By Jordan Bullock, Airbus A321 Pilot
Talk to almost any pilot, bring up stalls, bring up sketchy weather, bring up emergency situations, and ask, “What's the most stressful part of flying?” I'd be willing to bet that the most common answer wouldn’t be any of the previous mentioned situations. It would almost definitely be one thing: Checkrides.
A checkride is the test by which a license or rating is issued to airmen. Every pilot starts out working towards their Private Pilot checkride, then their Instrument checkride, then Commercial, then blah blah blah… There's always another one. I recently finished a type rating at the end of August, one for which I will go back to training at the end of the month for. Once you get to the airlines, you do a checkride essentially every 6 months. Its called practical training, or PT. Once a year you do what's called a practical check, or PC. Technically, the PC is the only one that is a pass/fail checkride, but the PT also includes an oral and a sim evaluation. All this means its basically a checkride.
I’ve taken, oh, I don't know… about 8 total checkrides in my short pilot career, if you’re including my licenses and type ratings. While I’m by no stretch of the imagination a seasoned aviation veteran, I do have plenty of experience both taking checkrides, and prepping others to take checkrides. So, as I study for my upcoming one, I figured it’d be a good idea to deliver some helpful pointers and mindsets to get into as you progress through your training. While this will be aimed mostly at private pilots through flight instructor level students, it will certainly be helpful for any other type of checkride you’re going through!
Okay, so first things first, let's discuss timing (This pertains mostly to PPL students and CFI’s, if you’re neither, feel free to skip ahead.) Before we can discuss the actual checkride, I’d like to talk about getting there. Way too often I’ve seen students sent to checkrides completely unprepared. Sure, a lot of times it's on the Instructor. But also, the student should take some responsibility. I’ve seen many students try to strong arm their instructors into signing them off instead of trusting the process. Likewise, I’ve seen instructors string students along because they’re either nervous to have someone fail, or they just aren’t confident in their teachings.
Either way, there's a pretty simple solution to this: Read the ACS. Seriously. Read it. The entire checkride is laid out in it. If the student can do all those maneuvers to standards and their knowledge is good enough to cover each topic multiple iterations deep, send them. I had my students talk to me as they were doing the maneuvers. If they can tell me ‘what’ they're doing and ‘why’ they're doing it, while they’re actually doing it, and they do it to standards, they’re ready.
Instructors: Please for the love of Chuck Yaegar, send your students to fly with another CFI before signing them off. Let another CFI do a full mock checkride, oral and flying. It will work wonders both for your peace of mind, and for them flying with a stranger. Preferably, send them with an old crusty CFI that maybe knows more than you. Trust me. Worst case scenario, you know what you need to work on during checkride prep.
Okay, now to some tips and mentality:
One of the earliest pieces of advice came from my first CFI, and friend of many years (shoutout Ryan Cheney). On our way to my private pilot checkride he could tell I was nervous. After all, I did delay my first scheduled date to get some extra flights in. Ryan took controls while we were flying and settled me down. Among other things, he gave this little golden nugget of advice, “This is the first time in an airplane that you get to show off. You know the maneuvers. You won’t be doing anything new. Show the FAA how well you can fly this thing!”. That really stuck with me, and in fact, it's kind of the cornerstone of how I develop my students’ mentality in the checkride prep phase once they know what they’re doing. ‘Show the FAA how much I’ve taught you’.
This simple mental ideology takes the stress off of the pilot by simply reaffirming that you know what you’re doing. If you get to the point where you’re going to take a checkride, whether it be PPL, IFR or Commercial, you should be extremely proficient in the checkride maneuvers. So, relax and show them what you got. This doesn't mean crank and bank your way to an unsatisfactory from the examiner, but go in with a little confidence!
Another method I use to calm my students down is simple reasoning. “I wouldn’t sign you off if I didn’t think you were ready.” That's a common sentence I say to my students, and it's 100% true. I understand they know I’m just buttering them up and it's a total cliché. But you know what? Funny thing about clichés is sometimes they’re just simple and true. Why would I sign my student off if he wasn’t ready? No sane instructor would. So odds are you’ve proven you’re more than capable to pass the checkride. Just go and do it already!
This will be simple, and for some it doesn’t need to be said, but for others you need to hear it: Study for your oral many moons before your actual oral. Simple. I try to do a mock checkride one week out. From that, you should know what you need to work on. If you’ve made it this far, a week should be plenty of time to brush up your knowledge. Do not wait till the last second and stress.
During my most recent airline training, my sim partner and I stuck to a pretty regimented schedule. After the oral portion of the checkride, back at the hotel, we both kind of laughed and discussed how we thought it was fairly… easy. But it wasn’t, we MADE it easy by being prepared way ahead of the time. Of course we were still slightly stressed going into it, but it was completely managed because we had ensured we were prepared for this test by studying way ahead of schedule. This is the mentality I instill into my students. Make it easy for yourself. Read the ACS before the week of your checkride. Know what's coming at you. Don’t wait for someone to tell you. While you’re here thinking about being prepared, save yourself some time and get the latest FAR AIM, pre tabbed of course.
Prepare Your Emotions
Okay, so you get to the day of the checkride. Any sane person would be stressing. If you aren’t stressing, you’re either completely unprepared or a psychopath. What can you do? Of course there's the typical breathing techniques and “Eat a healthy meal”, both of which I firmly agree with. For me, it's a scientific quote that I read years ago. “Fear and excitement share the exact same physiological reaction: so choose which one you want to be, scared or happy.” To this day I run this quote, or something along the same lines, in my head before every checkride. The result is two fold. First, I’m getting in the right headspace and I’m actually going to do my best to enjoy it. Maybe I’m a narcissist, but I like having my piloting techniques graded by an expert. Also, flying planes is awesome! Might as well enjoy it. Secondly, this mindset causes you to exert a much friendlier personality, someone who's excited about the checkride. For the DPE (designated pilot examiner), they’re dealing with nervous nellies every day. Having a student who's excited would surely be uplifting to them. And after all, would you rather have someone in a good mood or bad mood conduct your checkride?
Cooperate to Graduate
This is more for my fellow 121 pilots. Going through training is tough. It’s often death by powerpoint and hours upon hours in a Hilton (hopefully a Hilton) studying something you’re teaching yourself and wondering “is this important?” (Newsflash, if it seems pointless and is annoying, it's definitely important), and chair flying another V1 cut. Many people that I’ve seen fail in the 121 world often have come down to attitude. Usually it's an ego complex, or thinking they’re smarter than their instructor (sometimes, you are). But none of that helps you pass successfully. Cooperate to graduate. Do what they tell you, when they tell you. A lot of times, they tell you one thing just to negate it three days later. It sucks. I understand. But push through. I’ve seen many instances where I’m certain someone's positive attitude played a major role in their passing of their checkride. I’ve also seen the opposite. Treat your seat partner with respect, worry about yourself and keep a positive attitude. It’ll go farther than you think.
Finally, a favorite tip of mine is to create some sort of ritual. For me, I eat a sausage egg and cheese biscuit meal with a hashbrown and an orange juice from McDonalds the morning before every checkride. Yes, even before my 737 checkride which was at 4am. It sounds comical, but having something to get your mind in the checkride mode is helpful!
I hope pilots at any experience level are able to take something from this article. If you make a career out of aviation, checkrides will play a consistent role throughout your life. Learning how to prepare, both mentally and academically, will make your life much better. Good luck, and go get 'em!
By Jordan Bullock, Airbus A321 Pilot
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