I’m tired of seeing this question:
“I just failed a checkride (or I’ve failed numerous checkrides). Will this hurt my chances of getting an airline (or other flying) job?”
If you know someone asking this question, please send them a link to this post. Here’s the definitive 3-part answer:
- Yes, failing a checkride will hurt your chances.
- The amount of hurt depends entirely on you.
- You’re asking the wrong question in the first place.
I don’t think you would have asked #1 if you didn’t already know the answer. Of course, failing an important pilot event is a negative. Repeated failures will drive a potential employer to wonder if you suffer from some underlying shortcoming that you’ve either failed to recognize, or worse, recognized and failed to fix.
And yet, most pilots experience failure at some point in their careers. I failed my initial glider Instructor Pilot checkride in the Air Force, and my T-38 Contact phase check in USAF Undergraduate Pilot Training.
In all my years, I’ve only known one person who had never failed a checkride. At his USAF retirement ceremony he boasted about completing 31 Air Force checkrides without so much as a single downgrade. That’s impressive, though he was a peculiar individual who had done things like blow tires on a landing zone in the middle of the night on a training flight. Even that checkride ace fell short of perfection.
Your Circumstances Are Not Unique
No matter what job you’re applying for, that company has hired pilots who failed one or more checkrides in the past.
Why do you think those other pilots got hired?
In many cases, it’s likely that when the person doing the hiring heard the circumstances of the failure, they realized that it wasn’t a sign of serious trouble. It’s not at all unlikely that the interviewer had failed the same checkride…potentially even for the same item.
It’s also common knowledge that some checkrides and some flight examiners are tougher than others. Initial CFI rides only have pass rates in the 70-80% range. If a single checkride failure was a condemning factor in future career opportunities, our world’s pilot shortage would be even more dire than it already is.
There are probably also cases of pilots getting hired despite screwing up badly enough on a checkride that the average Chief Pilot won’t just pass it off as a bad day or a bad examiner. This probably results in a very uncomfortable interview experience. And yet, many of those pilots still land the job.
Put yourself in the interviewer’s shoes for a moment. What would you want to hear from an applicant?
I suspect that successful versions of this conversation do not involve the applicant acting cavalier about their failure, or blaming their failure on other people or circumstances.
Wouldn’t you rather hear an applicant take ownership of their mistakes? What if they followed that up by humbly stating a few concrete points they learned from the experience, then mentioned how they’ve changed their habit patterns to avoid similar mistakes?
I bet that attitude is more successful than, “The examiner had it out for me,” or “My flight school’s gouge packet didn’t mention that item.”
While a good attitude can result in successfully explaining an egregious checkride failure, it’s also important for those seemingly less-significant ones.
Did you fail your PPL check for a soft-field landing? Take ownership! State, specifically what you did wrong that day. Then, explain how you went out and became a master of soft-field landings and passed your re-check with flying colors. Don’t stop there though! Explain how this changed your checkride preparation strategy to hopefully ensure you’d never suffer from a similar lack of preparation on any other maneuver again.
A wise job applicant could make this a really outstanding interview question response. A terrible applicant would give a short, weak answer here, forcing interviewers to ask another boring, canned question that you’ll answer robotically with a response they’ve heard a hundred times. What do you think they’d prefer?
Job interview or not, every checkride failure is a chance for you to learn, improve yourself, and develop Grit. [Amazon affiliate link.] You’re more than welcome to take advantage of your failure, or choose to impotently piss and moan.
It’s pretty easy for even a mediocre job applicant to prepare a good response to a question about one or two isolated checkride failures. Having numerous failures makes things tougher. I’ve recently seen anonymous posts from pilots who have a surprising number of failures; many on important and expensive checkrides.
Let’s cut to the chase here.
I know that some people just have a lot of anxiety about taking tests. Some people also have a series of innocent mistakes. However, with your best interest at heart, I have to ask the rest of you:
If you’ve failed a lot of checkrides, have you ever sat down and wondered what it is about you or your approach to flying, training, and checkrides that contributes to this trend?
Asking Better Questions
This is the point where we can start asking better questions.
“Will this affect my employment chances?” is a lazy, and useless question.
Instead, you should ask good questions like:
“What is it about my approach to flying, training, and/or checkrides that has resulted in so many failures?”
“Is there something my peers do to prepare for these events that I haven’t caught on to yet?”
“When I finally have the hours to interview for my dream job, what do I want to be able to say about my failures, what I learned from them, and how I developed as a pilot because of them?”
I believe that every pilot is capable of improving their checkride performance if they will take the time for this kind of introspection.
In many cases, you’ll need more than just personal reflection to gain the most from these questions. You should actively and humbly seek out mentorship from authoritative sources like senior flight instructors, chief pilots, and professional pilots currently enjoying what you picture as your dream job to help you figure out these answers.
Spoiler alert: a crowd of random and unknowable commenters on social media is almost always incapable of providing anything approaching this kind of mentorship.
Bonus Pro Tip
We need to move on to another set of good questions, but first I have a bonus pro tip for checkride success.
You have the answer key for every checkride you will ever take. For FAA events, the defining documents for checkrides are called Practical Test Standards, or their evolving replacements, Airman Certification Standards.
These documents list every piece of knowledge you must have for the oral exam. They list every maneuver you have to do on your checkride, and the deviation tolerances for those maneuvers.
(Note that the PTS/ACT even allow “momentary deviations” outside these parameters. Sometimes there’s a gust of wind, a really bizarre instruction from ATC, or a completely unexpectable traffic situation. This allowance isn’t even necessarily for your benefit; it makes your flight examiner’s life much easier. Without leeway to use some judgment on their own, they’d have to hand out far more pink slips and they’d have to spend more of their precious checkride slots giving rechecks. You should absolutely not rely on this allowance for your success. However, it should give a prepared pilot great peace of mind!)
On a checkride, you must be prepared to discuss every knowledge item on this list. You must be prepared to execute every maneuver to the standards specified. You’re the one flying the aircraft when you train. You have the power to know whether you’re meeting standards or not. You also have the power to study the knowledge areas until you’re confident in your ability to discuss them.
None of this should ever be a surprise to you.
I’ve encountered too many flight students who act like it’s their flight instructor’s job to spoon-feed them everything. They expect their CFI to hand them every nugget of information from every knowledge area, and expect that regurgitating this information to an examiner will be enough to pass their oral exam. They expect their CFI to tell them whether they’re meeting maneuver parameters.
This is not how to be a pilot.
Some professions allow room for error, and leaning on others if you’re weak. Aviation makes no such allowances. When you’re flying professionally, the success of your mission, and the safety of your passengers and/or cargo depend entirely on your ability to get the job done without outside help…or to make the good decision not to go in the first place. This will lead us to a tough question in a moment.
In the meantime though, if you’re concerned about failing checkrides, then make sure you download a free PDF of the PTS or ACS applicable to the rating you’re working on. Print it out and take notes all over it! You shouldn’t even consider showing up for a checkride unless your papers are covered in memory joggers and citations for regulations or manuals where you can read the answers to all the questions in source documents.
I took several checkrides from an outstanding DPE who expected me to show up with my marked-up PTS in hand every time. His oral exams took some pilots hours and hours to finish, because he expected examinees to show him the answer to every question in a source document. However, he loved it when my PTS had handwritten notes all over it because it showed that I’d put in effort to prepare, and the exam ended up going faster and smoother.
Your DPE may or may not allow you to use your annotated PTS/ACS as a note sheet during your checkride, but you’d be a fool not to show up with one in hand and ask permission to use it! If the examiner approves, you have the answers to all of their questions.
Even if you don’t get to use it, the examiner won’t be able to help but notice how much preparation you’ve put in before showing up that day. This will always work out in your favor.
Whether you try this or not, there is no excuse for going to a checkride without adequate preparation. You know what’s required of you. You know whether you’re prepared to meet those standards or not. Take ownership of your training and make the call yourself.
(Next pro tip: Don’t copy or even “borrow” someone else’s annotated PTC/ACS. Don’t show up with something that is typed-out. The notes on this document should be written by your own hand. Examiners give lots of checkrides. If they start seeing the same “borrowed” PTS/ATS documents show up, they’ll start giving you a very hard time about it.)
More Hard Questions
Seeing checkride failure questions posted (usually anonymously) online frustrates me because the direct answers are so obvious, and I think they’re a crutch for avoiding more important questions.
We already identified some of the better questions a pilot should be asking themselves and their mentors. However, I think some of you are trying to get at other things.
Since airline pilot hiring started booming in 2014, and resumed booming post-COVID, I’ve noticed significant pressure among young pilots to rush through their ratings and get their spot in line as soon as possible. I’m probably even guilty of contributing to that.
I worry that many of these young pilots view flight training and low-time pilot jobs less as valuable opportunities for learning and development, and more as useless obstacles that have to be skimmed over as quickly as possible.
This is a detrimental attitude.
When I see these pilots asking about checkride failures, I’m worried that some of them are saying:
“I’m frustrated that I wasn’t able to effectively min-run this training event and move on to the next one quickly enough. Does anyone else agree that this is unfair?”
Sometimes, these lazy checkride failure questions aren’t being asked in pursuit of feedback that should be obtained elsewhere anyway, they’re being asked to justify a bad attitude.
I don’t think this is anywhere near universal. I think most pilots are honestly trying hard to do the right thing. However, I’ve known a lot of pilots and a lot of students in my time, and I know that many of them have exactly this attitude.
This leads us to some more very important questions:
“Why are you pursuing aviation in the first place?”
“What is it about aviation that you love so much you want to possibly devote the next few decades of your life to it?”
You don’t have to eat, sleep, and breathe aviation to have a good career as a pilot. However, if you don’t have at least some love for flying, this is not the career path for you!
The barriers to entry are just too high!
Flying is expensive, and employers require pilots to obtain a lot of hours to land a desirable job. Work days for pilots are long, and frequently uncomfortable. You’re expected to keep yourself educated and proficient in a wide variety of knowledge and practical areas.
If you’re only in this job for the money, or the image, or something else, you will not enjoy it. I know a lot of miserable pilots. They’ve wasted their working years doing something they don’t love for the wrong reasons, and many of them make pilots around them miserable too, whether they realize it or not.
If you want money, go get a degree in finance. Go learn to code. Go binge everything on BiggerPockets and start investing in real estate. So many other careers offer an easier path in life than aviation.
Perhaps the most important question that you should have asked instead is:
“What kind of person am I?”
“What kind of person do I want to be?”
Even if you care nothing for your passengers, cargo, or mission, your life depends on your ability to be a self-starter and always do what it takes to be good and safe at your job.
If you aren’t that kind of person, aviation could actually kill you.
If you’re the kind of person who always relies on others to spoon-feed you whatever it is you need to know or do, you will not enjoy aviation.
If you’re the kind of person who blames others instead of yourself, aviation is not for you.
If you’re the kind of person who thinks you deserve anything in this world you haven’t worked for, you should not pursue a career as a pilot.
I’m sorry. I know many of you didn’t want to hear this, but it doesn’t matter. Nothing you think, and nothing I say, will change the realities of this profession.
If you’re worried about repeated or egregious checkride failures, you need to spend some time considering whether you are or are willing to become the kind of person who puts forth the effort to gain the skills, knowledge, and ability to do the job.
You should not resent your training and the experience you get from low-time pilot jobs. This stuff is invaluable! I promise that you do not want to end up like pilots from many foreign countries who have so little meaningful aviation knowledge and experience that they crash jets and/or kill people for stupid mistakes.
You don’t want to be the Air France pilots who had a jet stalled for over 3 minutes as it plummeted thousands of feet into the ocean. You don’t want to be the Asiana pilots who crashed a $300M B777 flying a visual approach into KSFO.
Technology erodes every pilots’ skills…even mine. You need every minute of challenging flight experience you can get. Take advantage of opportunities to obtain it! That experience will be the foundation of your resistance against things like autopilots, autothrottles, and automation lulling you into incompetence.
Once you’ve asked yourself a good question about what kind of pilot you want to be, if you go to social media at all, a more effective question to ask might be something like:
“How have you developed yourself into the kind of person who is always prepared? I ask because I’m demonstrably not there yet and I’m looking for strategies to take ownership of my life and ensure I always meet the standards I set for myself.”
If necessary, you might consider reading a book called Extreme Ownership, by the incomparable Jocko Willink. If you want to succeed at anything in life, you’re far better off understanding and adopting at least a little of his philosophy than making useless social media posts that attempt to vindicate your maladaptive attitudes.
Take charge of every part of your human existence. In this context, take charge of your flying. Don’t depend on anyone else to spoon-feed you anything. You know exactly what’s expected of you for every rating you pursue. Work relentlessly until you know, deep in your soul, that you’ve achieved those standards. Then, when you go to your checkride, you’ll be able to push past nerves or mediocre examiners thanks to your wealth of preparation.
If you need help putting this mentality into action, look back at some of the better questions we’ve asked here. Find some real mentors who have the ability to help you develop yourself when needed. You will not find that mentorship by anonymously posting lazy questions on social media.
If you embrace a mentality of Extreme Ownership in your flying, checkride failures will not be something you ever need to fear. You’ll experience fewer of them in the first place, and you’ll be able to explain how you learn from them so effectively in job interviews that you’ll wow your future interviewers and actually increase your chances of getting hired.
Now, go study hard and fly safe. Earn your spot in a dream job. I look forward to seeing you on the line.