Test Failures and “Shopping for a Santa Claus!”

The private pilot failure rate is approaching 50% and many important people in the aviation industry are confused and alarmed about why this is happening. But there can only be one reason since it is the same FAA test and the same FAA evaluators: applicants who fail are not adequately prepared! And that outcome means one of two things; either the CFI recommending the applicant is not aware of their applicant’s actual level of proficiency, or they simply don’t care. Either way, it is a failure of the CFI to adquately prepare the applicant and a result of our “hour-building” pilot system. It’s a tragedy in our industry leading to many unhappy applicants, and a shortage of DPE opportunities (testing everyone twice).

Every honest DPE hates to issue a disapproval notice for an applicant at any level. But this “tough love” is the necessary “safety correction” for unqualified learners. When the 8710 is submitted to the FAA in IACRA, the understanding (and briefing) is; “you are now a private pilot, unless you prove otherwise. You start with 100% on every FAA evaluation!” If the system works correctly, with the CFI and DPE working to the same standard, an unsatisfactory outcome should be rare. An “unsat.” crushes the applicant’s dreams and it’s very hard to put a positive spin on this otherwise negative experience. But try this one; “we saved you from dying from a serious deficiency of skill in a certain area.” Of course, these exact words are not appropriate in a postflight briefing, but that is the harsh reality. Aviation is very unforgiving of errors or deficiencies. My mentor DPE, still testing with 44 years in the business, offered this advice to me when I started 25 years ago; “You never fail anyone, they fail themselves!”

A successful flight test requires every CFI to discover  – and improve – the applicant’s knowledge and skill level above ACS standards before recommending an applicant for a practical test. This greater care would also help relieve the current shortage of DPE testing slots. Watch endorsements and experience too –1/5th never qualify to even test.

The idea that a CFI or applicant would go “shopping for a Santa Claus” DPE – who is cutting corners and “issuing paper” – is totally contrary to aviation safety (and your personal well-being). By seeking out a notoriously “easy examiner” you are ultimately jeopardizing your own safety. Every honest pilot should want to discover their weak areas (thank you!) and fix them before something bad happens. This honesty should also be at the heart of every CFI’s flight review. We need to discover and improve weak knowledge and skills before they hurt us.  And the pilot looking for an “easy flight review” is as guilty as the applicant “shopping for a Santa Claus.”

Fortunately, these notices are rare and seem to be issued about once a year all around the country. But their effect on the training industry is very damaging and can last for years. Cinncinati FSDO is still experiencing a “DPE deficit” and re-flying check rides from  Michael A. Puehler. Unfortunately, many pilots in the area already know this dishonest testing is occurring. No one should be surprised (or mad) when this sketchy activity is shut down by the FAA:

I know someone that did their CFI with him. They passed and he asked if they wanted to do their CFII with him THAT DAY… the applicant hadn’t done any CFII training, wasn’t IFR current, the plane they were flying didn’t have a GPS and wasn’t IFR certified yet XXXX passed them and gave them their CFII. I thought it was sus and the owner of the flight school was pretty pissed about it since he knew the applicant wasn’t ready and the plane wasn’t even legal to do it. Reddit Thread

The Problem of New, Inexperienced CFIs

As regards pilot failures on flight tests, the finger is clearly pointing to the recommending CFIs. Our crazy “hour-building culture” of the FAA system is certainly a large part of the problem. Only in the USA do new aviation educators, just approved and with no real experience, enter the workforce to start teaching immediately. In Canada, a new CFI cannot legally teach one-on-one. They are required to be supervised by an experienced CFI (Class one or two). But in the USA, 2/3rds of “active CFIs” (the 8-10K doing the majority of the teaching) are on the job for less than one year before they move to more lucrative piloting jobs. Most new CFIs do not have adequate mentorship and they seldom have enough time on the job to get good at teaching. But these beginners are educating most of our new pilot applicants. We should not be surprised by a 50% failure rate.

SAFE CFI-PRO™ and SAFE Mentoring Program

The target audience for this program is newly minted CFIs. SAFE has experienced CFIs and DPEs traveling to flight schools (and teaching online) to bring up the professionalism of these new educators. And fortunately, most of these new CFIs are eager for more information and want to improve their skills. But the flight schools and academies also need to buy in to promote this initiative more widely. Please get in touch if you want to access these services. Individuals can join and sign up for mentoring . This effort pays you back with improved test results and safer pilots – everyone is happier. Fly safely out there (and often); have a great holiday!

If you buy your holiday gifts from Amazon, please login to Amazon Smile. Jeff Bezos will contribute 0.5% to SAFE if you set it up and this donation costs you nothing!

Join SAFE and enjoy great benefits. You get 1/3 off ForeFlight and CloudAhoy! Your membership also supports our mission of increasing aviation safety by promoting excellence in education (we are an educational not-for-profit).

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 protection in the business).

Author: David St. George

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

15 thoughts on “Test Failures and “Shopping for a Santa Claus!””

  1. I agree. We need real CFI schools, staffed with educators who know how to deconstruct and reconstruct the skills and information for the CFI candidates.

    I am one of the few CFIs in my area who give a comprehensive spin endorsement that covers ground school on upsets, the aerodynamics of spins, and then flies both. I use the opportunity to try to open the candidates eyes to the fact that, for the most part, they don’t really have the necessary background to be able to effectively teach. The problem is, while we can lead the horse to water, we can’t make it think. Getting them to come back to fill in the gaps in their education is almost impossible because there is no reinforcement for that. I wheedle, cajole, offer special deals, etc., and still the returns for extra training are almost zero. What I get is what I can do while doing the spin endorsement.

    1. There was a YouTube that came up on the web of a very perfunctory CFI spin training/endorsement from a well-known CFI (published regularly in AOPA). I spread it to a few MCFIs with a wink and a nod – “this is how safety is compromised!” That video disappeared faster than the morning dew in summer, but represents the minimal level of training everyone seems to get away with. I can’t figure out why pilots don’t realize that if you want to be safe (and fly professionally) you are eventually going to really have to acquire and demonstrate real flying skills at a professional level. Why not get this skill and knowledge at the correct time and pursue excellence? Arghh…😡

  2. The reasons laid out here attempting to give some color into this disturbing trend all hold some validity. However, I cannot help to think that there are some deeper societal, or maybe even some generational factors at work here? As a GenXer, I am not trying to come across as some curmudgeon, but I hear from a number of folks in the flight instructor community, along with airline hiring, that say there is a segment of the younger population that are so used to instant gratification and it sometimes manifests itself in a lack of work ethic. In the digital and social media world this seems more apparent, just as the one video pointed out, someone wants to learn about P-Factor, watch a YouTube video. Be damned if it is correct or not. Also, the fact some younger instructors lack the attention to detail, such as just making sure the applicant’s sign offs are in order, is part of the problem. The fast pace of hour building and then off to a regional airline is exasperated the problem, but it not necessarily the root of it.

    1. Thanks for commenting, definitely a complex (long-term) problem! I try not to attribute the current failures to generational issues since it has been part of aviation for 40 years or more (at least since the regional system and deregulation). One of the most basic problems is the airlines’ failure to recognize and value flight instructor hours. Airlines tend to disparage these hours – and some wish they did not count these hours at all since they are not “commander time” (handling the controls as PIC flying).

      I would love to see an airline-supported bridge program for CFIs (like Tradewinds and others have with Jet Blue) that gives true recognition and value to the CFI hours. This would encourage new CFIs to also value and improve as CFIs instead of just “building hours” and getting past this “phase!”

  3. As long as you have a high demand for pilots at the top levels, with the eye-popping salary incentives, this is probably going to continue. The CFI’s are in a hurry and the applicant’s are too. Many of the checkrides have now basically turned into a part-141 Progress Check.

  4. A few years ago I knew a private pilot student pilot whose a very rxperienced CFI refused to endorse him for a check ride. The student pilot flew at least weekly and often twice or more a week for most of the summer and into the fall. He passed the PP written test. After accumulating a gob of dual and solo flight he became frustrated and flew with another high time CFI. The new-to-him CFI soon after recommended him and the DPE awarded his certificate. My take is that yes – some CFI’s don’t adequately prep a student for their date with a DPE. But, the flip side is equally problematic. CFI’s have multiple incentives to drag out the primary instruction so THEIR students are super prepared. Of course time building is one. And income is another. But, minimizing any possible risk of a checkride failure must also be acknowedged. Like it or not, ‘naughty or nice’ scores are part of a CFI’s record.

  5. I will be the voice of dissent. The current system of new cfis teaching has been working for decades. It serves the CFI (I learned more in my first 100 hours of instructing than all my hours before), and students getting instruction form somebody that just completed the process.

    It is the DPE system that is broken. The barrier to entry is ridiculous resulting a self-serving shortage. $1000 for a ppl? and a backlog of months? That is not an effective system.

    There is a reason for DPE shopping. Any DPE could bust any applicant on any flight. That subjectivity makes people look for DPEs that know when an applicant is unsafe and should bust, versus a safe pilot that may make a stupid error.

    1. Dissent is always welcome, but I disagree “our flight training system has been working for decades.” Maybe we have normalized “the way we have always done it?” A verified 80% student pilot drop-out rate and the lack of women and minorities in aviation clearly demonstrate some serious failures. And the fact that a commercial pilot can go through a 10-day course and graduate with a CFI, CFII and MEI (and be ready to teach your children) is a clear indictment of our broken system! Just my opinion…

      Re: DPEs, I can’t disagree. Some “shopping” is necessary to avoid bad actors out there; just please do not seek out a “Santa Claus” 👍😊

  6. I am with voice of dissent. While I agree that certificates must be earned and never given away, I have also seen DPEs that believe they must bust a certain percentage lest the FAA revoke their DPE credentials. Look at the financial incentive also. At 800 or more dollars per check ride, it’s a moneymaking proposition to fail an applicant. Put it together in large metro areas where there are high volume flight schools, who put economic pressure on DPEs to pass their applicants. Those DPEs might bend a little there but then fail a lot of applicants at smaller flight schools in order to keep the appearance of holding the line. In my view, we need to take the financial incentive away by either having the FAA do check rides at the local FSDO level (I know this would require hiring more inspectors), or at least cap examiner fees for retests to a very nominal level.
    As for the CFI training and experience, sadly there are too many simply time building with little interest in their students actually getting a quality education. Some of these people are well qualified pilots but if their hearts aren’t in teaching, there needs to be another way for them to build their time. Sure, there are a few other paths like flying skydivers or pipeline patrol but those opportunities are few. I’d recommend we reevaluate the 1500 hour rule for the airlines. Other nations have lower time pilots in the right seat and the military has 400 hour pilots flying jets. Surely a way forward can be found.
    To sum up, we have a multifaceted problem here. It needs to be addressed from more than one direction.

    1. It’s unfortunate that a lot of people seem to think that DPEs are trying to fail applicants so they can get more tests ($$) or maintain some mythical “failure percentage.”

      FIrst, there are enough applicants seeking tests right now that every DPE could potentially fly three tests a day to the end of time…there is absolutely no incentive to fail any DPE to seek more tests. DPEs make more $$ on initial checkrides than rechecks; rechecks are usually almost a donation. Secondarily, the failure rate is actually the problem right now; the FAA is very concerned and looking at causes and hoping for *fewer* failures!

      For most DPEs, flight test failures are undesirable for both reasons above, this “tough love” is the necessary “safety correction” for unqualified applicants. There are, of course, always a few “bad apples” in any industry that have their own weird motivations and methods. Consequently, we see many DPE terminations (both justified and not) as the FAA tries to sort out and regulate what make an effective, honest DPE.

  7. David,

    Is there a way to identify those who are outperforming the norm and find out what they are doing? Try to establish a catalog of Best Practices among those high performers? I’m not aware of a method of sorting that out.

    1. The “best practices” for creating successful, safe pilots that meet the standard is more professional CFIs who persist in the field for more than a year and grow their educational abilities. (But this requires a whole different perception of value and correct pay scale for these professionals) Additionally, an honest sharing between DPEs and CFIs about required skills and what is not working is very important; every flight test should have a full, honest debrief to the CFI. Unfortunately, there seems to be an increasing alienation between CFIs and DPEs instead of collaboration. We all should share the same goal of creating safer pilots and improved aviation systems. Try to create better CFI/DPE meetings in your area.

  8. Hi David,
    Here is some perspective. I have not been a DPE for eight years. For the last several years of my service as an examiner, my first time pass rate for private pilot had declined to almost 50%. It was shocking. My philosophy as a DPE was to give the applicant every opportunity to succeed. I would never dig a hole for him/her to fall into. But if they dug their own hole, I was not about to help them out of it. I felt like a doormat – I was as lenient as possible without jeopardizing safety or disregarding my commitment to test in accordance with the PTS. In contrast to my incredibly low pass rate, earning me the unwanted nickname of “two-ride Charlie”, my fellow examiners all managed 80-90% pass rates in the same market. The FAA would harass instructors who had too many failures; these CFI’s would then take their students out of district or send them to a DPE with that magical 80-90% pass rate. Among the personal and institutional incompetence shown by the FAA, there was also corruption, which I documented and reported. For this, my designation was withdrawn “not for cause” so that no appeal was possible. Occam’s razor suggests the most obvious cause for the current situation is the primary one; the FAA has been whittling away at the standards, the experience requirements, and support of the DPE system for decades. The FAA is the primary contributor to this issue. I do not now regret the loss of my designation. I have a job with better pay, less stress, and more satisfaction. But it remains that I was indeed an excellent evaluator, a mentor to many pilots and instructors, and an honest designee. We all know other examples of excellent examiners who have been eliminated for spurious FAA logic. The FAA owns this problem. When the administrator supports a lower standard, the quality of the product degrades over time. And we end up where we are now.

    That being said – I learned in the late 90’s when express jet was hiring my instructors with 600TT and 25 multi, that nobody was going to apply themselves sufficiently to become a good CFI, when they were going to be in that job for perhaps six months.
    So the FAA is not the only culprit.
    Thanks for your dedication to quality in aviation education, David!
    Best regards and wishes for a great 2023
    Charles McDougal

    1. Thanks Charlie, you were one of the good ones. As stated, the system has many known problems; whether they are “fixable” is the question. Those DPEs that are honest and care about both the applicant but also the standard (and safety), hold a huge burden. As I pass 25 years doing this, there are still many fine people who, like you, work hard to both maintain the standard and promote excellence; the pass rate is what it is – an honest result. Our SAFE CFI-PRO™ is aimed at the new CFIs and hopefully that can help move the needle.

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