Every two years, those who possess a private pilot’s certificate in their wallet are required by the FAA to take a flight review, or what is colloquially called a “check ride.” It’s not a big deal, not nearly as onerous as taking your initial flight with an examiner. In fact, it can really be whatever you make it, so long as you find an instructor willing to sign you off.
The requirements are simple. You merely jump in your plane with a certified instructor, fly for an hour or more, and then chat about it on the ground to eat up the required two hours total time. And make sure you log the time, so if Big Brother looks you can show him you did it. Easy peasy.
Some of the more diligent pilots decide to make it a meaningful experience, and use the check ride the way it was intended, which is to make sure that their skills have not deteriorated, or better yet, as an opportunity to learn new tricks. (One has the option of gaining a new skill, called a rating, in lieu of the check ride.) The more diligent pilots approach their biennial flight review by choosing an instructor who will confront their weaknesses, or, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, “a friend who will stab you in the front.” They may decide to repeat the steps of their original training, or if confident about their fundamental skills, practice more difficult skills such as slow flight, spins and stall recovery, holding patterns, or tricky instrument approaches.
Most pilots I know don’t particularly like the check ride, because most pilots I know don’t like to do anything anyone else tells them they have to do. I guess that’s true for most of us, but as a general rule I think pilots have it worse. I am not sure why that is, but it probably has something to do with the machismo required to pack your body into a tin container and launch yourself off the surface of the planet while relying on the whims of a reciprocating engine and your own ability to manage the thing in such a way as to not spin mightily into the strawberry fields forever below.
I don’t know anyone who has ever “failed” a check ride, but I do know some folks who decide that failure is possible just so they can feel good about passing. It’s not that by winning they will have bragging rights, at least not among pilots, but some people just like to make themselves feel good, and winning a game, even an easy one, usually feels better than losing (at least for some of us).
The check ride becomes a contest with one’s self, which in psychological lingo can be called sublimation, or in everyday language, the ability to turn lemons into lemonade. These pilots understand that like any other endeavor, there is great satisfaction to be achieved by feeling competent at something, and the route to greater competence is practicing increasingly complex or difficult skills. They set up their own challenge within the check ride. This time around, they say to an instructor friend, I want to be better at stall recovery, or some such thing. The possibilities of course are fairly endless, as aviation is a capacious sport– a science, I like to think, big enough for the most capable of pilots to call themselves artists. If you shrug at this notion, watch an aerobatics display.
Those of us like myself who are fear-dominated often create challenges where they don’t need to be just so that we can channel our fear productively. Fear can be a rather annoying companion, so I have always believed that because it never really leaves my side I might as well get to know it and hopefully befriend it. The check ride, in fact, is not unlike some of the people I call friends; some of them annoy me and have distasteful attributes but I find their presence somehow edifying or comforting. Flying holding patterns, and particularly entering them (which way?) is one of those distasteful parts of flying, so for me at least it would be a good idea to add them into my check ride. But not this time around.
This time around, I have decided, I am going to focus not only on reviewing basic skills, but on callouts. Callouts are exactly what they sound like. The pilot or co-pilot says certain things out loud, sort of like a checklist, announcing to him or herself or anyone who might be eavesdropping what is going on in the moment, a verbal reminder that signals the need to do something or more likely, that things are going the way they ought to be going so that there is no need to do anything rash. My favorite callout, as an example, occurs when the airplane is rolling down the runway and you reach enough speed for the airspeed indicator to come on line and you or the co-pilot shouts “airspeed alive!” I don’t know if any pilots out there have a little voice in their head whispering “and so am I!” I certainly don’t.
Callouts are challenging to me simply because it is an area that was completely neglected in my training, so I never had an opportunity to learn or practice them. They aren’t difficult, nor are they even necessary, but it is a little thing I can get better at.
I am writing these words right now on New Year’s Eve, and it strikes me that the custom of making New Year’s resolutions has something in common with the check ride. We recognize a weakness or three in ourselves, and vow to do better. I have never liked resolutions, thinking that they are just invitations to failure, and I find failing increasingly tiresome, but perhaps if I think instead that resolutions are merely setups for life’s ongoing check ride I will do better. As long as no one makes me do it.