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Checkride: Reality check

Scenario-based checkrides are critical

Decades ago, learning to fly was primarily about the mechanics of flying the airplane—hand-eye coordination and mechanical skill-based training. But in today’s aviation environment, learning how to physically fly the airplane is just a cornerstone of the much larger foundation of knowledge, risk assessment, and mitigation skills required to operate safely. And scenario-based training is the perfect tool for learning these important skills.
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Scenario-style questions help students analyze a situation, consider the associated risks, identify alternatives, and then evaluate and choose the best, safest course of action to mitigate the various risks. That’s a long way of saying, “Don’t fly into a thunderstorm!” But sometimes even the biggest threats are not so obvious. That’s where scenario-based training is critical.

If you’ve already been receiving scenario-based training, your practical test will be a natural extension of that process. Your FAA designated pilot examiner (DPE) will incorporate scenarios in both ground and flight portions of your checkride. Questions involving scenarios are particularly useful for identifying the level of learning attained, correlation being the goal.

Tests often begin with applicants describing how they have considered the many factors involved in a cross-country flight which the DPE has specified. Factors involving fitness to fly, pilot currency, weather conditions, airworthiness of the aircraft, and more can be effectively addressed using several of the recommended risk-assessment models. Don’t be surprised when the examiner asks the “what-if” questions that will demonstrate how skilled you are at identifying, evaluating, and dealing with risk factors. Based on your responses, your DPE will watch for any hazardous attitudes you may have.


Throughout much of the oral exam, your examiner will also pepper you with scenario-based questions that test both subject knowledge and overall situational awareness. For example, lower-than-planned ceilings might introduce cruising altitude, airspace, routing, or even regulatory consequences you’ll need to recognize and deal with. Or an aircraft system irregularity might prompt a diversion. A loss of communications capability presents a wide range of considerations. And what if you get lost while low on fuel at dusk?

Similarly, your examiner will present a variety of scenarios during the flight portion. These can be as colorful as the DPEs presenting them. Common favorites include simulating a GPS failure to evaluate pilotage and dead-reckoning skills during the cross-country. An in-flight fire, flight control failure, or passenger medical emergency might trigger an emergency descent. Mechanical or system failures often trigger one of the most difficult decisions a pilot can make: a precautionary landing. But if the engine fails completely, the decision to land is made for you: a forced landing. The primary decisions then are selecting where to land and then taking the steps needed to accomplish it safely.

A realistic scenario for the power-on stall would be a simulated short-field takeoff over an obstacle that, it appears, will not quite be cleared. The pilot would instinctively increase pitch attitude to clear the obstacle, thereby inducing a stall. And popular among DPEs for power-off stalls is the classic base-to-final turning stall that may lead to a stall/spin accident. For basic instrument maneuvers, DPEs may simulate an accidental encounter with instrument meteorological conditions to cover required tasks that include communicating with and obtaining assistance from ATC, using VOR and GPS for navigation, and complying with ATC-directed heading and altitude instructions.

Ultimately, training and testing pilots using scenarios such as these could someday prove to be a lifesaver. As the FAA, flight schools, and DPEs incorporate the new airman certification standards into twenty-first-century pilot training and evaluation, effective use of scenarios will continue to play a major role in creating safer, more risk-averse pilots.

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