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What To Expect On Your Private Pilot Checkride: The Oral Exam

Nicolas Shelton

Your private pilot checkride is undoubtedly a nerve-racking experience. For most pilots, it's your first time interacting with a DPE (Designated Pilot Examiner), and you never know quite what to expect.

So what's the experience really like? We sat down with Nicolas Shelton, our newest Boldmethod team member, right after he passed his oral exam.

Here's what he had to say...

Q: Going into the oral, what did you feel most comfortable with?

A: As I was getting ready for the oral exam, I was scared that I wouldn't be able to answer a question--not for a lack of knowledge, but rather from my inability to articulate the information to my examiner. I focused a lot of my preparation on effective ways to answer common checkride questions. Things like "what does pro-rata share mean?" "What are airspace limitations in Class D airspace?". By rehearsing these questions ahead of time, I was a lot more comfortable on my checkride day.

Q: What did you feel the least comfortable with?

A: My biggest concern was Aeronautical Decision Making. I wanted to make good decisions in my checkride, and being a new pilot, I wanted to make sure I was making conservative decisions.

My instructor taught me how to make a safe and practical decision, by using all the information available to me. Yet, I was concerned that my examiner might think that I would make the wrong decision.

I relaxed a bit when a dispatcher told me that they had taken a checkride with the same examiner, and that their number-one goal was safety. As it turned out, many of his questions were designed to test your safety margins.

During the checkride I was relieved when he asked, "so are we flying today?" We both laughed, because the clouds were 600 AGL overcast and it was downpouring.

Q: How did the checkride start? Take us through the first 5 minutes.

A: After meeting up with my examiner, and after a bit of small talk, he posed a scenario to me; "you have just been approached by an inspector from the FAA, you are being ramp checked, what do you need to show me?"

At that point, we began walking through the documentation I needed. As we progressed, he continued to ask expanding questions that were related to the scenario.

Q: What kind of certs/docs questions did your examiner ask?

A: First, my examiner verified I was eligible to take the test. This usually includes them reviewing your logbook, medical certificate, government-issued identification, and then your IACRA.

Make sure you have a backup print out of your IACRA forms in the case your primary device (laptop, iPad, etc.) fails or you can't connect to the internet. I put all of my documentation, planning, and charts into a binder for quick and easy access (this also helps communicate to the examiner that you are organized). Also, I had an envelope with the exam fee ready at the beginning of the exam (don't make them ask for it).

After we reviewed the documentation for the exam, my examiner asked me to "prove that the flight you are conducting is legal." A detailed list of expectations for this section can be found in the Private Pilot ACS, Preflight Preparation, Task B: Airworthiness requirements.

Before my exam, I practiced a routine to go through this common question. I asked the examiner if they wanted me to present the scenario as a private pilot or a student pilot. 9 times out of 10 the examiner wants to hear from you as if you are a private pilot. After that, I talked about my medical, and if I was legal to fly passengers.

Finally, I noted down the current tachometer indication so I could compare it to the maintenance logs. Before your exam, make sure you feel comfortable going through your school's maintenance logs, and that you're able to identify and discuss inspections such as annuals, 100-hour inspections, and airworthiness directives relevant to your aircraft.

Q: How much focus did your examiner place on aircraft systems?

A: My examiner was focused on scenario-based lines of questioning, so the majority of systems questions were in relation to an inflight emergency. I found it helpful to draw out the diagram of the system I was discussing and approached it as if I was teaching it to him.

Q: Tell us about your cross-country planning, and what kinds of airspace questions your examiner asked?

A: For the oral exam I was asked to plan a flight from my home airport McClellan Palomar (KCRQ) to Henderson Executive in Las Vegas (KHND). When my examiner asked me to tell him about the trip, I explained our routing for the day, and why I chose it. I informed him that considerations need to be made when planning a flight such as obstacles and airspace. I then briefed him on the airspace we would depart, transition through, and arrive in.

Henderson is a great airport to select as a DPE because it forced me to address the Las Vegas Class B airspace, even though my routing kept me outside of it. We went through the communications, weather, and equipment requirements for each type of airspace we would fly through.

With this flight crossing the desert, my examiner asked about how the hot temperatures could affect the performance of my aircraft, and that rolled into our performance calculations and ADM discussions.

Live from the Flight Deck

Q: How about FARs? What kind of FARs questions did your examiner ask?

A: Since my DPE was focused on safety and scenarios, he seemed less focused on if I could cite an exact regulation. He wanted me to apply the regulation to the scenario provided. The majority of FAR questions were based on equipment, fuel planning, and splitting the bill for costs related to the flight.

Q: What was the least expected thing that happened during your checkride?

A: My examiner asked me a question about scuba diving. I distinctly remember thinking, "this is it, I have failed my exam because of some obscure scuba diving regulation" but it wasn't. Even though I had never even heard about a rule for diving in aviation, I knew where to find it. I offered to look it up for my DPE in my FAR/AIM but he said it was alright and that he is sure that I could find the answer if I had been in that situation.

It's important to remember that you can't know everything, and a pilot who thinks they do is more dangerous than a pilot who is willing to admit they don't.

At this point, the checkride seemed less like an exam, and more like a discussion with someone who was just as interested in aviation as I was.

Q: How long did the oral exam take?

A: My oral exam took about 1.6 hours. It was thorough, but I never felt like my examiner was prying for more information. I tried to answer everything concisely, and not expand my answers beyond what he asked.

His decision-making questions typically had the longest answers. After explaining, I would stop and ask, "is there more you would like to know?"

Q: How did your examiner tell you that you passed the oral exam?

A: My examiner was very transparent throughout exam. He informed me that I passed my oral exam as we completed the paperwork for a weather discontinuance.

Q: Any words of advice for other pilots going into their checkride?

A: It may be difficult to hear, but the calmer you are going into it the better. If you rush through an answer, a DPE is more likely to think you don't understand a topic and ask more questions.

If you don't understand a question, or even if you think you don't, make sure to tell your examiner. They will be more than happy to reword the scenario.

Remember that DPE's were once in the hot seat like you. They know what it's like to feel the pressure of a checkride, and they want you to pass.

Nicolas passed his oral exam with flying colors, but that's only half of the checkride. Check back tomorrow as we talk to Nicolas about how his flight went. He's going to explain the entire experience, from startup to shutdown.

Nicolas Shelton
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