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(Some practical tips on passing the flight test with a CAA examiner.) By Walter Waldeck

Flight tests are stressful events for candidates, no matter what their level of experience. Even now, thirty odd years after my initial ATP test I still get a little surge of adrenalin every time I know my performance is about to be scrutinized in the A340 simulator. And likewise I know my peers will experience the same surge when I’m in the clever seat. It’s called performance anxiety and examiners are mindful of this condition and its effects. No matter how good you are, you’re always going to feel a few butterflies before a performance. After all, you’re going on stage!

Whether as a ballet dancer in front of thousands of people in a theatre like my wife used to, or as a solitary pilot in front of your examiner on a flight deck. In both cases the preparation and practice is finally over. Now you’ve got to come up with the goods! Prove your metal. Prove that you deserve to be there – or in the case of a renewal, that you still deserve to be there. And if you don’t feel at least a tiny flutter of nerves – then maybe you shouldn’t be there! And for a very good reason:

Believe it or not, that little bit of stress is actually going to sharpen your performance! It’ll put you into the “U-stress zone” in CRM terms. That’s the point on the stress graph where you operate optimally. Not too much stress that you feel overwhelmed, but not so little that you are unconcerned about your performance. If you are too anxious, or conversely, if you’re completely indifferent – then you’re not ready for the flight test! In short, you’re not focused or confident enough to see it through. Rather than gambling a failure, go back and prepare better.

And that’s the subject of this month’s article. How to prepare for the flight test on a general aviation aircraft. And also to explain what the examiner is really looking for. It’s primarily aimed at the CPL, Instrument Rating and Instructors Rating flight tests but the principals will be useful for a PPL flight test as well. It will give you a good idea on not just passing the test but giving a really polished performance that will leave your audience on their feet. And that’s what you really want isn’t it? Nobody wants to just scrape through a test. Especially not in this business! So let’s start with the rehearsal.

If you’ve read any of Malcolm Gladwell’s books you’ll know that first impressions are everything! In his book “Blink” the author claims that everything an observer needs to know about a person is summed up in the first few seconds of meeting. While this is obviously not true in assessing competence, it is true of the impression you make. You can be the best pilot in the world, but if you pitch up late, dressed like a slob, or have the manners and mouth more suited to a barnyard labourer – then that’s what you’re going to be remembered for! Whether it’s true or not doesn’t matter. Because that’s what the examiner sees first! So when you arrive for your flight test make sure you’re early and you’ve dressed for the part. Preferably “pilots uniform.” Dark blue trousers, white shirt, polished shoes and a tie. And for my kid’s generation – get a haircut! If you suffer from halitosis, a peppermint is an easy remedy. Likewise don’t forget the deodorant!

I know this sounds nitpicky but believe me, most examiners fly serious machines for a living and the possibility that you may one day be sharing a flight deck will not have escaped him! When you’re a captain one day, would you want an ill disciplined, socially challenged, slob for a co-pilot? Then don’t say, or do anything that’s unbecoming of a gentleman aviator – lest you leave him with the wrong impression! And remember that first impressions sometimes develop into reputations. And those things have a nasty way of following you through life. Even though they’re not always accurate, changing people’s perceptions can be very difficult. Very few people appreciate this little fact and consequently fail to take advantage of it by modifying their behavior and appearance to suit the occasion. Knowledge is power folks. Use it wisely. Many a promising career has been unnecessarily ruined because of a bad first impression. Oh, and one last thing. Smile. A lot. It’s a great stress reliever and it shows you’ve got your nerves under control.

Okay enough of the psycho babble. Let’s carry on with the warm-up. Make sure you’ve preflighted your aircraft before the examiner arrives. He may ask you to do it again in order observe or question you on certain aspects, but at least you’ll have spotted any potential problems before he arrives. Make certain the aircraft is ready for flight with enough fuel/oil, a tidy interior and a very clean windscreen. (Examiners absolutely hate dirty windscreens!) Make sure all the aircraft documentation is in order. Valid C of A, Certificate of registration, Certificate of Release into Service, Mass and Balance, Radio Station License, Flight Folio, MEL, and Compass Card. And have the AFM where you can reach it – not in the baggage compartment!

If you’re testing for an Instrument Rating make sure your flight plan has been filed. Some examiners don’t carry their own headsets, foggles or stickers for limited panel work so have these ready. It shows you’re in “command” of the situation. That you’re thinking ahead. Attention to detail is one of the hallmarks of a good commander, whether it’s on a Cessna 150 or a Boeing 747. So act the part! Look for ways to impress his socks off!

In preparation for the briefing and oral exam make sure the lecture room is clean and tidy and have ready the AIP, AIC’s, Digma Air Law, Notams, and Jeppeson. Likewise the Aircraft Flight Manual, Mass and Balance and a weather pack. The oral exam is going to involve a working knowledge of all this documentation. If you don’t pass this phase of the test you won’t be flying, so be well acquainted with it.

Have your license and logbook up to date and summarized neatly. Your logbook is going to become the most important item in your résumé and you’d be amazed how much of your character is reflected between its pages. And while you’re at it, don’t forget the CAA certificate proving you’ve passed the relevant academic exams, as well as the letter of recommendation from your instructor. Without these documents the test can’t continue. And to really impress your examiner, have a copy of the CAA test form ready and completed with all your details already entered. It will save him time later. (Make a point of studying this form carefully. It contains all the aspects he will be marking you on, and what tolerances are allowed.)

For the CPL test, prepare yourself on the following: Notams and their classes. AIP’s – what’s in them. AIC’s, what groups, and to whom they’re issued. Airlaw, especially parts 61, 91, 135, 121, and 141. Recap your CPL notes on Airlaw and Procedures. ANR’s, specifically relating to the license you’re testing for.

Make sure you can use the sunrise/sunset tables properly. Be able to look up airfield operating times and where to find airfield information. Know about Flight Duty Period’s and where to find the tables. Know about runway requirements, fuel requirements, currency requirements and Aircraft Performance – especially for the one you’re about to test in. And don’t forget to present him with a proper Load Sheet, Nav Log and ATC flight Plan.

In addition, if you’re testing for an Instrument Rating you need to demonstrate proper pre-flight planning. So know your weather minima for take-off, destination and alternate. Know about IFR recency requirements, the Approach Ban and be able to read any Approach chart. Likewise SIDs and STAR’s, even though you may never have used them before.

If you’re testing on a Multi Engine aircraft make sure you know everything there is about Vmca and its behavior in relation to stall speed and altitude. Know all your V speeds. Blue Line, Red Line, Vyse, Vxse etc. Know and understand how Density Altitude affects your aircraft’s performance. There have been far too many crashes caused recently by this silent assassin and the subject is sure to come up.

For the Grade III Instructors briefing – know the duties and privileges of an instructor. Have available a whiteboard and marker pens that actually write. There’s nothing more frustrating than trying to write with a dry pen. Get help in preparing your Powerpoint presentations or your slides for the overhead projector. And don’t forget to have a model aircraft on the desk. One that has movable control surfaces. A cockpit photograph will also come in handy.

Be able to give any briefing in the syllabus and know how to explain oddities like “adverse aileron yaw” “asymmetric blade effect,” “wing loading,” “washout” and “Aspect Ratio.” And why the nose pitches down at the stall. Not just the short explanation of the Center of Pressure moving rearwards. But what causes the CP to do so! These are all little things that examiners love to delve into, to assess your knowledge. The acronym “POP” will remind you to Prepare, Organize and Practice before presenting any briefing.

Personally I also enjoy a walk around the apron with the candidate looking at different aircraft. Assessing his powers of observation and whether he can rationally figure out why Beechcraft felt it necessary for so many strakes on the 1900’s tail. Or why some aircraft have elevators and others stabilators. And why some have fences or turbulators on their wings and others not. Nothing where a wrong answer will ruin your day, but simply to encourage intellectual curiosity and rational thinking. (It also gives me the opportunity to know my candidate a little better.)

Fielding all these questions is going to be thirsty work, so have a few beverages available. Preferably not coffee though. (As a diuretic it will cause the examiner to cut short the flight for a pee break. Aha! – there’s a thought to shorten the torture…)

Moving on to the actual flight. Don’t forget to give the examiner a passenger briefing before engine start. Keep it short and simple and pertinent to the operation – no impractical claptrap. Emphasize that you expect him to help with the lookout, that you require him to monitor the radio, and that he will be required to call the compass check for the DI, and maybe even run the stopwatch in the holding pattern. Make him part of the team. He’s a valuable safety resource in your cockpit. Make sure he knows that. Here again you are demonstrating that you have command ability. For this reason do your checks properly and verbalize what you’re doing, (unless told otherwise.) No examiner wants to be left guessing what’s going through your mind. He’s looking for evidence of your thought pattern. To see if you’re thinking rationally and logically, and that you’re coping with the stress and staying focused on the task at hand.

If you prefer you may even do your takeoff briefing and VOR/ADF testing before start. By doing this before the Hobbs meter starts ticking saves you or the operator at least 5 minutes. Which is big bucks in a twin or turbine aircraft. Here again you are demonstrating not just sound airmanship, but financial consideration for the commercial side of the operation as well. This is all being totted up on your “good impression scorecard,” which all contributes eventually to qualities highly sought after by any employer. (Examiners are often approached by companies for recommendations and my brother got a job within a week of his flight test because of a good word put in by an examiner.)

Moving on. It’s not the intention of this article to tell you how to fly any maneuver. That will be covered by your instructor and it’s also specific to the aircraft you’ll be flying. But there are some aspects and common mistakes worth mentioning:

  • The Maggs dead cut check is one. Don’t simply flick it off and on. If you have a dead Magneto wouldn’t you rather find out about it after start, than at the run up point? So then pause at the left/right position before going to Off. That way you know both Maggs are functioning and that it cuts dead when switched off.
  • While taxying in strong wind remember to keep the controls into wind. Especially in a taildragger.
  • Don’t do your runup on gravel if you can help it. It chips the prop and sucks dust into the engine when checking the carb heat.
  • Don’t ask for taxi clearance with the side window open. It’s noisy and often difficult for the ATC to hear you. Use proper radio phraseology and technique. Keep your transmissions short and to the point to allow someone else to talk. Listen out properly and read back all clearances verbatim.
  • Know the difference between a short field and a soft field takeoff. Line up at the very beginning of the runway – not with 50 meters behind you! Set the flaps to optimum. (If you don’t know what that is – set them to the same angle as maximum aileron deflection.) Take the pressure off the nosewheel in a soft field takeoff by keeping slightly aft stick from the beginning of the takeoff roll. Lift off slightly above stall speed, then accelerate in ground effect to Vx or Vy speed, depending on the presence of obstacles. (In a twin this maneuver is potentially dangerous because liftoff will occur below redline speed. An engine failure at this stage is below VMCA so all that can be done to avert disaster is to instantly throttle back the live engine and land straight ahead. This is one exercise not to be trifled with and it needs to be taught and demonstrated correctly, lest the insurance companies and undertakers get involved. For this reason it is better to comprehensively cover the techniques and errors in a general aviation FNPTII twin simulator, of which there are several in the country.
  • HASELL checks are NOT required before doing a steep turn! Steep turns are taught not only to improve co-ordination, but also because it is a collision avoidance maneuver! In practice, no one is going to concern themselves with HASELL checks when another aircraft is looming large in the windscreen! And while we are on the subject: When doing HASELL checks before a stall or spin, the “lookout turn” needs to be done at a SHALLOW angle of bank. Preferably 20 degrees, with the last quarter of the turn at 30 degrees. This is to widen and remain in your inspected area. Too often we see steep turns done as a lookout turn. This is not a good idea because apart from the radius, your concentration will be on the quality of the turn, not on the LOOKOUT.
  • A precautionary landing only requires two inspection flypasts. The first, overhead the field at 500’ positioning for the circuit, and the second at roughly 100’, to be able to inspect the landing surface properly. Notice I say “roughly 100 feet.” This is because the emphasis should not be on pegging the altimeter but on inspecting the field! When the day comes that you perform this exercise in anger there is going to be a time factor involved. The weather, daylight, fuel, sick passenger, damaged aircraft, or whatever necessitates the precautionary won’t be patient with you. So get on with it. If the field is not good enough, find another. And remember to choose one close to help. No point in a safe landing only to find you have a fifty kilometer walk without water to the nearest civilization to get aid!
  • When demonstrating a forced landing, the examiner primarily wants to see that you can make the field. The checks during the exercise are obviously important, but not AS important as getting into the field! I failed my first PPL test because, although my checks were word-perfect, I missed the field! Paul Botha was correct – what’s the point of focusing on getting the checks right if you’re going to kill yourself by misjudging the approach?
  • Crosswind landings. My old favorite, and one that can really be fun! Spend as much time as you can practicing the techniques. The “crab method” and the “wing-down” method work equally well in a two seater, but the wing-down method is not comfortable for passengers. They tend to feel uneasy lying against the fuselage in exaggerated cross-control conditions, so pilots of larger aircraft don’t employ this method very often. Most low time pilots are uncomfortable using large aileron inputs in strong crosswinds on takeoffs and landings, and consequently use too little. In this instance I prefer to see the error as too much aileron rather than too little. Mainly because it shows that the candidate is not scared of its effects and also understands how beneficial aileron is in maintaining directional control in a strong crosswind.
  • If you are asked to do a spot landing off a glide approach – don’t nominate your touchdown point to be on the numbers or the threshold. Rather choose a point within the normal touchdown zone. If you misjudge the approach take power and try again but don’t risk landing short in the grass – which you will definitely do if your intended point was the numbers. If you try this it will show a disregard for safety and even if you’re lucky enough to get it right, you’ll look like a cowboy. Not a good impression.
  • Remember that it’s highly likely the examiner is going to ask you to do something you’re not comfortable with – simply to see if you have the strength of character to say “NO.” Be prepared to argue the point on any request that seems unsafe. But not for the sake of being difficult. Have a rational reason for your decision otherwise you’ll appear quarrelsome.
  • Throttling back over the threshold on a normal approach. One giveaway on a PPL test is when this happens. It shows that the student never really mastered the technique of throttling back and flaring close to the ground. This is because at abinitio level students are often incorrectly taught that, no matter what the height, when they arrive over the runway threshold, close the throttle and glide to a landing. It works fine in the beginning but doesn’t demonstrate a great sense of judgment for the approach, especially at a more experienced level. Also that the latter slope of the flight path will not be constant – changing instead from a powered approach to a bastardised glide approach.
  • Get some practice in attitude flying. An old examiner trick is to fail the electrics at night. Great! So now the candidate pulls out his torch – only to be told that the batteries are flat. Oops! What to do now? Well it really isn’t a problem. The landing gear can still be lowered manually. And you can easily do a flapless landing, so all that should concern you is the speed and altitude. All that you really need to do is fly the same attitude you’ve become comfortable with. If the approach attitude is too flat – your speed is too fast. Throttle back. If your attitude on final approach is too high – your speed is too slow. Add power. A few extra knots here and there won’t kill you. And just because its night doesn’t mean you won’t be able to judge your attitude or your altitude. You’re not in cloud and hopefully not foolish enough to be flying single engine aircraft with less than half a moon. Also there will be lots of ground lights and a clearly discernable horizon for attitude flying – if not, you really shouldn’t be there!

It’s pleasantly surprising how much you can see outside when the cockpit lights are turned off. Not nearly as frightening as you first expected. To practice this during the day, throw a towel over your instrument panel and have the instructor peek at the speed periodically while you fly a few circuits to get comfortable. This skill came in handy once when my pitot tube became blocked in a Piper Chieftain. (Bloody co-pilot forgot the pitot cover during the pre-flight!)

More recently the value of this skill came home when an Air France Airbus A330 crashed into the Atlantic after its pitot tubes iced up in a thunderstorm. Because of this our last recurrency session in the SAA A340 simulator saw us going back to basics once again.

  • When flying the ILS, don’t “chase” the glideslope. Maintaining the correct rate of descent for your groundspeed will do the trick, with only small adjustments needed to keep the needle pegged.
  • On an instructors test, remember talk and demonstrate together. Not a running commentary or out of phase like a dubbed movie.
  • After shutdown remember to complete the flight folio and also to do a brief post-flight inspection of the aircraft. Checking for oil leaks, bird strikes or anything that would prevent the aircraft from going out again. It shows airmanship and consideration for the next pilot.
  • Don’t worry too much if the examiner becomes a little belligerent during the test. Sometimes we do this deliberately, to assess how you handle pressure. (And sometimes that’s just the way we are!)

A pilot’s behavior under real or artificial stress is a big factor in assessing how he manages risks and recognizes errors and mitigates them. Most errors and poor judgments begin under stressful circumstances and it’s useful to turn up the heat to see how you handle an unexpected situation. For this reason the examiner may pose or simulate a series of situations to discuss or evaluate what you would do under the circumstances.

For example, when I’m testing on our Piper Seneca simulator I script the following dilemma: You are in the clag. The airfield is overcast with the cloud base at 500 feet agl. The aircraft is equipped with a Moving Map Garmin 296 GPS. You arrive over the airfield at 4500 feet, ready for the ILS approach – and both engines fail! What do you do now? Do you attempt to fly the approach? If you do – you will end up crashing some distance from the airfield. So what is the safest course of action? As with most things there is more than one way of skinning a cat. Attempts I’ve seen vary from a shortened ILS approach, to simply gliding towards the sea until breaking cloud and landing on a beach. What we’re looking for is some lateral thinking in finding the safest plan of action in dealing with an unusual emergency. Here’s a novel and survivable option: Firstly – declare an emergency. Let the ATC know your intentions and squawk 7700 if you’re in radar controlled airspace so he can keep watch over you. Secondly – reduce the scale on your GPS until the runway is clearly displayed.

Thirdly – fly directly to the centre of the airfield and then begin a rate 1 turn to the left. Using the electric turn co-ordinator – not the artificial horizon! (Without the engine driven suction pump the A/H will begin toppling shortly!) In the glide you will be descending at about 800 to 1000 feet/minute. Simply maintain the rate 1 turn until you break cloud at 500 feet agl. Using the GPS to stay overhead you should have ample height to complete a successful forced landing onto the runway. And even if you hash it up, at least you’ll be on the airfield close to emergency services and not in the bush, or worse, in a suburb where innocent people may get hurt. Nasty exercise – but survivable.

CAA is encouraging examiners and instructors to simulate unusual scenarios not only to help pilots “think out of the box” but also to help increase their stress tolerance. They’re not pass/fail aspects but useful because some emergencies are difficult to train for and they help stretch your resourcefulness and imagination to the limit. It’s also good fun, especially in the simulator where there’s no risk to life or limb. But don’t be mistaken that simulators are not stressful environments. They’re not called “sweat boxes” for nothing and they’ve been known to make big men cry!

On this subject: What do you do if – horror of all horrors – you fail a flight test?
Firstly remember that the examiner doesn’t fail you. You do! Take the punch humbly and prepare better next time. Passing or failing is not a lottery and the consoling truth is that we learn more in life from our failures than we ever do from our successes. Treat it as another learning experience. Which of course, it is!

For a more comprehensive read on this subject it’s well worth buying a copy of Jim Davis or Deitland Lempp’s guide to passing the CAA flight test. Most good flight schools stock them.

Alternatively contact the authors directly. Until next time, strive to be the best you can, and keep it safe out there.

The author is a Senior A340 Captain with SAA and CEO of Flight Training College in George.

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