Instructor Notes – Helen Krasner

How to handle flight test nerves

Aviation must have more practical tests than just about any other career there is. From PPL, through CPL, FI rating, IR; then there are type ratings, revalidations and renewals, check flights… The list is endless, and it doesn’t stop even when you qualify and get a job as a professional pilot. So, if you suffer from exam nerves, flying training can be very difficult. Written ground exams can also cause nervousness, of course. But whereas for those you have time on your side, and can take a little while to try to calm down, for practical flying tests, you do not have that option. The examiner is right there and you have to get on with the flying, now!

There are various things you can do in advance that may help to some extent. Perhaps the most important thing is to make sure that you feel fully prepared, both physically and mentally. Ensure that you know the syllabus, that you’ve done your revision, that you’ve had a good night’s sleep. The more happy-go-lucky types may be able to ignore this advice, but we nervous ones need everything on our side. You need to know that you’ve given yourself every possible chance.

Some people say that it helps if you remind yourself that your instructor wouldn’t have put you in for the test if you weren’t ready. But personally, I never found that this sort of mind-play helped. For somewhere in the back of my mind I always suspected that maybe my instructor was wrong. I’d try to work myself up into thinking positively, but that little bit at the back of my brain was always there, saying, “But suppose you fail…”

Fear of failure is often a root cause for exam nerves

Indeed, fear of failure is often a root cause for exam nerves. In my experience, instead of trying to overcome it or saying that failure is impossible, you are better to face it fairly and squarely. Right, so you might fail! So what? You won’t be the first. Failure is not a hanging offence. You can use the first attempt as a learning experience, and then try again. You can do that several times, if necessary. Will it matter? Of course not. When you go for a job, no-one ever asks you how many Skills Tests you had to take, or if you failed your FI rating first time around. They’ll probably only ask how many hours you’ve got… and you’ll probably have many more than the confident types who passed everything first time. Just imagining this worst-case scenario and realising that it wouldn’t be the end of the world or of your flying career can sometimes defuse all the tension – or at least help.

When it comes to the actual test, try, somehow, to relax. Deep breathing does help. And in my opinion, so does admitting that you’re nervous, at least to yourself, and maybe even to the examiner. Pretending to be someone other than who you are simply ties your brain in knots; it doesn’t achieve much else. Then, be determined to do the best you can, even with your fears. But be the best you can, not the best some hypothetical non-scared super-pilot might manage. And – most importantly – however badly the test appears to go, never give up. No matter what is written down that you are supposed to do – fly every exercise within limits of 50 knots and 50 feet or whatever – there is always room for examiner’s discretion. Don’t be your own examiner and decide that you’ve failed. The examiner may not agree with you…

It was the day of my CPL(H) Skills Test. Now, I get horrendously nervous doing exams, particularly practical ones. I’ve been this way all my life, but it actually seems to get worse as I get older. It’s bugged me throughout my flying career and I’ve never really done myself justice on any kind of flying test. When it came to my CPL(H), this had actually compounded the problem, as it meant that I now expected to feel tense and to do badly. It was an on-going problem and I’d tried everything to deal with it, but nothing helped very much.

I prepared well in advance and convinced myself that I felt ready for the test. In fact, I almost convinced myself that I wasn’t scared. But I was actually suppressing the fear, and that made it worse, as it often can. When it came to the start-up, this soon became obvious. I was doing things which I’d done hundreds of times before, but somehow, I forgot to put in the clutch after I’d switched on the engine. It’s about as basic a mistake as you can make… but I did it. So, I sat there, and the examiner sat there, until eventually I realised what I’d done – or rather, not done. At that point, I came clean and admitted to the examiner (and myself) that I was extremely nervous. I then took a couple of deep breaths and carried on. But I was by now in such a wound-up state that I could hardly fly. My speeds and heights were all over the place and I even made mistakes when doing the familiar airfield departure. All the things I’d dreaded were really happening. The little voice in my brain that I’d tried not to listen to, that had told me I wasn’t good enough, was being proved right. It was absolutely horrible! Indeed, after a few minutes I almost told the examiner that we should abandon the test, for I thought that we might as well, since I was quite sure that I’d failed anyway.

But I didn’t. For I suddenly remembered something which made me stop panicking and start to pull myself together, albeit rather shakily. My instructor, knowing my problem with nerves, had told me that examiner’s discretion was an important part of the test. He said that there may be particular things you’re meant to do or not do, but ultimately it is all down to the examiner. Therefore, you should not pre-judge the issue and never give up till it’s all over.

With that in mind, I decided that I’d give the thing my best shot. It didn’t matter if I passed or failed. I’d just fly and to hell with what happened! I’d treat it as a learning experience and take the test again if necessary. And, almost immediately, things began to get better. Not instantaneously, fantastically, wonderfully better, for there are no miracles in aviation. But my numbing panic eased somewhat and this meant that I could fly, probably as well or badly as I normally did.

The first section was navigation and despite the bad start and by now being way off track, I managed to correct my heading. I found my isolated house, given to me as a grid reference, though I was still so scared that I could hardly tell the examiner which house I thought it was, and I just managed a kind of croaking whisper. Then came the general handling. I was gradually calming down and by now I was flying pretty much as I always did – though I still made a few more mistakes than usual and forgot fairly simple things. Finally, there was the instrument flying. I had always enjoyed that and I managed to just relax and do everything I was meant to. That section went rather well, I thought to myself. What a pity it was too late – since I was quite certain I’d failed. I couldn’t see how any examiner could pass me after the hash I’d made of the first part of the test.

I was wrong. Over a cup of coffee, the examiner told me that it had been obvious that I was incredibly nervous at the beginning. However, he said, he had been impressed by the fact that I’d gradually managed to overcome my nerves and that I got better, not worse, as some people did in such situations. And, he said, I’d proved I could navigate… in the end. My general handling had been of an acceptable standard after the early cock-ups (my words, not his( and he thought that my instrument flying was very good (wow!). He finished by saying, “So, you’ve passed, but I don’t want you to think you did well”. I breathed a massive sigh of relief and said, “I know I didn’t do well”.

The moral of this story is something I said earlier, but it should always be remembered. No matter what happens in a flight test, never ever give up.

Author: FTN Editor

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