Studying for the written test

Note: I’ve moved my blog!  You can find this post here.

My friend Matt recommended that, to make the most out of my flight training dollars, I study and pass the FAA written private pilot exam before even stepping into an airplane.  He recommended Gold Seal Online Ground School as a good way to prepare for the written test.

I went to the website and was a little skeptical.  Not only does it have hyphens in the domain name, but it looked like the product wouldn’t be good from the home page.  As an avid internet user, I can usually tell when things look like a scam and this set off some red flags, but I trusted Matt since he’s used it before and signed up for $75/year.

This is what looked like in October 2013.

This is what looked like in October 2013 when I first signed up.  With phrases like “Save Money” and “Finish Quicker,” you owe it to yourself to question the content.  It’s almost like the web version of a 4am infomercial.  Fortunately they’ve redesigned the site since then.

As you’d expect, the site was perfectly fine and the content was actually pretty good.  I signed up in October 2013, but didn’t actually start doing any real studying until mid-February 2014.

The Gold Seal course is a great value.  It’s narrated by Russell Still, a Master CFI, and the site teaches its content through narrated videos.  Russell is fun to listen to, and at times he has a corny sense of humor that creeps up throughout the material and makes you chuckle.

I went through each course and afterwards took the associated quiz.  Passing on the written exam is an 80, but I figured if I got a 90 or above that I knew the material fairly well.  I went down each lesson in the same manner, and when I finally completed all the lessons, I revisited the lessons which I scored less than 90% on the quiz.  I would watch the lesson material again and then take the quiz, and repeat that process until I scored over 90% on every quiz.  The quizzes contain actual questions from the written test, so doing them over is never a bad thing.  I took the final exam and passed with a 90% on March 6.  After you pass the final exam, you can print out the endorsement that you’re required to bring to the written exam.

I also bought The Pilot’s Manual: Ground School.  This textbook is over 600 pages long and goes into great detail about everything you need to know for the written exam, and then some.  It has multiple detailed color images on nearly every page, and even contains information targeted for commercial pilots (which is easy to skip over if you don’t want to read since commercial-specific knowledge is noted in the book).


Hands down, a great resource

I didn’t read it cover to cover (and in fact I still owe it to myself to finish it), but what I have read is very detailed and meticulous.  It has the rigor of a university book, which was welcoming when you are trying to learn as much as you can.  There are Jeppesen books available as well which I haven’t tried and thus can’t attest to, but I was quite happy with the quality and depth of this book.

I have an Android phone and I also purchased the FAA Private Pilot Test Prep app.  It’s a little steep for an app at $45, but it does what it claims to do and does it well.  Like the Gold Seal Ground School quizzes, the app contains actual questions from the written test.  It’s pretty great for a few reasons:

  • You can go through questions by topic or mix topics together into one batch of questions
  • If you get a question wrong, you immediately get notified and can look over the explanation for the correct answer
  • At any point you can save your session
  • You can go back and revisit only the questions you got incorrect very easily

It worked well for me because I take the subway to commute to work.  While I’m on the train I can whip out the app and start going through some questions.  For me, it was a very effective study tool.  The only disadvantage was that you have to pay for each different OS you use the app on.  For example, I bought it for Android but also wanted to run it on my desktop (when I was at home) and I would have had to buy the PC version of the app.  Rather than buy it again, I created an Android VM with VMware Player and Android x86 and installed it on my Android VM and was able to use it on my PC that way.  The default Android emulator is painfully slow, so this approach worked much better.  I went through about 3/4 of the questions in the app while using it (about 600 of 800, I believe).

At this point, I called to schedule my written exam.  You can find a PDF of all the testing centers throughout the nation here.  The night before I had signed up for AOPA, and interestingly enough if you’re an AOPA member you save $10 on the written test!  I only had to pay $140 to take the exam; without a membership it would have been $150.

I live in Manhattan, and fortunately there is a testing location at 36 St and Broadway called Professional Testing Center.  The place was quiet but your workspace was fairly small, which was unfortunate when trying to use the paper FAA Test Supplement book for things like computing magnetic headings on sectional charts.  It didn’t help that you take the exam on a computer, so there’s also a keyboard at your station that you have to push aside every time you want more space.  The software for the exam also seemed to be a wormhole back to 1995, but it got the job done.  You’re given 2.5 hours to take the test, and even with being extremely meticulous, redoing my work for every problem, and thinking long and hard about questions I was unsure about, I still had about 40 minutes left when I was finished.

I got my results immediately, and was pretty happy to have scored a 92!

With a score of 92, I got 55 out of 60 questions correct.

With a score of 92, I got 55 out of 60 questions correct.

The questions I got wrong concerned:

  • Carburetor Heat
  • Collective Pitch
  • Right-of-Way
  • Class D Operations
  • Accident Reports, Immediate Notification to NTSB, Incident Reports, and Preservation of Aircraft Wreckage

Total cost: $75 (Gold Seal) + $35 (ASA book) + $45 (Android app) + $140 (testing fee) = $295

With the written test out of the way, now it was time to get into an airplane and learn how to fly it!