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How to fail a check ride


After giving well over 600 check rides as a pilot examiner within my flight school, I’ve had the opportunity to observe a decent cross section of pilot applicants from private through multi-engine instructor.

While I go into a check ride examination with the intent to pass an applicant, sometimes problems crop up and a failure is warranted.

When I started giving check rides I’m sure that the driving force behind failing an applicant was 95% testing standards and 5% subjective judgment. Now, several years later, the decision is probably closer to 80% testing standards and 20% subjective judgment.

Why the shift, you might ask? Well, I suspect that I’m better calibrated to what exactly average performance should look like. In addition, I have a better idea of what bad judgment looks like.

Average performance is pretty much what the testing standards dictate for a successful check ride. Less than average probably means the applicant deviated from a standard too much or too many times, or their procedure or technique was unsafe.

A few applicants perform well above the testing standards; sometimes worrying me slightly less than an applicant who clearly does not meet the testing standard (I’ll explain that concern later!).

No matter what the intent of the pilot applicant or the examiner, failures do happen, and many are not a reflection of the pilot’s true skill, their instructor’s teaching, nor the examiner’s need to meet a failure quota for the month.

Rather, applicants frequently and perhaps inadvertently violate the sacred rules for taking a check ride: 1) Never scare the check pilot, 2) Don’t invent a new way to do a maneuver and try it for the first time on the check ride, and 3) Never scare the check pilot.

Can you guess which of the three is the quickest way to fail a check ride?

“Never scare the check pilot” is a simple concept and I am thoroughly convinced that all pilots understand that, in the context of flying, scary stuff is usually unsafe stuff!

So how do you keep from scaring yourself, and subsequently not scaring the check pilot? See rule number 2 for starters! There is no better way to get the check pilot on the edge of their seat than an applicant inventing new methods to perform maneuvers that have high chances of getting them into the statistical records for small aircraft accidents.

Still not clear? Here’s some examples to avoid: 1) Skidding during steep turns, 2) Immediately pushing forward on the control column after touchdown, 3) Touching down so hard that the airport manager asks you to replace the divot at the end of the runway, 4) Pitching the nose up during turn from base leg to final.

Of course these examples are mainly mistakes that applicants make while attempting to do things right. Then there are those that invoke the phrase “what was that?”

If you are a student of human behavior, you can usually tell when someone is confused. You should never observe that expression on your check pilot. If you do, reassess what you’re doing quickly!

I have a personal policy of asking to see a maneuver a second time if I cannot deduce what maneuver was just performed. I think this is fair because the applicant might have misunderstood my request.

Nerves do that to people and I like to be sure that the applicant really did understand what I asked him/her to do. If I still don’t know what I’m seeing the second time around, well, its time to head back to the drawing board.

One distinct problem on check rides is the creative applicant who decides that their instructor’s method of doing a maneuver isn’t as good as their own and they try their own method out on the check pilot (Instructor’s are generally heard saying “I never taught him that” during the check ride debrief). Trust me, there is rarely a case where creativity on a check ride will lead to a “pass.”

One possible exception is during an actual emergency, like if a wing falls off. You have my permission to be creative is that particular case!

Creativity is more common during visual maneuvers, since instrument flight is pretty cut and dried as technique goes. For example, during the commercial check ride we are required to observe two of four “commercial” maneuvers (chandelles, lazy eights, steep turns, and steep spirals).

Once, I observed an applicant perform a lazy eight that, although very impressive, did not resemble the maneuver as it is supposed to be performed. In a nutshell, his maneuver was closer to a wing-over with twice the maximum angle of bank of a normal lazy-eight.

He repeated this through four course reversals so I was sure that it wasn’t a fluke. When interrogated after the ride was over, the applicant revealed that he was moving on to flight school at the U.S. Air Force Academy and that this was how they do it there.

I informed the applicant, “that’s nice, you fail.”

I had to hold his instructor back from going medieval on this poor student! My response to the applicant was “You’re not at the Air Force Academy yet, and we don’t do it that way here.”

The bottom line: if you think you know better than your instructor, get a second opinion and make sure it’s not given by the check pilot.

One other common way of failing a check ride is to consistently experiment at the outer edge of the test standards for altitude, airspeed, and heading deviations. Just because a testing standard says +/- 100 feet doesn’t mean that it’s ok to sit at +100 or –100 feet throughout the maneuver.

An effort to get back to more exacting standards is important. If the applicant clearly makes no effort to correct faulty performance, their judgment is then in question and this could be grounds for a failure. Anyway, if a pilot can hold –100 feet all day long, then they ought to be able to hold the assigned altitude just as well, right?

Exceeding testing standards is of course the usual way that pilots use to fail a check ride, but simply exceeding standards is not always enough. The nature of the exceedance is important.

Examiners will look at the amount of exceedance, and the number of times a particular standard was exceeded. The context of the exceedance is also critical. An altitude deviation might be more tolerable during cruise flight, than during a ground reference maneuver or when holding a minimum descent altitude during an instrument approach. The exact combination of context, exceedance amount, and exceedance duration that leads to a failure is a subjective matter and each examiner will differ slightly. So it’s best to stay within testing standard tolerances so the issue will be moot.

I promised I say something about applicants who perform well above standards consistently and what about this worries me. It’s not that perfect performance worries me per se, but the lack of mistakes does not give me an opportunity to observe the applicant’s skills at problem solving.

After all, a perfect flight rarely leads to an accident. Something is usually amiss, and I like to see how the applicant handles those difficult situations. If they can handle the difficult stuff, they ought to be fine the rest of the time. With the obvious exception of emergencies that the applicant may have to pretend to resolve during flight, the only remaining way to observe their ability to correct problems is to watch them correct their own.

I like to use a private pilot example I had some years ago to illustrate the point. He was asked to make a short-field approach to landing and was way too high coming across the threshold to make his landing spot. Instead of going around, which was the safe thing to do, he pushed the nose over, gained way too much airspeed, and tried to force the plane onto the ground at the desired spot.

Of course I failed him for this fine display of poor airmanship. But after the check ride, I asked him why he didn’t execute a go-around. He replied that it was his impression that he would fail if he didn’t land on the first attempt!

I said, “No, but you would have failed on a botched second attempt; a go-around is simply exercising good judgment.”

Note that this doesn’t mean you can do 13 go-a-rounds in an attempt to get it right and still expect to pass!

This whole discussion can be wrapped up by this phrase: If you don’t make any mistakes, I have no idea what you are capable of correcting. You’ll still pass if you perform perfectly, but I personally am less comfortable with this than with an applicant who makes a few minor mistakes and shows me that they know how to correct them.

Failing a check ride is not so much an art as it is a science. There are more objective points to consider in determining pass or fail than subjective ones; at least in my opinion. Applicants should be aware of the testing standards, but be trained to fly accurately and safely so that the standards are a non –issue.

An applicant that can just meet the minimum standards will rarely meet them during the check ride, so during training, it is important to shoot for the center of the basket, not the rim!

Remember that the majority of pilot examiners are far happier to pass an applicant than to have to break the bad news of a failure to them. However, rest assured, if you scare me, or invent a new way to do a maneuver, chances are you’ll be coming back for a second helping of check ride.

This month’s Pilot Primer is written by Donald Anders Talleur, an Assistant Chief Flight Instructor at the University of Illinois, Institute of Aviation. He holds a joint appointment with the Professional Pilot Division and Human Factors Division. He has been flying since 1984 and in addition to flight instructing since 1990, has worked on numerous research contracts for the FAA, Air Force, Navy, NASA, and Army. He has authored or co-authored over 160 aviation related papers and articles and has an M.S. degree in Engineering Psychology, specializing in Aviation Human Factors.

Pull quote: 

“Never scare the check pilot”