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For most, this new skill is easily mastered

By Dave Wilkerson

Taxiing — it seems so basic. It's one of the first skills pilots learn, and we use it every time we fly. Surely this fundamental procedure can hide no checkride pitfalls. Or can it? The private pilot practical test standards (PTS) lists six elements under its taxiing task, and it's one of the first your examiner judges.

Taxiing lends itself to demonstration, so not all examiners discuss it in detail during the oral portion of the checkride. But demonstration alone can veil vital points. Element 1 of the taxi task merely asks you to exhibit knowledge of the elements related to safe taxi procedures. These are broad, so we'll just touch on them here. Your examiner's key concerns will be your positive control of speed and direction on the ground, and your division of attention. You must be alert, visually checking the location and movement of everything along your taxi path. This is not always as simple as common sense might suggest.

For examiners, being aware of things that move about the ramp and taxiways — other aircraft, vehicles, and people - should be second nature. For you, it's a relatively new skill, and you must make taxi decisions before the airplane moves under its own power.

The PTS requirement applicants overlook the most is on page 7 and 8 of the introduction. Under "Examiner Responsibility" it says: "Throughout the flight portion of the practical test, the examiner shall evaluate the applicant's use of for visual scanning, and collision avoidance procedures." Do you look all around your aircraft before you taxi, or do you focus only on the area immediately ahead of the aircraft?

Like any maneuver, taxiing requires planning and judgment. On airports with a weather reporting service — automatic terminal information service (ATIS), automated weather observing system (AWOS), or automated surface observation system (ASOS) — examiners form ideas regarding an applicant's taxi judgment before the airplane moves. Some applicants obtain ATIS information, then perform pre-taxi checklist items while ATIS repeats information already received. Others obtain ATIS, then monitor the ground control frequency to form a mental picture of the airport's activity while completing their pre-taxi checklist. Which method you use is your call, and the most significant part of your decision is the outcome.

Checkride nervousness can begin to dissipate when you start to taxi. Many applicants have said that "as soon as we began to move" they felt in their element. Ironically, taxiing away from the tiedown is any applicant's first opportunity to fail the flight portion of the checkride. Element 2 rightly insists that you perform a brake check immediately after your airplane begins moving. Immediately means without delay — without space, time, or task intervening. Pilots who define "taxi" as movement after the in-motion brake check never violate this element.

What most often wins the applicant a pink (actually, salmon-colored) slip is failure to position the flight controls for the existing wind conditions, as Element 3 requires. Proper aileron deflection helps you keep control of the airplane. While you're taxiing in a crosswind, it may be hard to recall the flight control placement diagram in the Flight Training Handbook, but it's vital to position them correctly.

One way to remember it is to dive away from a tailwind component and to climb into a headwind component.

Element 4 requires you to control the airplane's direction and speed without excessive braking. The issue of direction might generate examiner questions about the airplane's nosewheel steering system. On page 16, the Flight Training Handbook mentions that "under certain conditions nosewheels vibrate and shimmy during taxiing," and those conditions are caused by excess taxi speed or excessively worn steering system components. If your airplane's steering system is decrepit, the airplane isn't airworthy, and you can't use it on a practical test.

Taxi speed is frequently a source of contention. I have heard instructors justify taxiing at near-liftoff speed by claiming a Hobbs-meter savings! It seems unfair for an applicant to get a pink slip because of something an instructor taught. Yet, it would be so much worse if you were to injure somebody. Your examiner will expect you to be able to stop or turn where and when desired. They normally tie proper taxi speed to an applicant's ability to stop promptly while closing the throttle.

Element 5 says you must comply with airport markings. Pilots should be familiar with standardized airport markings. This element also requires you to comply with ATC clearances.

Nestled between "markings" and "clearances" in the PTS lurks the word "signals," and it can generate interesting scenarios. Let's say that, during oral questioning, your examiner stands, holds his hands to his sides, palms down, and asks you what this signal means as he pumps his flattened hands up and down. This signal is one of 11 displayed in the Flight Training Handbook section on taxiing. They also are in the Aeronautical Information Manual, in section 4-3-25. (This signal tells pilots to slow down.)

Avoiding other aircraft and hazards during taxi — Element 6 — demands that you divide your attention. Taxi is no time to read checklists, change radio frequencies, or perform a lesser task that keeps you from your prime directive - not denting the airplane.

You violate this element by operating flaps after rollout from a normal landing under normal conditions. Similarly, after engine run-up, pilots sometimes tune the tower frequency before or while taxiing from the run-up area to the runway's hold-short line. Changing frequencies during taxi is contrary to AIM section 4-3-14, "Communications," and it erodes your division of attention.

Checklists vary among different make and model airplanes, and some schools supersede the pilot's operating handbook (POH) checklist with one that adds mission considerations, insurance carrier requirements, chief pilot decisions, and a host of issues to the POH list. Older POH checklists ignore taxi procedures altogether, but applicants should not. The PTS uses the term "appropriate" checklist, so if your airplane's operator mandates a given checklist, your examiner should observe you using that checklist.

Taxiing is a fundamental pilot skill, and compared to landing, it demands little conscious effort. Despite this innocence, misfortune lurks in taxi's hidden corners. Pilots who are aware keep misfortune cornered.