Once a flight instructor is confident that a student pilot is ready to take flight entirely on his or her own, he or she will endorse the student for their private pilot checkride.
Your CAU instructor will have completely prepared you for this moment, but a pilot’s private certificate checkride is usually one of the most exciting and stressful moments in his or her aviation life. It is the event in which hours of preparation and study are hanging in the balance.
Passing the checkride means that the pilot is finally able to take advantages of all the privileges of a pilot in command (PIC.) This opportunity to drop the word “student” from the “student pilot” designation can mark the start of a lifelong career in the cockpit or many happy hours pursuing a hobbyist’s dream.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), through a check pilot, administers this “final exam” of student pilots. It is formally described as a “practical test” which will cover most major items of study during the private certificate journey. Keeping in mind that rehearsal and study are the best ways to prepare for the big day, here is a preview of what you can expect during your private pilot checkride:
Your Designated Pilot Examiner: Who Is This Person?
Many student pilots are dismayed to discover that their certified flight instructor (CFI), the person who has been guiding them through each step of learning to fly for weeks or months, is not the person who will ultimately determine the status of a fully fledged private pilot. That power rests in the hands of an FAA Designated Pilot Examiner (DPE.)
Of course, the student pilot does 99% of the determining through study and practice. But still, this person will either officially grant or deny the certificate. Why is this so, when the flight instructor is the one who knows the student pilot’s weakness and strengths the best?
The FAA wants to ensure that a neutral third party has determined that the student pilot thoroughly understands the rules, regulations, and limitations which surround the private certificate. DPE’s must meet certain qualifications in order to fulfill their role; they are regularly tested themselves and join a waiting list of ten years or more to become an FAA examiner. The presence of the DPE verifies the professional opinion of the CFI and ensures that no favoritism or “extra helping” is taking place as the student pilot makes his or her way through a flight. This requirement is for the safety of the student pilot as well as other aviators.
DPEs are not randomly assigned. Each one charges a fee, and the student pilot may choose the DPE who administers his or her checkride. Sometimes flight schools have a working relationship with a local DPE and turn to him or her for most checkrides. You can ask trusted pilot mentors—easy to find at CAU—for recommendations, or find a DPE through the FAA. Some student pilots choose to hire a DPE for a rehearsal checkride to prepare themselves for even the emotional and mental experience of flight evaluation.
The Oral Exam
Throughout the private pilot checkride process, the student is required to take an oral exam. The DPE will ask the student pilot questions which cover the “rote” material he or she is expected to know, such as what should be present in a logbook, how to handle various weather conditions, and the limits of the aircraft the student is flying. This sounds daunting, but the oral exam is “open book,” and, if the examiner is fair, will not involve “gotcha” questions which are tricks or focus on minutiae which do not affect safety. Your CAU flight instructor will have readied you for what the DPE might ask.
The questions usually involve applied knowledge, asking the student pilot to work out a flight-related calculation or work with weather information. Some questions which could pop up include:
- What would you do if your GPS suddenly quit?
- Are you allowed to accept hockey tickets in exchange for flying a passenger?
- How much fuel should the aircraft carry today?
- What is the Flight Service frequency for this airport? How would you find it if we were flying into an airport which is unfamiliar to you?
- Are you permitted to fly into Class Bravo airspace?
- If I removed the pilot’s operating handbook from the aircraft, is it still airworthy?
- If the cloud ceiling were 1100 feet, are you allowed to fly?
As you can see, most of these specific questions cannot be memorized, but they do require complete knowledge of what the FAA considers important for a student pilot to know. Even though the prospective private pilot is permitted to look up the answers, it is important to have the information carefully organized and tabbed. At CAU, you will receive helpful suggestions about this.
The Private Pilot Checkride Flight
The “practical exam” is what’s generally considered the actual “private pilot checkride.” In it, the DPE rides along with the student pilot from safety walk-around to wheels stop. The DPE will ask the student pilot to demonstrate a series of maneuvers and safety checks. Sometimes the DPE might ask the student pilot to turn off or consider dead a certain form of instrumentation or major aircraft component.
Most DPEs will ensure that the pilot knows how to prepare weight and balance for the flight, as well as understand how to source and make judgements based on current weather information. The flight must be cross country, not just a simple turn around the pattern, and the DPE will likely ask questions about your preparations.
During the private pilot checkride, the DPE will likely ask the student to demonstrate the following:
- Slow flight
- Steep turns
- Short field landings and/or soft field landings
- Perform a ground reference maneuver
CAU will have performed these many times with the student pilot, not only to prepare for the exam, but because these are basic maneuvers, necessary in many flights and essential in emergencies. Staying calm and thinking carefully are key.
California Aeronautical University will prepare each student for their private pilot checkride to the fullest of their ability. Are you interested in flying? Contact us today!
Mr. Matthew A. Johnston has over 23 years of experience serving various roles in education and is currently serving as the President of California Aeronautical University. He maintains memberships and is a supporting participant with several aviation promoting and advocacy associations including University Aviation Association (UAA), Regional Airline Association (RAA), AOPA, NBAA, and EAA with the Young Eagles program. He is proud of his collaboration with airlines, aviation businesses and individual aviation professionals who are working with him to develop California Aeronautical University as a leader in educating aviation professionals.