Do you get nervous before a check ride? It's only natural. Have you ever made a mistake early during a check ride and then worry about it as you are trying to concentrate during the rest of the check ride? Natural. So let's learn how to deal with that.
I am writing this from a hotel room in West Lafayette, Indiana on the day of my 40th year graduation reunion from Air Force ROTC here at Purdue University. In our class we had a space shuttle astronaut-pilot, two test pilots, a few fighter pilots, another who flew the SR-71, and me. It is, obviously, a time for reflection.
As we flew to Indianapolis in the back of an almost full regional jet, The Lovely Mrs. took the occasion to reread my first book, Flight Lessons 1, to reflect on our days at Purdue and Air Force pilot training. As she got to the part about my first flight in the Cessna T-37 she asked, “wasn’t it exciting?” I said, “No, not particularly.” We’ve been married for 45 years and she is used to that kind of stoicism, but still she said, “How can that be?” As we waited for our luggage after the flight, I checked my email and found a letter from a B&CA reader who wanted to know how I dealt with check ride nerves, making mistakes during a check ride, and dealing with a check ride failure. I thought about that for a while and realized that my answer about excitement and dealing with the check ride questions were all the same.
One of the many purposes of a check ride in the Air Force (and Navy) is to place the student under considerable stress so as to ensure the student can deal with stress that is sure to come later in their military careers. You might see some of that early on in an airline. But sooner or later the event becomes simply an exercise in ensuring the pilot being checked can achieve the standards set by those doing the training. The single most important fact in all this for us is this: a check ride is more of an evaluation about the training program than the student. If the trainers did a good job, the student will pass. If the student fails, the training department failed the student. So that being said, how can you temper any nervousness?
I was a 22-year-old second lieutenant and didn’t have a pilot’s license when I showed up for Air Force Undergraduate Pilot Training (UPT) at Williams Air Force Base, Arizona. My first instructor pilot was 24-year-old First Lieutenant David Clary, a magnificent instructor who showed up at UPT two years before me and was handed two second lieutenants for his first try at being an instructor pilot. I say he was magnificent because he was. Like me, Clary was half Japanese, soft spoken, and an engineer by education. Like I hoped to one day become, he was highly knowledgeable, unflappable under pressure, and never at a loss in any situation. My fellow student was Roger Jeeter (not his real name), a recent graduate from the Air Force Academy. Roger was very smart and had no problems flying the airplane with one exception: the spin recovery. Once the airplane started spinning, Roger was a mess. Our first check rides were scheduled for the same day, Roger going first.
“A check ride is like any other flight,” Clary explained. “You’ve already practiced every maneuver, every situation, every possible scenario. You are just duplicating what you already know. Don’t second guess yourself, don’t get wrapped up in little things that aren’t perfect. If you make a mistake, that is automatically history, shift your brain to the next event and move on.”
Tom Wolfe’s brilliant book, “The Right Stuff,” was to come out later that year, followed by the movie four years later. But reflecting on Lieutenant Clary’s advice, I realize now the wisdom of his words back then. Wolfe describes the intense training pumped into early Mercury astronauts so that the space flights had already been practiced with such detail that the pilots didn’t have time to contemplate fear, anxiety, excitement, or any other type of emotion. They were simply duplicating their performances in training.
Our UPT experience was similar in many ways. Air Force pilot training is unlike civilian pilot training because of the time constraint. Back then you had 48 weeks and just under 200 hours of flight time to learn every facet of aerobatics, formation, low level navigation, and instrument flight in the T-37 and T-38 aircraft. Half your time was solo. If you failed to measure up, you were history. My class of 77 students, for example, graduated only 44. So how do you make automatic everything needed for a flight when flight and simulator hours are limited? You introduce another concept of military aviation: “chair flying.”
When dealing with something new, you need to make it “un-new” and almost automatic. One of our earliest challenges was the overhead visual pattern. Once you had it down, you never gave it a second thought. But until then, it was filled with opportunities to have an instructor in the other seat to take the airplane from you. Even solo, instructors on the ground stood ready with a radio call or a pyrotechnic flare to send you around. That’s how many of us students first became acquainted with the flight properties of our kitchen chairs.
Practicing the overhead pattern in my T-37 chair gave the Lovely Mrs. an opportunity for a laugh or two and I am grateful she didn’t have a cell phone camera in 1979. You simply sit in the chair as if in your cockpit. (I’ve heard some pilots would do this wearing their flight helmets and Nomex gloves, but I didn’t take it to this extreme.) Then you placed your hands on an imaginary stick and throttles. “Set about 80% to hold 200 knots.” You visualized the indicators. “Fly over the runway at 1,000 feet AGL.” You visualize the view outside the cockpit, trying to allow the time to elapse as it will in the airplane. “At the midfield break, roll 60° bank left, pull back to maintain level flight.” You move the imaginary stick. If you have a tendency to do something wrong, you can articulate the corrective action. “Remember to give the stick a couple shots of back trim as the speed bleeds, roll wings level after 180°, extend the speed brake, and check that the runway is about halfway down your left wing.” I hear the Air Force gave up on these very tight patterns years later, but for us you could place the runway so that it intersected the midpoint of the wing and be spaced correctly. “Extend the flaps.” Your hand hits the imaginary flap handle. “Extend the gear.” “Look for the touchdown point over your left shoulder, roll 45° of bank left, let the nose fall 15°, back pressure and trim.” Your hands move and you make your gear down call. “Hook 21, gear down, touch and go.” “Move the throttles until you just hear the thrust attenuators, keep 120 knots, check halfway through the turn that you’ve lost half the altitude.” At this point I had a tendency to lean in my chair and the Lovely Mrs. had a tendency to laugh. “Adjust bank to roll out on centerline. Add power to keep 100 knots. The first bars on the runway should be halfway up the windshield.”
And so it went. I did that until I didn’t need to, when all of it became automatic. Lieutenant Clary would make us close our eyes at his desk and go through the procedures. Sitting firmly on the ground, Roger seemed to get all the procedures just right, but he confessed to me the spin recovery often tripped him up in the airplane. I was certain he was going to “ace” the first check ride, but he didn’t.
Our check rides had three possible grades: Q1, Q2, or Q3. A Q1 meant you passed. A Q2 meant you passed but there were things that needed to be retrained and reevaluated. A Q3 meant it went so badly, the entire check ride had to be repeated. You got a total of three tries, but after that, you packed your bags and looked for a job in the Air Force that didn’t involve flying airplanes. We called the Q3 a “hook,” from the old vaudeville days where a bad act was dragged off the stage with a big, theatrical hook.
“Hooked it,” Roger said after his first check ride.
Clary didn’t have the details from the evaluator pilot before it was my turn, but he probably suspected and gave me some last-minute advice. “If you make any mistakes, don’t worry about it. Nobody flies a perfect airplane and I’ve never flown a perfect check ride. Remember each event is a separate event. Your grade depends on everything as a total.”
This may come as a surprise to novice professional pilots, but there are three kinds of mistakes made during a check ride: those made by the examinee, those made by the examiner, and those made by the aircraft (or simulator). When you are in the "heat of battle" it is difficult to distinguish which is happening. But even in the case where it was you that made the mistake, that isn't the end of the check ride. In fact, how you deal with that can actually work in your favor.
My first check ride seemed to be going very well. The only maneuver I really struggled with was a simple loop but that went perfectly. In fact, I stole a look at the evaluator’s kneeboard and saw the letters “EX” up and down against everything I had done thus far. “Show me a spin,” he said. I did a few clearing turns and tucked my area map into my right leg flight suit pocket. “Loose items,” I said. “Secured,” he said. The T-37 spin entry involves pointing the nose straight up with the throttles at a medium setting. Once the wings start to buffet you fed in rudder and when the airplane stalled it almost immediately wrapped itself into a spin. At that point you waited for the evaluator to say “recover” and that’s what you did. The recovery involved six steps which ended up with the aircraft pointing straight down at zero G after which the last step was, “recover from dive.” Pointing straight down at the ground completely weightless usually kicked up decades of dust from all over the airplane and was eerily quiet.
I got all the steps right and just as we went to zero G, an area chart appeared from beneath my ejection seat and unfolded itself right in front of me. “Loose items stowed, huh?” the evaluator yelled. It was a “hookable” offense. My long line of “EX” was interrupted with a “U” and I still had half the ride to go. Lieutenant Clary’s words reminded me that the spin was one event. I had more to go.
Fortunately, the rest of the ride was filled with more “EX” events and maybe one or two “G” events. During the debrief the evaluator said as much. “You fly an excellent airplane, lieutenant. It is a damned shame I’m going to have to hook you.” He held up the area chart, accentuating my failure.
“I understand, sir,” I said. “I would have bet a month’s pay that I zipped that map into my pocket.” I reached down to my zipped pocket and felt something inside. I opened the pocket and pulled out my area chart. The evaluator looked at my chart and the one in his hand. “Well how about that,” he said. “Good job then. Congratulations you just passed your first check ride.”
There were congratulations all around the flight room. About half our class hooked that first check ride. As it turned out, Roger did very well during his flight until the spin. At that point he fell apart. “You would have gotten a Q2 if you performed to your normal level, Roger,” Clary said. “And then you wouldn’t have to recheck, you would just need to go up again with an instructor to demonstrate the spin. So, remember next time, push mistakes out of your head!”
But Roger couldn’t do that. He repeated his performance two more times and was gone a week later. I finished twenty years as an Air Force pilot with a clean record, not a single busted check ride in eight aircraft types. That isn’t too common, but what is even more rare is the fact I did bust a check ride that was “unbusted” in the end. And I think that episode teaches volumes on how to bust with style.
Being told that you are "not good enough" in any endeavor hurts. If you ever get to the point where failing a check ride isn't a big deal, then you are doing it too often and perhaps it is time to look for another line of work. So it isn't a good experience. But there is a right way to deal with it.
Photo: Boeing 707 Cockpit (Deutsches Museum, Munich Germany, Alexander Z.
Click photo for a larger image
Years later I was flying as a captain in rank and an aircraft commander in crew position, in an Air Force Boeing 707 (EC-135J). My copilot was a first lieutenant and navigator a captain just a year junior to me. We were flying from March Air Force Base (now Air Reserve Base), California (KRIV) back to our home base, Honolulu International Airport, Hawaii (PHNL) when an evaluator showed up and announced we were getting a route check ride. “Just do your normal good jobs and get us home,” he said.
Our usual passengers were a U.S. Navy battle staff in charge of the Pacific Nuclear Submarine fleet and quite often requested we delay our takeoff until the subs were in place so they could exercise our communications systems. That particular morning the call for a delay came after engine start and after we had begun our taxi. We negotiated with tower and found a spot out of the way near the end of the runway to wait. It was a summer morning with an approaching weather system and rising temperatures. The copilot busied himself with updating the temperature and posting new takeoff performance data every few minutes. This involved about ten minutes of chasing lines on charts and producing about ten different numbers, such as power settings and speeds to fly. The most important number was our decision speed, what we called “S-1” but is more commonly known as “V-1” to most civilians. If we had an engine failure during takeoff before S-1 we would abort, after S-1 we would continue the takeoff.
Lieutenant Dellums would dutifully post new takeoff data, I would review the numbers and say, “okay.” For one of his efforts I said, “S-1 looks low.” He re-chased the charts and said, “no, it’s okay.”
After an hour of this the ceiling had come down and it started to rain just as the passengers announced they were ready. I waited patiently for Dellums to add the wet runway to his takeoff data and looked at the new numbers he scratched out in grease pencil. “Are you sure about S-1?” I asked. He showed me the applicable page and the wet runway correction. “I guess so,” I said. And we took off.
We disappeared into the muck at about 1,000 feet and even though it was about noon, the world became dark. And then it became bright again with a crack of lighting right on the nose of the aircraft. My flight instruments froze and the cockpit went dark except for the copilot’s instruments, which had an emergency power system. “You got the airplane,” I said. Dellums remained motionless. There is an old joke in the Air Force that goes, “All hell broke loose and my copilot turned into a zombie!” So, there I was. I flew the airplane cross-cockpit and started to formulate a plan when departure control added to our problems. “LA center has lost all radar; all aircraft revert to non-radar procedures.”
I looked down to the VOR needles on Dellums’ side of the aircraft and noticed they were split. Both VOR receivers were both tuned to the correct frequency. “Nav, pilot,” I said over the interphone, “which VOR needle is right?” I heard nothing. I stole a look behind me and realized I now had two zombies in the cockpit. The evaluator, sitting in the jump seat, shrugged his shoulders. As I brought my eyes back forward I noticed a generator had dropped off line. I cycled the switch and my side of the cockpit came back to life. As the lights returned my zombies returned to the living and center announced their radar was back. It was a nightmare that lasted less than 60 seconds.
After we landed the evaluator asked us to meet him in the squadron commander’s office, never a good sign. As we entered the evaluator pulled me to one side and said, “I’m really sorry I have to do this.” He revealed that our S-1 was five knots in error and the tolerance was only 2 knots. He lauded my performance after the lightning strike but lambasted the copilot and navigator. He busted both of us pilots because of the S-1 error and the navigator because of his zombie-like performance. The copilot and navigator immediately started to argue.
“Calm down you two,” I said. “We made mistakes and we are fortunate to have lived through those mistakes, so we can learn from them. So that’s what we have to do now.”
I was, of course, devastated. I had gone through seven years as an Air Force pilot with a perfect record. The evaluator, the squadron commander, and everyone in the chain of command came to my defense, saying my reaction only solidified their confidence in me. I lived with this for about two months. The higher command reviewed the check ride and decided the evaluator made a mistake and ordered my evaluation results be changed to a pass. So, in a weird twist of fate, I didn’t bust a check ride, after all; but was rewarded for having reacted to a bust with style.
Part of my reward was an instant upgrade to instructor pilot and shortly thereafter, to evaluator pilot. In the many years since I have reprised my military evaluator pilot role with a few turns as a check airman. I have had to “hook” a few pilots in that time and must say it is a gut-wrenching experience. In one case the busted pilot took the company to court but lost. With each bust I think back to my flight with two zombies. Sometimes how you bust is as important as how you pass.
Our reunion was great, and it was fun to trade “there I was” stories with classmates who had their own harrowing moments to relive and lessons learned over forty years of defying gravity. I finally composed an answer to the B&CA reader asking about check ride nerves. I think chair flying is a great technique to learn something new. I haven’t been to an initial course in ten years and have only employed the technique a few times when learning something new, such as landing using a Forward Looking Infrared system. But it is a technique worth considering.
I also reminded the reader about the need to look at each event in the check ride as separate events. In First Lieutenant Clary’s words, “shift your brain to the next event and move on.”
Finally, I reminded the reader that every check ride is like a training flight on steroids; they are opportunities to learn. No pilot is perfect, no flight is perfect, and no check ride is flown flawlessly. The evaluator is charged with certifying you on a laundry list of items to mark “EX,” “G,” or “U.” Sometimes, the evaluator’s hands are tied, but sometimes he or she has a bit of latitude. Your grace under fire can determine how much of that latitude is used in your favor.
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