10 Top Tips to Pass Your Skills Test

It’s the moment all that flight training has been leading up to, but your Navigation and General Skills Tests are probably the most daunting aspects of learning to fly. In this post, our examiner Matt Lane shares his top tips for passing your tests. These tips are invaluable insider knowledge for any student pilot, including licence renewals and glider pilots who are converting to SLMG after a short period of training.

This is a quick article I have penned to perhaps settle a few urban myths about flight tests and give some useful advice when preparing for your skills test, whether it be for the first time or a renewal test. Any further questions, please feel free to ask in the comments below!

1. Know the Skills Test schedule

Don’t worry about remembering everything you need to do during the skills test – the Examiner will brief you thoroughly and prompt you through the test items during the flight. However, it is important you are confident and happy you can fly all the test items that will be asked of you, so your pre-test work-up is the time to practise any you are unsure about or rusty on. The test details are all available on the NPPL website in the SLMG syllabus documents, so have a read through with your instructor and make sure you are happy with all the syllabus items.

2. Prepare yourself

If you are not physically prepared, you won’t fly well. A good night’s sleep, a drive to the airfield in plenty of time and being well fed/watered is as crucial as pre-flighting the aircraft. Don’t be afraid to take a small sports bottle of water in the aircraft with you as well if you need, especially in summer. Decent sunglasses and appropriate clothing for the conditions are also vital.

3. Do your route study

When you have planned your route, take plenty of time to mentally fly round it and think out what fixes and features you are going to look for, when you will do checks and RT calls, what airspace is around you, where the weather is in relation to your route and what in-flight diversion options you may have. This will help prevent you having to spend excessive time heads down looking at your map during the flight, which will compromise your lookout and flying accuracy. Even on a local flight, make sure you have a good mental model of airspace, weather constraints and ‘anchor features’ you can keep in sight to keep in your desired area – upper air winds can soon drift you into unexpected areas, as a number of Wellesbourne pilots who have busted Birmingham airspace can testify!

4. Cut out the c**p!

There is no need to take the entire contents of the Transair catalogue flying with you – there is nothing worse than having pens and stuff drop everywhere when you are getting in, or worse in flight. Take what you need and make sure it is secure, yet accessible, during flight. Get rid of loose change, car keys and other junk from your pockets. Taking a mobile is a good idea in case of a forced landing, but turn it off or to flight mode rather than just silent, as it is amazing how distracted people get by it vibrating away in their pocket!

5. Try to relax during the flight

Ha, easy for an Examiner to say, you are thinking! The thing to remember is that we are not looking for perfection or trying to select the next Red Arrows pilot recruit. All we want to see is a safe, competent and well-handled flight, as if you were solo or with a non-pilot passenger. If you make a mistake, let the Examiner know and do your best to correct it. Equally, if you drift from your heading/speed/height, we want to see a prompt recognition and effective correction – it is not an immediate fail. Remember, test failures are rare and only in cases where there was a clear safety concern or repeated errors that the candidate failed to recognise and correct.

6. Don’t worry about what the Examiner is doing

Examiners are not supposed to distract the candidate, so don’t worry if we are not chatting away and seem a bit quiet – we are just trying to give you some peace to concentrate on your flying. We will quite happily engage in conversation if you want to, but if you want to concentrate don’t be afraid to ask the Examiner to be quiet! After all, it is an essential skill once you have your licence to manage your passengers at important moments of the flight.

We will also usually bring a kneeboard and may scribble things down. Don’t worry about that; we generally note things down to help debrief at the end, and these could be good or bad things, so don’t stress that writing = errors! Equally, don’t waste your time trying to read our scribblings. With my handwriting, you won’t be able to anyway!

7. Aviate – Navigate – Communicate!

This is an old adage, but a good one! What it really means is prioritise your actions appropriately and don’t overload yourself with trying to do too many things at once. It happens to us all – I failed my first PPL Nav test by trying to turn at a waypoint, talk to (then active) RAF Cottesmore ATC and descend below cloud all at once. I set off on the wrong heading and went the wrong side of Rutland Water through RAF Wittering MATZ, which convinced my Examiner I had messed it up! Don’t rush and set off on a nav leg before you have got the aircraft settled at your desired height, speed and heading, and if the circumstance requires, don’t be afraid to tell ATC to ‘standby’ while you sort out more pressing things. The adage is also great advice for dealing with emergencies – whether simulated or real – as failing to complete your mayday call won’t hurt you, but getting slow and stalling certainly will!

8. Try to get your RT slick

There is nothing that will sap your capacity more than struggling to get your RT calls out or replies in. If you are confident and slick with what you are going to say it will make your flying a lot easier. FISO/ATCOs are usually very happy for Tower visits – take the opportunity to sit in and understand how things flow from their end of the microphone. If you can anticipate how the FISO/ATCO will respond to your calls, it gives your brain a mental head start for a slick reply. Don’t be afraid to practise saying out your RT calls at home or on car journeys (probably on your own!) – it is a great way of running through a simulated flight.

9. Keep the workcycle going

When airborne, your workcycle should be based around LOOKOUT – ATTITUDE – INSTRUMENTS, with the majority of the time spent on an all round good LOOKOUT, with confirmatory checks of ATTITUDE and INSTRUMENTS. Spending excessive time ‘heads in’ looking at maps, instruments or PLOGs is dangerous and will compromise your flying accuracy. If you need to look at charts or PLOG or do checks, make sure you break it up and keep the lookout going. The majority of problems during navigation stem from candidates staring at their map while the aircraft drifts off heading and/or height! An old RAF tip – hold checklists and maps up at canopy level to look at them rather than on your knees. It keeps your peripheral vision working on the aircraft attitude and lookout and I guarantee you will fly more accurately.

10. Don’t be afraid to Go Around!

Don’t persist with a bad approach if it goes wrong on the day. An examiner will be far more impressed to see you make a timely and safe decision to go around rather than continuing a poor approach, which will inevitably result in an untidy or unacceptable landing. Everyone has an approach go a bit wrong at times; the real error is to let it develop rather than going around and repositioning for another go.

For bonus points, name the pilot of the unfortunate aircraft in this photo showing what happens when you persist with a bad approach!

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Fly safe!

Matt Lane
Flight Examiner