It’s getting close!
To get a pilot’s license or rating in the US, you have to pass a practical examination with an FAA examiner.
Side note: “What’s the difference between a license and a rating?” you ask. A license gives you flying privileges for a particular category and class, such as “airplane, single-engine, land” or “Zeppelin.” A rating gives you additional privileges for whatever licenses you hold, such as an instrument rating (which you use in conjunction with a single- or multi-engine airplane license, a helicopter license, or whatever.)
The examiner may be an FAA employee, but more often is what the FAA calls a DPE: a designated pilot examiner. Think of the DPE like a sort of super-instructor: a civilian instructor who handles practical exams for the FAA and has the power to grant, or deny, your license based on your exam performance. Each FAA field office has a list of DPEs to which it has delegated this authority (here’s the San Jose list.)
How do you know what the examiner will test you on? There’s a document for each license and rating known as the Practical Test Standard, or PTS, that tells you. For example, the parachute rigger PTS spells out exactly what a parachute rigger must know; likewise the PTS for various pilot licenses. The PTS I’m working on is here; it sets out three things:
- What the examiner may and must test the applicant on during the oral exam. Most of these descriptions are very broad, and include the phrase “exhibit knowledge.” The DPE can ask you pretty much anything as a means of seeing whether you can exhibit knowledge; there’s no category of things they cannot ask you.
- What maneuvers the examiner may and must test. Most of these are self-evident: climbs, turns, descents, straight-and-level flight, steep turns, and so on. In a few cases, the examiner can choose one (or more) maneuvers from a list.
- What performance standards each maneuver requires. For example, a steep turn requires 45° of bank, ±5º, and you must maintain altitude ±100 feet.
As you might imagine, the practical examination is a big deal. Before you can take it, your CFI has to give you a logbook endorsement indicating that you’re ready. This endorsement means that your instructor thinks you’re prepared for both parts of the check ride: the oral exam and the practical flight test. Preparation is super important. I’ve been studying the PTS so I know the required precision for the maneuvers, practicing the maneuvers both with my instructor and solo, studying the ASA check ride exam prep guide, and watching the King Schools check ride prep course. Of these things, the most important is the flying practice. The two things I need to nail down are crosswind takeoffs and landings and short-field landings; more on those in the next post.