Prepare for the Check Ride, Part 3

The importance of knowing how to navigate without GPS.

Cessna 172 GPS
An important part of passing your check ride is demonstrating knowledge of navigation beyond following the magenta line.Illustration by Bryan Christie Design

When GPS first entered general aviation cockpits nearly two decades ago, skepticism ran amok — trusting the “magic” of satellite navigation took time. Those flight educators who had a firm grasp of the real conundrum to come knew then what we face today: GPS is good, sometimes almost too good. There is growing weakness in cross-country planning and the ability of students to use sectional charts rather than the GPS moving map display.

The problem is most of the time, the satellite-based system works. Because of our fluency and growing comfort with GPS navigators in our ground-based lives (pull out your iPhone if you don’t believe me), we rely more and more on the technology. The result is we may lose our ability to navigate without it.

During your check ride, you need to convince the examiner that you know how to use the navigation equipment installed in the airplane and demonstrate that you have complete situational awareness at all times. This skill is one of the most important you will develop during your training. It’s just as critical in keeping you safe as knowing how to land the airplane. The new Airman Certification Standards (ACS), effective June 2016, align the navigation subject areas to help you streamline your study.

To ensure that you understand the limitations and opportunities of all onboard navigation systems, you need to prepare for these tasks during the check ride, as outlined in the ACS for private pilots:

  • Understand how to plan your flight and execute a cross-country flight using pilotage and/or dead reckoning.
  • Know how to utilize the ground-based navigation aids, such as VOR and/or NDB facilities, and recognize their strengths and limitations.

  • Go beyond "direct to" when it comes to programming any GPS navigation unit installed in your airplane. There are several easy-to-use functions that can help power your flying to the next level.

  • Be ready for detailed questions from the examiner. He or she may ask: Is your GPS WAAS-capable? What VOR volumes apply to any Victor airways you're using as backup?

  • During the Private Pilot check ride, the heat comes on when you are asked to fly the airplane with reference only to instruments. You will need to demonstrate that you can successfully navigate your way out of a cloud during the test. This is one of several critical areas to ensure you're solid on.

Chart Prep Check Ride
Understand how to plan your flight and execute a cross-country flight using pilotage and/or dead reckoning.Flying

Practicing Your Navigation Skills

Diversion: You need to have good situational awareness to effectively deal with the need to divert. This is likely to happen during weather conditions that go from OK to worse. If you lose the use of an important piece of aircraft equipment, such as a comm radio or the transponder, you may not want to continue to your original destination if you planned for a busy, towered airport. Go back to that NRST button and, of course, use it — but also know how to extract the same information from your sectional chart, airport/facility directory or Flight Service.

Lost Procedures: You may think that with the GPS and its bold magenta line pointing the way, you will never become lost. But ask the airline pilot who mistakenly landed at the wrong airport how he ended up there, and you'll realize that it can happen to you, regardless of the equipment you have on board. The world looks very different from up above, and landmarks you find familiar from the car take on a strange cast when seen from the cockpit. It's thrilling — and it's important for you to know how to find your way from an unknown position. Your instructor will set up scenarios with you to practice how to navigate and, importantly, how to ask for help.

Basic Instrument Maneuvers: You may stumble into an area of reduced visibility (what the pros call "flying into a cloud") and need to safely find your way back to VFR conditions. The practical test requires you to control the ­airplane solely by reference to ­instruments while performing basic navigation — it's a crucial survival skill, not just a test of your mettle. While you try out turns to headings and constant-airspeed climbs and descents, make sure you also practice tuning in the radio navigation or GPS unit installed in your training airplane so you feel comfortable doing so. It's not just great practice for the check ride — it could save your life.

Know the Code

PA: The reference to the ACS for Private Pilot-Airplane

VI: The area of operation, "VI" for Navigation

B: The task, "B" for Navigation Systems and Radar Services

K2: Defines the specific task element, in this case, "Global Positioning System (GPS) or Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) (equipment, regulations, databases authorized use, RAIM)"

These codes will help you and your instructor track any areas you missed on the knowledge exam and ensure you’re prepared for them on the check ride — they will be the same for both. The ACS can be found on the FAA’s website.

Float Plane Kirby Ortega
Kirby OrtegaJeremy Schrag

Examiner Wisdom

We talked to longtime designated pilot examiner Kirby Ortega and asked him what thoughts he had overall for folks ready to take the check ride. Ortega, who retired from Cessna Aircraft Company after more than 30 years in its Flight Operations division, had general praise for pilot talent. “Not much on the flying,” he says,“but most [applicants] are poorly prepared for the oral because they have never verbally shared the information with others, and are intimidated by the DPE and the process of the flight check.” Take this advice: Practice answering sample questions with a friend or an instructor before your check ride so you know how to demonstrate all your hard-won knowledge.