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Realistic Distractions: Staying On Task During Your Checkride


Al Palmer is a Designated Pilot Examiner at the University of North Dakota. He is qualified to give private, instrument, commercial, and Airline Transport Pilot check rides, and has given nearly 1,000 check rides throughout his career.

Famous football coach Vince Lombardi once said "The best defense is a good offense." While the statement is true in the NFL, the same goes for managing distractions on your check ride. Staying on task and maintaining full control of the situation around you can be the difference between passing and failing.

Al Palmer, a Designated Pilot Examiner (DPE), has been giving check rides since 1987. His comments on realistic distractions show how focusing on the task at hand can make the difference on your check ride.

Background - Realistic Distractions

According to the FAA, studies indicate that many aviation accidents occur when the pilot becomes distracted during critical phases of flight. To combat this problem, examiners emphasize and evaluate realistic distractions on check rides. These distractions may come during any phase of the check ride and simulate real-world hazards.

Introducing Distractions on a Flight

Palmer explains that while distractions can be evaluated during any phase of flight, it's important for DPEs to choose the appropriate time and place for them to occur. "You want to be careful about distracting the pilot at the wrong time. If they're at the end of the runway and getting ready for departure, that's not a good time to distract." His goal isn't to increase the chance of a runway incursion, but instead to introduce distractions where they will most likely occur in real life.

Pilots can often become distracted while flying in the traffic pattern. "You're distracted in the traffic pattern by other traffic and radio calls." Palmer finds that ground reference maneuvers are an excellent opportunity to simulate traffic pattern distractions.

Ground reference maneuvers simulate many elements of a pattern. While flying a maneuver, Palmer asks the pilot to tune into ATIS, listen to it, and repeat it back to him. "This takes their mind off flying the ground reference maneuver. It forces them to listen to the radio and interpret what's on the radio," he explains. "You can say 'What are the winds at Grand Forks International?'," says Palmer, allowing him to quickly evaluate the pilot's ability to fly the airplane while managing the radio.

Ground reference maneuvers aren't the only place Palmer introduces distractions. He also uses distractions when pilots are performing maneuvers at altitude. "During clearing turns you can ask, 'What's that town over there?'," allowing him to get the pilot's attention outside the cockpit and away from the task at hand.

I ask how often he distracts a pilot. "You don't spend all your time distracting the student." His goal isn't to constantly distract, but instead to determine if the pilot is capable of maintaining situational awareness throughout the flight.

What DPEs Want to See

What do DPEs want to see from a pilot when they introduce distractions? "Can they multitask?" says Palmer. "It's not a test that you're going to get 100% right. You assume that the student is going to make some errors, but you try to use your best judgement to make sure they're not making errors that are going to cause themselves harm or somebody else harm."

I ask Palmer where distractions often cause a pilot to fail. He quickly identifies check rides in retractable-gear aircraft. "Landing with the gear up is something you don't want to happen."

Palmer fails the landing gear by pulling the circuit breaker in the traffic pattern. Then, he introduces the distraction. "You try to distract them with communication," says Palmer. By asking questions and focusing the pilot outside the cockpit, they may forget to verify the landing gear is down. "They get overwhelmed."

Advice For Applicants

I ask Palmer what advise he would give to pilots preparing for their check ride. "Stay on task, and understand that you're going to have distractions." He says that pilots who are able to manage in-flight distractions and continue to perform the task at hand rarely run into problems.

He adds how important it is for pilots to use their distraction management skills beyond the check ride, as well. "You're going to have a passenger that's distracting." By dividing your attention, you'll be able to manage even the most rowdy of friends in the cockpit. That, as a pilot, is advice to live by.

Al Palmer

Colin Cutler

Colin is a Boldmethod co-founder, pilot and graphic artist. He's been a flight instructor at the University of North Dakota, an airline pilot on the CRJ-200, and has directed development of numerous commercial and military training systems. You can reach him at

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