So you’re approaching checkride time! Here are some tips to help you succeed. The focus of these tips is on the oral exam, but many of them apply just as well to the flight portion of the checkride. I have tried to order the items from most important to least important.
Relax! A confident, relaxed test taker is going to more easily recall information and leave a positive impression on the examiner. Why should you be relaxed, might you ask
- You’ve practiced and prepared for this. If you’ve done well in your practice sessions, and have worked on your areas of weakness, there should be few surprises during the actual checkride. To prepare, you’ve hopefully done:
- a practice oral exam with your CFI
- a practice oral exam with ZeroSideslip, a second CFI, or an examiner
- reading and following the advice in this article!
- Historical pass rate. Here’s a table showing the pass rate for the private pilot checkride with designated examiners and FAA inspectors from the FAA. In 2003, it was 78.8% for examiners, and there’s no great reason to believe that the rate is much different today. So, do you think you’re at least as good as 4 out of 5 of your fellow students? And since you’re reading these tips, going above and beyond in your preparation, that puts you in a really good spot to be a first-time pass. 🙂
- Your CFI. Your CFI is not likely to sign you off for the checkride unless he/she thinks that you’re really ready to take the exam. Trust your CFI’s judgement – if they’re experienced, they’ll have a good sense for what it takes to pass the checkride with your local examiner. Making sure that you’re more than prepared for the test is more than just good customer service. The CFI has some self interest here! The easiest way for the CFI to renew their instructor certificate is to go to the FAA and say that they’ve signed off a handful of students for pilot checkrides, and that enough of those students have passed. So it’s in both your interest and the CFI’s to ensure that you’re thoroughly ready for the checkride.
Examiners don’t like to fail applicants. The vast majority of examiners are really nice people who love flying, and just want to make sure you’re going to be a safe pilot. They don’t want to disappoint you on your big day! Most will try to do whatever they can to facilitate your passing the exam, within their rules, so don’t give them reasons to question that they should be on your side!
Read the ACS (Airman Certification Standards). This is exactly how you will be tested. There should be no surprises about the general topics included on the checkride, because it’s all right here! As you go through and think about the material that corresponds to each item in the ACS, …
Categorize the material. As you’re studying, consider the content to fall into one of three categories:
- Things that need to be memorized and recalled effortlessly, without hesitation. While the oral exam is open book, there are things you may need to know while operating the airplane that under some circumstances you would not have time to safely look up. This is particularly true in a single-pilot operation, versus in a flight crew environment, where it may be possible to have the other crew member refer to a reference book or checklist.For example, if the examiner asks you the best glide speed of the aircraft you’re flying, if you hesitate or forget, this is going to look extremely bad. After all, if you can’t recall something as important (in a single engine airplane) as best glide speed from the comfort of your desk chair, how are you going to remember it when the adrenaline is pumping during a real, unexpected emergency? Other similar examples include:
- VX, VY, VA (there are circumstances where you may need to suddenly generate maximum climb or turning performance)
- Regulations that you wouldn’t always have time to look up while flying, such as:
- cloud clearance requirements
- airspace rules
- speed limits
- Emergency procedures (At a minimum, make sure you’ve memorized all “memory items” as indicated by the manufacturer. These often are indicated as bolded items in the POH. A good “flow pattern” can help you memorize and practice these items. It’s also important to be very familiar with what checklists exist in the POH, so you can quickly find the information you need when you’re given an unfamiliar emergency/failure scenario on the flight.).
- Fundamental aerodynamic principles (e.g., what causes a stall [or spin] and how do you recover from a stall [or spin]?)Flashcards are a good technique for studying information in this category.
- Things which, if you had to look them up, wouldn’t look as bad as it would for those in Category (1), but you still should be able to answer on your own, and understand well. These are the things that are so fundamental/basic, even though they might not pose an immediate safety or regulatory issue if you didn’t have them memorized, that you really should know by the time you get to a checkride. For example:
- How to do a weight and balance
- IAS vs. CAS vs. TAS for flight planning
- Basics of the aircraft’s electrical system
- How to deal with inoperative equipment
- Things which would be unreasonable for you to have memorized or deeply understand of, that you should look up! These are the types of things you’re unlikely to need to know in the air. The important thing here is to know how to find the information in your reference materials. Be aware, though, that most examiners will want to see your pull the information directly from an FAA/government source (FAR/AIM, PHAK [Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge], etc.). Here are some examples of this kind of information:
- Reading unusual codes on the NOTAMs or METARs
- Uncommon sectional chart symbols
- Airport frequencies
- Regulations for things you would never need to know in the air (e.g., what is the duration of a 2nd class medical?)
Learn from others’ mistakes, but don’t obsess over the horror stories. There are lots of places online to hear about people’s checkride experiences, such as:
- Web forums such as Jetcareers’ “Checkride Central” and
- PilotsOfAmericaVarious blog posts such as the ones I found at TakeoffJunkie.com, SwayneMartin.com, and JulianSiminoi.com
However, if you read these long enough, you’ll come across some horror stories that will only make you more nervous. Remember that in a set of 100 examiners/check rides, just like in a set of everything else, maybe 1-2 are bad apples. The other 99% of examiners are just going to give you a fair, standard, and non-blog-worthy checkride. So probability-wise, it’s not worth worrying about the slim chance that you get the bad apple. It’s almost certainly not going to happen, especaily if your CFI has used the examiner before.
Follow basic test taking recommendations:
- Relax. While we all want to pass, things happen, just like they will on every flight that you make. It’s not the end of the world if you do not pass! Yes, the extra cost and time will be a bummer, but whatever mistake you made, you’re going to receive one of the strongest lessons possible, failure. Retake it again, be thankful for the lessons you’ve learned (which might save your life someday), and move on. If you’re worried about future airline interview prospects, as long as you can tell the interviewer why you failed and what you learned from it, and you don’t have a consistent record of failures, you should be fine.
- Get sleep. No cramming! Assuming that you’ve prepared well prior to the night before the exam, the extra benefit from staying up late cramming, versus getting a good night’s sleep, is minimal. Choose the sleep instead of reviewing random, unlikely-to-be-asked facts! The time to prepare is weeks before the checkride, not the night before.
- Answer only the question being asked. Perhaps in a normal instructional situation, you might answer a question above and beyond what was asked, since it gives you an opportunity to get feedback on your broader understanding. But during an exam, don’t give the examiner more things to possibly mark as “incorrect” or dig into. Example to avoid: Examiner: “What’s the best angle of climb speed in our plane” , You: “VX is 62 knots, VY is 80 knots”, when VY is actually 74 knots…
Review logbooks before checkride.
- Pilot logbooks: Double and triple check that you meet all requirements to take the test (in terms of flight experience, signoffs, etc.). Your CFI should be doing this as well, but if questions arise and your CFI is not there, you should ensure that you can point to where in your logbook you meet a particular requirement. To help with this, consider putting “tabs” in your logbook, allowing the examiner to quickly jump to the important milestones and endorsements, including: Instructor signoffs, Long cross country, Night cross country, etc.
- Aircraft logbooks: Go through with your CFI. Until you’ve done it yourself, it can be It can can be confusing to know where to find stuff. As with your pilot logbooks, consider putting tabs in the aircraft logbooks, to make it easy to jump to the logbook entries that prove the aircraft is airworthy (e.g., the annual inspection; ELT battery replacement; AD compliance, which is one of the trickier things to check, etc.)
Expect mistakes, and bounce back from them. Pilots of all skill levels make mistakes. Pilots who are nervous on a checkride especially are prone to mistakes, and examiners know this and account for it when they are evaluating you. In my experience flying for an airline, mistakes happen even at this level all the time. In that environment, luckily there is another pilot to catch the mistake. But in the single pilot world, this is on you. The important thing is to recognize and actively correct for the mistake. Also, do not dwell on a mistake that you may have made. Because the examiner is required to tell you as soon as you are disqualified on the test, “no news is good news.” Keep pressing on and doing your best.
Be willing to learn. Put aside your ego. You’re going to be conversing and flying with a very experience pilot, who has probably given many thousands of hours of flight instruction, many hundreds of check rides, etc. While it’s not supposed to happen, many examiners find it difficult to avoid doing some teaching and imparting their experiences during the course of the checkride. Put your ego aside and just be appreciate when the examiner says something, even if you disagree with it (assuming that it’s not safety of flight related, of course!), or even if your instructor told you differently. Avoid the “but my instructor said so!” line. You can debrief that kind of thing with your instructor after the test is over…ideally with a temporary certificate in hand.
Get organized. Have a professional approach and demeanor.
ACS checklist. The ACS has a checklist which will help ensure you have all the critical items needed for the checkride.
Dress for success. Yeah, in theory examiners have no right to be affected by what you wear to the checkride. A pilot in shorts and T shirt may be a way better pilot than the guy trying too hard in a suit. But examiners are human, and are affected by appearances just as much as any other person. Do your best to look presentable (I’d suggest something business casual) to help convey your professional demeanor.
Bone up on the knowledge areas corresponding to incorrect questions on the written exam. Each question you answered incorrectly on the written exam should have an associated code, indicated on your knowledge test report. The examiner may try to hone in on these areas, so make sure you’re confident that you’ve addressed any issues that you had during the written.
Some questions might be to test your knowledge, not your skill. For example, if you’re flying with the examiner and perhaps the ceiling is low, and the examiner asks “how far are we below these clouds,” the “correct” answer is “at least 500 feet,” and perhaps add “reported ceilings were 3000 ft, and we are at 2300 ft.” None of us can with only pure eyeball determine how far we actually are from the cloud. But you certainly wouldn’t want to say “I don’t know, maybe 300 feet?” and in a sense admit that you may be breaking a regulation.
Don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know.” Nothing looks worse than someone who can’t admit they don’t know something. Pilots get killed due to ego and lack of humility. It’s impossible to know everything, and it’s way better to know the limits of your knowledge than to make up BS. Always offer to look up the information, or indicate that you know who you would ask to find it. For example, if a regulation appears to have a gray area, you could consult the FAA’s Letters of Interpretation, or call the FAA to get pointed in the right direction.
Be able to use your resources. Do you have an iPad with Foreflight? You should have mastered this by now. Make sure you’re practicing for your checkride using the same resources you’ll use during the exam.
Think about your personal minimums ahead of time. As you hopefully realize, safe and legal are not always the same. The examiner needs to make sure you know the difference. If they ask you the weather minimums are for class G airspace at night, you answer with the regulation, then asks “so, what are your minimums in that situation?,” hopefully you’re not responding with “3 miles of visibility”. You’re a brand new private pilot with almost no experience. Your “envelope” of what you’re able to safely handle will expand with time, but not just because you get your pilot certificate. Consider that some examiners will ask themselves, “would I let my wife or kids fly with this person?”. Try to have thought about these personal minimums ahead of time (things like clouds, wind, night flight, mountains, etc.).
Talk to students who recently took checkride with your particular examiner. See what things they felt that they weren’t prepared for, and specifically target those areas. Your CFI should be able to give you the names of students they have previously signed off.
If possible, try to meet the examiner ahead of time. Your flight instructor might have another student taking a checkride when you’ll be at the airport. It would be easy for your CFI to ask the examiner to chat with you for a few minutes to get introduced and put you at ease.
Consider a flight or mock exam with the examiner. A lot of people probably don’t even know that this is possible. But I’ve seen examiners who are completely willing to do this. Examiners’ schedules may be quite busy and charge very high fees, however, so this may not always work. But if you can, what better person is there to practice with for the checkride?