Debunking myths of practical exams 

We wanted to address some concerns members of the ballooning community have brought to us.  As leaders in the hot air balloon training and testing community, we’d like to address the issues raised with our understanding of the regulations, policy and practices of practical exams. We hope this information is helpful to you, maybe calms some nerves, and hopefully debunks myths before they become relied upon as true. Disclaimer reiterated: This is opinion based on many years of experience and expertise in hot air balloon training and testing. It is up to each individual pilot to do their own research on regulations and policy surrounding exams. Comments are for general discussion purposes only.  

  •         Myth #1: A DPE is concerned if an applicant has only one instructor. There was commentary that having one instructor was “bad” compared to an applicant having multiple instructors. The claim was that having one instructor meant that there were many bad habits that the other instructor didn’t correct, implying that the DPE would notice these items needing correction. 

BTA Response: While everyone, including DPEs, are free to their own opinions on if one or multiple instructors are better/worse at preparing students, for practical exams DPEs should always remain objective in their testing of applicants. Applicants are tested to the standard, regardless of how many instructors they have. We can find no policy, regulations, or standards which states that applicants are tested any differently because of the number of instructors they have. Whether you have one instructor or multiple instructors, should have no bearing on the exam a DPE administers. In our vast experience in the flight training area, student success is dependent upon the quality of training provided. It doesn’t matter if it’s one instructor or multiple instructors. Quality is better than quantity. 

Myth #2: The PTS has “all the answers”. There was commentary that the PTS has all the answers. 

BTA Response: The PTS does not contain answers. The PTS is the testing standard which provides the minimum standards for certification. The PTS does list reference material, which in those materials, can provide satisfactory knowledge, but the PTS and ACS have no answers for the practical exam. We like to think of them as the study guide. 

Myth #3: You don’t have to fly with a student to endorse them for solo flight. A story was shared where a student was flying alongside another pilot who said if the student’s instructor didn’t sign him off for his checkride, he would because he flew so well for 30 minutes flying next to him. The instructor was then “forced” to sign off the student. 

BTA Response: While the comment was made to “share a story because pilots love stories” it’s important to remember there are regulations concerning logging instruction received and solos. Simply endorsing a student for solo flight because they flew well next to you is not sufficient. It is up to the instructor to endorse a student’s logbook for solo flight and complete the other regulations required for solo flight. An instructor shouldn’t feel pressured or cave in to what another pilot thinks. Just because someone observes a student doing well on one flight, that might not indicate that they are in fact prepared for solo flight with the appropriate knowledge, skill, proficiency, judgment, risk management, nor could they meet all applicable regulations. As aviation safety experts and leaders, we want to promote a positive safety culture!

Myth #4: DPEs ask the same questions for every practical exam. There was discussion that preparing for a checkride involves asking a recent private or commercial pilot for help because they will “know the questions” a DPE will ask.  

BTA Response: According to FAA policy, exams should be individually tailored to the applicant. Therefore, it should be unlikely that two applicants would have the same questions from a DPE for their respective exams. In our vast training and testing experience, receiving the proper training focused on comprehensive understanding of the material and flight proficiency focused on skill and good decision making will always sufficiently prepare students for their checkride. 

  • Myth #5: Applicants must have a new and tabbed balloon flying handbook or FAR/AIM book at their exam.  There was discussion on if an applicant brings a new or not tabbed balloon flying handbook or FAR/AIM book to the ground portion of a practical exam that the DPE will probably ask “a lot of questions of what you should know” vs if the material is tabbed, then the DPE will know you’ve already looked at it. The discussion was alluding to different questions that would be asked based on the condition of reference materials brought. 

BTA Response: We can find no policy which addresses the condition of your reference materials brought to a practical exam, further we conclude this should have no bearing on the questions an examiner will ask. An examiner should ask questions according to the PTS and scenario prepared for the exam. The DPE should objectively continue questioning an applicant based on the standards and the quality of the applicants responses, bear in mind below. More on this further down!

– Myth #6: Knowledge exams validity. There was discussion on if a student can take the knowledge exam on their 14th birthday and private practical exam on their 16th birthday. While the discussion that followed was correct that technically yes you can, it was missing the details of the regulations. The full answer is different from what was discussed. 

BTA Response: 14 years old is the minimum age to take the private balloon knowledge exam and 16 is the minimum age to take the private balloon practical exam. What wasn’t discussed is the length of time a passing Airman Knowledge Test Score Report is valid for. A satisfactory completed knowledge test expires 24 calendar months after the month it was taken. If a practical test is not satisfactorily completed within that time period, another knowledge test must be taken and passed. 61.39 says, “within the 24-calendar-month period preceding the month the applicant completes the practical test if a knowledge test is required.” So, if the weather is bad on your 16th birthday, your knowledge exam could be valid further than the day of your birthday to complete your practical exam.

  •     Myth #7: The practical exam is without a doubt “open book” – There was discussion by that the practical exam is open book. 

BTA Response: This is a difficult one to answer. The exam is open book in that you will need to have reference material like a load chart, sectional, checklists, or other materials. However, there are things that you are expected to know – regulations, procedures, etc. If to answer questions you must use reference materials to formulate an appropriate answer you will not pass the exam. This makes sense because of course everyone would pass a practical exam if you could always look up every question with FAA material. Also, while it’s common to hear, “a DPE just wants to know that you know how to find something if you don’t know it” – in actuality, you can’t always just look something up in your daily flying. There’s things you need to know, for example in deteriorating visibility and how you maintain VFR. As you’re flying along you’re not going to whip out your FAR/AIM book to find the answer. Another example is 91.119 minimum safe altitudes. It’s not realistic for a pilot to pull out a FAR/AIM book or Google it while flying to become compliant. Pilots must know it! Now, if you need to look up something more obscure it is up to the evaluator’s judgment on if it is acceptable or further questions will be needed to evaluate performance according to the standards. In our vast experience helping hundreds of students earn pilot certificates, the FAR/AIM and Balloon Flying Handbook don’t get touched by applicants who bring them to the exam. If the exam is conducted properly and the applicant is sufficiently prepared, with scenario based questions, the questions really can’t be answered fully with the definitions found in books. You simply wouldn’t have the correlation level of understanding to formulate a good response if you are using reference material to answer questions. 

  •         Myth #8: Practical exam prep and knowledge exam prep are the same. There was discussion that to prepare for a practical exam, an applicant should practice verbalizing questions and answers from the knowledge test. 

BTA Response: While many of the definitions, rote, and understanding levels of learning of the knowledge exam will provide base knowledge in preparation for the practical exam, the practical exam focuses on the application and correlation level of understanding. Being scenario based, the practical exam tests an applicant to explore the interrelation between topics to best gauge an applicant’s holistic safety of flight knowledge, risk management and judgment.  Verbalizing knowledge test answers might be beneficial, but practicing through scenario testing and verbalizing complete answers would be much more beneficial. 

Myth #9: My ground crew can’t do ANYTHING until I specifically tell them what to do, combined with the applicant has to do everything. There was discussion about ground crew management and discussed that the ground crew isn’t to do anything until the pilot specifically directs them to. 

BTA Response: There is no mention of this requirement in the Practical Test Standards. Applicants must brief their crew, but there is no standard in which the applicant must direct and tell their ground crew exactly what to do all the time. Supervision and ability to brief and direct crew is important, but it is a myth that ground crew can’t do anything without the applicant directing their every movement. It’s also a myth that the applicant (pilot) has to do everything, including starting the fan! Think of it similarly to the chase. The pilot briefs the crew according to the PTS which includes intended direction and duration of flight, but the pilot isn’t telling their crew every turn they need to make over the radio from launch spot to landing. There’s no requirement to! Just like there is no testing standard which requires the applicant to do everything and that includes starting the fan!

Myth #10: The DPE is not required to see the Endorsement for knowledge exam. There has been discussion that the knowledge test endorsement doesn’t matter because the DPE will see the successful knowledge test completion report. 

BTA Response: According to FAA policy, a DPE must verify the knowledge test endorsement. Please be prepared to show that endorsement to your DPE and don’t leave it at home! It is needed!

Myth #11: The flight portion of the practical exam must be perfect. There was discussion on if the check ride had to be perfect. 

BTA Response: Perfection is not the standard. Proficiency, safety and sound judgment is the standard.

  •         Myth #12: Applicants must have an “unrestricted” solo endorsement. There was commentary on solo endorsements and specifically mentioned a supposed requirement for an “unrestricted” solo endorsement as well as a current (non expired) solo endorsement to take a practical exam. 

BTA Response: We have found no such requirement  to take a practical exam according to policy and regulations. DPE policy simply states that the DPE is to check that appropriate entries have been made. For example, a wind restriction placed on a solo endorsement is an appropriate endorsement. A circulating myth: if there is a 10 knot wind restriction on the solo endorsement and the winds are over 10 knots the test could not be completed. In looking through regulation and policy, the solo restriction has no factor on the actual practical exam in determining who is PIC. There is no requirement that the solo endorsement be current at the time of the exam, and any limitations placed on the endorsement have no bearing on the practical exam. 

Myth #13: Applicants have to tell the DPE they are ready for a practical exam and the DPE has to talk to the instructor to ensure the applicant is ready. There was a discussion of a DPE doing a pre-screening call with the applicant and instructor to ensure the applicant was ready for the practical exam.

BTA Response: This is an interesting one to answer. Instructors should only endorse applicants who are ready. If an instructor endorses an applicant for a practical exam, it’s not the role of the DPE to question the knowledge and flight readiness of an applicant prior to an exam. A DPE must give an objective test following all policies. It is not FAA policy to have pre screening phone calls asking about readiness of knowledge and flying abilities with the applicant or instructor. Applicants are naturally nervous prior to an exam, it’s ok. Know that if your instructor signed you off, they believe you are prepared for the practical exam. That should be all the DPE needs to know. Applicants should schedule with a DPE when they have all endorsements.

  •         Myth #14: The DPE needs to see the pre-solo knowledge test.

BTA Response: We have found no such requirement according to policy for a DPE to see the pre-solo knowledge test. In addition, there is no regulation which technically requires a pre-solo knowledge exam to even be written. Although, we do highly encourage it to be written. There was also discussion inferring that the aircraft used for the pre-solo knowledge test being different from the balloon used for the practical exam would not be ok. We have found no requirement in regulations or policy that the balloon used for the practical exam is the same make/model used for solo flights and the pre-solo knowledge exam.

 Hopefully that answers questions and clears things up for everyone! As balloon training experts, we love the opportunity to share our vast knowledge of training and testing with you to have an open discussion.

Please let us know if there are any other things you’ve heard about exams that you wonder if it’s true. We’re happy to help!

We have an incredible amount of content to help instructors and applicants – from our numerous online courses, pilot logbook, private and commercial training syllabus, and online training videos via YouTube on  using IACRA, applying for a student pilot certificate, etc., we are your #1 Source For Pilot Training!