CFI Practical Exam
A Practical is a two part “final exam” for each pilot certificate or rating comprising an oral exam and then a flight portion conducted by a DPE (Designated Pilot Examiner). After you have met all the requirements for training and experience specified in the FAR (Federal Aviation Regulations): Eligibility, Aeronautical Knowledge, Flight Proficiency, Aeronautical Experience, you have to schedule a practical where the examiner determines if you meet the FAA Standard and if so issues your new certificate or rating. For each certificate or rating there is a book of testing standards: the older standards are the PTS (Practical Test Standards) and the newer versions are the ACS (Airman Certification Standards) that combine Knowledge, Risk Management, & Skills and organizes them by Task, aka Emergency Approach and Landing. Up until CFI (Certified Flight Instructor) all my certificates and ratings had been converted to the newer ACS format; however the CFI PTS has not yet been updated. Therefore, it created a lot of additional stress for me when trying to prepare for the practical to make sure I fulfilled all the required elements of each task to the examiners satisfaction. With the newer ACS each task is broken down, but with the older PTS it just lists the tasks and you have to go to the individual references to find the elements and requirements of each task and then ensure you apply sufficient risk management to the task, it becomes complicated as in finding the needle in the hay stack sort of way.
Last week I passed the CFI Practical and reviewed the past almost 3 years in a Blog.
The Commercial Certificate and CFI Certificate are similar in that you have to know everything from the lower certificates and ratings: private, instrument, etc….. and have to be able to perform the tasks to the tighter commercial standards such as holding altitude within 50 ft. or heading within 10 degrees and so forth. However with the CFI Certificate you have to fly everything from the right seat and teach the person in the left seat while flying. Also you basically earn a teaching certificate covering the FOI (Fundamentals of Instruction). I won’t lie, the FOI part was a school in itself and was tough, aka flashback to my psychology college courses, say 20 years ago! In keeping with what had been successful in the past I completed my ground schools first, studied for and took the exams, then concentrated on the flying portion and preparing for the Practical Exam. I completed my online/iPad based FOI ground school and then began working through the ASA Exam FOI Study Guide. I was warned that this exam gets a lot of people in trouble because it focuses on the psychology and theory of learning, instead of airplane stuff and aerodynamics, so it catches people unprepared. I studied hard and had some minor mental breakdowns but scored mid 90% on the FAA Exam. Next I followed the same process for the Flight Instructor Airplane (FIA) Exam which is basically a combination of the exams required for the prior certificates bumped up a level in detail, scope, and difficulty covering an exhaustive list of topics in FAA Handbooks and references. Here is a good list of topics in the FIA Exam. Each reference is a good weeks read or longer to get meaning out of them. I’ve been exposed to all of them in the last 3 years working through each certificate, some more than others, but when you revisit them presented in a list in preparing for CFI it is easy to become overwhelmed!
Unlike prior certificates it was difficult to prepare for the CFI Practical. I don’t know if it’s because fewer people continue to the CFI Certificate so fewer people have first hand knowledge of what the Practical is going to be like, or if it is because DPE (Pilot Examiners), while having to test to the standards and sample prescribed material, have great latitude and discretion in how to conduct the practical test. There is so much to study and prepare for at an “Instructional Level”, but what exactly does that mean to my DPE? Also there is limited time, a month, prior to finishing training and the Practical. In addition to the academics to prepare for the oral portion, I had to prepare outlines and classes on dozens of topics for teaching private pilot through commercial pilot students. I simply had to try and focus on what I had determined was the most important and do my best. The 1st time pass rate for CFI is daunting, at about 60%, and I had listened to podcasts about training and practical tests and that most people have one failure somewhere along the path. I personally knew two pilots who had to retest at one certificate level or another; to this point I had obtained all 1st time GOs.
December 19th 2018 was my original CFI Practical. It doesn’t matter how much you study or know, the pressure is immense; in hindsight I had subconsciously put myself under a lot of pressure to finish in one day aka “get there itis”, a big No-No. The oral started with questions and scenarios covering Fundamentals of Instruction, Ethics, Teaching Methods, CFI Responsibilities. This went well and consumed about 2 hours. Then on to the Technical Subject Areas: aeromedical, principals of flight, high altitude operations, airspace, flight planning, navigation and radar systems, etc. I have been studying and reading for three years so I felt good through all this, although after 4 hours of quesitning it slowly tires you out physically and mentally wether you realize it or not. Next we spent 2 1/2 hours on Federal Aviation Regulations and Logbook Entires & Certificate Endorsements. I did really well and had researched this all in pain staking detail creating a 3 page flow chart and research paper on the subject for future reference. The DPE loved it and said I was really good on this subject. Though thinking back it left more time for or lot of in depth scenario type questioning on analysis of certificate requirements, applicable aviation regulation, and training requirements. For example a rotorcraft ATP comes to you and wants his ASEL Commercial, What does she need to do? Etc……. I did well with all sorts of questions like this surrounding the regulations but after 6 hours of work my mind was running out of mental gas. Also I wasn’t totally sure exactly how some of the practical would be conducted. I knew I had to teach a class applying all the required FOI Elements and had been assigned to teach one on Eights-On-Pylons in the pre-practical plan the DPE had sent me; the maneuver was also to be flown/taught in flight. However, in my mental fog I didn’t realize I would also have to teach a second class within the technical areas to be announced just before it was to be given; meaning I wouldn’t have the subject in advance. Some people make up their own outlines for classes and part of CFI training is to create an entire set of outlines, classes, supporting materials for teaching all required knowledge areas from private pilot through commercial pilot. In reality many choose to instead not recreate the wheel, so to speak, and purchase a set of outlines that carefully follow the above PTS/ACS subject matter requirements and then customize them. This is what I did using them as a starting point to study, research, and then create my own short outlines to supplement the set I had purchased (550 pages of outlines). The DPE requested I teach a class on Aircraft Weight & Balance giving me 10 minutes to prepare. At this point my mind just ran out of gas and I failed to recognize my predicament…. FOI elements require you to teach from an outline and have reasonable supporting materials etc. The ACS/PTSs require all elements to be covered. I failed to open my binder of outlines nor did I pull appropriate supporting material from the FAA Weight & Balance Handbook as I knew I needed to do in order to show the DPE the required Instructional Knowledge of the CFI testing requirements. I actually did a fairly good job of covering the subject matter though I stumbled a couple times due to not following my outline; thus the requirement to do so, etc!
Practical Test Standards allow the applicant, Me, to at any time request a “discontinuance” if I have reason to not continue. In this example I had been at it 7 1/2 hours, obviously wasn’t going to finish in one day, and was mentally exhausted. I failed to do so and even with the DPEs best efforts, giving me all opportunity, I failed to mentally recognize my situation and he had no choice but to issue a “notice of disapproval” aka failure to meet the PTS Standards for a specific required element. I had let my self imposed timeline pressure me into not making the right decision; I wanted to finish before Christmas and move on, I knew the DPE was going on vacation for several weeks, the weather was perfect this day even though it had been so bad lately, and so on. So with that I left without my CFI Certificate and carrying the need to reevaluate my preparation. I rescheduled with the DPE for a month later, spent a week beating myself up, and then sucked it up and began to redouble my efforts. Me and Laura went away to an Air BnB for a long weekend to relax and mentally reset. I realized that even though I had the purchased outlines and my own outlines, I needed more. I had not ever taught at that level and needed something more than an outline to go by to keep me on track, focused, and interesting to a student. Therefore, I spent the next month restudying all my outlines and creating interesting, in depth Powerpoint presentations to go with each Technical Area Subject and the Maneuvers. I also met with and received the required additional training and endorsement from my CFI who endorsed me to take the CFI Practical.
As mother nature would have it I had to reschedule my second CFI Practical multiple times over the coming six weeks due to snow, wind, ice, and my DPE having a family emergency. I used the time to work on my class PowerPoints and study my maneuvers to prepare for the flying portion of the test where I would fly and teach in the cockpit. Through this process I realized I was a bit unprepared for the 1st attempt or at least better prepared for this 2nd attempt. Finally, we were able to schedule the redo. I simple told myself that I have been working nonstop for 3 years for this, though nervous and stressed, it was my time to seize the moment!
We finally agreed on a day where the DPE had a Practical at another location in the morning and that he would call me when it was completed so that at least we could finish the oral portion even if it was too late for the flight assessment. With the unstable whether as of late we could then find a small window of favorable weather and do the flight portion. I had expected a call around 11 or noon but by 1245 I hadn’t heard anything and was napping on the couch with a very sleepy Black & Tan Coonhound on one end and a Treeing Walker Coonhound on the other. At 1:15 the DPE called and said he would meet me at the airport! I sprang to my feet and gathered my stuff to head to the flight school and set up my laptop and presentation equipment to teach my classes I had worked so hard on; and to seize the moment! The DPE arrived shortly after and we discussed the plan to proceed and a few questions on Performance Limitations, Weather, and then I presented my exhaustively researched and documented class on Principles of Flight. Following good FOI and presenting principles I used my outline to construct a Powerpoint only then selecting graphic illustrations, tables, figures, images, videos, etc from the FAA Handbooks and other sources, that supported complex ideas or those that left me with visual images that I sought to effectively describe in a tangible manner. The DPE said he thoroughly enjoyed the class and that I would offer them for purchase! LOL not so sure about that but I appreciated that it wasn’t off the wall boring and lacking enriching content! So after critiquing the 1st class we moved onto a mock flight lesson scenario where I had a Commercial Pilot student seeking for me to impart upon him the essence and intricancies of the Eights-on-Pylons maneuver; a different kind of maneuver unmatched in developing intuitive control of the aircraft (AFH). For this I had prepared another Powerpoint and also used a model airplane that my older son made me using his 3D Printing Pen. The class was another hit and after discussing it we wrapped up by addressing Operation of Aircraft Systems and Airworthiness Requirements by going out into the hangar area and getting hands on with a mostly disassembled Cessna 172 undergoing repairs and servicing. For these topics the DPE role played as if I was introducing a primary student to aircraft systems and airworthiness.
Now we were getting somewhere!
The flight portion of a Practical is often a bit blurry after the fact. I always think I’m going to remember the details so I can debrief my CFI or write about it, but then when I go to do it and things aren’t so clear. This time I thought I had the solution. Normally during Practicals you can use your iPad EFB (Electronic Flight Book in FAA speak) to access your charts, airport information, etc; however, the DPE makes you turn off the location services so it won’t tell you where you are on the chart, figuring that out and navigation is part of the test. My iPad is a wifi only model so I use an external GPS for location data; its called a Stratus2 and it tracks your route, speed, altitude, etc. The CFI Practical is the 1st test where the DPE lets you keep it fully functioning since there is no navigation, dead reckoning or pilotage component. It’s all flying maneuvers and teaching them from the right seat. It was cold out so I did the preflight inspection in the hangar and left the airplane inside to keep it warm, shivering is not my thing. I also turned on the Stratus2 so I wouldn’t forget, thinking it would track my location and route throughout the Practical and then use that information to prompt my memory after the fact. I’ve used it on hundreds of flights and never had it let me down. Until this time! I downloaded the file and while it was present, when I access it I get a “Corrupt File” message. Must be that DPE secrecy vibe. Anyway I’ll do my best to describe some of what took place.
The flight portion:
So the flight portion was truly unique in that during prior Practical Tests the examiner rarely takes the controls, almost never, and if he does its probably because you scared him and thus failed! On the CFI exam, applicant and examiner role play, switching roles often, playing that of student and CFI. The applicant, me, always sits in the right seat and often the examiner would have me perform a maneuver, such as a steep turn. He then might have me evaluate or critique myself according to the appropriate testing standards, PTS or ACS. Alternatively he would have me teach him the maneuver as if he was a student or commercial pilot applicant. He would perform the maneuver after I taught it to him and intentionally perform one or more common errors to see if I noticed, could identify it, and how I corrected him; did I use the principles in the appropriate FAA references such as the Airplane Flying Handbook. At times he would want me to evaluate, other times critique, drawing a distinct line between the two. We repeated this process for almost everything we did though not always in the same order. There was a lot more discussion and questioning during the flight portion than all my over Practical Exam flights combined. As a CFI you are expected to be able to fly and talk; walk and chew gum.
The CFI Practical Test Standards (PTS) specifies what must be tested; however, thankfully the examiner is not required to test each and every possible task. Doing so would require an unreasonably long flight examination. Required tasks are grouped by type and then some are designated as required to be tested while others are optional. Therefore the examiner must test the required items and then selects a specified number of optional tasks. For example under the category of “Performance Maneuvers” the tasks are:
A. Steep Turns
B. Steep Spirals
D Lazy Eights
The examiner is required to test A or B, and C or D.
Also as I mentioned earlier the examiner has great discretion on how he goes about testing each task. Many tasks can be combined and often are combined in a scenario requiring the applicant to make appropriate decisions and then select and preform the corresponding maneuvers. Examiners are quite crafty in this art! For example the examiner might say you have an engine fire, smoke in the cabin, or have lost presurization. The applicant would be required to complete the appropriate emergency checklists (Task 1), Select and execute one of several types or emergency descents as appropriate (Task 2), and perform one of several types of emergency landings (Task 3). All while demonstrating appropriate aeronautical decision making, risk assessment and management, and being able to explain why he acted as he did. The CFI applicant must always be able to explain and teach while doing.
Here is where my Stratus2 GPS/Data Recorder would have come in handy since I could have looked at the track data and been able to determine and describe each maneuver and task. However as I said it must have shut down after not being able to acquire satellite signals inside the hangar and failed to recover when I pulled the airplane outside. Though exam flights being stressful tend to be a blur in memory I know I was tested on all required tasks and selected optional tasks. Most of the tasks I did twice, once actually performing it and once either teaching or evaluating the examiner as he played the role of student and I the CFI. Some of those tasks were:
Short Field Takeoff
Short Field Landing
Slip to Landing
Power Off Stalls
Go-Around/Rejected LandingPower-Off 180 degree Approach and Landing
Straight and Level Flight (teach a first time student)
Steep Turns (360 left into an immediate 360 right)
Eights on Pylons (I gave the class on the ground and taught it in flight)
Emergency Approach and Landing
System and Equipment Malfunctions
I felt I had been performing quite well up to this point and my confidence and hopes were high that I’d be walking away with my CFI certificate in hand. Though things got pretty hectic once we returned to the airport to finish up the remaining tasks. I won’t go into great detail but a certain flight school from the DC area had several training aircraft in the traffic pattern with students having very strong and difficult to understand accents. It was as if they could transmit but not receive. In reality I’m sure they could do both but were simply going through the motions, transmitting their intentions but not listening to others. This is extremely dangerous and unfortunately we often have see this happen; however usually it is only one or two aircraft at a time. Today it was four and they were behaving particularly poorly. Anyway one pulled out in front of me while I was on final and I had to go-around and sidestep to the left of the runway so he didn’t climb out and collide with me from below. Another failed to exit the runway in a timely manner forcing another rejected landing. A third was flying some kind of low, close, and slow traffic pattern causing me to be unable to maintain proper spacing and I had to take action to keep from getting too close. The forth was calling out his portion but wasn’t in that location in the traffic pattern. All this pumped up the stress level and I felt myself beginning to crack.
Thankfully I pulled it together and though not necessarily perfect, I completed the remaining tasks sufficiently to standard and the examiner finally told me to taxi back to the hangar so we could do some paperwork, aka issue my Flight Instructor Certificate!
The saying goes, A Good Pilot Is Always Learning. I have found this to be true as I learn something on every flight. Some more than others but always something. I know I want to obtain my CFII so I can teach instrument flight and finish my multi-engine training that I started prior to my commercial certificate. Then of course there is MEI so I can teach multi-engine students and……… well you get the point.
However in the short term I want to get some experience flight instructing and do all those things I have had to put aside in the past 3 years while flight training. You know certain home repair tasks and improvements, yard work and such. Also I have so much work to do on HoundPilot and want to get some of those things moving along. There are the books and flight handbooks I’ve wanted to reread and examine more carefully and resources such as the debriefing software CloudAhoy that I need to learn how to really use. I also really look forward to some fun flying. Don’t get me wrong any flying is good; however, training flights week after week become stressful and the process of making it through CFI training was particularly so. I have a weekend fly to fish trip in May, a fly-in trip to an aviation job fair with a young pilot after that, and of course I can’t wait to fly back to EAA Air Venture aka Oshkosh in Wisconsin from Baltimore in July and while over there fly into Rochester, Mn to see family. And of course I’ve set a goal to do at least one rescue flight a month this year, hopefully many more.