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When training for a pilot certificate or an additional rating to an existing pilot certificate, at some point you will have to take Practical Examinations (Checkride). The FAA is responsible for performing these Checkrides, but they do not have enough personnel dedicated to doing this job. That’s where the designated pilot examiner (DPE) comes into play.


Earl Downs has been in the DPE business on and off since 1964. To this date, he has administered approximately 1,700 Practical Examinations and is the guy to go to if you want details about how the DPE system works. Here’s what Earl has to say about failing your Checkrides.


By Earl C Downs DPE/ASE

It seems like writing about how to fail a Checkride is looking at things from a negative viewpoint, but I’m looking at it from the viewpoint of the DPE who is administering the practical examination. The last time I was audited by my FAA Managing Supervisor, I was disapproving about 17% of the people who came in for a checkride. I don’t want to fail people, but I do believe FAA standards need to be strictly observed. Despite what you may have heard, DPEs do not have to meet an FAA-mandated failure percentage. If your checkride is disapproved by the DPE, it’s on you.


My observation has been that at the higher certification levels such as commercial pilot, CFI, and instrument rating, a lot of the failures occur on the ground during the oral part of the examination. With the sport pilot and private pilot applicants, it is about even as to who fails on the ground and who fails in flight.


The evaluation performed by any DPE must be based on the PTS (when applicable) or the ACS standards. Here’s a quick review of the difference between these standards;


  • Practical Test Standards (PTS) - The PTS is an older testing standard that does a mediocre job of providing detailed information about what you need to do or how you need to perform. It also has a section called “Special Emphasis Items” that can bite you in the behind if you do not know where this information is located. Overall, when being tested to PTS standards, the pass and fail criteria are more subjective than objective.


  • Airmen Certification Standards (ACS) - The ACS is very specific in what you must do and what your knowledge level is expected to be. The ACS is a good guide for knowing exactly what to study when it comes to knowledge questions as opposed to demonstrating the task. The PTS falls short on this. Both the ACS and the PTS are divided into areas of operation and each area of operation is divided into TASKS. However, in the ACS each task is further divided into areas of Knowledge, Risk Management, and Skills. This provides more detail and a better chance to “get it right.”


It is commonly thought that the PTS and ACS are primarily used by the CFI to assure that all the appropriate areas of operation are being taught. However, it is also important that the learner be completely familiar with the PTS or ACS, whichever is applicable, to the certificate or rating being sought. You need to be trained on how these documents are used during the exam by the examiner.


As an examiner, I go by the book, but you can’t get away from the fact that we DPEs are very similar to human beings. What I mean by that is … if an applicant shows up unprepared for the examination, we start looking for problems to pop up. Lack of preparation is often followed by poor performance leading to a notice of disapproval being issued. Or, lack of preparation could lead to the exam never starting.


Here are a few examples of examination non-starters:

  • The applicant shows up without a valid government photo ID.

  • Applicants cannot prove that the aircraft was airworthy.

  • Applicants showed up late and the checkride could not be completed within the allotted amount of time set aside by the examiner.

  • Applicants did not have the proper CFI endorsements in their training records or logbooks.

  • For an already certificated applicant who is adding a rating to that certificate, the applicant must meet all of the requirements to be pilot in command. I have had some show up without proper medicals, and others who did not have a current flight review. They assumed that I could act as pilot in command. DPEs cannot be pilot in command.

  • A common one is applicants showing up and not being able to access their IACRA account.

$...These nonstarters can be expensive. Some DPEs will charge the full price for last-minute cancellations or for the inability to qualify to take the exam. Others, like myself, charge a lower fee but it is still going to cost you money…$


The ground portion of any Checkride sets the stage for how the examiner will evaluate the flight portion of the test. As I said, DPEs are like anyone else when it comes to being concerned when weakness shows up in the early stage of an exam, and we tend to look at other parts of the exam to see if it also shows up there.


If an applicant is disapproved during the ground portion of the examination, the entire examination must be discontinued. Once again, this can be an expensive lesson. If the applicant does not meet performance requirements in flight, the applicant may continue the flight if he or she desires. However, if one maneuver or in-flight task is disapproved then that entire area of operation is also disapproved and must be repeated. It is quite common that an in-flight disapproval will result in the applicant paying full price for the Checkride. A charge for retesting the failed area of operation will vary depending on individual examiners.


I believe I can speak for all Designated Pilot Examiners when I say that we want you to succeed. However, you have to make it happen.

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