Unless I continually write new tests, I encourage students to study only what’s needed to pass the exam and achieve, at best, a rote level of learning. An exam in a course should not be the end goal; rather, it provides one way to encourage students to engage with and learn the concepts.
Similarly, passing an FAA practical exam is not the end goal in aviation. Examiners spend time conversing and flying with candidates to see that their knowledge, skills, and attitude are compatible with a safe flying career. I tell candidates that I want to know that they will continue their education and enjoy a long happy life flying their airplanes. The airmen certification standards provide a road map for our time together: It ensures that we cover a wide range of important topics and that the candidate commands the aircraft safely through various phases of flight.
Some candidates don’t find the blueprint the ACS provides to be sufficient and try to find the gouge on an examiner before meeting for the exam. Typing “DPE [Examiner Name] gouge” into a search engine will likely produce information from past practical exams for that DPE. One local flight school whisks each candidate away immediately after the practical exam ends to “do paperwork” to compile a file on each examiner. Surely each candidate who contributes to my file at that flight school has shared that one of my pet peeves during practical exams is the lack of a standard preflight briefing. Alas, I continue to discover otherwise so I will share some of my gouge here through a situation that happens all too frequently.
During a practical exam last summer for the commercial certificate, I asked the candidate Pat to plan a cross-country flight to Asheville, North Carolina. The scenario involved transporting a couple to a Friday night wedding rehearsal dinner near the airport in Asheville. FAR 91.103 requires that the pilot in command, before beginning the flight, “become familiar with all available information concerning that flight.”
While I continually change my practical exams to encourage candidates not to rely on the gouge they have resourced, my expectation for proper preflight planning applies to every practical exam.
Pat brought out his electronic flight bag software and walked me through various weather tools that showed the conditions suitable for a VFR flight. Given the atmospheric conditions, Pat computed the projected takeoff and landing distances and showed that both the destination and departure airports offered a healthy safety margin for obstacle clearance. A high-pressure system that dominated the southeast promised perfect weather to enjoy the majesty of the Smoky Mountains, so Pat proclaimed it a “go.” I asked, “What will you say to your passengers when you call up Asheville Approach only to be told the airport is closed?” After a stunned silence, Pat clicked on the notams and winced when he realized that the airport had been closed for days. Such an error doesn’t bode well for an aspiring commercial pilot.
Following each practical exam, examiners sit with the candidate and flight instructor to discuss any problems. This debrief is an important feedback loop that helps the flight school operate with greater safety and saves future candidates from repeating errors. While I continually change my practical exams to encourage candidates not to rely on the gouge they have resourced, my expectation for proper preflight planning applies to every practical exam. Now there’s some gouge!
FAR 91.103 sounds as though it could never be satisfied and is the sort of catch-all rule designed to blame the pilot were anything to go awry—do we ever really avail ourselves of all the information concerning a flight? Fortunately, the FAA provides some guidance in Pilot’s Guide to a Preflight Briefing (AC 91-92), published earlier this year. This advisory circular acknowledges that a self-briefing may be compliant with current regulations but encourages pilots to use a checklist to ensure no area of operation is missed. A central component of any preflight investigation should be the standard briefing, which consists of six parts: anticipated adverse conditions, synopsis, current conditions, forecast conditions, winds aloft, and notices to airmen. While clicking on the products you believe might most impact your flight is helpful, a standard briefing will ensure that you consider items, like a TFR or notam for a closed airport, that might surprise you. Had Pat availed himself of a standard briefing, he would have known the flight was a no-go.
Don’t forget to supplement the briefing with an abbreviated briefing before the flight as important changes may have occurred in the interim. The AOPA Air Safety Institute Accident Case Study Trapped in Ice details two fatal flights that occurred just three days apart in the spring of 2018. In each case, the pilots of a Beechcraft G36 and a Cirrus SR22 continued flight in icing conditions, lost control of their aircraft, and impacted terrain. Failure to obtain an “official weather briefing” and failure to “obtain an updated briefing” were cited as probable causes for the accidents respectively. While there really is no “official weather briefing,” a preflight briefing should include all six areas listed above.
When I ask candidates why they don’t secure a standard briefing for their practical exam, some confess they have never done so before because the idea of calling a briefer makes them nervous. With today’s digital tools, that may not even be necessary. You can create an account on 1800wxbrief.com and use the interactive flight planning tool. I typically use the briefing tool in ForeFlight that includes all six items of a standard briefing. (Garmin Pilot users have a similar tool available as well.) Some days the go/no-go decision is an easy one and I stop there. If I am at all on the fence about it, I phone 1-800-WXBRIEF to chat with a briefer. Referencing my EFB standard briefing during the call saves me from furiously copying down the information I receive and having paged through the briefing beforehand allows me to ask better questions. After all the briefer knows more about weather than I ever will and on many occasions has suggested alterations to my route that alleviate the concerns that originally gave me pause.
Whether you fly family and friends purely for pleasure or you’ve made aviation your career, your passengers as well as the FAA expect you to do your due diligence in the flight planning process. Obtaining a proper preflight briefing is not just for practical exams—it’s part of the professionalism we need to exhibit for every flight.
Catherine Cavagnaro is an aerobatics instructor and professor of mathematics at Sewanee: The University of the South.