Within the appendix section, which includes the responsibilities of the evaluator, you will notice that the FAA requires its designated pilot examiners (DPEs) to include within their plans of action scenarios that evaluate as many of the required areas of operation and tasks as possible when conducting practical tests. The use of scenarios enhances the ability of instructors and evaluators to determine the level of learning that has been achieved by students and pilot applicants. With learning at the correlation level being the objective, there is no better way to determine this than through scenario-based testing.
As you prepare for your big day, with regard to dealing with scenarios, a handy reference to the guidance DPEs use for incorporating various scenarios into their plans of action can be reviewed at the FAA.gov website under “ACS Tips for Evaluators.” This is also a helpful CFI tool for developing students’ training scenarios. Introducing different scenarios into every training flight with students not only makes the lessons more interesting and effective, it also goes a long way in preparing students for their eventual practical test. Scenarios aren’t just for checkrides!
During the ground portion of the practical test, often referred to as the oral exam, simple rote-style questions such as, “What color is the airport rotating beacon?” or, “What is your airplane’s best glide speed?” do pop up occasionally, but they are not the norm. More often, the DPE will tie a series of “what if” questions together through a realistic scenario, revealing along the way how the applicant would react to a variety of factors they might encounter on a typical flight. The planned cross-country flight is a good way to start. For example, a runway closure might lead to a crosswind takeoff on a short runway. Since this scenario would put the aircraft performance in doubt, the well-prepared applicant would automatically take action to determine that a safe takeoff can be made by calculating the takeoff distance requirement as well as the crosswind component anticipated for that takeoff.
DPEs love to incorporate weather deviations or diversion decision scenarios into the cross-country flight because they require a thorough working knowledge of airspace rules, appropriate VFR weather minimums, ATC services and requirements, and FSS accessibility. Special VFR operations are often evaluated during these weather-related scenarios. Combining various systems malfunctions, night operations, or physiological concerns will test applicants’ basic knowledge of these required topics while also sampling judgment and risk management skills. Proceeding to the flight portion of the test, applicants frequently face scenarios—real or simulated—that include equipment malfunctions observed during the preflight inspection. Knowing what items are required, versus optional for a flight, as well as specific actions required for operating with inoperative components, is essential.
Although it would be impossible to anticipate all of the nearly limitless combinations of scenarios an applicant might face during a checkride—or, more important, during any future flight—there is an excellent tool that will help pilots through even the most demanding of situations: the “3P Model” for aeronautical decision making (ADM). It breaks scenario-based problem solving into three easy-to-remember steps. 1. Perceive the problem and evaluate its threat to safety. 2. Process the various options available while considering their associated risk levels. 3. Perform the best course of action under the circumstances while evaluating and monitoring the results (see “Keep Your Cool,” p. 30). Following this simple template will greatly assist you with nearly any scenario your DPE might present to you.
During your checkride, when faced with a challenging scenario, don’t be tempted to rush to the first solution that comes to your mind. And especially do not choose a solution just because you think it’s what the examiner wants to see you do. This is a misunderstanding that frequently leads to disappointment. Instead, take a little time to think the problem through; evaluate your options, weighing risks against benefits; and proceed with the one that makes the most sense, given all the details of the scenario. Doing this will keep you, your examiner, and your future passengers happy.
Bob Schmelzer is a Chicago-area designated pilot examiner, a retired United Airlines captain and Boeing 777 line check airman. He has been an active gold seal flight instructor since 1972.