One of my great joys as a flight instructor is teaching private pilot ground school, because that’s where flight training begins for many aviators. The candidates come in fresh, and it’s the instructor’s job to nurture their interest and to help them obtain foundational knowledge. It is serious business.
Sadly, many pilots in training see private pilot ground school as a means to pass the knowledge exam (it hasn’t been a written test since the 1990s—it is completed on a computer) and that’s it. Some student pilots have a “just get it over with” mentality for the knowledge test, with the idea that 70 percent is the minimum passing grade, and anything higher than that is overkill.
There was a time when memorizing the questions and answers was done on a regular basis and even encouraged by some—but the FAA threw that out the window when they started changing up the questions on a semi-regular basis, as digital publishing made it easier to do.
The Knowledge Test Dictates the Check Ride
In the last few years, the applicant’s knowledge test score has taken on a greater significance, impacting the structure of the private pilot check ride. It used to be that the designated pilot examiner wouldn’t see the applicant’s knowledge exam results until the day of the check ride. The DPE would note the areas where the applicant was found deficient—meaning where you had wrong answers—and would start asking questions in that area. These days, the DPE receives the applicant’s test results in advance. DPEs can get creative when creating a scenario testing the applicant’s knowledge of “areas found deficient.” If there are a lot of deficient areas, then it’s going to be a mighty long oral exam.
If you fail the knowledge exam, you are required to get additional training, an endorsement from the instructor stating that you had the required additional instruction and are now capable of passing the test. Be advised, the knowledge exam now costs $175 a shot. You want to pass the first time and with a good score. This can be achieved by applying yourself during ground school.
Moving ground schools online allows students to complete coursework at a time and location convenient to them. [Courtesy of FlightSafety International]
Options for Ground School
Ground school can be accomplished face to face, online, or through self-study. Since the pandemic, hybrid classes done F2F and via Zoom have also become more popular. It doesn’t matter if you intend to train under Part 141 or Part 61—the knowledge requirements are the same. You will learn about flight instruments and parts of an airplane, aircraft systems, aerodynamics, airspace, weather, flight operations, cross-country flight planning, regulations, sectional charts, aircraft performance, human factors, electronic navigation, and weight and balance.
Expect to use a textbook, either virtual or hardcopy, such as the FAA’s Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge, the Airplane Flying Handbook, and a current FAR/AIM. These can also be purchased through a third-party provider such as Aviation Supplies & Academics (ASA), or Jeppesen. You should be taking notes during class.
For people who do best with a face-to-face class held in a brick-and-mortar classroom, check with the local FBOs or colleges. If you take this route, expect to spend 4 to 5 hours a week in class for eight to 10 weeks. Expect to take quizzes at the end of each subject area, as well as a test at the end of each section, and at least one final exam—more often, two versions that are drawn from the actual question bank used on the FAA’s knowledge exam.
When you pass the final in class or online (in most cases), you will get a certificate of completion and an endorsement that gives you 60 days to take the knowledge test at an FAA- approved testing center. Flight schools usually have a list of locations where you can take the test. It comprises 60 multiple choice questions.
The scores you get on quizzes and stage tests in ground school are not reported to the FAA. The important thing is that you learn the material—and remember, there is something about getting a question wrong on a test, and then learning what the correct answer is that makes you remember the correct answer that much more.
Online Ground School
If you would like to learn on your own schedule and at your own pace, an online course might work best for you. Online courses require you to have access to a reliable internet connection.
Gold Seal (https://groundschool.com/), King Schools (Kingschools.com), and Sporty’s Pilot Shop (Sporty’s.com) are among the online courses most recommended by instructors.
Many online courses allow you to sample a few classes for free. If the videos are too long, or you can’t stand the sound of the presenter’s voice, or they have a distracting habit, like rocking back and forth or squirreling off on tangents, move on. You’re going to spend at least 40 hours with this person, and if you feel like you can’t bear this thought, find another course.
When doing ground school online, pace yourself. Binge-watching ground school lessons usually doesn’t work well for retention. Don’t even think about skipping ahead to the quizzes or end-of-course exam as many courses have built-in software to prevent you from doing that.
Pro-tip: Find an online ground school that allows you to automatically share your quiz results with your CFI via email. When you take a quiz, the CFI gets an email telling them how you did on it. This helps the CFI tailor your flight lessons to address any soft spots revealed by the quizzes. For example, if you have difficulty with an aerodynamics quiz, a good CFI can demonstrate the concepts using slow flight, stalls, and steep turns.
Self-Study—Do It on Your Own
In order to be eligible for the knowledge test, the applicant needs to have an endorsement stating that they are ready to take the test, per sections FAR 61.35(a)(1) and 61.105.
You can do this with books too. If you choose this route, a CFI or advanced ground instructor (AGI) must review your course supplies and evaluate your retention of the material—and then sign you off for the knowledge test.
The ability to use a mechanical E6B flight computer is the ‘cursive writing’ of the aviation world—but it should be part of every pilot’s repertoire. [Credit: Adobe Stock]
Hands-On Learning Takes Repetition
Some private pilot concepts—such as cross-country flight planning and filling out a navlog—need to be reviewed more than once, and are often best done face to face with a CFI. It is one of those skills that is often best taught by the “instructor tells, student does” model, starting with a paper sectional, paper navlog, and plotter—and the E6B flight computer, often called the “flight confuser” by some learners.
I wish I had a dollar for every time a learner described the E6B as “the bane of their existence”—I could buy pizza for the entire Cal Poly Humboldt marching band—the E6B can be your friend if you have the patience to learn how to use it. This can be done in a one-on-one session with a flight instructor. But here is the scary part: There are lots of CFIs who never learned to use an E6B or don’t remember how to because they have an app on their smartphone.
That’s all well and good until the learner goes to take the knowledge test and their phone is taken away because electronic devices are not allowed—the learner is handed a manual E6B that belongs to the testing center and hijinks ensue. Save yourself some heartache and learn to use the mechanical E6B.
Another pro tip: The instructions for how to solve the equations for time/speed/distance, density altitude, etc., are printed on the E6B. What a glorious day it was when the instructor of my private pilot ground school allowed us to remove the painter’s tape he’d used to cover this information on our E6Bs—he was old school and insisted we learn the formulas. We spent so much time with the E6B we were instructed to give them names. I still have a 30-plus-year-old one that I named Wilbur. It’s made of metal and some of its numbers have rubbed off because of heavy use. One edge is sharpened because I turned it into a knife and a shovel during a survival drill, and it’s missing a screw on the wind side. It resides in a place of honor on the bookshelf in my office.
Practice Tests are a Good Idea
The purpose of practice and drill is to help you develop your skills. This is one of those tests you want to practice. Sporty’s has practice tests that you can take online for free. You can customize them to an extent to address your soft spots—for example, if FARs are not your strong suit, you can create an exam that is all FARs. You may find it helpful to take shorter quizzes of no more than 10 questions at a time, then work your way up to the 60 question practice test. Keep notes on what areas you had difficulty with.
Another pro-tip: Do not take the official knowledge test until you have scored at least 90 percent on three 60-question practice tests in a row during the same week. I offer this advice as someone who has been teaching ground school for 20 years: There is something about walking into that testing center that makes most people lose 10 points—or more—off their score.
Tips for Taking the Knowledge Test
1) For the cross-country distance questions, use the scale on the figures referred to in the testing booklet—do not use your plotter or the scale on the manual E6B, because the scale will be wrong. Instead, create a plotter that matches the scale printed on the figure in the test booklet. Use the piece of scratch paper that is issued to you in the testing center to do this.
2) Read the questions twice, silently to yourself moving your lips. This makes your brain slow down to really take a look at what is being asked.
3) Put your test results in a safe place—I am a big believer in photocopying them as a precaution and carrying the photocopy in the logbook because your instructor will be going over the test results with you; the codes for what was missed are printed on the test results. Your CFI will give you more instruction in those areas.
4) Make sure an instructor goes over the test results with you, and then signs off that you have received remedial training in that subject area. You will need this for your check ride.
Remember, the purpose of private pilot ground school is not just to pass the knowledge test, it’s to learn the skills and knowledge required for safe flying—apply yourself and reap the rewards.