The secret to passing

Understand why you are learning each concept

During checkrides, I sometimes feel like I’m sitting across the table from a malfunctioning robot. I’ll ask a question, and the applicant will start saying every acronym he knows, not really seeming to understand the question or even their own answer.

Two things become apparent at this point. First, the applicant has obviously studied. Second, he focused his study on rote memorization and never made it to the level of correlation necessary to pass a checkride or keep himself safe. This is not a fill-in-the-blank or multiple-choice test. Checkrides are a scenario-based practical exercise.

So, how in the world are you supposed to prepare for this thing? It’s not as hard as it seems. You just have to ask questions as you go, and make sure you understand why you are learning each thing and how it will apply to real life flying. For example, on a checkride, I never start out by saying, “And now, please demonstrate your emergency descent.” Instead, I say something like, “I see flames coming out the right side of our engine cowling.” (Yes, I say this calmly so the person next to me understands this is only a simulation and doesn’t start to panic. If there were actual flames, I’m pretty sure my words wouldn’t be acceptable for print here. Sorry, Mom.)

For the ground portion, most checkrides are going to start out with a cross-country scenario. So, plan your checkride cross-country as if you were going to take the trip. Remember that common acronym NWKRAFT from FAR 91.103, which includes the required preflight knowledge items? (Notams, Weather, Known ATC delays, Runway lengths, Alternates, Fuel requirements, and Takeoff and landing distances.) If you really took the time to work through all of those for the specific checkride cross-country, you would be well-prepared for that part of the oral exam. Especially for the instrument checkride, most applicants simply pick an alternate airport without doing their research. They never look to see if it’s even approved to use an alternate or if it has nonstandard alternate minimums.

Another checkride scenario that is often memorized at the rote level is the inoperative equipment question. If you have only memorized TOMATO FLAMES or GRAB CARD without also understanding those systems or the regulatory process, you’re going to be in trouble here. I commonly ask applicants what they would do if they had an undervoltage light illuminated during the runup. In order to answer, you have to understand what the light means. You have an electrical issue, most likely an alternator failure. So, for day VFR, you should be good to go, right? Not necessarily. Just because an alternator isn’t listed in 91.205 doesn’t mean the manufacturer of your aircraft doesn’t require a functioning alternator. Make sure you understand how to find your aircraft’s equipment list as well as the other items that may be required by 91.213. If you haven’t played the inoperative equipment game with your instructor, make sure you do so before your checkride.

Or how about this question: Can you show me how to verify that we have all the required maintenance inspections for our cross-country today? Again, memorizing the AVIATES acronym is only half the battle. You also need to be able to go through the maintenance logs and point out the current inspections and their expiration dates. Please, please, don’t do this for the very first time when you are sitting across the table from the examiner. It will not go well. Those logs are confusing if you’ve never seen them before.

Here’s a practical question that always gives applicants fits: What’s the longest amount of time you would fly your aircraft before stopping to get more fuel? Call me crazy, but this seems like an important topic. To answer, you need to know a couple of things. 1. How much usable fuel does your aircraft hold? 2. How much fuel do you burn in an hour considering extra for the taxi/climbout and also rounding up for safety? 3. How much reserve do you need? I personally like to land with an hour in the tanks no matter what.

Remember, when preparing for your practical exam, don’t just memorize acronyms from a study guide. Instead, imagine how you would apply that knowledge to real-life scenarios so that both you and the examiner will feel confident in your ability to safely pilot an aircraft.

Natalie Bingham Hoover is a designated pilot examiner in Mississippi and Tennessee. See for checkride resources.

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