SEARCH What's New

Student Pilots: Assessing Check Ride Readiness

Donald Anders Talleur


I suppose it goes without saying that a check ride for a pilot’s license can be a traumatic event, especially if the proper preparation is lacking and the flight is failed.

Too often pilot applicants are sent on check rides just short of being ready to pass it on the first try. But figuring out why a check ride failure occurs is not always a cut-and-dried process.

Sometimes the instructor is to blame, sometimes the applicant is to blame, and sometimes the examiner is to blame; or a combination of these three. Since we can do little about the examiner, let’s look at how the pilot applicant should be assessed for check ride readiness.

As I approach my 1,000th check ride given, I find (afterthe- fact) a frequent theme regarding the applicant’s readiness for the check ride is a lack of instructor confidence in the applicant’s ability. Sometimes I’m aware of this prior to the check ride, but I still have an obligation to give the applicant the benefit of the doubt and assess their performance in the most objective manner possible.

However, I can easily count The number of times I’ve come back from a ride and told the instructor, “Yep! You were right about their weak areas!” begging the question as to why the applicant was endorsed for the ride in the first place.

Sometimes the instructor is giving the student a chance to prove themselves, sometimes the student is out of money and the instructor feels some misplaced obligation to let them try the check ride, on the off chance that they might just pass!

While I don’t really want to address the ethics of this type of behavior, let’s just say it’s generally wrong for several reasons and leave it at that.

So what is the instructor’s part when assessing their student’s readiness? In my opinion, this is a three part assessment: 1) does he or she meet the license test standards for the manoeuvres to be performed, 2) does he or she meet the requisite level of safety, which may actually require a level of performance above the minimum testing standard, and 3) does he or she have the appropriate decision making skills for the license sought?

Meeting the test standards for manoeuvres is a somewhat objective ass essment. The applicant either flies a manoeuvre within the standards, or not. However, there is some room for errors to be made during the flight, but prompt and correct action to return to within standards is generally required.

The instructor is generally aware of this allowance, but performance within standards needs to be consistent enough or else too many excursions outside standards are a real possibility during the check ride; hence a failure is a real possibility.

Meeting the requisite level of safety is, to some extent, a subjective judgment made by the instructor. An experienced instructor is more likely to make A better assessment of what level of performance constitutes safe performance than his less experienced counterpart. But I’ve seen the reverse as well.

Newer instructors are sometimes more conservative in their judgments because they are not entirely aware of what the minimum level of safety should be. In this case, they may train to a higher than necessary level of safety (not that there is anything wrong with that!). Bottom line here is that the applicant should not do anything to scare the instructor, or himself.

Decision making skills are closely tied to safety in that poor decisions during flight may lead to unsafe actions or behaviors. To that end, the instructor looks at the decisions their student makes, not just the outcome.

For example, saying a landing was smooth does not imply that anything leading up to it was safe! If it wasn’t, then there was some poor decision making going on.

I’ve failed many an applicant for their poor judgment in attempting to salvage a manoeuvre that should have been discontinued. Successful manoeuvres Are not just about outcomes, but also about the process leading to that outcome.

Sometimes (and I personally believe most times), an independent assessment of an applicant’s skills are in order. In the flight instruction industry these are called practice check rides, and a great deal can be learned about an applicant’s readiness from one of these flights.

First, the main goal of the practice ride, at least from the instructor’s perspective, is to see if the student is capable of satisfactory performance with someone new sitting in the right seat. After a while, instructor and student grow accustomed to each other and it’s good to try to reduce some of the anxiety that occurs when flying with someone new.

Second, it’s always a good idea to let the applicant get another opinion of their flight skills; especially if they are resistant to their own instructor’s opinion about their check ride readiness.Also, this gives the instructor feedback about potential problems that he or she might have missed.

I’ve seen this process work to the applicants benefit many times, but I’ve also seen it be a waste of time.The independent assessment needs to be performed by someone who has experience with the types of flight manoeuvres being performed, or else their assessment may be relatively worthless.

Before selecting another instructor for the practice check ride, inquire about their experience and the types of students they successfully trained.

Self evaluation is a critical component to success for any level of licensing. Inability to correctly evaluate one’s own performance is a sign of lack of knowledge and/or understanding of that knowledge.

I have found that a student who can assess their own performance more quickly takes ownership of that performance and responsibility for correcting it.That might sound a little funny, but students will frequently blame their poor performance on the instruction they received, regardless of whether the instruction is really to blame!

Taking ownership of ones own performance is important in that we are more likely to work hard to correct errors since failure to do so means we must blame ourselves; and no one likes to blame his or herself for failure!

An additional benefit of effective self evaluation is the self confidence that it builds. Students who are not sure about what they know are often late to act, or fail to act at the appropriate time. They usually realize that a problem exists, but lacking the confidence in their own skills, they may be reluctant to act. The process of self evaluation forces these weaknesses to be seen in the light of day, and identification of those weaknesses is the first step to addressing them.

Finally, the check ride! Does A check ride really assess an applicant’s readiness to go out and do what he or she is being licensed to do? That’s the idea, but in reality the check ride is really just a snapshot of performance. Assuming the pilot continues to perform the way they did on the day of the check ride, then we can say something about what to expect in the future. But such a prediction is not easy, as pilots are free to do all sorts of things after they get that license.

In any event, the check ride is the independent assessment of the applicant’s knowledge and piloting skills that counts. If performance does not meet the testing standards, then the applicant is sent back to his or her instructor for remedial training. Sometimes these failures are due to a “brain fart,” but sometimes there are systemic problems that need to be addressed.

Either way, the examiner needs to be sure that the problem is fixed prior to licensing.However, a successful check ride does not always equate a safe pilot.

The applicant’s own assessment based on the outcome of the check ride is also quite important. When a check ride is passed, an applicant who does not assess their own performance relative to the standards can easily set the bar too low; that is, he might assume that his level of performance must be adequate since the check ride was passed. Contrary to popular belief, an applicant can pass check ride and still be unsafe. Remember that The check ride is a snapshot and that simply having a lucky day might just be enough to pass.

But if regular performance is not as good as on check ride day, then passing was probably just a fluke. The applicant needs to assess their performance so they realize that they still need work, even after a successful check ride. That goes back to the ability to self evaluate!

A lot goes into assessing an applicant’s readiness for a check ride. Although none of the steps above are difficult, they are all necessary in my opinion. It’s a complete package. We want to produce pilots that succeed in their career goals and are safe in the process of doing so. Leaving out any of the steps discussed above figuratively shoots a hole in our ability to be sure about an applicant’s readiness.

The instructor’s assessment alone is not sufficient. The applicant’s assessment alone won’t lead to an instructor endorsement to take the check ride.The examiner’s assessment alone does not necessarily say anything about the student’s usual level of performance (e.g. we all have lucky days!).However, together, these three levels of assessment, done correctly, lead to success.

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 200 aviation related papers and articles and has an M.S. degree in Engineering Psychology, specializing in Aviation Human Factors.