Tom Gets His ATP (Part 4): ‘The Checkride’

The day has come and it’s time to show your stuff. You’ve amassed the flight experience required for the Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) certificate (Part I). You’ve successfully passed the grueling ATP written examination (Part II). And you’ve practiced and practiced the required flight maneuvers to the exacting tolerances of the FAA Practical Test Standards (Part III). You can’t avoid it any longer — it’s time for the ATP checkride.

Like any other FAA “practical test,” the ATP checkride consists of two parts — the “oral,” or preflight question-and-answer session, and the “flight check” in the airplane itself. FAA employees and non-FAA Designated Examiners have a lot of leeway in how to administer the ATP practical test — so long as they cover everything required in the PTS and use PTS tolerances as their completion standard.
Translation: You won’t know exactly how your checkride will progress until you take it. I can, however, tell you about my ATP checkride, to at least give you a feel for one possible sequence of events…

Unlike most orals you’ve taken to this point, the emphasis is *not* on the rules and regulations. As an already-certified Commercial and Instrument pilot you’re expected to know these already. Instead, the ATP oral focuses on the systems and operation of the airplane you’ll be flying. Sure, you can expect a brief quiz on the “regs” and the weather, but here’s a sample of the sort of questions I got on my oral exam:

  • When and how would you use each type of equipment? What are the anti-ice and deice systems on the airplane, and how do they operate? What limitations are there on the use of anti- and deice equipment?
  • Describe the airplane’s fuel system. Is there a zero-fuel weight limitation? If so, why is it limited? Describe how fuel is pumped to the engines. How does the crossfeed system work? Can you pump fuel from the left wing to the right engine using fuel pumps from the left engine?
  • Tell me in detail how the airplane’s electrical system works. If it’s a 28-volt system, why does the voltage gauge read only 24 volts before you start engines? Why does the airplane have two 12-volt batteries instead of one 24-volt battery? What’s it mean if the left alternator annunciator is flashing? What is the “normal” indication on the two alternator loadmeters, and what airplane system balances the load between the two? What’s the maximum power draw if everything on the airplane is turned on, and can a single alternator keep up with that load? What systems would you turn off if the electrical load exceeds the alternators’ output?
  • Explain the landing gear system. If you raise the landing gear and the green “down and locked” lights go out but the red “in transit” light remains illuminated, what’s happened? What limitations apply in this scenario?

Strategy: Expect to spend a lot of time getting familiar with the Pilot’s Operating Handbook before your ATP checkride. The oral is very systems-intensive and type-specific. Show no fear and answer questions completely yet concisely; if you confidently answer the examiner’s questions he or she will likely assume you’re completely familiar with the entire airplane, and may cut short the oral portion of your checkride.

It was a cold, clear afternoon in the desert Southwest when I took my flight test. Between preflight and takeoff the winds rose from about 10 knots to something like 20 knots gusting to 25. My examiner did wonders to make me feel at ease, and combined as many task as possible to cover all the PTS-required items in minimum time. We covered all the bases; I did a low-visibility takeoff (view limiting device “on” while in position for takeoff, using the heading bug and localizer for course guidance during the takeoff roll); climb, level-off, steep turns, power-on and power-off stalls, all “under the hood;” partial-panel (failed attitude indicator) unusual attitude recoveries, engine failure and air restart, still with the view-limiting device; a DME arc to a multiple-stepdown VOR/DME approach, still partial panel, under the hood, and with a 30-knot tailwind and reports of “moderate to severe turbulence” on final approach; a missed approach (I got the attitude indicator back during the climb, but lost an engine in its place) and hold; and a full-procedure ILS approach, single engine.

Somewhere in there (it’s all a blur now!) we did a zero-flap landing, an engine failure and rejected takeoff during a “view limited” instrument takeoff, another engine failure on a go-around, a circling approach, and a simulated single-engine landing. If I’ve left something from the Practical Test Standards out of this narrative it’s simply from lack of editorial space and the fact that so much was packed into about one and a half flying hours. The instrument hood was “on” from the first line-up on the runway until the last circling approach, and all in moderate to severe turbulence with gusty, low-level winds.

I was beaten up, shaken down, slapped around, and several times during the flight check about ready to pack it all up and go home.

We landed and shut down; the examiner left as I secured the airplane and completed the flight school paperwork. As I dragged, almost dazed, into his office fifteen minutes later he was on his computer typing up my Temporary Airman Certificate. No one could be more surprised than I!

Eleven years since my most recent FAA checkride and almost as many years of attending the same “big name” simulator-based flight training facility for my annual recurrent training, I decided it was time to “reach for the summit” and try for my Airline Transport Pilot certificate. I could not have been successful without the skilled tutelage of instructors Josh Gutzwiller, Greg Jones and Marsh Dwyer of Mesa Airlines Pilot Development’s superb facility at Farmington, New Mexico (; Richard Castle, CEO of Mesa Pilot Development, who provided the facilities; the artful scheduling of Crystal Bustamante, who fit me into the frantic pace of Mesa’s instruction; of Irvin N. Gleim, author of the ATP study guide that was key to my passing the written; examiner Robert Chavez, who does so much to make applicants feel at ease during this stressful time; and my employer Stephen D. Wright, who authorized and paid for my training in lieu of this year’s recurrent flight training. With the support of these and countless other people I’ve achieved the pinnacle of pilot’s certificates, the Airline Transport Pilot.

Best of luck to you, readers, should you decide to pursue your ATP or any advanced certificate or rating!