The Greatest Aviation Sin
I fully realize that this may end up being a controversial topic. I say this because it’s deliberately been poured into my psyche and every other aviator I know that it is aviation taboo to fail a check ride. It’s a sin way worse than busting airspace or landing with the gear up! It’s seen as a failure of preparation, of cutting corners or worse yet, plain old ineptitude to get the job done. But what if failing your check ride becomes part of the strategy, at least in part?
The past few weeks have given me ample time to reflect on my budding strategy around check rides and what they systemically represent both in terms of your aviation journey and of their life lessons. I’ve had the distinct honor of failing three check rides in my life. The first was literally a wrong turn in an unpublished hold during my instrument check ride, the examiner explaining that it was a beautiful entry: right on cue, coordinated and at the right altitude; It, however, was to the southeast when she had really preferred it be to the northeast, well insisted northeast actually. This unfortunate brain fart was after a grueling 4 hour oral. The next two were both for my CFI rating, undoubtedly the hardest of the check rides to prepare for. You can read a bit about that adventure here.
Perfect may be the Enemy!
I had a professor in college once said: “Don’t let be the enemy of good”. This is what I’ve sort of been reflecting on in the last few days since I actually passed my CFI check ride. Yep, now I’m legit! So here’s where my brain’s rubber is gonna hit the road. I spent A LOT of time studying for my CFI check ride. Honestly, I don’t know how people cram enough stuff in their brains to pass the CFI check ride the first go, but suffice to say that I have a ton of respect for you folks. Very well done indeed! For the rest of us, well let’s just say it kind of sucks for a while. The impostor syndrome is not uncommon after a failed check ride, we also like to blame the unfair and “out-to-get-you” FAA. We also like to lament that most of the material is irrelevant once we actually get out to the field to teach. Ironically the FAA Flight Instructor’s Handbook has a nice little section on all of these coping mechanisms and explains why we, as humans, need to deny, redirect, compensate and a host of other things in the face of failure. But here’s the thing and ultimately my thought: You get to a point preparing for a check ride where you become mentally saturated. You suspect that there are other things that you should be studying and mastering or perhaps that there are some things that you know cold and other things that you don’t. In my case, I knew VFR, documentation, and endorsement information cold. Those topics never came up. Apparently, I had some gaps in cross-country planning and ground school instruction with respect to the ground reference maneuvers. Honestly, I had no idea those would surface as my weak points. Interestingly as well, my failure points weren’t within the first hour or two of the oral exam but rather happened in the 4th and 3rd hour respectively. The point where my brain naturally starts to go to mush under stress.
So Here’s the Thing
There comes a point where more information, studying, struggling and wading through more “stuff” becomes counterproductive. Do your best to prepare and garner a positive outcome but eventually, you just need to go take the darned thing. Here’s the catch: have a fail plan! I’m not saying that you should plan to fail but you should have a fail plan. It IS one of the three outcomes that your inspector or examiner will tell you about right up front. For me, my 2 failed CFI check rides turned out to be hugely economical in terms of time and money. Let me explain. Check ride #1 was free because it was done by the FSDO/FAA. The only expense was for the plane and gas. That was maybe $100 total. For that $100 I was told *exactly* what I need to bone up on VFR flight planning. I spent maybe 2 hours total boning up on VFR Flight P. On to check ride #2. Because I got credit for everything I already did, I walked in and after the paperwork, we immediately jumped into the VFR flight planning which I aced. I nailed everything else on the oral and 3 hours in I started having brain farts around steepest banks during ground reference maneuvers and I just wasn’t connecting to the material. By this time the FAA had delegated me to a DPE, a super nice fellow that I had flown with before. After talking at length about the ground maneuvers and helping me fill in the blanks he said: “we’re going to have to have you come back and talk about this a bit more”. Never has there been a more polite way of expressing the sentiment “you failed!”. Check ride #2 cost me a cool $500 but no gas/plane because we were at my home airport and we didn’t fly. And finally, the third time was a charm… Check ride #3 was discounted at $200 as it was now considered a retest. I invested another 2 hours of prep time studying two chapters in The FAA Flying Handbook “Ground Reference Maneuvers” and “Performance Maneuvers”. The DPE and I talked about circles around a point, s-turns and chandelles for about an hour before he declared that he was satisfied and we should go fly. I felt extremely confident about the flying portion and I did well there, no issues although if I’m being honest, the short field landing could have used a bit more finesse it was good enough!
And finally, if I can offer just one takeaway it’s that failed check rides are by far, not the worst thing in life. Take them as a learning opportunity and just fix the deficiency. If you’re earnest and diligent preparing for a ride and you fail, there’s nobility in learning what you need to know and booking a retest. Wash, rinse, repeat until you pass. Like the Chinese proverb “Fall down 7 times, get up 8”.