the rear seat of the aircraft. This is called a practical evaluation, and typically would be completed before the DPE's letter of authorization to conduct checkrides is issued," explains Hanusa. Once certified to administer practical tests, every two years an examiner must attend a two-day recurrent pilot examiner seminar conducted in your FSDO. As an examiner, you must also submit a renewal request to the FSDO every 12 months and attend a one-day examiner standardization meeting. Additionally, you also may take an annual standardization flight test in an airplane given by an inspector, or be observed administering a flight test. "Each DPE is assigned to a principal operations inspector,' says Hanusa, "and one of the requirements for renewal is that the new DPE will be expected to administer at least 10 checkrides annually, in the case of private pilot designation, in order to maintain current status as a DPE."

The new DPE will have the privilege to be the person responsible for determining a pilot candidate's readiness to assume command as a pilot with passengers, or to fly in instrument meteorological conditions, or to earn compensation for flying duties as a commercial pilot. The DPE also will add to his or her income for examiner services, although the FAA does not determine a fee schedule for any checkrides.

Becoming a DPE could also open doors to other aviation opportunities within the FAA. "As far as the next step after becoming a DPE, many have applied for the position of aviation safety inspector," says Lynch. Hanusa adds, "[A] DPE may want to look into other FAA flight or management positions such as aircraft certification test pilot, or flight standards management positions from a regional to a national level in Washington, D.C."

Becoming an examiner would seem the likely next goal for an accomplished flight instructor. If you enjoy teaching aviation students, then becoming an examiner could well be just the ticket for you. You may be wondering how I completed Block Number 23 on the application, summarizing why I feel qualified to be a DPE. Besides my basic qualifications, I answered that "my goal is to further my own professional pilot development and create an opportunity to 'give back' to the aviation community by promoting the development of safe future aviators." That is the whole point of demonstrating your piloting skills to a pilot examiner. We all know that safety in the air is the true summit of aviation, a pinnacle worth striving for and reaching by every aviator.

Joel Stoller is a Douglas DC-9 captain for Midwest Airlines. He is also a part-time CFI who has more than 16,000 flying hours, including more than 600 hours of dual instruction.

By Joel Stoller

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