What Your Designated Pilot Examiner Wants You to Know

Practical tips to help you nail your check ride.

Every year for the past decade, I have attended EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Flying my 1965 Mooney from California to the big event has been the norm, with most of those years flown VFR, which added a layer of stress to the planning and execution of those flights.

In November 2017, I received my instrument rating, meaning IFR flight to KOSH was now possible. As many people told me, this rating makes you a better pilot—more precise, with the potential for being a safer pilot too. As I learned to fly in the system, I also encountered challenges I hadn’t thought about in my VFR days. My education, ratings, airplane and piloting have been put to the test. The ability to synthesize my flight instruction with what real-world flying threw at me has been, at times, stunningly difficult. Looking back to my IFR check ride, it was hard—really hard—and I’m glad it was.

I learned to fly in the Columbia River Gorge in Oregon. My primary flight instructor, Dave Koebel, was a gracious, meticulous and skilled teacher with more than 20 years of instruction experience including 7,000 hours dual given of his 9,000 total hours. A few years ago, he made the jump to being a designated pilot examiner in the Pacific Northwest.

Another legend in general aviation instruction, Joe Justice, and I met more than a decade ago at Justice Aviation while we were both fighting the demise of the Santa Monica Airport. Justice owned a flight school for more than 25 years logging some 20,000 hours of flight time. Ten years ago, he became a DPE in the Los Angeles Basin.

As a psychotherapist, I am always curious about a person’s inner life, and I became fascinated about the life of an instructor-turned-DPE. I wondered what DPEs wished their applicants knew the day before and after their check ride. I asked each of them questions. Their answers were, in ways, similar but included some divergence. Whether you read this as a beginning student or a pilot preparing for multiengine commercial test, I think you will gain insight, preparation tips and confidence to nail your check ride.

Flight Training
Before the flight test, applicants must ensure the test aircraft is technically airworthy. RGtimeline/iStock

What Applicants Should Know Before the Check Ride

Sloppy record keeping makes for a poor start.

In Koebel’s experience, the 8710 Airman Certificate and/or Rating Application can be confusing. Many CFIs ask students to total their logbooks and fill out the 8710s but often do not check that work before they sign them off. This can stop a check ride cold. “This is sloppy on the part of the CFIs. They need to shepherd their students through the entire process. Getting them off on the right foot will streamline the initial validation process and empower the applicants for future check rides,” Koebel says.

The Airman Certification Standards should be the applicant’s bible.

Do not assume the 8710 signoff means the CFI has covered everything, because instructors can have blind spots. Justice stresses that the applicant should review the ACS for the certificate or rating and be clear on each element of a successful maneuver. This will show them what the DPE needs to see. “The ACS should be the [applicant’s] bible,” Justice says. “As they go through the ACS, they should ask themselves, ‘Did my instructor teach me each specific element?’”

The solo cross-country endorsement, for example, can stop a private applicant before they start. If more than 90 days have passed, and the CFI didn’t reendorse the applicant for another 90-day endorsement, any flight time logged won’t count. Justice gives an example of an applicant for the instrument check ride: “He logged 50 hours of PIC cross-country but scrimped on the mileage; flights were 48 miles instead of the required 50. That is an automatic nonstart.” Recently, an instructor working at one school in the LA Basin sent a student from another airport in the area. Because the departure airport was different, the 150-nautical-mile cross-country flight was only 145 nm, which disqualified the applicant for the check ride.

Koebel’s take on the ACS is different. It contains three sections in each area of operation: what the applicant should know, what they should consider and what they need to demonstrate. CFIs need to teach all three sections. Koebel says: “It is not enough to only learn the maneuvers instead of what can happen in real life. Becoming a DPE has shown me ways of being a better instructor, and had I known that 20 years ago, my students would have been more prepared for reality.”

Is the airplane airworthy for the test?

Before the flight test, applicants must ensure the test aircraft is technically airworthy. Make sure to check with your DPE because they might not need to see all the aircraft logbooks. “I understand the value of the aircraft log books and the hesitance to let them out of sight for the check ride. I encourage my applicants to bring photos or copies of the appropriate logbook entries, so we can determine airworthiness without having to bring the logbooks out of the vault,” Koebel says. One “gotcha” can be tach time. For the private certificate, you will need documentation of annual inspection, 100-hour inspection (if applicable) and documentation of current tach time. If the check ride includes flying within or near Charlie or Bravo airspace, remember a transponder endorsement is required.

When a copy won’t work

Applicants must bring the original embossed document of the knowledge test to the flight test; that’s the one which states in red letters, “Do Not Lose.” A copy will not suffice, and that means the flight test may not begin. It takes two weeks to get new copy from the FAA, so the check ride will be pushed back, which could result in the need to again wait for DPE availability.

Flight Training
Drill emergency scenarios on the ground, so in the air, they become second nature. RGtimeline/iStock

Transform Book Knowledge Into Lifelong Habits

Both Justice and Koebel agree, most applicants are well-prepared for the oral, including questions on the sectional chart and flight plan. “Where many stumble is on aircraft systems—because students don’t read, study and know the [pilot’s operating handbook] for the test aircraft,” Koebel says.

Justice agrees: “You must have a working knowledge of the engine in your test airplane. How does it make power? How do you know it is making power? How do you know that it will continue to make power? When you are turning the key left and right, what are you checking? The magneto makes sparks; what does the spark do? How are you going to deal with system problems?”

The DPE must assess an applicant’s aeronautical decision-making skills that, according to Koebel, are usually fair to poor. “Know your systems well enough that when you see a failure, you understand what it means and know what you are going to lose and what to do. If this fails, what do you do next and where are you going to go? Do you need a radio?” A phrase that might be your best friend is: “I will use the appropriate checklist.”

Many students simply parrot aviation language. For example, in describing the passenger brief, a student uses the phrase “sterile cockpit,” which means nothing to passengers, except perhaps rubber gloves and hand sanitizer. It is best to use real-world descriptive language so passengers understand when it is OK to chat (out of the pattern, scanning for aircraft) and when the pilot needs silence. As pilots, situational awareness and radio communications are our main concerns. Be ready to demonstrate a proficient passenger brief.

Are Students Taught Adequate Risk Assessment?

“That’s an interesting question,” says Justice, a man with 25 years of instructional experience. “Overall, we probably could be better. The whole industry is slow to change. We have tried common sense for some time. Now, we are using a more systematic way of assessing risk. It is hard to get pilots to break out a risk matrix when they are going flying, however. When I was working on my commercial, I memorized the paragraphs that described the engine, which were good to know but didn’t help in the real world when one of those needles goes in the red. Rote memorization isn’t helpful in knowing when you need to get the airplane on the ground.”

Koebel also believes CFIs can provide more effective education in the assessment of risk. “As instructors, we need more scenario-based training on the ground. A CFI can only introduce so many things to a student in the air before their brain goes on overload and they become saturated.” Have these discussions on the ground with your CFI. Work together to develop your emergency plan, contingencies and alternatives. Drill these scenarios on the ground with your CFI, so that in the air, they become more second nature.

Both DPEs believe applicants demonstrate knowledge of the mnemonics PAVE (pilot, aircraft, environment and external pressures) and IMSAFE (illness, medication, stress, alcohol, fatigue and emotion). What they don’t know is whether applicants are completing a real risk assessment prior to flights. In order to be successful on a check ride, it’s important for the DPE to see and hear an applicant’s risk-assessment thought process.

Teach for the test or the real world?

Do instructors teach for the check ride or in a way that creates a pilot with the potential to deal with problems that can—and will—come up? This question revealed some divergence of opinion. Both Koebel and Justice believe that CFIs are doing their best, but there are areas that need improvement in pilot education.

Examiners are not allowed to teach but to only conduct scenario-based check rides to ensure safety and competence. “I don’t think CFIs are teaching to the check ride,” Justice says. “Scheduling a check ride in the LA Basin can take two to three months. No one wants to send an applicant out to fail. Hopefully, the thrust of scenario-based training helps to get healthy, real-world experience.”

Koebel, however, believes many CFIs are teaching to the check ride. Applicants demonstrate maneuvers, steep turns, slow flight, simulated engine out, stalls, short field, soft field—which are all generally adequate, but he feels there is an inadequate focus on aeronautical decision-making. He describes an all-too-common scenario for private applicants: “When I pull the power off and make the airplane a glider, most applicants pitch for best glide, trim for it, then they freestyle, having no obvious process for selecting a good landing target and gracefully getting into a position to land there. Most troubleshoot by reciting items and not actually touching or doing anything to try to improve the situation. ‘Fuel on both.’ OK, move the selector to another tank. ‘Mags on both.’ OK, cycle them. ‘121.5 mayday call.’ What does this call entail, and do you have time for this conversation? No one ever mentions tightening seat belts and opening the doors.”

Flight Training
Don’t settle for the minimums in terms of experience. Challenge yourself to fly in a prepared, precise way. RGtimeline/iStock

Instrument considerations

As instrument students, we tend to train using the approaches in our own backyard. But in real-world flying, we are going to unfamiliar airports in challenging conditions. IFR is unforgiving, and the consequence of poor decisions can be life threatening. Justice agrees: “The radar-vector environment can lull us into complacency. Flying in the flatlands is one thing, but in the mountains, your clearance could be, ‘Cross this fix at 7,000 and cleared for the approach,’ and if your skill set is low, you could end up in trouble.”

If an instrument check ride is in your future, make sure you know your precision- and nonprecision-approach power and configuration settings. Have these speeds written on a card or on the panel for easy reference. The use of desktop flight simulators can be helpful for developing precise speed control. Demonstrate how the pitch setting plus power setting equals the performance wanted. “Very few instrument applicants have a clear idea of the pitch and power settings to give them the performance they expect for approach-level, precision and nonprecision descent. Without them, every approach is now unique, requiring way too much work,” Koebel says.

Justice sees another common error based on a sensory issue during the execution of a missed approach. When executing a miss, the nose of the aircraft pitches up. Applicants have the inherent feeling the nose is too high. They often react instinctively by pushing the nose down, which may lead to a feeble 200-feet-per-minute climb instead of a good rate of climb. He says: “They don’t practice the missed enough. When you shoot the ILS to minimums, don’t take the hood off like in training. Keep your hood on and, demonstrate a VY climb that is going to keep you safe.”

After the Check Ride

I asked both examiners what they want applicants to know after their check ride. This question seemed to stop them in their tracks. Both men paused for a moment before thoughtfully offering advice. “Until now, you have been protected by bad weather. The only thing keeping you on the ground now [that you have an instrument rating] is your judgment,” Justice says. He believes, in order to become proficient, a pilot needs the mindset of a lifetime learner.

“I want them to know that they are now embarking on an enterprise that has a lot of risk factors,” Koebel says. “There is a big learning curve. You are not done with the learning. You are never alone; you can reach out to Center, your local FBO or instructor. If you see something you don’t know, ask for help. Be conservative.” I keenly remember when Koebel launched me on my solo cross-country from The Dalles, Oregon, to Madras, Oregon. He grabbed me by the shoulders, looked squarely into my eyes and said: “If you feel something is wrong, come home. If you don’t like something, come home. If you don’t like the color of the airplane, come home.”

I have been lucky enough to have wonderful flight instructors. I do believe all CFIs are doing the very best they can. However, I also believe, as students and applicants, we have to be our own best teacher and advocate. Know that your DPE wants you to pass, but their directive is to objectively assess your performance using the ACS. Don’t settle for the minimums in terms of experience or proficiency. Challenge yourself to fly in a prepared, precise way. Look at your check ride as a way to demonstrate all you have learned. And once you pass, remember you have been given the golden ticket to keep learning for the rest of your flying career.


This story appeared in the Jan/Feb 2020 issue of Flying Magazine

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