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The examiner

Crazy tales to tell

We should all have a deep respect for designated pilot examiners (DPE), especially when you consider the unofficial job description for their line of work.

Rod MachadoWe should all have a deep respect for designated pilot examiners (DPE), especially when you consider the unofficial job description for their line of work. The job description might read as follows: You are expected to evaluate someone you’ve never met on one of the most stressful days of his or her life while sitting in a tiny airborne moving vehicle just inches away from flight controls that you are not expected to touch until it appears that your vaporization is imminent. Where do I sign up?

Evaluating someone for a pilot certificate is no walk in the park; it’s more like trying to parallel park. Not only must the examiner evaluate the applicant, he or she must also play psychologist and help this person relax. At least that’s what some of the very best DPEs do. Yes, this can be challenging, but it’s not the most challenging part of the examination process.

Most examiners were (or still are) active flight instructors. During the examination process, however, examiners are not allowed to do what comes naturally to them—teach! They are allowed only to examine. Now that’s a challenge.

In the early 1980s, our local FAA office asked me to be an examiner. I declined, knowing it would be difficult for me to maintain an examiner’s demeanor without slipping into the role of flight instructor. Sit and watch someone skid during a turn and not say something? Can’t do it. That’s like asking a heavy metal band to be kind to the hotel furniture. Not only will they rearrange it, they’ll break it, throw it, roll it, and smoke it.

There are many other reasons to admire designated pilot examiners. They must not only examine, they must also be prepared to handle an applicant who behaves in strange and mysterious ways.

During a private pilot checkride, my DPE friend Hank asked the applicant to take him to the Seal Beach VOR. This fellow promptly tuned in the VOR station, rotated the OBS, and centered the needle. Then he did something Hank didn’t expect. He pushed the knob on the directional gyro and rotated the compass card until it read the same as the OBS value. Hank looked over and asked, “Excuse me, why did you do that?”

The applicant replied, “My instructor says that whenever we navigate by VOR, these two things have got to match.” Checkride over, pink license issued.

Hank’s experience, however, was nowhere near as perplexing as what happened to Jim, another designated pilot examiner. According to Jim, a private pilot applicant tried to influence the outcome of the checkride by using the Jedi mind control technique.

After Jim’s applicant failed miserably, they landed and exited the airplane. Jim turned to the applicant and said, “I’m sorry to say that your performance wasn’t satisfactory, so you didn’t pass the checkride.”

Upon hearing the bad news, the applicant began swaying rhythmically right and left, then in a low, resonant voice said, “Relax, Jim. Relax. Yes, relax. Let these negative thoughts leave your brain. This applicant did pass the checkride, didn’t he? This applicant will be receiving his license today, won’t he?” Jim smiled, shook his head, and made it clear to Svengali that he better knock it off or he’d kick his Houdini off the airport. Checkride over, pink license issued.

Another examiner told me about an applicant who refused to admit that he actually failed. The examiner told the applicant that he “had major doubts about the applicant’s mastery of the airplane.”

The applicant pulled out the practical test standards (at that time it was the 2002 version) and showed him the section that said an applicant must “demonstrate mastery of the aircraft with the successful outcome of each task performed never seriously in doubt.” (That phrase has since been modified.)

The applicant said, “Since you only have major doubt, this clearly isn’t serious doubt. Therefore, I still pass, right?” Nice try, Perry Mason, but wrong. Checkride over, pink license issued.

While every designated pilot examiner has his or her own crazy tales to tell, there’s one tale that needs to be told. Being an examiner is a mighty big responsibility (see “P&E: Charm School,” September 2014 AOPA Pilot). Not only must examiners belay their natural desire to teach during the evaluation process, they must properly evaluate an applicant’s skill and knowledge in a typically high-stress environment. The examiner must also be willing to give an applicant the bad news if that person fails a checkride—which isn’t easy to do when you’re being hypnotized.


Rod Machado’s latest book is the How to Fly An Airplane Handbook.

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