An Explanation of the Designated Pilot Examiner Program

by Harold Green
Copyright 2021. All rights reserved!
Published online Midwest Flyer Magazine – February/March 2021

All of us in civil aviation have either flown with, or will fly with, a Designated Pilot Examiner (DPE). The occasion is usually fraught with tension because our fate as a pilot is in the hands of a person we have probably never met before and about whom we have heard many tales of terrible experiences by others. This raises the question of who and what are these folks? We will take a look at those questions in this article.

The question is why the DPE? The answer is very simple. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is required to certify the qualifications of pilots to safely operate aircraft in order to protect the general population and users of the airspace. To do this, it is necessary to test each pilot applicant applying for a rating, whether for the initial rating or advanced. To do this requires a significant number of people. Rather than hire such examiners, the FAA has designated people who are authorized to conduct pilot evaluations on its behalf. Hence the term “Designated Pilot Examiner.” This allows the FAA to merely supervise DPEs, rather than conduct the examinations itself, thereby greatly reducing its workload and personnel requirements. So far, it all makes sense.

DPEs are pilots who have been examined by the FAA and deemed capable of examining applicants for a pilot certificate and determining that the applicant meets the standards the FAA has established for awarding the rating sought. There is a plethora of DPE subdivisions, but our discussion here will only involve airplanes. For detailed information, please refer to Order No. 8900.2c.

Basically, a DPE applicant must be rated for the aircraft in which flight tests are to be conducted and in all respects be qualified to act as Pilot In Command (PIC). Some specific designations are Sport Pilot Examiner, Private Pilot Examiner, Commercial Pilot Examiner, Commercial and Instrument Rating Examiner, Airline Transport Pilot Examiner, and Vintage Experimental and Limited Examiner. In addition, there are separate requirements for those wishing to conduct flight tests for Flight Instructor Renewal or Initial Flight Instructor Certificate.

The DPE must be specifically approved for each designation. Further, each DPE can only conduct tests in the specific aircraft class approved by the FAA. Initial qualifications vary depending on the approval sought and includes the requirement that the applicant hold a Flight Instructor Certificate. The time required includes total time and time in the last 12 months and varies from Sport Pilot Examiner with 500 hours total and 200 hours as a fight instructor, to Airline Transport Pilot Examiner requiring 2,000 hours total and 500 hours as a flight instructor. There are subdivisions of these and those interested should refer to Flight Standards District Office (FSDO) Order 8900.2c.

Then, given the experience is met, each FSDO must test and approve the applicant to meet the needs of their area. The appropriate FSDO determines how many DPEs are needed, and who is selected. The FSDO must not only approve the applicant, but must also supervise the DPEs in their region. This means the FSDO must conduct a supervised check-ride with each DPE in their region once a year. This requirement may limit the number of DPEs approved by the FSDO, since FSDO manpower is limited. As a result, the FSDO will look to potential DPEs for those qualified to conduct check-rides in the greatest number of aircraft and the most rating types, since they need only check the DPE on one check-ride regardless of the type of ratings or aircraft sought.

Then comes the renewal of the DPE. Each DPE has a minimum number of hours required annually. This can be a burden because the flight time accrued by conducting flight tests cannot be counted. For airplane approval, 60 hours of Pilot In Command (PIC) time is required annually with a minimum of 10 hours in each class authorized. This can be a significant cost if, for example, a DPE wishes to give tests in twin or turbo prop aircraft and does not have access to such aircraft. The cost of 10 hours in a twin-engine aircraft can be expensive beyond reason for any reasonable number of tests. This could include 10 hours in a King Air, for example, with obvious economic issues.

The next issue that arises is whether or not the DPE is expected to fail a percentage of applicants. The answer is that if the DPE fail rate is less than 10 percent, the FAA will watch the performance of the DPE and may, at the sole discretion of the FAA, conduct a supervised check-ride. A supervised check-ride means that an FAA representative will ride along on a regular check-ride to ensure the DPE is maintaining the FAAs standards. In addition, the DPE is required to undergo ground training in procedures on a periodic basis. Expenses for this are borne by the DPE.

In conducting a flight test, the DPE is expected to follow the Airman Certification Standards (ACS) appropriate to the rating sought. There is no leeway on this issue. The DPE must use the ACS, or if none exists for the rating sought, the Practical Test Standards (PTS) must be complied with absolutely. The DPE has no leeway on this issue. The DPE is prohibited from instructing the applicant. However, the applicant can be guided to the extent that questions can be used to probe to determine if an error was due to a misunderstanding. 

Recently, the FAA has removed geographic limitations on where a DPE may conduct practical tests. Whereas originally the DPE was assigned a region in which to conduct operations, currently they may conduct operations anywhere within the 50 states, protectorates or possessions. This has provided additional opportunities for many DPEs. One DPE interviewed for this article has professional opportunities to be in different parts of the country for a few days at a time with no work obligations. He calls local flight schools and winds up giving flight tests while he is there. 

A significant concern for most applicants is what the flight test will cost. First of all, the FAA does not mandate the cost of a practical test. Price is at the complete discretion of the DPE and the market. Research for this article revealed that the cost for private pilot flight tests is between $500.00 and – believe it or not – $1,400.00. The latter fee was for tests given for graduates of a major flight school. Tests for more advanced ratings can be higher and this is particularly true for instructor examinations due to the amount of time required to conduct the test. Re-test costs depend on the amount of time the DPE must put in to conduct it. If there are more than four fail issues, or if the examiner needs to return to the site another day, the cost can be the same as the initial. Otherwise, the cost is usually a small percentage of the original fee. 

People wonder how the examiner judges the applicant’s performance. The answer is specifically to the standards and tasks specified within the applicable ACS or PTS. There is no reason the examiner cannot ask questions or request performance tasks outside the ACS, but these cannot be used to judge applicant performance. Further, the DPE may ask the applicant questions to explore their knowledge beyond the details of the ACS or to expand the DPE’s understanding of the applicant’s knowledge.

The DPEs interviewed for this article were asked if there were any areas in which applicants were deficient and which tended to be common among applicants. The answer is yes… deficiencies in instruction. Such deficiencies involve poorly prepared students, both in “flying” and “knowledge.”

In flying, the biggest operational concern are “landings.” Students tend to be very limited in their ability to accommodate changing landing conditions. Changing flaps or power settings caused all kinds of problems for applicants. Understanding the whys and performance of short and soft-field landings tends to be lacking.

In the area of knowledge preparation, students are often very poorly prepared in the old standbys of “weight and balance” and “flight planning.”  Some students are unable to perform even the basics and one did not know that the Pilot’s Operating Handbook (POH) contains graphs to help determine weight and balance for a given aircraft. Taking 45 minutes to compute the weight and balance for two people in a Cessna 152 and then getting it wrong, was just one example. Additionally, dependence on “electronic tools” has become a drawback.

An example given was the student on a flight test who, when asked which runway to use in an actual crosswind situation, requested permission to use the app on his iPad to determine this.

Some flight schools have expressed concern that DPEs are hard to schedule, too costly and in some cases, arrogant. In some individual cases, all of these things may be true. But, without excusing anyone, let’s look at possible causes.

With respect to availability, the control is in the hands of the local FSDO. Two things, in turn, currently limit this office. First are personnel and pandemic induced limitations. They simply do not have the personnel to supervise even the existing DPEs. Some have gone over 18 months without a supervised check-ride due to the pandemic imposed travel restrictions, and second, even in normal times some FSDOs do not have the capability to supervise more DPEs and that supervision is an absolute requirement imposed by FAA standards. They simply cannot add more workload under these conditions. However, if an operation is hampered by a lack of or performance by DPEs, the appropriate action in both cases is to work with the local FSDO. They might not be in a position to help, but officials can use a complaint as leverage to obtain more resources, if they want to.

Since cost is controlled by the DPE, probably the best approach would be for the flight school to negotiate with the examiner depending on the fees charged and the volume of business provided. However, consideration should be given with respect to today’s economy. 

An arrogant examiner can be dealt with directly by the flight school or the recommending flight instructor. Friendly discussion may be the only alternative if a different examiner is not available. Of course, a discussion with the governing FSDO inspector would also be in order.

Because DPEs are no longer limited to a specific area, applicants always have the option of seeking a DPE outside their area. Of course, cost should be considered if extensive travel is involved. 

Applicants would be well advised to talk to the DPE prior to taking the flight test. Most will be pleased to share their approach and expectations. A suggestion is to remember that the applicant is the Pilot-In-Command (PIC) on the check-ride. Some examiners will attempt to distract an applicant with conversation at times when the applicant should be focusing on the task at hand. Some applicants may be reluctant to exert their authority to maintain a sterile cockpit. While courtesy is always in order, firmness and discipline are as well. It is quite appropriate for the applicant to ask the examiner to hold their discussion until the applicant is able to provide the proper attention the examiner’s comments deserve.

In conclusion, the DPE is a fact of life in civil aviation and, in general, things move along with minimal difficulty. That does not mean things couldn’t be better. Probably the most effective path to improvement is for those concerned, whether an independent flight instructor or flight school, to develop a working relationship with their responsible FSDO.

As a final note, in preparing for this article, input was sought from three different FSDO offices. Naturally all were operating remotely due to the Coronavirus. While administrative staff was helpful, telephone response from the individuals responsible for administering DPE programs was totally non-existent.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Harold Green is an Instrument and Multi-Engine Instrument Instructor (CFII, MEII) at Morey Airplane Company in Middleton, Wisconsin (C29). A flight instructor since 1976, Green was named “Flight Instructor of the Year” by the Federal Aviation Administration in 2011 and is a recipient of the “Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award.” Questions, comments and suggestions for future topics are welcomed via email at harlgren@aol.com, or by telephone at 608-836-1711 (www.MoreyAirport.com).

DISCLAIMER: The information contained in this column is the expressed opinion of the author only, and readers are advised to seek the advice of their personal flight instructor and others, and refer to the Federal Aviation Regulations, FAA Aeronautical Information Manual and instructional materials before attempting any procedures discussed herein.

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