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.

16 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. From the “old days” on check flights before the ACS came along attempting to dot every i and cross every T.
    Submitted simply for any value it might convey to the CFI community.

    How To Pass A Check ride 101 and giving check rides.
    Dudley Henriques CFI Retired

    (I get a fair amount of back-channel email on flight instruction
    issues and this issue has come up quite a lot lately. I’m reposting
    this in the hope some student might find it useful.)

    Let’s talk check rides for a moment, shall we? It’s an interesting and
    an important issue to all of us who fly, and I believe it deserves some
    special attention.

    I’ve noticed through the years that this issue comes up many times when pilots
    get together to talk shop. It’s an issue that all of us, from our pre-solo
    checks through our ATP route checks have to deal with sooner or later if we
    intend to remain pilots. We’ll have phase checks, flight tests, checkout
    flights,and continuing proficiency checks to deal with sooner or later in our
    careers. I’ve been both taking and giving check rides in airplanes for
    about fifty years now, and I believe I’ve learned a few things about both
    ends of the spectrum. With your indulgence, I’d like to pass some of what I’ve
    learned on to you, especially those of you just starting out on your
    long aviation journey,

    Let’s concentrate on the flight test check flight for a Private
    Certificate as an example. I choose this scenario because it’s really the first
    “serious” flight check you will receive as a pilot, and as such, many
    have a tendency to bring unneeded fear and apprehension into this equation.
    I’d like to address these possible fears and apprehensions, and perhaps
    steer you into a proper state of mind for taking on this all important
    check ride…..the one you have worked so long and hard to pass!

    Lets talk for a moment about attitude, then we’ll take a short look at
    the check ride itself, and how you should interface with the examiner
    during the test. You will notice immediately that I am shying completely away
    from maneuver technicalities and maneuver discussion. I think we can all
    assume that prior to taking a check flight for a certificate that you have
    been properly trained and recommended for the flight test. What I’m getting
    at here is above and beyond this. It concerns the attitude and mental
    preparation you take with you when you get into the airplane with the
    check pilot or examiner.

    First, and this is probably the most important single factor involved
    in a flight test; RELAX! Realize that the examiner doesn’t expect you to be
    perfect; the examiner expects you to be SAFE!!!!! Now, what does this
    mean to you? You should arrive for the test as prepared as possible. This
    doesn’t mean you have to know the answer to every question you will be asked.
    It means that if you don’t know the answer, you DO know exactly where to
    find it. It also means you should expect to make mistakes.This is extremely
    important so remember it; the examiner EXPECTS you to make mistakes.
    In fact, the examiner WANTS you to make mistakes so he/she can
    immediately see if you can both recognize that you have made that mistake, and as well
    CORRECT the mistake within safe parameters.

    Now this point deserves a bit more attention, so listen up a moment
    here. Why are mistakes important to an examiner? Here’s the answer. The
    examiner is constantly asking him/herself all through your flight, “How safe is
    this applicant” “How would this applicant react to this or that if I wasn’t
    here?” These are important and pertinent questions. How does the
    examiner deal with this? ERROR ANALYSIS!!! That’s how! There is absolutely no
    better way to evaluate a pilot in flight than allowing that pilot to fly into
    an error; then view EXACTLY how long it takes for the pilot to recognize
    that error, and EXACTLY how long it takes to initiate corrective action,
    and most importantly, EXACTLY what that corrective action is!!! What I have
    described here is not only what a good examiner is doing, but also the formula
    for teaching someone to fly an airplane properly. A good instructor NEVER
    rides the controls on a student. A good instructor knows EXACTLY how far to
    allow the student into an error and makes every effort to talk the student
    through a correction without grabbing control from the student. Doing this
    correctly is the mark of both a good CFI, and a good check pilot……so remember

    Back to the examiner; they want to observe your errors, so if you make
    them, and you most certainly will make them, face the error immediately;
    state the error; and begin correction immediately. Nothing impresses an examiner
    more than a pilot who faces a mistake immediately by recognition and
    correction. Remember this!

    You will probably discover somewhere in any check flight that the
    pilot giving you the check does things a bit differently than you do, or how
    you were taught to do it. In almost every instance, you will find that you
    can do it BOTH ways correctly, so demonstrate it as the examiner suggests.
    In closing, let me say that it really all boils down to keeping
    calm…..being relaxed……and giving the examiner a SAFE, HONEST,
    flight. Recognize those errors…..correct them immediately….and when in
    doubt….take the SAFE option.
    Best of luck to all of you on your future check flights!!! :-))))

    Now from the other side of the equation; GIVING a check flight !

    It’s interesting sometimes, to explore some differences between
    instructing as a CFI and giving check flights as a CFI as the
    technique does vary a bit if you analyze it from an objective
    viewpoint. In the Instruction mode, there are many in-flight situations
    (perfectly normal) where a good instructor will demonstrate something
    as a negative by allowing the student to progress into a specific
    situation that under normal circumstances should be avoided.
    This is a controlled situation by the CFI and done completely in a
    safe environment classified as a “teaching environment”.
    In these “situations” it is quite common for “mixups” to occur where
    the student is performing something with the aircraft contrary to the
    student’s preconceived understanding and expected outcome.
    The result of such situations should produce an outcome that changes
    or alters the student’s preconception of that expected outcome to
    produce a new and better understanding and a new expected outcome.

    On the check flight side of the equation, you are now in a totally
    different environment. The objective now is to ascertain a specific
    level of competence that will allow safe operation of the aircraft.
    In order to make this decision, the check pilot is now placed in the
    role of observer as opposed to a teacher. The reason for this is that
    if the check pilot departs from the observer role and enters a
    teaching role, the pilot being checked can and most certainly will
    alter whatever it was the pilot would normally do or have done with
    the airplane to meet what is being demonstrated or taught at that

    The result can easily become a teaching situation that is not
    optimized as a check flight.
    The pilot being checked performs as directed but less than what is
    needed to make a qualified judgment on the pilot’s knowledge and
    abilities can easily result.

    In the check pilot mode, it is imperative that a thorough
    understanding of EXACTLY what will be expected from the pilot being
    checked be completely understood before the flight takes place.
    This doesn’t mean the check pilot has to be rigid. In fact, most good
    check pilots are NOT rigid. In this environment you want a relaxed
    applicant with a thorough understanding of what will be expected and
    nothing else.

    During the flight, using any “technique” that attempts to trick the
    applicant into doing something that would fail the applicant is
    something I personally would discourage when advising check pilots.
    It’s important here to differentiate between a verbal instruction
    causing an act that fails the applicant and an instruction from the
    check pilot that offers the applicant a CHOICE of action!! There is
    nothing wrong with offering an applicant a choice of action and indeed
    in my opinion, is one of the most useful tools of any good check
    pilot. If check pilots brief thoroughly and perform correctly, all necessary
    information can be obtained without “tricking” the applicant into
    doing something that fails the flight check.

    Flight checks come in different packages of course and usually fall
    into two very distinct categories; the first being a structured check
    where governing authority has dictated a strict set of tasks that must
    be accomplished to pre-set standards.

    The second type of flight check involves a less standardized and
    structured format where the check pilot has some degree of latitude in
    determining what is covered and how it’s covered.

  3. 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!”

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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” 👍😊

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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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