Pilots generally tend to dislike sitting through an oral exam. It doesn’t matter if it’s for the private pilot certificate, the instrument rating, or the airline transport pilot certificate. Orals are often viewed with trepidation and fear, because it seems like everything is open season. Throw on top of that an oral that is specific to a given airplane, and it is easy to understand why it can be so overwhelming.
Here’s something that you need to remember: if you are going for a new level on your certificate, such as private to commercial or commercial to ATP, then yes, everything can be fair game. This is especially true when you are being evaluated as an ATP. The FAA rightfully views the ATP as the Ph.D. of flying. You are supposed to be a true expert, and because you can be held accountable in any accident—even if you are not technically the PIC—you are expected to know your stuff. The Aeronautical Information Manual, weather, the federal aviation regulations, your airplane…you name, you need to know it.
However, if you are going for a new rating, such as an instrument rating or multiengine rating, then you are only supposed to be evaluated on the material that pertains to the rating. This does ratchet up the pressure if you are combining the two, such as the candidate who is going from single engine private to multiengine commercial with an instrument rating.
At the airlines, the oral takes on a new dimension because you can expect to be asked about applicable company procedures, policies, and the FARs. However, you can expect to spend most of your time discussing the systems of the airplane you will be flying (especially as a new hire or as a pilot learning new equipment). So, how do you prepare?
One of the most effective ways to study is to learn to teach each system to someone else, such as a spouse or a parent. If the person is a nonpilot, it may even be better, because if forces you to break the material into chunks that they can understand. If they understand the system after you explain it, then you know that you understand the system.
Another way to really master new material is to study with your class as a group, asking each other questions and dreaming up various scenarios along the lines of, “If this breaks, then how does it affect that?” Every class usually has someone who needs a little extra help, and there will probably be a system or two that you do not understand as well as you’d like. If you can spend time with the person that needs help and get them up to par, you know you understand the system. Likewise, if you are weak on, say, pressurization, try to explain what you do comprehend to another student who is comfortable with it, and see if you can’t fill in the gaps.
When you take the oral, approach it as though you are teaching the examiner. If you can break the meat-and-potatoes down into a few sentences, then you will probably make the impression that you want to make. Be assertive, and be confidant. Answering with the tone of voice that sounds like a question will only invite more scrutiny.
An oral is often what you make it. It is difficult to properly convey just how important the oral is, and it is difficult to bring across how much preparation time is involved, especially at the airlines. But, if you the student can become the teacher, you are well on your way to a successful exam.—Chip Wright