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Prepping for the big day

Examiners can't wing it, either


Never ask a question for which you don’t already know the answer. This unwritten rule is something all designated pilot examiners (DPEs) learn very quickly. To the outside observer, a DPE’s job might appear simple: Just ask some questions about flying, observe some selected flight maneuvers and a few landings, and you’re good to go. I, too, used to believe that being a DPE had to be one of the easiest and most fun jobs in the world. You get to talk about airplanes; go flying with new, eager pilots; and offer a few great nuggets of aviation wisdom while issuing new pilot certificates. And you even got paid for doing it! Could it get any better than that? Well, like all DPEs, I soon learned there was a lot more to the job.

Several decades ago, examiners were given much more latitude in creating their checkrides. Before the days of practical test standards (PTS), there were Flight Test Guides. These small guides contained a list of appropriate pilot operations and minimum completion standards that suggested what a checkride might include. They also made clear that applicants should not expect to be tested on every item listed in the guide—only those tasks the DPE believed necessary to determine a pilot’s competency. As a result, my private, commercial, and multiengine flight tests—each with a different DPE—were an hour or less in duration.

This flexibility also yielded a wide range of checkride contents that were sometimes rather unorthodox. For example, my multiengine checkride included a simulated dual engine failure requiring a dead-stick approach and landing. Then my DPE for the commercial checkride actually killed our one-and-only engine, stopping its prop rotation completely, while I performed a gliding (literally) spiral over the airport, transitioning to a real dead-stick approach to an accuracy landing. I managed to pass (and survive) these tests, but you won’t find any crazy strategies in your checkrides. Today’s DPEs are obliged to follow guidance and requirements established by the FAA in the PTS. The PTS is law. It dictates many of the specifics that go into creating today’s checkride experience, including not only which topics shall be discussed during the ground portion of the practical test, but also each required maneuver and task to be demonstrated in the aircraft. In addition, it establishes myriad other features to be encountered in the form of special emphasis areas. Those one-hour checkrides are history!

From the viewpoint of the DPE, preparation for a checkride begins long before the appointment is made. The challenge is to create a checkride that includes the mountain of required material—all presented in a friendly, non-threatening manner—and completed within a reasonable time period. The applicant wants a short, stress-free test, but the FAA insists on a complete, fair test. Walking this tightrope is no easy task and demands lots of practice, preparation, and efficiency.

New DPEs attend a weeklong class at the FAA Academy in Oklahoma City, where they hone their testing skills while practicing and later viewing and critiquing each other’s videotaped sessions. They learn to deliver the FAA-required checkride briefings and develop scenarios designed to bring realism to the checkride, permitting a better evaluation of the applicants’ resource management, decision-making, and risk assessment skills.

Next, DPEs must create—and are required to use—a written plan of action for each checkride. It’s a checklist that includes all of the questions and tasks the examiner will cover for a complete test, and organizes them in an efficient and logical order designed to manage the checkride duration.

It’s the DPEs who have done their homework who provide the thorough, fair, and efficient practical tests their applicants deserve and the FAA demands. Checkride success is not determined by applicant preparation alone.

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