Skyhawk panel
5 min read

Are two examiners really better than one?

Today was the big day! I had scheduled my 9:00 am instrument checkride with the local Designated Pilot Examiner in sunny LaPorte, Indiana (KPPO). Upon arrival in the FBO’s briefing room, and much to my surprise, I shook two examiners’ hands; both the DPE and an esteemed member of the FAA would be administering my test today. The FAA employee was present to check the Designated Pilot Examiner’s test-giving performance, and presumably mine as well. What a surprise!

Checkride day in Indiana

The weather (mostly) cooperated for the big day.

Before my official flight test could begin, each of my documents was scrutinized, checked and double-checked by both examiners. The inspection included my medical certificate, flight experience, aircraft logs, engine logs, propeller logs, airworthiness directives, oil changes (I learned that all pilots need to log their pilots’ certificate number with each oil change) and two forms of government-issued identification.

In carefully examining my private pilot certificate, the DPE looked me in the eyes to say “your pilot’s certificate is not valid…” My heart nearly stopped. “…until you sign the back, here.”

One signature and one tense hour later, I was found fit-to-test.

The oral portion of the exam was rapid-fire. Perhaps it was Martha King’s training videos I’d memorized, or the Sporty’s training tapes I’d watched each night, or the wisdom of my flight instructors, but I was eager to rattle off all the knowledge that had saturated my brain for the preceding 12 months. We finished in the oral portion in about two hours.

After a thorough pre-flight, a quick lunch, and approach plate discussion, we pilots three clamored into my club’s Cessna 172, equipped with steam gauges and a Garmin 430W. I was especially diligent with my checklist usage, departure briefings and clearances. Despite my best efforts, I should have had the insight to conduct a VOR check…

Skyhawk panel

No glass panels here…

Heading southeast under the hood and under the scrutiny of two pilot examiners, I turned to intercept V92 toward the Gipper VOR. VOR 1 aligned beautifully after a tune and ident, but VOR 2 remained frozen, unresponsive, and dead. I could barely hear the Morse code identifier and turning the OBS knob had no effect. The primary DPE and I fiddled with the receiver, changing frequencies and settings to no avail.

In my fiddling with the instrument, both examiners made it very clear that I could elect to discontinue the test. An equipment abnormality was not the examinee’s fault, and it would not immediately disqualify me. The DPE slapped a neon-colored “Inop” sticker on the receiver, and I asked for a minute to think.

After a few tense minutes tracking V92 and with some careful consideration, I elected to continue the test. I told the examiners that I would use the GPS overlay to identify upcoming fixes, and that I had previously spent many training hours in skeptical distrust of our VOR 2 indicator.

The test continued. I was given holding instructors hold over the Gipper VOR, adjusting leg-length for wind during two cycles. I then contacted a busy South Bend approach for the ILS 27L. In flying vectors to the localizer, the controller was sorting lots of Oshkosh traffic, plus the usual charters out of KSBN.

ATC’s vector took us right through and past the localizer beam; the controller failed to turn me inbound before intercept, and I politely inquired “localizer alive.” He apologized and re-vectored us onto course.

After flying the ILS to minimums with an ugly crosswind touch-and-go, we then began the DME arc for the VOR 18 approach; this made for an extremely busy period of setting up for the next approach. I had to hand-fly the airplane, change frequencies, accept vectors, refresh plates, identify VORs and keep within tolerances, all on one VOR receiver! We eventually made it to a circling approach and a much prettier touch-and-go.

We had been flying for about an hour and a half, and I had been furiously chewing my mint gum to aid in concentration; the now-tasteless gum began to disintegrate, and I scrambled for a fresh piece. I scrounged up a pack in the pocket of my kneeboard, and was soon refreshed with the cavity-fighting goodness of a new piece; I was ready to continue.

On top of clouds

The joys of instrument flying – finding the sun on a cloudy day.

I turned the plane home to LaPorte where we would make the procedure turn to the LOC 02. Six miles out, the localizer would not identify on either radio, and I suspected even more receiver problems. After checking again, I confirmed that the localizer facility was inoperative; I flew the procedure turn using the timer and GPS fixes, which satisfied the examiners.

The afternoon air had become turbulent, and it was becoming extremely difficult to keep the plane within the 100 foot altitude tolerances and diagnose navigational issues at the same time. Turning inbound, I came within five feet of exceeding the tolerances, and nearly failing the checkride.

Over Lake Michigan, we set up for our final approach: a GPS 02 to LaPorte with a simulated gyro failure! The DPE slapped “inoperative” stickers on both the attitude indicator and directional gyro. With no small effort, I flew the approach down to circling minimums and followed a Piper Arrow around the pattern, careful not to descend below MDA of 1420 feet.

We landed on runway 32 using a short-field technique and the two examiners went inside as I tied up. I was truly unsure if my altitude excursion had thwarted my attempt to become an instrument pilot. Mentally and physically exhausted, I walked slowly across the tarmac after 2.3 hours of intense flying.

Upon my return to the briefing room, the two examiners each shook my hand with a smile. I was, in that moment, the world’s newest instrument-rated pilot.

Alec Synakowski
Latest posts by Alec Synakowski (see all)
11 replies
  1. Roca
    Roca says:

    Great job! Having an FAA guy in the back would have made me awfully nervous, but sounds like you passed with flying colors. I always wondered what would happen if you refuse the FAA supervisor?

    • Alec
      Alec says:

      Hi Roca!

      It really did raise the stress level a bit!
      To be honest, I don’t know what the regulations are about refusing the FAA supervisor; maybe one of our CFI or DPE readers could fill us in.

  2. Jimbo
    Jimbo says:

    I was there with you great write up – maybe that could/should be an added feature of the exam – hhheeeemmm the extra passenger was their to assess the examiners performance not the pilot. If there was an option to decline I feel that option would have been disclosed – besides how would you feel if you got black balled – congratulations sounds like you showed them.

  3. Howard
    Howard says:

    I had that happen on my Private exam back in 1991. The FAA sat in the back like ballast and would ask questions at odd times. The DE was a well dressed older woman who reminded me of Aunt Bea from Mayberry RFD. It was like having part of the cast of the show. The Oral took 4 hours and then the flying portion took forever. In all it was close to 11 hours.

  4. Vance
    Vance says:

    Great Job!

    Reminds me of my IFR checkride. As I am walking with the DPE to my plane the flight school owner/friend/CFII tells me to have a great flight, and the DPE say quickly, ” he won’t it’s a check ride.” How very honest.

    MORT MASON says:

    I took my instrument check ride in Alaska, of course. With a dearth of electronic checkpoints, I was required to locate several imaginary checkpoints. It was something of a sweaty-palms day, but I staggered through it. More luck than skill, I suppose. Still, the ride was only about two hours until the handshake. My trepidation had turned quickly into a feeling lf real accomplishment. The ride was made in a Cessna 177RG.

  6. Jeff Wommack
    Jeff Wommack says:

    Great story I had the same thing happen to me on my instrument exam. FAA examiner the whole time. We were so close to max weight in my 172 I had to leave my flight bag on the ground.

    Jeff Wommack

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