How to pass the PPL skills test

How to pass the PPL skills test

“SOME people have this conception that examiners are there to fail you,” says Luke Hall, the Chief Flying Instructor at Cambridge Aero Club.

“But examiners will actually go a long way to avoid failing you if you demonstrate good airmanship and safe skills. This is the way our minds work.”

Such has been Luke’s experience of seeing students and qualified pilots worried sick about tests, he invited Adventure 52 along to talk about the commonest mistakes that pilots make when it comes to sitting that final test (or a renewal).

A lot rides on a Skills Test. It’s the culmination of all of that time, expense and the frustrations of learning to fly. None of us want to fail so it’s reassuring to hear Luke say that come test day, that examiner sitting quietly next to us isn’t there to deliberately catch us out or make things difficult.

“People are often terrified,” says Luke adding that he hates taking tests just as much as the rest of us. “I’d say at least nine out of ten going for a skills test are terrified.”

Just what is the source of this fear? Most of us go into a Licence Skills Test (LST) or Licence Proficiency Check (LPC) feeling capable of passing but the real worry is that we might just mess up one individual item on the day. It’s that creeping doubt that we might not do things exactly as we should. Often this stems from the lessons when we did things right on one flight but then completely messed the same thing up on the next. Inconsistent flying adds to the problem. We then have the questions running through our heads like, ‘What if I don’t set up for a stall correctly?’, ‘What if I lose 100 feet on a steep turn? I did that in my last lesson’ or ‘I messed up my engine fire drill last week, what if I do it in the test’ Thankfully examiners are unlikely to fail us on the basis of a few mistakes, provided we recognise them and take corrective action and provided the mistakes in question did not fundamentally compromise flight safety.

“It’s rare that it’s usually just one thing that causes an examiner to fail you,” explains Luke as we talk through some examples of mistakes that people have made in the past. “A fail is usually based on a number of transgressions which describe a trend, or a general weakness in that person’s flying, poor airmanship or lack of awareness.”

So what kind of transgressions are these? For example, will we be failed on making poor radio calls I ask. “Overall R/T competency is taken into account,” says Luke. “Poor radio calls will help shape the examiner’s view of your overall ability but are unlikely to fail you on their own.”

Altimetry is one area where you can be failed instantly though. “Often it’s when people get the wrong settings in the wrong place,” Luke explains.

Lack of situational awareness is another ‘biggy’. “People get so immersed in navigating at the expense of flying the aeroplane,” says Luke. “They get so scared of getting lost on their test that they forget all the techniques they’ve learnt so they end up micronavigating and then loose sight of the big picture. Ironically, the fear of getting lost ends up being a self-fulfilling prophecy. ”

Another part of the test where pilots frequently fail is the PFLWOP (Practice Forced Landing Without Power). This is a non-repeatable section so if we mess it up first time, that’s it, we don’t get another try. Even though we may fly a PFLWOP perfectly every time we go flying, the examiner has to base his opinion on what he sees on the test. “PFLWOP can easily start to unravel,” Luke sympathises. “But even if you don’t follow the exact pattern, and remember all of your checks, it’s how you deal with it and whether you get the aeroplane in a position for a safe landing that counts.”

Often people fuss over Mayday call and cockpit drills during a PFLWOP yet they do all of this and they haven’t chosen a suitable field or they haven’t paid enough attention to how their glide is working out. “I see a lot of impressive talk and commentary on engine failures,” Luke says. “But none of that mouth-music will help you if you can’t handle the plane and get it down in that field in a survivable manner”

Weakness with PFLs could have something to do with the way it’s taught. “Sometimes I think too much emphasis is put on checks and methodology instead of nurturing the basic judgment skills,” Luke adds.

That’s not to say the methodologies and procedures of emergency handling aren’t important. At some point in the flight our examiner is likely to come up with some kind of electrical or system failure or oil problem. What they’re looking for is to see that we can deal with it using common sense and the FRCs. “Often I see people just making stuff up in a panic,” says Luke. “They should just get the cards out and follow the drill because misidentification often makes a bigger problem.”

These cockpit drills often bring our attention inside meaning that our lookout suffers. Interestingly, ‘lookout’ isn’t an explicitly examined item but examiners are less likely to be forgiving of other minor mistakes if our airmanship is poor.

How much we’re ‘forgiven’ for depends on how an examiner judges our overall attitude to flying. Like it or not, an examiner may form some kind of an opinion of us as soon as they see us at the start of the test. “Whether they should do that or not is a different topic, “ says Luke. “But I never cease to be amazed by the amount of experienced pilots who turn up for an LPC or Skills Test without a map or their usual flying equipment. Candidates need to turn up early for the test and show the examiner that they’re serious about it.

If an examiner sees that you’ve checked the NOTAMS, local frequencies and procedures and that you know what the day’s cloudbase and visibility is, which aircraft you’re doing the test in and how much fuel is in it – without having to be asked to do it, you’re already on the right to track to showing that you can act as a safe and confident pilot. Luke says that it’s not uncommon for a skills test candidate to be “sitting drinking tea and reading the paper” when the examiner walks in. It’s almost like they’re waiting for the examiner to invite them to start the test. Just get on and take the initiative. Preparation for a test is a major, major component of showing whether you are suitable as a person to hold a private pilots license. It means showing foresight and the ability to look things up for ourselves.

Some of us may even fly our test at a different airfield. It’s no use asking the examiner what the tower frequencies are. Even if you’ve never flown there before, you should have already looked them up. Luke says it’s the small things like this which shows an examiner that you have the airmanship and common sense required to hold a PPL. “Right away the examiner is forming an opinion of you,” he says. “It’s like a bank balance, if you lose some credits early on then you have to work hard later to gain them back and conversely, a conscientious well prepared pilot could be more likely to be forgiven for minor mistakes during the flight test.”

Part of the pre-flight quizzing also involves us making the right call on the weather. Luke says we should give ourselves a sporting chance by doing the test on a good day. “Often people are in such a rush to get it done on the day it is booked in and they go up in conditions which are on the limit and this just makes the test harder for them. An examiner won’t fail you if you decide not to fly, provided your weather call is a sound and well judged one”

If you’re halfway through the test and the weather is turning bad then that’s when they want to see you make the call and return to base. If you don’t recognise that the weather is getting worse and you press on, that’s good grounds for a fail.

Luke also advises that if we don’t know the answer to a question, we should just say we don’t know and avoid making up an answer. Instead, offer to say where we’d look up the answer. If the examiner thinks they’ve found a lack of knowledge in a certain area, they’ll hone in on it. “If you don’t convince them with an answer, for every question you get wrong, I think it’s fair to say they’ll want two correct answers back to make up for it!” says Luke.

We have to accept that mistakes will be made during the actual flight. Everybody makes them. Providing these aren’t fundamental flight safety mistakes, if we’ve already gained good credit for showing we have a sound approach to flying then we should be fine.

But gaining that good credit doesn’t mean that we should relax and become too matey with the examiner, especially if we already know them. “Some people expect that if they know the examiner, they can expect more lenient treatment,” says Luke. This often happens where an experienced pilot who has been flying with a club for years and then comes for an LPC and expects it to be a normal sortie. Luke says he’s seen this before. You must always treat it as a formal test and expect to be examined on the same criteria as everyone else. “Often they come to an LPC without knowing exactly what it entails. Some of the qualified pilots I’ve flown with have been shocked that I throw in a navigation element to the test. They think it’s just a short flight with the CFI and as such they don’t prepare to fly a nav route. Often they’ve got so used to flying with a GPS that their chart planning skills have gone rusty.”

It seems there may be a general lack of appreciation of just what’s involved in either renewing or revalidating licences and ratings. “We see symptoms of this with pilots who don’t understand the currency requirements,” says Luke. “A lot of the time they’re doing an LPC because they’ve let their rating expire, often because they haven’t kept an eye on the expiry date.”

Many pilots have actually flown enough to revalidate by experience but failing to deal with it before expiry of the rating will mean a test is mandatory to regain it.

This may be indicative of a bigger problem. Pilots are expected to know their PPL privileges and how to revalidate them but it’s surprising just how many don’t. This lack of knowledge becomes clear when Luke quizzes pilots turning up for renewals. What’s his take on it? He replies, “I think part of the problem is that the flow of information to pilots is obscure and unfriendly. I often stumble upon important changes or news by accident!”

There are even pilots who go through the correct hoops to renew or revalidate but fail to have it signed off properly on their rating card. Similarly, a BFR (Biannual Flight Review) must be signed off by an instructor in their logbook for a revalidation. Luke says he sees that happen a lot too and he’s set up a system where pilots documents are checked before they fly at the club even if they’ve showed him them the day before. “Just occasionally someone may protest about it,” he says. “But it’s the only foolproof way of preventing some people from flying illegally.”

Maybe an LST is a good thing and should be part of the two-year renewal? “Afterall, instructors and examiners are tested this way,” he says. “It could be seen as odd that the SEP is the bedrock of all our flying yet it can be renewed simply by experience. And no requirement for what is after all a simple test.

Paperwork aside, the only real way to ensure you pass is by doing your homework. Part of this includes ‘armchair flying’ where we think through each part of the test in our head before we fly it. We can even fly a nav route in Google Earth to get used to what to expect. Luke says armchair flying helps but we shouldn’t get caught into routine. “Try to also think about the contingencies, “ he advises. “Pilots should also practice stalling and PFLs regularly or fly a glide approach or flapless approach when they return to their home airfield. Maybe even give yourself a practice diversion,” he suggest. “If you don’t practice these things you’ll come unstuck when it comes to your next LST or BFR.”

The other major weaknesses that Luke sees during skills tests are in handling engine problems, landing in crosswinds and a lack of awareness of the aircraft’s performance. Ultimately, although it’s a technical and practical test, the emphasis is ultimately focused on safety, airmanship and common sense.

“You can’t turn nervousness off,” says Luke. “But preparation and understanding what you’ll actually do in the test will help. In a nutshell, give the flying your best shot, put airmanship and safety first and your examiner will give you plenty of latitude.”