Pathway to DPE!

If it is a great time to become a pilot, it’s an even better time to become an FAA Designated Pilot Examiner. The application process is easy and clear, if you have the required ratings and experience, please follow the procedures and apply. We need more good pilot examiners. The guidance is in the current standard; register and apply on the DMS website to get your name in the pool for selection.

But the local FSDO selection process is a great mystery and seems to be very different depending on your region. Many CFIs are frustrated getting designated. And many who get in also don’t stay; it is not the job most people imagine. If you are a regular SAFEblog reader, you have been warned here of the less obvious hazards  of this profession. What follows are just my personal observations on this job; definitely not FAA guidance. This is just a “peek behind the curtain;” only my personal opinion.

After 25 years serving as a DPE, I will let you know right up front, the DPE job is not what most applicants envision: “god of the aviation universe” dragging bags of money to the bank. If you are only motivated by money and glory, please do not apply. And this is also not a flying job either, you never handle the controls! DPEs spend a lot of time with clerical duties and watching pilots struggling to succeed; not exactly fun. DPEs are required to get 60 hours of PIC with each annual reapplication. Fortunately, I still teach and fly a jet for a living or I probably would go a bit crazy *not* flying. You are not logging dual or PIC when you are an examiner; you are just a passenger per  CFR 61.47.

There are obvious rewards to the job and it is an honor to serve the FAA as an examiner, no question. Flight testing will certainly utilize your discerning evaluative skills. Your extensive aviation experience will be also be required (a few of those war stories are actually true). But that is only part of the total picture. Being a DPE also requires a lot of patience, compassion, and tolerance for the “FAA legal machine” as well as the predictable nervousness of every aviation applicant. There is also a lot of “behind the scenes” studying and preparation required for every evaluation which is never obvious to eager CFIs seeking this job.

As a DPE you become a representative of the FAA, and right up front, you have to be comfortable with that role. You are “the FAA” in the eyes of your fellow pilots. Your every action, on or off the job, is viewed as an FAA representative. Real honesty and a strong moral compass are a serious requirement of thejob. The FAA puts a lot of trust in its designees. And for many people, delivering disappointment to unsuccessful applicants (as gently as you can) is one of the most difficult tasks. DPEs that enjoy spreading unhappiness are not on my personal holiday card list.

Check these links on the FAA ACS site for clarification…

Most pilots think DPEs specialize in asking the most difficult and tricky questions they can find, but that is totally wrong! It would be very easy to fail any applicant if trickery and obfuscation were the testing goal. DPEs have been flying for years and applicants are, by definition, only aviation beginners. The stated DPE mission is to carefully follow the FAA testing standards and get beyond the obvious nervousness to discern what an applicant actually knows. Good examiners apply the FAA standards,  it’s a known test, with carefully stated objectives. And spending time trying to relax every nervous applicant to determine their actual abilities is definitely a necessary part of the job.

A DPE’S personal “standard of aviation excellence” is totally irrelevant in the FAA testing process.  When wearing the DPE hat; this is the FAA’s test, not *your* test. And there is a very strict FAA emphasis on the DPE s*NOT* teaching (or handling the controls). For every evaluator, when you feel the need to step in and teach, this is one of the first signs the evaluation is not going well and the applicant is not performing to the standards. One of the fastest ways to lose your DPE designation currently is taking over the flight controls and saying “Watch this.” Those days are gone. Teaching is the CFI job, the DPE is only the scorekeeper. Study carefully the three (required) DPE briefings. These are good places to add “wisdom” and counsel. Leave the teaching and demos to the CFIs.

The FAA standard is pass/fail; the FAA constantly reminds every DPE: “Perfection is not the standard.” It is sometimes painful, but if an applicant’s performance is a clear D- they still meet the standard and earn a temporary airman certificate. Every DPE must diligently follow the FAA mandate to be fair. Personal opinions and viewpoints need to be carefully avoided (as do any personal prejudices). And be prepared to work; one examiner reportedly flew 56 evaluations last month (and that is up north – who knows what the “DPE record” might be?) Your life can get pretty busy.

Caution is advised, however, on putting all your eggs into the FAA basket since any pilot examiner can be terminated immediately, at any time, for “no cause:” (see ya!) Every DPE “reapplies” annually in DMS. We have recently seen many terminations, and the FAA standard is unforgiving. Read the newest 8000.95 carefully.  I would also review the DPE guidance on the FAA ACS page, it gives a good overview of the DPE mission, process, and perils.

Here are the current requirements for qualification on the general level:

When I was going to write this article last week, I initially did not see item #7 above (“door number 3”). Following that, just about any senior CFI technically qualifies. But bare minimum are unlikely to generate success.

The final FAA selection process at the FSDO level is “the great mystery” and often the biggest hurdle to DPE designation. Being selected as a DPE at the local level is a complex algorithm of need and “the ability to manage.” Right now, a severe lack of FAA inspectors seems to be holding up the designation process locally.

It helps to be a good “aviation citizen.” Being known by the FAA in your district is also important to your selection since trust is an important part of designating DPEs. Being active in the FAA Safety Program (helpful/trustworthy) is also going to help your visibility for designation. A CFI Gold Seal, GA awards, and a 141 evaluation history all are helpful to your application. In these roles, an applicant has already been executing the FAA standard, and usually have a leg up in the selection process.

The recent FAA ARAC on DPEs spent a lot of time debating the proper qualifications for an FAA DPE. This generated more smoke and heat than clarity. The best examiners are not only technically qualified, they actually care about an applicant’s nervousness and do not put on a pompous show. Since it is hard to calibrate ego, compassion, and true competence on an FAA form, there is a thorough interview process at the local level for all potential designees. Usually, a group of inspectors at the local FSDO meets and interacts with the candidates to determine their motivations and qualifications. This is a valid, but poorly defined HR mandate that attempts to sort out good personalities and positive motivations.

In my case, three FAA inspectors came unannounced to our flight school one day and told me I was going to be a DPE – I had not even applied but had all the minimums I also was a 141 Chief Instructor daily applying the FAA standards. There also was an extreme shortage of DPEs in our district and I was an FAA safety rep. and Master Instructor This definitely helped the process. Master Instructor is sure a way to raise your visibility with the FAA, defining you as a qualified professional. Best of luck; fly safely out there (and often)!

Join SAFE and get great benefits. You get 1/3 off ForeFlight and your membership supports our mission of increasing aviation safety by promoting excellence in education.  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.

7 thoughts on “Pathway to DPE!”

  1. Is there any information on becoming a light sport examiner as I have heard that the requirements for that are less than for a standard examiner?

    1. Sport is often part of the AFS-600 designation as DPE. I will have to do some digging to see if there are still dedicated SPEs under AFS-640 (I previously knew one person who only did weight shift). Since that is a whole different part of the regulations, FAA designation at this level is a bit simpler and largely based on need (like a gyro school that needs a person to issue initial Sport Certificates). But since the two areas are very separate parts of the FAA, I have not (personally) seen anyone transition from sport (640) to 640 DPE. A tactic I *have* seen for quicker/easier initial designation under AFS-640 is to have serious qualifications in a specialty that has an FAA need (like glider or seaplane). Initial designation is often the first step to leverage the other additional fixed wing designations. This makes sense since an examiner is qualified and performing all the functions and if they have a satisfactory track record, the additional designations make sense. The only obstacle there is the FSDO “need for services” again.

  2. Over 3000 dual given, 95% applicant first time pass rate. Been a regional captain, fractional captain and currently a major airline pilot….but don’t have 200 recent PIC so not even qualified to apply according local FSDO. Its a shame because I would love to do it and share so much of what I have learned.

    1. Yes, many retired airline and corporate people lack current PIC. My best advice is get your CFI current and teach a bit (get back in the game)…this will be important when you get back into a little plane with a (maybe not too talented) applicant?!😎

  3. I have been a DPE for almost 25 years. Excellent article. It is not an easy process. I feel honored to follow in the footsteps of examiners and instructors before me. There is a huge amount of trust between the DPE and the FAA to always. It is a worthy goal to pursue. It is truly an honorable position to be able to be the gatekeeper on who is operating in our system. My two cents worth!
    Dale A. Williamson

  4. Is that a purposeful difference between “Hours As PIC” v “Hours Acting As PIC” between the Private Pilot Examiner privileges and Commercial / ATP? I.e., any hours as ‘sole manipulator’ logged as PIC would count in the first instance, but would not be eligible toward the minimum requirements for a DPE in the second instance … ?

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