My dubious start to a flying career: anatomy of a checkride bust

I trained for my Private Pilot certificate at Spurling Aviation on Seattle’s Boeing Field (KBFI). When it was time for my checkride, I had to fly a Cessna 150 from KBFI, over to the examiner’s office at Renton Airport (KRNT), a whopping straight line distance of four nautical miles.

My CFI prepared me well for the oral; it went smoothly. All my paperwork was in order, including the aircraft maintenance documentation and requisite solo and checkride endorsements. Since this was during the pre-iPad era, everything was still paper-only, and I had brand new, current charts and pubs.

Monroe airport
First Air – a tricky airport. But which direction is the “right way” to land?

I was directed to plan a cross country flight from KRNT to First Air (W16), an airstrip near Monroe, WA, a small town 25nm northeast as the crow flies. It has a single, 2100 ft. runway, 7/25, with a right-hand pattern directed for Runway 7.

The preflight inspection, ground ops and initial takeoff were all fine. I got established on course, performed a ground speed check, and gave the examiner an updated ETA and fuel remaining at W16. He then gave me a diversion scenario, and once satisfied with that, had me demonstrate a series of the private pilot maneuvers. I held heading, altitude, airspeed and bank angles better than I ever had!

He then cleared me to resume the flight to W16. I dialed up the CTAF at 15 miles out; there was no Unicom operator on the field, no planes in the pattern, and no ASOS/AWOS.

I told the examiner my plan was to overfly the field 500 ft. above the pattern altitude, visually check the wind, traffic and airport surface conditions, then head back south of the airport to set up for a 45-degree entry to the downwind for whichever runway proved appropriate. Since the runway was relatively short and narrow, I’d do a short field landing.

It was easy to find the airport using pilotage and dead reckoning, and we arrived overhead at 1,500 ft. MSL. I spotted the windsock quickly: the winds appeared to be calm. The sock itself was hanging straight down, as was an American flag on a hangar at the far east end of the runway. Perfect! There was no recommended “calm wind” runway published, so I opted to land to the east on Runway 7. There were several visually significant landmarks southeast of the airport in Monroe that I could use to help set up for a 45-degree entry to a right downwind for Runway 7.

It all went as advertised: I made the appropriate radio calls; I nailed the downwind leg entry heading, altitude, and runway spacing. I had completed the descent/approach and landing checklists about half a dozen times, and I was very cognizant of any wind effects on my pattern spacing. The windsock continued to hang absolutely limp as I turned from base to final.

It was almost too easy. I rolled out on final at about 300 ft. AGL, was fully configured, on centerline and “on-speed” for a short field landing. There was no imaginary 50 ft. obstacle in the way; I had my aim point wired to touch down right on the numbers. I sensed no lateral drift; there were no bumps or turbulence, and the windsock was still hanging straight down.

On short final, with landing assured, just as I pulled off the last few RPM, the examiner abruptly directed “go around!” I executed the procedure per the POH: full throttle, carb heat off, flaps to 20, pitch to maintain airspeed. To be expected, I thought… he knew I had the landing made… he’s just saving time.

I assumed we’d stay and do some more pattern work, so I was a bit surprised when he announced, “let’s go home.” Awesome… I must be really rocking it!

Pilot in cockpit with instructor
Both sides may not always agree.

We departed the pattern and headed south towards KRNT. After several awkward minutes of silence, during which he scribbled a lot of stuff on his notepad, he finally looked over at me and asked, “Why were you going to land downwind?”

Huh?

“I didn’t realize I was… the wind was calm.”

“Was it?” He’s just messing with me, I thought.

“Pretty sure”

“OK, I was just curious. We’ll talk about it on the ground.”

At this point, I was a bit confused.

The Examiner had me put on the hood and perform climbs, turns, descents and unusual attitude recoveries. I was still reliving the “downwind landing” piece… all I could hear was my CFI’s voice saying “Fly the plane…”

When we got back to KRNT, I assumed he’d have me complete the rest of the required takeoffs and landings, so I was a bit alarmed when he directed me to make one normal landing to a full stop.

My one normal landing was perfect; we taxied back to the ramp, shutdown and got out.

“I’ll see you inside.”

I finished securing the plane and went inside his office; his debrief was short and to the point: “Everything was excellent, except your attempted downwind landing at Monroe.”

I was very confused now and getting just a bit annoyed. “It looked calm to me; all the indications available to me confirmed it was calm,” I said.

He then proceeded to explain his logic on my attempted downwind landing:

“Was the windsock hanging straight down? Yes. But, which way was it oriented?

Huh?

He even drew it on the whiteboard for me: “You should have noted it was hanging off to the side that indicated the wind direction the LAST TIME the wind blew. And the last time it blew, it WOULD HAVE FAVORED the other runway…”

Windsock
Sometimes the windsock tells a vivid story; sometimes not.

Huh?

He then debriefed everything else; I have no idea what he said, I was so angry, my arms hurt and my ears were ringing.

“You’ll have to get some additional training and come back to finish it. I won’t charge you again for a complete checkride,” he told me.

As I sat outside his office, nursing my ego and doing some cursory flight planning for my return hop home, I heard him call my instructor over at KBFI, who undoubtedly was waiting to hear a glowing review of what an outstanding job I had done. As soon as the examiner started detailing the reason for my bust, however, I could hear my CFI’s shrill voice over the phone and through the examiner’s closed door. I don’t remember his exact words, but they were something akin to, “You’ve got to be freaking (not his real word) kidding me!!!!”

The return flight took six minutes. The Chief Instructor—not my CFI—was waiting on the ramp for me. As soon as I shut down, he opened the door and asked “How much gas do you have?”

“Plenty,” I replied.

He then climbed in, put his seat belt on and said: “Take me to Auburn.”

Auburn is another local, non-towered airport, 13 miles south of KBFI.   We took off, headed south, and did all the proper steps for entering the traffic pattern. I did one short field landing and headed back to KBFI. He didn’t say a word the whole flight, which took 22 minutes. When we parked back on the ramp, he finally said, “Your re-check is tomorrow at 0900,” and walked away, mumbling.

Epilogue:

I arrived at the examiner’s office promptly at 8:57 the next morning. He tried to be polite and gracious, but I could tell he was still a bit heated from the tongue lashing my CFI had delivered the day before. Great, I thought, I’m doomed. Since I only had the one task to repeat, I didn’t expect to do an entire cross country flight planning exercise; but, I was really surprised when he simply asked, “Where do you want to go?” I thought long and hard for about 30 seconds and then figured I have nothing to lose… “Back to Monroe.”

An hour and a half later, as he was filling out my Temporary Airman Certificate, he offered up, “I knew you knew what you were doing all along; I just had to make sure.”

Epilogue to the Epilogue:

Yes, I was the last student my flight school ever sent to that examiner for a checkride…

20 Comments

  • Your experience sounds very close to mine in the mid ’70s in Oklahoma, except my examiner nearly killed us in my Cessna 140A.

    It took my CFI some time to find an examiner who could and would give me a check ride in a tail dragger with minimal instrumentation. He was an older gentleman located at a small one-runway airport snuggled very close to a major intersection of two interstate highways in Oklahoma City.

    After going through all the test hoops of flying on the way to and at a nearby multi-runway airport, we headed back to the “freeway” airport. One reason we went to the other airport was that there was a pretty strong crosswind at his home base and he wanted an airport that gave us better options. It also had a grass strip marked out by saw horses. I took the Cessna in right over the horses marking the threshold. Up to then, everything had gone very well. I was nervous but felt good.

    When we got back to the “freeway” airport, the crosswind was stronger and I lined up to land heading down the runway with the wind blowing left to right. I set up the tail dragger to do a wheel landing, due to the wind. All was going well with me coming in fairly strong and pushing the nose down to keep the tail up after touching down. Immediately after the wheels touched down and carrying a good amount of speed, the examiner grabbed the controls and pulled back on the yoke, causing the tail to go down and nose go up.

    At the speed we were going, the Cessna took off and climbed a good distance with the nose extremely high and the right wing starting to fall down and us being blown off the runway towards a row of very close hangars, the stall warning blaring. I grabbed the yoke back, shoved it full down so the nose of the plane was pointing more or less towards the ground while putting the throttle to full on. By then we’d been blown or had “flown” over the taxiway. The plane picked up speed and we chugged out of the airport, just missing buildings, trees, power lines and freeways. Did I say it was a short runway? Of course this all happened in a handful of seconds.

    I got the plane stable, went “downwind” and landed without incident. The examiner was white as a sheet and when inside said something about the incident, I guess in the form of a question, because I remember answering, “I wouldn’t have landed here with this crosswind. I would have gone to an alternate airport.”

    He failed me. Not for the near death experience. Instead, he said I hadn’t shown enough skill in placing the plane on the runway on landing.

    I was ready to quit flying and sell the plane and cursed the world of aviation on the 90 miles back home. The near death experience also hit me then.

    My young crop dusting instructor, who was waiting for me, went ballistic, called the examiner and set up a lesson for the next night. He took me to a small nearby airport and we did a series of night landings. He thought night landings helped build skills like pinpointing touchdown points, although he said I was decent for my hours.

    A few days later I went back to the OKC “freeway” airport and the examiner. I did one landing for him, touching down the little Cessna at the very end of runway. That was it. One landing and he passed me.

    A year or so later I sold my plane, took an aerobatic course and bought a competition sailplane.

    • My instructor didn’t like letting me do roll-ons in his Skyfox as a previous student of his had nosed it over. Each time I “dabbed” the stick forward (his instruction on how to do it), as the wheels touched he would pull it back. I complained and said I would just do three pointer landings instead. These were all good so I was sent for my first (taildragger) solo. I nailed three perfect roll-ons while he watched.

  • What an unfair result. I don’t think what you did was unsafe at all. Examiners need to be more reasonable, it’s something any licensed pilot might have done.

  • That was a nicely-written story.

    I ran afoul of an examiner like that early in my flying career. It was on the Commercial Multi ride in an old 310.

    Apparently, the FAA was concerned about this guy because he did not have enough “busts.”
    So he had developed a sort of “scam” in which he would flunk a few applicants on the oral with a ridiculous, trivial question. Then, your instructor would give you the answer (more instruction), you would then pass your ride, and you would still get your ticket same day.
    I believe that he did this with guys he believed would not become pro pilots, so as to not hurt aspiring pro pilots with a “bust.”

    Now, I am a guy who always prepares way beyond what is required for check rides, and I have learned that nailing the oral predisposes the examiner to feel good about you, which is a good thing. So, it took him a while to find something. But, find it he did.

    That bust was earth-shattering to me and the time and I was extremely upset at the unfairness of it in general.

    I have since gone on to add pro pilot to my list of careers, and, fortunately, nobody has seemed to be very worried about that “bust.”

    What a passionate thing we aviators get to do!

  • Perhaps the examiners point about the wind sock was valid for Monroe, but not at the airports I fly into. The wind sock is more likely to have swung to the lowest point of the 360 degree swing indicating only that the wind is calm. I suspect that the sock pole doesn’t remain perfectly upright over time.

    I find using information from nearby weather sources, or the winds aloft to be more reliable for such situations.

  • This article bugs me. (No, not the article itself! That happened to be very well written. I’m talking about the FAA examiner’s approach to “examining”).

    The FAA clearly mentions that a wind sock will function reliably and orient into the wind at 3 knots. Below that (and under calm wind circumstances) the wind sock is unreliable and the Pilot in Command is responsible for runway selection based on his or her best judgement. With no ASOS/AWOS, no other traffic, no unicom operator, and no preferred non-wind runway, the author went with the runway that offered the clearest advantage to him (distinct visual references). Just because the examiner disagrees with his decision does not mean that the author was wrong. He safely operated his aircraft in accordance with FAA standards and he should not have been graded based on differing opinions of runway selection “techniques”.

    Instead, these differences should be used as talking points in the debrief and offered up as suggestions only. As a fellow military aviator I agree with your line of thought. That examiner’s closed-minded thought process is seen far too often and it probably contributes to why so many young people are disinterested in aviation. At least he didn’t give anymore checkrides!

  • Thanks, Everyone, for the great comments!

    With the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, the wisdom of age, and a bit less ego, I can now look back on that episode and chuckle. Although it stung quite a bit at the time, I did learn some very valuable lessons, at the ripe old age of 40-hours Total Time:

    Fly the Plane. Even after the confusion at Monroe, I still thought it was the best flight I’d ever flown. I remember thinking “We could’ve done this over the phone…” Of course, if the examiner told me right away that I had “busted”, the ride would have been over early, and I’d have had a much longer, more traumatic re-check. Glad I was able to focus on my CFI’s early advice to always ‘fly the plane”, no matter what. I still hear his words; can’t tell you how many times I’ve repeated them.

    Attention to Detail. Although I put this episode in my “I See Your Point” box (I don’t agree—I just see your point), long ago, there’s no doubt this experience helped shape the way I try to approach all things flying-related. I’m sure its saved me more than a few times in the intervening years.

    Never Argue with the Examiner. In the airplane, anyway. Even though the wind sock could’ve actually been spun around by the airport manager on his riding mower. ‘Nuf said.

    And…no…I’ve never been back to Monroe!

    Curran

  • Some airports publish a preferred traffic pattern runway unless there is a 5 kt wind that favors the change to reverse the pattern. In this case a very light breeze can put the windsock in conflict with the AWOS and traffic in the pattern.

  • That examiner sounds like so many pilots. A doofus with neither the drive, nor discipline, nor education, nor future-time orientation to get a big boy business or engineering job, so he struts and frets about his small stage trying to make a living at his hobby and pretending to be a big, very, very important man.

  • I suspect many of us have had bad pilot examiner experiences. Without going into details, I had a similar experience, including my CFI flipping out and my re-check the next day. After being told I passed, I asked the examiner to show me how he wanted the forward slip landing on the numbers to look. He took the controls and touched down nearly 3000 ft down the runway.
    About 2 months later, he “landed” his twin Cessna on the local runway–gear up, to the delight of several past examinees.

  • That is a great example of what is wrong with the DPE program. The enticement of additional income from follow up checkrides, has corrupted the system. Examiners are out of control and if you make a complaint to the FAA, they support them. Busting someone intentionally because they need to increase their bust rate, or for something like ignoring the last direction of the windsock, before calm winds, is asinine. I would have exploded if I were your instructor.

  • The fact the examiner gave you his result while you were still flying shows his inexperience and/or ineptitude. You don’t start accessing the flight in the air.

    Also, I encourage my students to give a running commentary as to their intentions and actions to show their reasoning and thought processes etc. But I ONLY suggest this if the candidate is confident of what they are talking about. It could backfire on them and the candidate could shoot themselves in the foot by doing so.

  • There are a lot of airports that have wind socks that are no longer vertical. Even some of the new windsocks soon tilt one way or another. Add to that, if the maintenance crew puts the windsock on upside down, water will accumulate in the bottom of the barrel of the sock (there is a grommet hole in the sock which is supposed to be down) thus weighing the sock in the tilted direction. It would take about a 15 knot wind to move the sock from that normal resting position. Shame on the examiner. He probably needed a “bust” to keep his POI happy.

  • Interesting and well told story. Thanks! I’ve been very lucky: took all ( SEL, SES, MEL, CFI, CFII, CFIMEI, Private & Commercial Helicopter, Glider, French Private, French Mountain, French CFI) with gentlemen & ladies who were interested in aviation, and committed to give a boost to people who shared their passion. All of them could have busted me at least 3 times per ride. From that I keept this: if a person you check out isn’t dangerous, give him or her the benefit of the doubt. On my teaching airplane checklists ( currently Super Cub, but previously 3x CAP 10s, aC-180 and a 8kCAB) I printed: “FLY THE AIRPLANE, The Radio never kept you from a Stall.” And a density Altitude chart.

  • I haven’t seen this comment yet so here it goes….this is all about the examiner’s numbers. They can’t pass everyone or they would look like they were a ‘rubber stamp’. They also can’t fail the students from the big schools where they make all their money. So, when they need a fail to make their numbers and you happen to be they guy from the local independent flight school….

  • I was on an extended vacation in AK and did my ASES rating while in Anchorqge. I flew with a an instructor north of Wasilla who was also the DPE. Every day was the same: he would talk me through every single step of everything to the point I just waited for him to tell me what to do without realizing it. He had another instructor fly with me for an hour so I can get endorsed for the checkride. That instructor tells me to use carb heat while taxiing since we are in cooler climate and higher humidity in the lake. He was an airline pilot with 40k hrs and owned 3 airplanes in a lake in AK where he grew up and learned to fly at age 5. Seemed reasonable to me. Next day in my checkride I’m on takeoff, 50’ above the water and the DPE (former instructor) says “abort takeoff!” I throttle back, land with room to spare and taxi back to the dock. He flunked me for carb heat still on. I ended up flying another hour+ with instructor #2, and full price for a second checkride ($650). Plus plane rental and instructor fees. We did have a ‘conversation’. As a lifetime adult educator and now college professor, I know a thing or two about teaching. Stop talking all the time: teach them let them student do it. Only correct mistakes. Otherwise shut the h&$@ up. That one little thing cost me another $1500 and really ruined what should have been a fun experience.

  • As a previous FAA designated examiner for a part 121 carrier and General Aviation DPE there is a difference. On the airline side there was never a mention about pass and fail rates. On the GA side if you have more than a 80% pass rate it is brought to your attention. Unfortunately an examiner‘s discretion and professional opinion is moot. When I started as a GA examiner the program was not intended as a way to make a living but the FAA wanted a pilot than brought a variety of aviation experience to the table for creditability for the FAA and examiner. Unfortunately the path of least resistance has taken over.

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