Sunday, June 26, 2005


Ground Lesson #9: Stage Check

I have finished the "pre-solo" part of the flight school's curriculum. Before moving on to the next stage (solos, cross-country, and night flying) I have to pass a "stage check." The stage check has a few purposes. The first, obviously, is to verify that I have received and retained the knowledge and skills necessary to safely fly solo away from the airport. Next, it gives the chief instructor an opportunity to judge how well my flight instructor is doing his job. Finally, it serves as practice for the checkride I will need to pass to get my private pilot certificate.

The school's stage checks are structured much like a checkride. It begins with review of paperwork, then there is an oral exam, and finally a practical test of skills in the air. Going through a few of these simulated checkrides during training is intended to get the student comfortable with the process, making it less likely that the student will freak out on the actual checkride.

Stage checks are carried out by the chief flight instructor. Other instructors and students have provided many warnings about his examination methods. His usual strategy is to ask a question, and if you get it right, ask a more difficult question, and keep going until you feel like an idiot. He is very good at zeroing in on someone's weak areas, so it can be a humiliating experience for people with big egos. That approach doesn't bother me, and I no illusions about the extent of my aviation knowledge, so I wasn't too worried about the stage check. But still, I wanted to make a good impression.

The chief flight instructor invited me into his office and explained what we would be doing. The weather didn't look promising, but he wanted to at least get the oral portion out of the way, and hope for a miraculous clearing of the skies. He checked all my paperwork (log book, training records, medical certificate, etc.), then started the oral examination. The areas covered were regulations (in particular, those related to the privileges of student pilots), emergency procedures, V-speeds, noise abatement procedures, VOR and ADF navigation, and radar vectors.

After the warnings I'd received earlier, I was surprised at how gentle the questioning was. I was confident in most of my answers, and he didn't do anything to increase the difficulty or to raise the pressure. The questioning lasted about 30 minutes. Then he said he would go and get my flight instructor so that we could all review the results together. I had a few minutes alone in his office to wonder how well I'd done.

When he returned with my instructor, the first thing he said was "This will go pretty quick, because Kris did very well." Phew. My only weak areas were that I didn't remember a couple of the steps for handling an alternator failure, I forgot one of the details of the spin-recovery procedure, and I had no idea what the procedure was for starting a flooded engine ("I'd read the checklist," was all I could say). I was also unfamiliar with noise abatement procedures at PDK, but my instructor took the blame for that.

Due to the weather, we had to reschedule the flight portion of the stage check for later in the week. In the wonderful world of 14 CFR Part 141, I can't go on to the next lesson until I pass the stage check, so I really hope this doesn't get postponed again.

Cost: $80.10 (for 0.9 hours of chief-instructor time).

"I would consult the checklist" is always a good answer. If you are not specifically required to memorize something, it's usually the right answer. And even if you are required to do items from memory, "consult the written checklist" is usually the last item on the memory checklist!

When faced with that progressive questioning technique, I recommend that when the questions go beyond your knowledge, you say something like, "I don't know that for sure, but let me try to work it out." That gives you full credit if you get it right, and looks better if you get it wrong, because you have proved that you know what you know.
P.S. Holy cow, your chief flight instructor bills at $90 an hour?
Yep, $89/hour for the chief instructor, and $57/hour for the other instructors. Those are the highest instructor rates for schools at this airport, but not by much. The others I looked at all charge over $50/hour.

I seem to live in an area of high instructor rates. I've noticed that flight schools elsewhere have rates as low as $25/hour, but I couldn't find anything close to that here.

The facilities are not luxurious, so if my school is gouging its students, the excess profits definitely aren't going back into the school. I don't know all the economics of the situation, but my guess is that rent and other expenses at my home airport are higher than those at smaller airports.

The nice thing is that now that I'll be flying solo more often, the burn rate should fall.
Find out how much your instructor gets. I bet it's less than half of that $57.
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