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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 an evaluation. 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.

1) You start with 100%!

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 at the level of your application; 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.

2) You already did all this (many times)!

You already successfully performed all the maneuvers to the FAA standards, there are no surprises! This flight is called a “check ride” because the Designated Pilot Examiner is checking the training and approval already 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; DPEs just “check.” 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 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.” And they cannot legally add personal items or apply a personal standard to the testing requirements.

3) 70% is a passing grade (not perfection)!

You only need to achieve a 70% on any maneuver to pass. All FAA evaluations are pass/fail! And though 70% is undesirable, this fact may provide comfort to an unnecessarily nervous applicant; you do not have to be perfect!  Perfectionism and the associated hypervigilance (and choking) are common applicant obstacles- most applicants are their own worst critics. Be thorough and confident with your preparation, then just do the best you can (and accept that little errors are just going to happen).

Many pilots walking into a test want 100% and are expecting perfection in their performance. This is a great goal but it is essential to overcome this idea to have a productive experience. Otherwise, every slip-up will destroy confidence and erode performance. Pilots as a group tend toward perfectionism and every error can appear fatal in their imagination; don’t go there! An examiner is required to inform you immediately if a maneuver does not meet the FAA standards. If something did not go as you would have liked but the examiner says nothing, you are still in the game. Put mistakes behind you and “throttle on.”

4) Use your checklist, take your time, and breathe!

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 can quickly ruin.Consistent checklist usage is required on all evaluations and will curb a tendency to rush; Stay calm and organized.

If you exceed a standard get back on heading, speed or altitude promptly so your evaluator knows you are aware of a slip-up and also capable of fixing that excursion. Remember, every flight is a series of small corrections back to a desired (or required) standard. Better pilots are just correcting more frequently and more smoothly; no one is perfect! And remember, every good DPE really wants you to pass also.

5) You got this, (dig deep with your preparation)!

Take comfort in the fact that you have already consistently accomplished all the maneuvers required in the test many times with your instructor or you would not be recommended.  And your DPE is required to adhere to these FAA testing standards there should be no “personal tests!” If you hear a DPE talk about “their test” avoid this person (or discontinue the test). There is only the “FAA test” that every DPE is empowered to administer. DPEs are required, however, to cleverly disguise some requirements in scenarios that you should have experienced in training with your CFI. See “Checkride Ready!™” You are dependent upon your CFI to supply you with creative challenges (you can’t always “surprise” yourself). This is necessary to prepare you for the scenario format of testing specified in the ACS.

6) Practice scenarios; the “what if?” habit!

Scenarios are a requirement in flight training 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). Every DPE is required to assure your ability to handle all of these future challenges with the application of good judgment.

Every applicant can see hypothetical scenarios on the FAA test site:  FAA scenario guide for examiners.  DPEs (and your CFI) are required to formulate situations like these that require a pilot to apply their skill and judgment at the correlation level. So instead of just saying “go-around,” your CFI is hopefully are saying, “a truck just pulled onto the runway ahead, what are you going to do?” This develops the pilot habit of continuously “testing themselves” with the “what if” technique. Every safe pilot is maintaining vigilance and “expecting” surprises (like a good stoic).  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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