Oh Exam, How I Dread Thee…
I think I can safely guess that none of us like to take exams. The anxiety, headache, studying, sweaty palms, stomach butterflies, etc., generally have us all tied up in knots before the exam even starts. After nearly 4 years of college, I still don’t care for exams, no matter how prepared I am for it. The same goes for aviation. All my friends here at UND can attest to the fact that those oral or practical flight exams make one very anxious. We spend so much time preparing for it and they are enough to suck the joy right out flying (no joke!). Today I’d like to tell you about a different side of flight/oral exams known as the Flight Review. In addition, I’ll provide an overview of what a Designated Pilot Examiner (DPE) does.
To Review or not to Review???
The Flight Review (FR) is a singularly interesting requirement for pilots. Instead of testing for a specific rating, such as Instrument Flight Rules, the FR is more of a proficiency check. Simply put: it’s designed to see if the pilot can operate the aircraft in a safe manner as Pilot in Command (PIC) – this check is required every 24 calendar months to act as PIC. If they feel you didn’t perform well enough to exercise your license privileges, they simply log it as dual instruction time (then you’re back to the drawing board). The requirements for the minimum FR is 1 hour flying and 1 hour of ground instruction. So, that’s what we (pilots, students, etc.) know about FRs. However, I recently had the chance to interview one of the foremost DPE in the region about his job and his side when it comes to FRs.
When a latent interest becomes a new career…
Lynnwood Minar, better known in the flying world as “Woody”, is a DPE in the Minneapolis Flight Standards District Office (FSDO). A DPE is basically contracted to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) because the FAA simply doesn’t have the time to conduct all of the check rides around the country. However, one does not simply just become a DPE. Woody’s journey into aviation and his subsequent job as a DPE began long before these last few years.
Woody’s aviation bug is self-described as a “latent interest”. In his younger days, his aunt gave him an aircraft identifier book. He spent many days at the airport identifying aircraft, many of which he is certain didn’t even exist in that book. Later, at 12 years old, he went for his first airplane ride, and afterwards his interest in aviation was buried for a few years. Later, he joined the Navy and upon discharge he had hopes of being an Air Traffic Controller. However, he was recruited by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and his career took over for several years. After he retired from the CIA, he decided to pursue aviation again and actually first inquired at airports about ultralight lessons – for those of you that aren’t familiar with ultralights, they typically only seat one person and fly at low altitudes with small engines. Often pilots describe them as a chair with a lawn mower attached. He was advised to instead get his Private Pilot’s License (PPL) and attended Ground School in Rush City, WI. Aviation “took hold” and on January 9, 2000, Woody had his first flight! However, after getting his PPL, Woody was trying to fly to a friend’s cabin and ran into poor weather on 3 consecutive weekends – this is when he decided to pursue his Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) rating. By this time, Woody based his training out of Osceola, WI at KOEO. Woody went on to complete his Commercial Rating while training for his Certified Flight Instructor (CFI) Rating by 2003. At this time Woody was literally “getting tired of flying training for several hours every…single…day”. Yes folks, sometimes we get tired of training.
However, despite all of that training, somewhere in there someone made the offhand comment that “you’d make a good DPE” and suddenly Woody found a new career in probably the most unexpected part of life. He applied to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in Oklahoma City and two and a half years later successfully completed the interview and training to become a DPE in 2012. Since then, Woody has been scaring the crap out of student pilots, license holders, and those of less experience ever since granting the privilege of becoming a Private, Instrument, and Commercial Pilot ever since.
Despite the fact that Woody gives practical tests and decides whether or not to give student pilots and licensed pilots their ratings, he also is required to renew his DPE privileges once a year. As a DPE, Woody is required to give at 10 checkride per year, though in reality Woody averages more than 200 year! Those 200 checkrides amount to approximately 700-800 hours per year which doesn’t even include the travel time to checkrides or the time it takes to fill out paperwork. For a retiree, he works a lot! However, I am pretty sure Woody wouldn’t call it “work”. Since I had Woody’s undivided attention, I was able to pick his brain on “how” he conducts checkrides.
Picking the expert’s brain…
As a DPE, Woody is required to have a “Plan of Action” for a checkride. In this plan, he has listed all the pertinent items to cover during the flight portion of the checkride. This includes looking at maintenance logs for the aircraft being used, the endorsements in the applicant’s logbook, what type of rules the applicant is training under, and essentially making sure all legal requirements are being met for the checkride. In addition, he tests the applicant on areas of knowledge from the Practical Test Standards (PTS), a book that contains the areas an applicant can be tested on, and each rating has its own PTS. The length of the oral and practical exam varies based on how prepared the applicant is. Generally the ground portion lasts for about 1.5 hours and the flight potion is about 1.2 hours for the PPL. The minimum is 1 hour on the ground and 1 hour in the air. However, as you might have figured out already, subsequent checkrides for more complex and advanced ratings require more time as more tasks are involved.
During the ground portion of a checkride, Woody focuses on scenarios to test applicants. He isn’t looking for that memorized response, but rather how a student would respond to a given situation. This shows just how well an applicant really knows the material. For example, he wouldn’t ask a yes/no questions but rather “why” or “how would you” or “what would you do if…”. I had the experience to have Woody as my DPE for my PPL and I remember him asking one such scenario-based question. He laid out the question by telling me that I was approaching to land at an airport at night. The runway lights on the departure end of the runway are red and normally do not flicker, however, in this case they were flickering. His questions was why would lights that normally don’t flicker all of the sudden start flickering? I was stumped and of course had prepared by the book for this oral exam and this question threw me for a loop. His answer during the post exam debrief was the occasional animals are on the airfield and those flickering lights could be deer, for instance, running across the runway. Questions like that one are types of questions Woody could throw at an applicant.
At the time of my interview with Woody, I was preparing for my own FR. This gave me the opportunity to see what Woody looks for in an FR. He mainly focuses on what he considers to be the weaker aspects of a pilot’s knowledge: understanding weather reports, airspace on a sectional charts, Visual Flight Rules (VFR) minimums, along with the other required rules and regulations. As I’m sure others can relate to, we don’t get as much practice in the finer details of weather and airspace after we get our PPL as we move on to other types of flight training. Woody was right, however, as he proved his point by asking me about those same details. After a few years, I too had forgotten those smaller details.
As checkrides progress through the more difficult and complex ratings, his focus changes. PPL checkrides focus on all of the basics and how comfortable applicants are with flying, in addition to the PTS. Often he’ll ask how the applicants slept the night before and usually the reply is hardly at all. When it comes to the IFR and Commercial checkrides, it focuses more on understanding all the parts of the PTS and is usually a much broader, more in depth checkride in terms of information covered. He suggests applicants work on taking mock checkrides so they can be more prepared ahead of time. Also, ensuring all your paperwork is done ahead of time is key because a checkride can easily end before it starts if your instructor forgets key forms or misses the fact that the applicant hasn’t met all requirements. Lastly, FRs are more focused on a pilot’s proficiency. Some of us aren’t actively training, so it’s important to get out and practice landings and those parts of flying that become rusty the more time you have between flights.
Lastly, I asked Woody how flight students can renew their passion and excitement for flying. I realize that many of us train so much that flying for fun sounds like a lot of work. He suggests that “you need a mission”. For instance, pick a destination and go to lunch. Get that $100 hamburger or visit family and friends. Another idea is to get endorsements for tailwheel or complex aircraft. Another fun rating would be that of a seaplane – this is really useful in Minnesota as lakes are a dime a dozen. Fly-ins are becoming more and more popular in the General Aviation community as airports all around the country are hosting the community and other pilots for aviation get-togethers. The FAA also has the WINGS program which is a combination of safety seminars, online and practical training to earn credit that is centered on flying proficiency instead of currency. It nudges pilots into a greater appreciation for flying and pilots are learning new skills at the same time. These are just a few ideas of other types of flight activities when you get tired of training all the time.
“Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young.” (Henry Ford)
Overall, I gained a better knowledge of what a DPE does and what a FR is all about. Recently I did take my first FR and passed! Interviewing Woody was a great opportunity as I was able to learn more about what he does and a new facet of aviation. I would challenge those of my readers that are in aviation to actively seek out those that work for the FAA – it can only benefit us as pilots to learn as much as possible about our craft. For the rest of my readers that don’t fly, perhaps some of our alphabet soup and “airplane speak” makes a little more sense now.
Until next time, Blue Skies & Tailwinds!
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