View Full Version : Passing the written pilot test

Bill Greenwood
02-27-2012, 02:25 PM
There is both a written test as well as a flight test for a pilot license or rating, be it Sport, Private, Inst, Com, etc.
So how do you prepare and pass?

First the strict news: you do actually need to learn and study this written stuff, some of it may be minutia, but some is actually important in safe and legal flying. It's not just riding around in a plane having fun and the knowledge just soaks in you like the odor of cigarettes in a smoke filled bar.

Now the good news: if you study and cover the material , it is not very hard to pass the written test. I used to be a volunteer tutor to a 7th grade math class. That was about my math peak, I was about equal to the lower students in 7 th grade, but I worked cheap.
So the academic difficulty of a written course for sport or private is about like a junior high course, not at all hard, IF YOU DO THE WORk.
The other easy point is that the prep courses have all the test questions, VERBATIM, that the FAA can ask. You just have to learn them, hundreds of them. I think when I took my private back in 1979, there were 600 questions in the FAA base and on the test they would ask you a 50 of them; again word for word.
And almost unbelievebly you only have to make 70% to pass. Now any number of people make 100%, like JerryRosie says he did. I missed one question, still bugs me to this day. If you squeaked by with a 70, there would be almost a third of the material you don't know; not a good way to start, but legal.
I had a friend who flew for more than a year with a CFI in a rented 172, but for some reason he just would not study or learn the written. Finally with no study he took the test and failed with a 69. He finally passed after a year and a half, I don't think he flys anymore.

Another couple of good reasons for learning the info well the first time, is that if you make a 100 on the private, then later if you take the commercial, you will already know the majority of the info.
Also there is an oral quiz portion of the flight test. The examiner will likely look at questions you missed on the written and ask them again for the oral and this time a 70 pass score may not get you by. I"d guess the CFI is not too demanding for a Sport pilot, and can be very thorough for a CFI test, where flying the plane may be the easy part.

There is a lot of knowledge to know and if an examiner wants to be very demanding he can likely find something a student doesn't know. If you make a 95 on the written, the oral is likely to be shorter.

Frank Giger
02-28-2012, 04:19 AM
I'm always a bit disbelieving when I hear stories of guys who won't crack the books....heck, it's a vicarious thrill; if I can't be flying I might as well be reading and learning about it. Plus that stuff will save your life. I still review things from time to time and then go out and practice bits from the Pilot's Guide For Manuevering.

Well, I missed more than one on the written, though I was ready to find whomever wrote the "extra" questions and have at them with my kneeboard.

However, I know which ones I missed and why; mostly being boneheaded and trying to be smarter than the question and one was the aforementioned wrong "correct answer."

The best way to avoid runway incursion on takeoff:

A) Something stupid like honking your horn.
B) Something even more silly like waving your arms in a circular manner.
C) Announce your position on the radio and stay aware of traffic that is announcing itself.
D) Visually observe around you before going on the runway or while in the pattern.

I picked D) based on my experience at our non-towered airport where we have a lot of NORDO going on, but the correct answer per the FAA was C). I still disagree, as the BEST way is to always be looking, looking, looking.

My oral took forever - I think we went over two hours. Not that I had a bad score on the written, or didn't know stuff. I was like one of those mutants on Jeapardy asking to take Weather For A Thousand and hoping for a Daily Double. The truth was far more funny - it was twenty degrees that day,* the plane had a crap heater, and the DPE was stalling in the hopes that it would warm up (it didn't).

He asked how I wanted to work the practical, and I laid out what I thought was the most efficient:

Short field take off
Cross country nav
Steep turns
Slow flight
Emergency procedures
Ground reference manuevers
Short field landing
Go around (I knew I'd probably muff the approach on it)
Short field landing (I was right)
Go around (D--- it, that wasn't on the program!)
Short field landing ("Gooder enough, just put her down, okay?")
Soft field landing
Normal landing
Post flight

Poor guy was shivering at the half hour mark and turning blue fifteen minutes later; he was very happy to get out of the plane. I was a bit generous on what is considered the centerline of the runway on a couple of my landings - but it was still under a part of the airplane so what the heck, he gave me a go.

The big thing he said was that he knew I'd pass when I talked through the manuevers with confidence (indicating I was prepared) and was certain when I cranked the engine; apparently I had the standard "golly gee I'm flying" grin that I usually wear at the start of the check ride.

* Bear in mind that I live in Alabama, and that's beyond cold here.

Mordechai Levin
02-29-2012, 09:10 AM
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Bill Greenwood
02-29-2012, 11:02 AM
There is likely to be some question that the student will have trouble with, and it is human nature to call upon divine help, as in "Jesus, just let me pass this test."
It can't help to have a guy named "Mordechai" on your side!

A few years back at EAA Osh, I was listening to a lecture on handling emergencies. The presenter was not only an experienced pilot and CFI, but he was a fully ordained and practicing Baptist minister.
He mentioned this and someone said they sometime feel guilty about missing church on Sunday to go the the airshow.
The presenter answered that he knew not many pilots were going to put church or anything else ahead of an airshow, but that pilots ought to drop by church at least occasionally.
The reason he gave, both with humor and a degree of reality, was that if a pilot really got himself into a scary emergency situation, invariably what a pilot would do was to call on the Lord, ( whichever one he believes in, or maybe all of them) and try to make a deal; " Oh Lord, just let me get down safely this time and I promise not to take off in bad weather again".
The minister said that as a pilot in such a situation, it would be a good thing if your voice is a familiar one to the Lord so that he doesn't put you on hold and tell you to take a number.

I laugh every time that I recall that, but I also try to remember the message, and I try to fly in such a way that I leave myself some outs especially in bad weather,and don't run out of all options save that of calling on divine help.

Another slightly similar story, and to give the other side his due, there was a gravely wounded soldier on the battle field. The priest comforted tried to comfort him, but both knew that he had only moments to live. He said to the soldier, "Son, now is the time to accept the Lord and renounce the Devil. The soldier, as a realist, answered, "no, Father, this ain't the time to be making any enemies."

02-29-2012, 02:48 PM
It can't help to have a guy named "Mordechai" on your side!

All I can think of is that "Hebrew Hammer" movie....look for the trailer on Youtube. It's a funny movie although it's not exactly kid friendly nor something someone who is easily offended should watch.

Frank Giger
03-01-2012, 07:55 AM
I always wondered how much someone who takes the quick test taking classes actually learns.

I knew I'd pass the written - they do provide the questions, after all - but it was more important for me to actually learn the material that is covered by the test.

03-01-2012, 09:08 AM
I'm with you, Frank. The reason they ask those questions (I think) is that the information is valuable for safe flying, not to see if you can memorize answers. I may be a slow learner, but I find it difficult to believe that in two days I can absorb all the knowledge required to pass the FAA knowledge exam. I might be able to recognize the questions and recall what answers were given by the instructor, but can I really absorb the information? After about an hour, I reach saturation point and stuff just goes in one ear and out the other....

03-01-2012, 11:52 AM
The principle is that you need the information for safe flying. Unfortunately many of the FAA exams are horrendously awful because they are:

1. Just plain wrong with what they are espousing (don't get me started about the FOI)
2. Out of date
3. So poorly constructed that even if you understand the concept you'd have a hard time answering.

So, there are two things you need to do:

1. Learn the material. Lots of avenues available either via ground school, online/video learning,etc...
2. Prep for the test. For these the cram tests/books/drill and kill software is very useful.

For #2, I prefer GLEIM. Their software is perhaps the easiest to use (and the accompanying image viewer is good enough you don't need the supplemental book to study with) of all I've seen. The books are good, too.

Bill Greenwood
03-01-2012, 12:08 PM
How good are the two day intensive test prep courses? I think they have proven that if a student concentrates over the weekend, maybe with a little extra at night, they can get the results of most students passing the written test on Mon. morning.

I did a prep course for my instrument, and was very tired on Mon morn and didn't feel that I was really all that prepared. But they urged me to take the FAA test ,and I thought "what have I got to lose" so I took it, not feeling too great about my chances and passed easily with an 86. So kudos to the prep folks, and goal achieved, and I never had to take the test again.

Is a weekend prep course better than 6 weeks of real study? Will it likely give you a 100 on the test? No, but then how many people, especially young people or those who have to share time with real school or a job will stick to a schedule to do the study on their own?

The prep is far better than a half hearted effort. It hits the main points, and gives an overall outline.

I think the FAA questions cover the knowledge fairly well. You have to know the subject pretty well to know which anwer if the one. My concern is that so much emphasis is given to small matters and not so much on the real flight planning and care that hopes to keep a pilot out of trouble. That is harder to measure on a written and this is where the CFI comes in .

If the CFI is good, the student should have two things; first is the basics of flying safely, stall avoidance, coordinated flight, good patterns, go arounds, landings, etc. Then comes the larger subjects of how you use the plane, estimating and finding weather reports, and how you fly when you are going somewhere so that it is safe. "Know when to hold em and know when to fold em."

Frank Giger
03-03-2012, 01:26 AM
So kudos to the prep folks, and goal achieved, and I never had to take the test again.

This is the part that concerns me!

Now I'm positive that Bill knows the actual material that was covered on the test backwards and forwards, but others may mistake the notion of "getting through the test" as being disposible information.

I'm definately that way - the tests I crammed for in college might have gotten me a passing grade, but I usually lost the information about ten minutes after pencil down and never went back to actually learn it.

As test-taking courses they're fine and have a heckuva track record; it's possible that I'm underestimating the average pilot and he knows the material in a practical manner and just wants to ensure it's reflected on the FAA test.

Of course the old joke applies - what do they call the guy who scores a 70% on the written test? A pilot.

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04-05-2013, 03:14 AM
Building a Cannon to Kill a Mosquito

Who isn’t impressed watching a medical drama on TV when the doctors are rifling off acronyms and abbreviations to each other? It just sounds cool and important … and I’ll bet the doctors agree! Pilots are no different: ATIS, E6B, Roger, Niner, “No Joy on the Traffic” is always a fun one. And listen to clearances at some of the busier airports when dealing with the airline pilots; not only are they filled with acronyms and abbreviations, but they’re read back faster than an SR-71! Why is this?

Simple – we all love to feel and sound important, sophisticated and smart.

Where this becomes a problem is in the training environment where many well-educated and intelligent CFIs are already trying to be airline pilots, and sounding more impressive to themselves trumps providing the simple and easy-to-follow answer to their budding-pilot student. We see this from initial contact all the way through the training. Having shopped for flight training before, I’m often amazed at the responses I received when inquiring about someone’s flight program.

Example: We can provide either CFR Part 141 or CFR Part 61 flight training. 141 requires a minimum of 35 hours of flight time, only 5 of which have to be solo, 20 are dual and 10 can be either. We see a school average of 52.3 hours for completion. A part 61 program is slightly different, with the regulations requiring 40 hours of total time of which 10 have to be solo and 5 solo-x-c. Those national averages can be as high as 70-90 hour of total training. 141 also requires a minimum of 35 hours of ground instruction where 61 does not, but we still will have to provide some training to enable you to pass the written exam … and we haven’t even gotten cost yet!

Now, none of this information was wrong – it all sounded good – but was any of it fun or educational … or did it matter? The person on the other end of the phone wants to learn to fly because it sounds fun, but at initial contact, we have them doing math and computing percentages and multiplying! The average person never asks a mechanic what types of tools or checklists they’re going to use to fix their car nor do they interrogate their surgeon on the same matters; the customer or patient’s assumption is that the expert will do what is necessary to get the job done. For the average person shopping for flight training, the same is true … that is, until they’re deprogrammed by flight schools into thinking the above cited information is more paramount. The most important information was never even touched upon like, “tell me why you want to learn to fly” or “great, when did you want to get started?” Aren’t these pieces far more important for the customer’s dreams of flight than the regulations involved in the checking of boxes or keeping training statistics for the AOPA?

The “look how smart I am” display continues throughout the training. I walked by a classroom once where a day 1, lesson 1 private pilot student – a retired 5th grade teacher who wants to fly so she can see her grand children in Ohio – was scratching her head while the CFI was talking about Bernoulli. A day 1 student! Is this really what we want to cover first?

Is flight training trying to use a cannon to kill a mosquito? Or, better yet, are we teaching someone how to build a watch when they ask us for the time? Are we so proud of the knowledge we worked so hard for on the CFI checkride that we want to use all of it on each student?

Recently as I was browsing some of the aviation forums, I came across a student who was struggling while trying to pass the written exam – a PERFECT example of forcing too much of the technical and not enough of the fun factor – and had asked for assistance. The first reply, and I won’t include all of it, included several passages like this:

The pressure and the temperature are related by the equation P=NRT/V, where P is the pressure of a gas, V is the volume of the gas and essentially a constant, N is the quantity of the gas and R is a constant, and T is the absolute temperature. This can be approximated as P=kT where k is a constant, because in the atmosphere, the quantity and volume don’t change.

Poor guy! Will this information help the student either on the written or in the aircraft? No! Does the CFI who posted this answer likely feel like an astronaut? You betcha. I was watching a veteran CFI provide some basic instruction to his 5-hour student in a simulator on landings. I observed, with great sympathy, while this instructor barked phrases like “Stabilize your approach, John, or this is never going to work” and “Back Pressure, Back Pressure, Back Pressure!”

In both of these cases, the student likely left the encounter thinking that they weren’t good enough or smart enough to be a pilot because they just didn’t understand what their teacher was saying. And, in both cases, the instructors were both individuals who likely had a lot of knowledge and even flying time; but were they good teachers? Could they convey knowledge?

Here’s a question along the same lines: should you pre-flight the airplane with a student you’re taking on a first time intro flight? I’m not asking if you should pre-flight the airplane – that’s a given – I’m asking if it should be done in the presence of a first time pilot. Does someone taking to the air for the first time need to know that you need to check for four bolts and a piano hinge in a few places on the aileron to make sure it doesn’t fall off mid-flight? Do they need to see you verify that there is no water in the fuel? Ask yourself if the student needs that education or if you feel it’s important that he knows how serious aviation is.

The Fundamentals of Instruction – the basis for teaching in aviation – talks about establishing common ground and going from the known to the unknown. So why do we have to refer to fuselages, yokes, horizontal and vertical stabilizers when flying with initial students? Why can’t we talk to our students about the body or passenger compartment, the steering wheel and the tail? Simple – it’s because we feel and sound important, sophisticated and smart.

While lead instructor and founder of Pilot Training Solutions Written Test Preparation software can certainly walk the walk and talk to talk with the most cerebral of pilots and CFIs, he chooses not to. Instead, he chooses to teach his students. Lucas Noia is of the opinion that impressing PTS’s students with their own test results far outweighs impressing them with his intellect in the preparation process, instead choosing to impart tricks and techniques designed to 1) make it simple and 2) get the semantics of the written out of the way to pave the path for the real flying education. They’ll be plenty of opportunity for student’s to be wowed by aviation throughout their flying journey, but it should not occur during their initial education; this is the time to simplify and contribute to their success.

For an example of our teaching methods take a look at our free demos here at: