Part 1 –This month’s story is about the dreaded CPL Checkride and what it was like: Is it a real-world scenario-based test? Or a box ticking exercise? It was my turn to find out.

Johan Walden

I FOUND THIS PIECE more difficult to write than most: As much as people encourage us, the bottom line is that tests are a scary but necessary part of aviation.

Though I passed this one, just writing about it has elevated my blood pressure up by a few bar – which is unconducive to writing. But I hope I’ve given you something this month that you’ll find useful and shed some light on the subject if a test lies in your near future.

As with any pilot licence skill test, this one consisted of a ground evaluation (the “let’s have a chat” part) and practical flying test, and I had prepared long and hard for both: After all the exams, hour-building, and jumping through hoops I had no intention of falling at the last hurdle.

While I waited in the flight school for the examiner to arrive, I sipped my coffee and my

thoughts turned towards what the test would be like. This being a test for a ‘professional licence’ and all, I wasn’t surprised to see that the forms demanded tighter hand-flying tolerances (for speed and altitude etc.) – and of course questions in the ground evaluation focused more on the commercial flying environment. But beyond that, I didn’t know much about what was coming.


Part of my preparation (last month’s topic) included my test folder: a professional-looking blue folder I had put together to hand to the examiner when he arrived. It contained an overview of my training and flying experience (a sort of aviation-tailored CV), copies of my exam certificates, and all the flight documents – nav log, flight plan, weight & balance, weather, and so on. That, and my attempt at wearing a tie (to which I shamefully admit to watching a video on how to do), I hoped would display at least some level of professionalism.

Oxygen requirements can become a factor when crossing high terrain.

The designated flight examiner (DFE) was only scheduled to arrive at around 3.00 pm, but I still showed up at 9.00 am sharp (classic Johan mistake). For the next six hours I twiddled my thumbs while I tried to keep the lid on my stress levels. I thought about my instructor’s words the day before: “Tests are passed before you start.” I still don’t quite understand it, but it felt like there was more to it than the usual slap on the back and “break a leg” tomato sauce encouragement.

The sound of an arriving car overrode that thought and I scurried to the door to meet the examiner.


He was, as I had expected, the no-nonsense type and was eager to get started right away. I had my textbooks, aeronautical charts, and everything in between, already laid out in the briefing room. For the ground evaluation I handed him my test folder and he browsed through it slowly. Once he reached the flight documents the quizzing began.

He asked me questions here and there about the weight and balance, NOTAMs, ATC flight plan, and so on. Once he got to the end of the folder we pulled out a chart and got into some of the more elaborate questions. What type of Search And Rescue can I file on a flight from Cape Town to Saldanha? What is the minimum cloud base for a VFR flight in a Control Area? I knew most of the answers but if I was unsure, I had my books for reference. My instructor had told me that one of the most important things the DFE wants to see is, not necessarily if you know the answer, but do you know where to find it?

An interesting one was a flight scenario over high terrain: At first, all I knew was the height of the terrain and direction of flight. I had to pick the lowest Flight Level that satisfied the Semicircular Rule (flying east on odd flight levels and west on evens) and minimum terrain clearance. But could there be another factor coming into play?


How long could I fly between FL100 and FL120 without supplementary oxygen? Would those time constraints allow our flight to be legal?

You get the picture.

Finally, we looked at the significant weather chart printout I had gotten for today’s flight: What were those two symbols near the Cape? Aha, mountain wave turbulence. And judging by the wind direction, it was likely that most of it was located east of the mountain ranges (on the leeward side). And since our flight would be on the west, it was not a factor.

These practical questions put me a little more at ease: the examiner wasn’t here to nit-pick academic intricacies: Although theory had its place, right now he was testing my ‘practical knowledge’ and decision-making gleaned from the flying experience I’d had up to this point. Could I practically apply the theory I’d learned to make a cross-country charter or similar flight happen?


After the flight test itself (a story for next month) my instructor let me know that many of the examiners go way back to the “good old days”, at SAA and such. And so when the instructor writes your recommendation letter to test, the examiner expects to be taken seriously and given a student who really is ready to test. But he (or she) doesn’t walk in and say, “You’ve failed. You have two hours to prove me wrong.”

So, is it really true that you “pass the test before you fly”? I’m still not sure, and nor was I then.

Certainly the work you put in beforehand has a great effect on the outcome. And if the DFE decides to go ahead with the flight after the ground test, it’s probably a good sign. And if your instructor had the confidence in you to write your recommendation letter, you can be confident too.

All good and well – but was this actually going to be enough?

Because we’d be flying upwind of the mountain wave turbulence it was no factor.

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