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Impress the examiner

Tips for passing an instrument checkride

I generally steer clear of offering advice that focuses on passing a checkride as I like to think that we examiners are in the business of certificating knowledgeable, skilled, and safe pilots.
Illustration by Taylor Callery.
Illustration by Taylor Callery.

Strive for those qualities and the rest will take care of itself. But an email I received from fellow flight instructor and friend Travis “Buz” Witherington got me thinking otherwise.

Buz is a highly experienced instructor from Knoxville, Tennessee, who specializes in transitions to Beechcraft models and proficiency training on behalf of the American Bonanza Society. In his letter, he lamented what he calls the “artificial stress” a student or applicant experiences on an instrument proficiency check or during a practical exam for the instrument rating. I like to think that earning this privilege allows a pilot to travel with greater confidence. But any of us who are instrument-rated know that passing the flight portion of a practical exam can be significantly more difficult than flying in the IFR system. So, based on the brainstorming session that Buz initiated between us, I am glad to offer suggestions for your next evaluation.

Know your navigational and aircraft control equipment. I earned my instrument rating in an aircraft with just one VOR receiver and glideslope capability. So, when RNAV approaches and moving maps became a thing, I concluded that flying instrument approaches had become child’s play. Wow was I ever wrong. My own transition to glass wasn’t a quick one and learning one such platform doesn’t mean moving to another glass installation is easy. Shoring up my own inadequacies on my current panel was a challenge and there will be more work in my future to stay on top of it. (See “Rebirth Reflections,” December 2023 and “New Year’s Resolutions,” January 2024, AOPA Pilot for advice on this topic.) Any time you spend learning your units and the way they work in concert to control your aircraft is time well spent and will reap rewards during an evaluation event and beyond.

Develop a flow. We all make mistakes flying IFR, from failing to input the entire VOR frequency when ATC interrupts with a rerouting, to forgetting to change the CDI source from GPS to VOR. Let’s face it, things get busy in single-pilot flying and those errors will happen again. A flow is a pass through the cockpit that is designed to ensure all settings are appropriate for the phase of flight. A flow for my Bonanza starts at my feet to check the fuel selector, moves to the lower center panel where I verify throttle, mixture, propeller, gear, and flap settings, then passes right to left to ensure that all circuit breakers are in. The PFD is the next stop to recheck the engine instruments, com and nav frequencies, and autopilot settings. Finally, I check my iPad in the center of the panel and the navigational equipment on the right to ensure that the displayed items make sense for that phase of flight. I make such a flow periodically during cruise and before each change during an approach procedure. Such a flow would catch most or all the user-input errors I see candidates make on practical exams.

Know your approaches. Depending on your evaluator’s policy, you may know the approaches on which you’ll be evaluated. Part of my preflight briefing includes a list of the approaches I expect to use with the typical caveat that they may need to change in the air if an airport is especially busy or our anticipated approach creates an opportunity for a traffic conflict. Most of the time, they go as planned. Reviewing these plates on the ground at zero knots is much easier than while bouncing around in a small general aviation aircraft. Additionally, it’s realistic. If I’m flying to Asheville, North Carolina (AVL), and the winds are forecast to be out of the north all day, my request for the RNAV 35 there will likely be granted.

Avoid airports with busy training environments. As evaluators, we are tasked with creating an efficient test that covers all tasks from the airman certification standards (ACS) and this often means flying three approaches in relatively quick succession at airports nearby. While it would be fun to go on a cross-country, we aren’t trying to rack up a large aircraft rental bill here. But this can be a big source of the artificial stress on a practical exam so it might be worth a conversation with the evaluator. Sharing that you don’t mind flying longer if it means leaving a hectic training atmosphere or creating more time between approaches can’t hurt.

Choose a helpful approach airspeed. You may think I’d advocate slowing your approach speed down; rather, it’s usually the opposite. I witness more errors caused or exacerbated by flying slowly than fast. I get how important it is to ensure that we don’t fall behind the airplane, especially on the final approach course, but flying too slowly increases the workload. Roll stability degrades as airspeed decreases, so compensating for course and attitude deviations becomes more challenging at lower speeds. For my own Bonanza, 115 knots proves a sweet spot that eases such corrections and offers sufficient time to get all my tasks done before landing. And there is often little to no difference between the straight-in minimums for category A (up to 90 KIAS) and category B (91 to 120 KIAS) aircraft.

Set up your navigational equipment on the ground. If you know you’re going to fly the SYI RNAV 18 first, it’s not cheating to load it on the ground. In fact, that’s good airmanship. Instrument flying is all about finding ways to minimize workload during a stressful phase of flight. The more you can anticipate, the easier your flight will be.

Use the autopilot. This is another item that falls into the “not cheating” category. Even a single-axis autopilot can reduce workload by an astonishing amount. Candidates will often sheepishly ask me if it’s OK to engage the autopilot while they brief an approach and I answer, “Of course!” When the autopilot is engaged, the pilot flying transitions to become the pilot monitoring, so there is still work to be done. And appropriate use of an autopilot is smart, and something evaluators need to see if such a system is installed in the airplane. The ACS specifies that a candidate must hand-fly one of the nonprecision approaches so of course it’s important to keep those skills sharp.

Ask for a vector. Despite all your efforts to perform a perfect flight, you may find yourself fumbling after ATC issues you an unexpected hold or offers a rerouting just when you needed that least. We’ve all been there, so be prepared for how you’ll handle it when things get crazy. I tell each of my instrument candidates to treat me as they would ATC during an actual instrument flight. Still, I’ve seen candidates flying off into unplanned areas while desperately punching buttons to amend a course or fix a user-generated problem. The answer is simple: Hit the pause button. Ask ATC for a vector during which you can rectify the issue and let them know when you’re ready. It’s the safe—and perfectly acceptable—thing to do.

I hope these tips will help any pilot seeking an instrument rating or to maintain proficiency minimize artificial stress during an evaluation flight. It’s helpful advice for flying in the IFR system as well.

Catherine Cavagnaro

Catherine Cavagnaro is an aerobatics instructor ( and professor of mathematics at Sewanee: The University of the South.

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