The Practical Exam

The Practical Exam

The second test that private pilots take is called the practical test. It's a combination of oral questioning and practical demonstration (flying). Once you've finished training and your instructor has practice reviewed all flight maneuvers with you, he or she will endorse your logbook to indicate you are ready for the practical test.

Here's a fact that will help you sleep better: You've already passed a practice version of the practical test! The three-plus hours of test preparation you completed with your instructor is designed to be very similar to what the pilot examiner will test you on. Your instructor puts his or her reputation on the line by endorsing you for the practical test. Instructors are somewhat judged by their success rate of getting students certified on their first try. If you've been recommended for the practical test by your instructor, chances are great that you're going to pass.

Flying Words

Your FAA-approved examiner will be called by a variety of names, all of them respectful. For example, he or she might be called an FAA flight examiner, designated pilot examiner (DPE), check pilot, or "the boss." Remember, this is a job performed by professionals who typically have flown thousands of hours in a variety of planes. Respect them, and they will be fair with you.

The oral component of the examination continues throughout the test. When you make an appointment with the examiner he or she probably will give you an assignment. Typically, you must plan a cross-country trip to a specific airport and prepare a flight plan. The purpose of this assignment is to demonstrate your knowledge of the rules of flying.

Once you meet with the examiner and you've introduced yourselves, the examiner will ask you about the cross-country flight you've planned for the two of you. You'll pull out the appropriate sectional chart and airport facility directory to describe your planning of the flight. Along the way your examiner will ask you open-ended questions, ones that require a descriptive answer beyond yes or no. Answer the question clearly, but don't go into related topics unless asked. The examiner will ask you to clarify answers as needed.

The examiner wants you to exhibit your aeronautical knowledge: how planes fly, what rules govern flying, and what you can and cannot do as a private pilot. The examiner will especially be interested in your ability to read and interpret a sectional chart. You'll be asked questions like "Why did you choose this route?", "Why did you select your specified altitude?", and "What points or landmarks have you selected along your course and why?".

Knowledge Test

Your pilot examiner is testing you by "the book," Private Pilot Practical Test Standards (PTS), an FAA publication that tells the examiner what the applicant (that's you) must know or illustrate before a private-pilot certificate can be issued. Your instructor might have a copy you can use, or you can purchase one through the FAA. It's important you get a copy of the PTS and review it extensively with your instructor.

The oral questioning typically gets into aeromedical issues. The most important are alcohol, drugs, and vertigo. As you probably learned in ground school, you cannot legally fly an aircraft if your alcohol blood level is greater than .04 percent — about half the limit imposed by most states on automobile drivers. Nor can you legally fly if you've consumed alcohol within the previous 8 hours. The reason for these stringent rules is not just because you're operating an airplane. It's also because altitude increases the disabling effects of alcohol. The same goes for drugs, both prescription and non-prescription. Also, because of the variations in air pressure during a flight, it's a good idea not to fly if you have a head cold because the differential pressure can give you an extreme headache.

Vertigo is the sensation of dizziness caused by spatial disorientation. It happens when your mind doesn't know up from down. If you've ever played a childhood game where you're blindfolded and spun around, you know what vertigo is. It can happen when flying if you can't see the horizon or other reference points, and occurs when you get into clouds. As a VFR pilot you're never supposed to get into or even near clouds. However, a fast-moving weather front or inattention could get you into a cloud and you must know how to get out of it. How? By reading and trusting your instruments.

During your oral questioning the instructor will ask you about alcohol, drugs, vertigo, and other aeromedical issues. Know what they are. In addition, the practical exam will include some flying by instruments only to make sure you know how to use them to get out of trouble.

Don't think you'll remember everything you need to know to answer all the questions? No problem. The oral exam is actually an open-book test. You can refer to the plane's operating handbook or even FAA publications, including the legend on a sectional chart, as needed to respond to the examiner's questions. Don't rely on publications, but know that you can refer to them during the exam if necessary. You will use these publications in real-life flying.

Wing Tips

The examiner wants to pass you as much as you want to be passed. "The paperwork is easier," said one. You won't get tricky questions. Instead, you'll get questions that will help you illustrate your developed knowledge of safe flying. If you don't understand a question, the examiner expects you to ask for clarification.