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(Not a hop)

Today I had a flight scheduled with my instructor for 11am-1pm, and then I'd made arrangements to take the FAA written exam (Private Pilot - Airplane) at 1pm at the airport since they act as a computerized testing station.

A brief aside on the FAA written exam. The official name for it is, I believe, the 'Private Pilot Knowledge Test.' It is one of three major milestones in one's quest to become a licensed airplane pilot. The first is the solo, and the last is the final checkride with an FAA-approved examiner. That's just what it sounds like, if it sounds to you like a driving test in the air. In any case, in order to take the written, you must either complete a training course from an FAA-approved ground school course and receive a graduation certificate, or you must be signed off as qualified to take the test by an FAA-certified flight instructor. If you can't do either of those, you can actually make an appointment with an FAA inspector and present to them your study plan and materials, and they can approve your taking the written exam. Sounds sort of serious, doesn't it.

The test isn't a joke. But it's one of those stumbling blocks of bureaucracy that technology has rendered a shadow of its former self. The format of the test is fairly simple - the subject has 150 minutes to complete a 60-question test, with those questions drawn from a pool of approximately 900 test questions. The questions presented should cover the gamut of study areas required to safely and competently fly an airplane and to pass the practical exam (check ride). The internet, of course, has made tests like these difficult - because although the testing services are very diligent (in an unimaginative way) about people getting information into and out of the test itself (surveillance cameras, etc.) they can't do anything about memory. Anyway, the long and short of it is that all 900 of those questions are pretty well known in the outside world, and naturally companies make money selling collections of those questions whether on paper or in electronic form.

As a result, it's quite possible to study by just memorizing questions. This isn't a panacea, however. 900 questions is a lot of questions, even if they're A/B/C multiple choice - and like multiple choice tests everywhere, the options are sometimes selected with malice aforethought.

Generally, if you study (as I partially did) from a book or electronic aid intended to help you pass the test (as opposed to fly an airplane) you shouldn't have much trouble. If you can't remember enough to pass the test, then there's a good argument that you probably shouldn't be trying to fly airplanes, as 'remembering things' is one of the critical ways you avoid becoming dead while doing so. I had a bit of an advantage and a bit of a disadvantage - I took this test 20 years ago during my first attempt at becoming a pilot. As a result, I'm familiar with it and with much of the subject material - flying an airplane hasn't changed all that much in 20 years. On the other hand, several things (mostly regulations) have changed in those years, and some of my memories are incorrect (in addition to being foggy). So I attacked this test as a brand new one, and actually studied in three waves. Originally, I went through the test book with all my reference materials close to hand, working every practice problem and question. That took a few days. After that, I took a couple of days off, then used the practice test app on my iPad to figure out what areas i was weak in. The two I have problems with are straight rote memorization and some flight computation problems - mostly because I'd forgotten how to use my E6B flight computer.

After that, I did a 'targeted second pass' and by the end of it I was getting between 85-95% on my practice tests (pass is 70). I tried to schedule it at that time, but travel for work interfered, so there was a three-week delay before I could schedule. A couple days ago I took the practice test again and got a 75%, which was enough to scare me into a full study round again. That's pretty much what I did yesterday - study and take practice tests. By the end of yesterday evening, I was pretty confident except for two areas - one, the E6B computations and two, airspace requirements. The latter is one of those parts that completely changed in the 20 years since I first learned it, so not only was I fighting my problems retaining information, I was dealing with trying to retain information that conflicted with my hazy memory.

I gave it a college try at stuffing the requisite information into my head. When I could feel the numbers leaking out my ears, For example, Section 91.155(a) of the FAR: "Class G airspace VFR minimums are as follows: "1,200 feet or less above the surface (regardless of MSL altitude) - Day, except as provided in 91.155(b): Visibility 1 statute mile, clear of clouds. Night, except as provided in 91.155(b): 3 statute miles, 500 feet below, 1,000 feet above and 2,000 feet horizontally clear of clouds. More than 1,200 feet AGL but less than 10,000 MSL- Day: 1 statute mile, 500 feet below, 1000 feet above and 2,000 feet horizontally clear of clouds. Night: 3 statute miles, 500/1,000/2,000. More than 1,200 above the surface and at or abobe 10,000 feet MSL- 5 statute miles visibility, 1,000 feet below, 1,000 feet above, 1 statute mile horizontally clear of clouds."


And note that's only Class G. There's Class B, C, D, E and G to worry about. (There is Class A airspace, but us VFR pilots can't fly there, so they don't test us on it.)

It's just...a lot of fiddly numbers that are similar but different.

After doing what I could to get those straight, I was ready to go to sleep (it was 1:45 am) but I thought "You know, I should see if I can find some YouTube videos on the E6B because even sitting here holding the thing isn't bringing back how to use it." So I spent 20 minutes watching earnest but amateur tutors explaining their methods for using the E6B, picking one whose method hewed closest to the instructions written on the device itself. The test review book I was using (the Gleim book) had its own method of using the E6B which it claimed was 'better' but directly contradicted some of the instructions on the device. Since I would be able to take the device but not the book into the exam, I figured that level of confusion I didn't need.

Anyway, although I had planned to fly at 11 (clear my head, remind myself why I was going through all this, etc.) the weather didn't cooperate. It was rainy with low ceilings and poor visibility all morning, so my instructor called me to cancel. I thought about prepping in the morning, but a crisis at work interrupted - I was forced to abandon an ongoing crisis mgmt effort midstream to make my test appointment. To be fair, I'd warned everyone at work I'd be taking the test today, so it wasn't a surprise for anyone and I had a stand-in.

Got to the airpot - at that point, it was hot, with broken clouds and bright sun between them, but with some fairly high winds and low clouds moving through. I was ushered upstairs into the testing suite (three cheap cubicles in a conference room with 10 year old CRT monitors and big huge bulky 1990s mice) and given two #2 pencils, 2 sheets of scrap paper, 2 sheets of tracing paper (so I didn't have to mark up the sample maps and such I was given as supplemental materials) and after sitting through around seven screens of ARE YOU REALLY THE CUSTODIAN OF CUSTODIAL STREET NEW YORK AND IS YOUR BIRTHDAY TRULY THIS TELL US TELL US DO NOT LIE I was allowed to begin the test under the watchful eye of the security camera in the corner. That recording is submitted to the computerized testing company (CATS Test) with my test answers to ensure I didn't suddenly pull out a cheat sheat.

Oh yeah, further digression - they made me leave everything outside except the flight computer (which for you young 'uns isn't really a computer as you know it, it's more a specialized slide rule - it looks like this) a protractor for course plotting, and...a calculator! Yes, a basic calculator.

This had caused me a bit of a bemusement in the morning, as I realized that while I probably owned two or three of these devices none of them were in the same state I was at the moment. I ended up having to go to Staples on the way to the test to buy a calculator, which I hadn't done in 15 years and was amusing. At least they're cheap now! $10 buys a perfectly acceptable Casio calculator with basic scientific functions and memory and both a battery and solar cell.

Anyway, then I took the test. I was glad I'd used the Prepware iPad app - its interface is a direct copy of the interface the actual testing company software uses, so everything was pretty familiar which was relaxing.

Marking all the computation questions to come back later (6 of them) I got through the first pass in about 18 minutes. Then I did the calc questions - and found that 3 of them were, in fact, flight computer questions, so I was glad I'd taken the quick E6B refresher! Did those, checked my work, and then did a second pass through the answers.

I hit 'finish' on the test after 60 of my 150 minutes, and after many more ARE YOU SURE WHO ARE YOU GET YOUR PROCTOR AND HAVE THEM ENTER PASSWORDS screens, the system deigned to spit out my results.

I missed one question of 60.

"What is the minimum visibility required in Class G Airspace for day VFR flight between 1,200 AGL and 10,000 MSL? A) 1 statute mile; B) 3 statute miles; C) 5 statute miles."

I picked B, vaguely remembering that the *last* entry in the table was 5 statute and the middle ones were 3. Bzzzzt. it was A.

Damn it.

Stll - test passed. Now on to more flying. I need to:

  • Do night flight training (scheduled for next week)
  • Get checked out to visit other airports (go cross-country) solo (scheduled to happen tomorrow, I hope)
  • Do a solo long cross-country flight (150 NM flight with a leg of at least 50 NM - I'm going to make it a bit harder on myself by going someplace I've never been rather than using the local airports - I'm going to fly ~150 miles north into Vermont to have lunch with my Dad).
  • Work on slips, soft field/short field takeoffs and landings, and emergency procedures (that's when the instructor reaches over and kills your engine and watches you try to set up to perform an emergency landing with no notice)
  • Work on ground reference maneuvers (S-turns along a road, flying a rectangular course, turns around a point - these are all essentially meant to train you to compensate for wind)
  • Do another 2 hours of 'hood time' in the airplane (flying with my vision out of the cockpit obstructed to simulate having flown into clouds)
When I'm cool with all that - then I schedule my check ride and try to finally become a licensed pilot.

We'll see.