Checkrides with the FAA: Myth vs. Fact

When I was training for my flight instructor certificate at ATP Las Vegas, there was some talk about the changes they would be dealing with after the first of the year.

Basically, the local Flight Standards District Office had notified ATP that as of January 1st, they were reserving the right to require any initial CFI candidate to take their checkride with an FAA inspector rather than the usual Designated Pilot Examiner (DPEs are highly experienced flight instructors that have been authorized and trained by the FAA to give checkrides. The FAA does this because there are too many pilots wanting new ratings and not enough FAA inspectors).

In theory, this shouldn’t make any difference to the applicant. Whoever administers the checkride has to abide by very specific criteria in testing him or her. These criteria are called the Practical Test Standards. In fact, they’re all available online.

That’s the theory. In reality, however, there seems to be quite a difference in how the practical tests are administered. Conventional wisdom has it that a DPE is easier, while flying with an FAA inspector is far more challenging because of how stringently they interpret those Practical Test Standards.

A few years ago, the FAA (or perhaps it was just the area FSDOs) adopted the same policy of doing all the intital CFI exams themselves. The horror stories I heard almost defy belief. Candidates routinely failed on their first attempt no matter how well prepared. Aircraft crawled over by inspectors until they found anything, no matter how small (a faded label on a seatbelt, for example), that would render the aircraft technically unairworthy and therefore grounded. The poor pilot would be left with no alternative but to appeal to the FSDO for a “ferry permit” to get the (usually rented) airplane back home.

I’ve always wondered if these stories were true. There’s no way to know unless you were personally present at each event. But the FAA often gets what I’ll diplomatically call a “bad rap”. For every incident that’s true, there are probably a half dozen that are either exaggerated or just mythical. But again, I had no proof one way or the other to back that up.

Until now.

For starters, I actually took a checkride with an FAA inspector on December 1st and found the inspector to be fair, thorough, and by the book. No more, no less. I would consider his administration of that checkride to be a textbook example of how it should be done.

Of course, one checkride is not exactly a panacea. So I dug up some statistics on the FAA web site that refute, in concrete terms, the idea that the FAA is tougher on applicants than a DPE.

If you look at the PDF file, you’ll note that during 2003, FAA inspectors passed 83.5% of applicants versus a pass rate of only 80.1% for DPEs. Further, the chart shows that for initial CFI candidates, those fearsome FAA inspectors gave thumbs-up to 75.2% versus only 66.5% for Designated Pilot Examiners.

Now that chart only covers initial (or ‘original’) certificates. The FAA provides a seperate chart for add-on ratings. But the gist is the same. FAA inspectors give out the white slips more often than the pink ones, and on average, applicants for a certificate or rating are more successful when taking their tests with the Feds than with a Designated Examiner. It may not have been true ten years ago, but it’s what’s happening today.

This is not to say there aren’t inspectors out there who are unreasonable. I’m sure there are, just as there must be DPEs who are likewise. And if you’re the unlucky soul getting saddled with a hard-nosed inspector who got up on the wrong side of the bed, it doesn’t matter that everyone else had a pleasant experience with the Feds.

But taken as a whole, the FAA inspectors seem to be a reasonable bunch who abide by their own testing standards. And in the end, that’s all we — the pilots — have any right to ask of them. Don’t you think?

(Note: full list of 2003 airmen statistics from the FAA web site)

  2 comments for “Checkrides with the FAA: Myth vs. Fact

  1. May 8, 2015 at 9:44 pm

    My experience has been completely in line with this article. I have noticed, (15 years plus) FAA inspectors to be more consistent and the private DPEs trying to pull out something new just about every checkride. If an applicant is ready I am more relaxed if the ride is with the FAA compared to a DPE. No matter how well my applicant is prepared, if DPE, things can go south and I am never surprised.

  2. May 8, 2015 at 10:22 pm

    Thanks for the data point. I’m glad to know others have observed the same thing.

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