It’s a common practice for a checkride examiner to try to distract the pilot applicant. Ah yes, the old “drop the pen” trick. Here’s how it goes. You’re a student pilot taking your checkride to become a certificated pilot. In the right seat, your examiner sits with a clipboard. You are flying the airplane and performing various tasks and maneuvers at the request of the examiner. Each task asked of you requires a certain degree of competency to satisfy its requirements. Maintaining plus or minus 100 feet of the assigned altitude, for instance. After a few of these, you grow accustomed to the examiner proverbially asking you to jump and you responding, proverbially, with “how high?”

At some point, the examiner drops his pen. It’s deliberate, but you don’t notice that. It’s his mistake, but it seems reasonable to happen in a moving aircraft. Wait, or is it your flying that caused him to drop it? Oh man, the very instrument that is used to either confirm or deny your chance at becoming a pilot has just been dislodged from the examiner – and because of your less than perfect flying? “Do you mind handing me that pen?” he says, pointing to it under your seat. When he asks, you do. That’s the groove of this flight, right? After all, it’s a simple request, like asking for the time. “Just get the pen,” you think. “Plus, this guy has a million hours. He’s the wizard of flying and knows it all. If he asks something, I must do it and please him.” Here’s the secret, though. Don’t get that pen. It’s a designed distraction, and believe it or not, its testing the core of your pilot in command abilities.

Distractions can wreak havoc on a flight if they go unchecked, and they range from the simple pen drops to the serious emergencies. There’s a mantra that’s been around for a long time to help pilots manage distractions – Aviate, Navigate, Communicate. It’s a list of priorities, to occur in that order, to keep distractions at bay. Let’s look at how it works and find out how to deal with that pen.

When I go to the airport to fly the airplane, there are a lot of things that go into flying the airplane. Weather, airport information, preflight, navigation, flight controls, buttons, switches, decisions, and the list goes on and on. So when an instructor says “don’t forget to fly the airplane,” it can sound more like a calendar reminder than a tip for learning to fly. The point of flying the airplane, or to aviate, is simply to keep the airplane under control. Keeping the air flowing over the wings to create lift is so basic, but it can be forsaken when a distraction or emergency arises. Losing airspeed and entering a stall or a spin or descending into terrain are just a couple ways that pilots can forget the first priority, which is always to fly the airplane. You already know what’s next – navigate and communicate – so it doesn’t matter if you are heading the wrong direction or ATC is asking you a question if satisfying those means that you lose control of the aircraft. Keep the airplane under control, always, before tending to anything else. Then don’t let that positive aircraft control drift. Fly the airplane.

Cessna 172 Stall

This is an imminent stall low to the ground.  Fly the airplane first or nothing else you are doing will matter.


The next most important priority, now that you are sure to be in control of the airplane, is to know where you are and where you are going. Being lost or getting lost is not only a hassle, but depending on where you are, can get you into trouble. Maybe you find yourself violating airspace you shouldn’t be in because you aren’t aware of where you are. Or if you are low, perhaps there is terrain or power lines you wouldn’t know are near. After you fly the airplane, but more important than worrying about your radio calls, know where you are and get on track.

VFR Sectional Chart

Being lost can land you into controlled airspace pretty quickly. ¬†Entering Orlando’s Class B or Daytona’s Class C airspace require you to be talking to a controller before you enter.


Talking on the radio can really add to your workload. When you already have a lot going on, remembering to make your radio calls or hearing and answering ATC when they ask you something can leave you task saturated. This one really is a double edged sword. While communication falls third on the priority list behind flying the airplane and knowing your location, this is also a reminder TO communicate. While you don’t want to forsake your airspeed to give location information to ATC, don’t be forget that you can use communication to help you get out of a situation. If you have the airplane under control and find yourself lost, asking ATC might help you figure out where you are. You might can even get radar vectors to find that airport in less than optimal visibility. On the ground, requesting progressive taxi at an unfamiliar airport can keep your head outside and steering clear of traffic while the ground controller tells you turn by turn how to get to the FBO. Don’t prioritize communication over flying the airplane and navigating, but don’t forget to communicate, either.

LAX Control Tower X-Plane 11

ATC controllers can help get you out of tricky situations.


This week’s X-Plane video continues our flight down to then Bahamas. In this episode we explore the ATC system in X-Plane 11, and specifically look at some benefits to using ATC to navigate in the simulator. Check it out here:


Now back to that pen. Here’s what that examiner is testing you on. You are the pilot in command of the aircraft, and he wants to make sure you are exercising that privilege accordingly. A good response might be “I’d be happy to get that for you. Right now I need to focus on this landing and we can grab it on the ground.” Or you could ask him if he would take the flight controls while you retrieve the pen. Or maybe it’s just “I’m sorry, I can’t right now. I need to fly this airplane.” It’s easy to fall into the mindset of “I must do what I’m asked” on the checkride. Even outside of a checkride, you could find yourself in a situation where your passenger – say it’s your boss – could put you in a similar predicament. Whether it’s your examiner, boss, spouse, or another more experienced pilot in the airplane, when you act as pilot in command, it’s your ship. You have the final say. You hold the talking stick. You are king (or queen) of the hill. This doesn’t mean that all pens must be relegated to a forgotten abyss under the seat. You can get the pen at times, but make sure that you are in the right place to do so and have your priorities straight. Aviate. Navigate. Communicate. And then maybe get a better clip for that pen.

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  1. Mitch Easton

    Yes, a deliberate distraction! I recall well from my own check ride back in the late 80’s, the examiner lit up a cigarette right in the middle of barking my next instructions. Do I say something? Do I just tolerate it? Do I take a chance on aggravating the man with my aeronautical future in his hands? I’m PIC I said to myself. A brand new PIC, but PIC nevertheless! I respectfully requested that he extinguish the butt, and he quickly obliged. I could have sworn that I saw a hint of a smile on this gruff and seasoned examiner’s face. We continued our to our approach to KORF, landed, and parked the 150. I did a Victor Lap in my mind. I’ll never know for sure if it was an intentional distraction. He gave no clue in the end. But the lesson here was clear. Regardless of who has the perceived “higher authority”, if you assume the position of PIC, take all the authority that comes with it, along with all the responsibility.

    Thanks for your blog, Clay.

    • Clay

      Wow, that’s awesome, Mitch! I’ll bet that DPE is somewhere now telling the story of how after so many mundane check rides, he decided to throw this kid a real doozie and light up a cigarette right in the airplane! Good work and thanks so much for reading!


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