Overcoming Flight Test Anxiety!

Everyone facing a flight evaluation has some nervousness and anxiety; no one likes to be “under the microscope. But for some people, this experience rises to the level of disabling panic. As a DPE, I have seen people who literally could not breathe and were having a full-on panic attack when walking in for a test. This is unnecessary and avoidable with knowledge and preparation. As your panic level rises, your chances of success definitely diminish. Here are some comforting facts that should help reduce the panic.

First, remember you start with 100% on every FAA flight test. Once your CFI approves, signs and submits your application into IACRA, you are essentially a fully qualified PIC; you just need to prove that to your DPE. You actually fly your flight test as a PIC. Your certificate is already prepared in the IACRA system (and viewable) *before* you fly your flight test (just go earn it!) All you have to do is fly all the maneuvers that you already practiced and prove to the examiner you meet the minimum FAA standards (more on this in a moment). So you do not have to “climb the ladder” in a flight test situation, you start at the top. All errors (and there will be things that don’t go as you wanted or imagined) are just a markdown.

This flight is called a “check ride” because the Designated Pilot Examiner is checking the training and approval conducted by your flight instructor. DPEs are selected because they have many more years and hours than the ordinary CFI. But instructors are the people that create the pilot. Your instructor probably spent 40-50 hours educating and preparing you to be a pilot. A flight test will probably take less than two hours in the plane. DPEs are the “gatekeepers,” they just check and approve the “final product.” Instructing by a DPE is strictly prohibited on a flight test by the FAA. Your DPE should never be taking the controls and saying “watch this.”

The second important fact about flight tests is that you only need to achieve a 70% on every maneuver to pass. All FAA evaluations are pass/fail! A 70% is an undesirable and unlikely outcome. But this fact may provide comfort to an unnecessarily nervous applicant; you do not have to be perfect! The FAA repeatedly states “perfection is not the standard” on flight tests. Regard 70% like other FAA minimums – “one mile clear of clouds in Class Golf airspace,” – legal but not where you want to be. Perfectionism and the associated hypervigilance (and choking) is a common applicant obstacle. Be thorough and confident with your preparation, then just do the best you can (and little errors are just going to happen).

Unfortunately, there is nothing that restores or improves the missing 30% that went badly (there is no “corrected to 100%” for the flight portion of the evaluation). Every successful pilot should become part of the FAA WINGS program so they continuously improve and learn. If you pass you earned your first phase of WINGS!

Hopefully, no one is training with a 70% achievement as the goal in mind. The real problem is usually the opposite; perfectionism. Most pilots walking into a test want 100% and are expecting perfection in their performance. This is a great goal but it essential to overcome this idea to have a productive experience. Errors can and will happen. It is important to make peace with this fact or every slip-up will ruin your confidence and erode your performance. Pilots as a group tend toward perfectionism and every error can appear fatal in their imagination; don’t go there! Pilot applicants are usually their own worst enemies on a flight evaluation. Just remember, if something did not go as you would have liked and the examiner says nothing, you are still in the game; put it behind you and “throttle on.”

Think of the test and the standards like driving down a highway you know well with the white lines on either side – comfortably wider than your vehicle. It is OK to occasionally hit a white line (a limitation in the standards) or even cross over a line briefly. Just “promptly correct” back to the center (smoothly). Steady and smooth is the best performance, and that is what nervousness and perfectionism ruin. If you exceed a standard get back on speed or altitude so your evaluator knows you are aware of a slip-up and capable of fixing the excursion. Every flight, every time, is a series of small corrections back to a desired (or required) standard. The better pilots just correct more frequently and more smoothly; no one is perfect! And remember, every good DPE really wants you to pass also.

Lastly, take comfort in the fact that with proper preparation, you have already consistently accomplished all the maneuvers required in the test many times with your instructor.  And your DPE is required to adhere to these FAA testing standards. There are no “personal tests!” If you hear a DPE talk about “their test” avoid this person. There is only the “FAA test” that every DPE is empowered to administer. They are required, however, to cleverly disguise some requirements in scenarios that you should have experienced in training with your CFI.

Scenarios are a requirement in flight training (and testing) because your experience as a student pilot is necessarily limited to a small quadrangle of geography under very carefully controlled conditions. Your certificate, however, is valid for the whole USA (and more) for the rest of your life, day and night (with appropriate review). A DPE is required to assure your ability to handle all of these future challenges and apply good judgment; we take you there with scenarios (FAA scenario guide for examiners). Every DPE is required to formulate situations that require you to apply your skills at a correlation level. A good CFI will have prepared you for this during training by using scenarios in the same manner. So instead of just saying “go-around,” they hopefully are saying, “a truck just pulled onto the runway ahead, what are you going to do?”  Best of luck – fly SAFE (and often)!

  Join SAFE to support our safety mission of generating aviation excellence in teaching and flying. Our amazing member benefits pay back your contribution (1/3 off your ForeFlight subscription)! Our FREE SAFE Toolkit App puts required pilot endorsements and experience requirements right on your smartphone and facilitates CFI+DPE teamwork. Our CFI insurance was developed by SAFE specifically for CFIs (and is the best value in the business).

Author: David St. George

SAFE Director, Master CFI (12X), FAA DPE, ATP (ME/SE) Currently jet charter captain.

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