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Ground School

Get the most out of your training

Learning to fly is a wonderful combination of new sights, sounds, skills, and, yes, schooling. For those of you who tend to regard the earth-bound portion of your aviating exploits as somewhat less exciting than watching paint dry, let's take another look at how you can make ground school a more interesting and productive experience.

Many pilots are now choosing to acquire the "book learning" needed to pass the FAA written exams via computer programs or video tutorials. To the credit of such programs, the time and preparation required is usually less of an issue when you're using self-directed learning since you have the luxury of proceeding at your own pace as well as reviewing previous portions of the program when necessary. These programs do, however, require your personal commitment, both to complete them in a timely manner - hopefully early in your flight training - and to retain the information for future incorporation into your upcoming or ongoing flying lessons.

If you've decided to take a more formal classroom-style course - whether it's full-semester college-style course, a six- to eight-week classroom program, or a two- or three-day accelerated program - then there is some preparation you can do both before and during the class to make either the short, intensive or the longer, traditional schooling a more rewarding and beneficial experience.

Since the pace and intensity of a compressed program is so much greater than a traditional course, the focus here will be on how to get the most out of what may be a new learning environment for you. The suggestions for accelerated training will also apply to the more leisurely paced ground schools with the understanding that much of the background material you will encounter during a longer session will be absent from a short, intensive program. Hence, advance preparation for an accelerated course will be even more important and help you to make the most of your limited classroom hours.

Recognize that accelerated courses can't teach you everything you'll need to know about the subject, but will try to acquaint you with what you'll find on the written exam and how to deal with the material. During my time as an instructor of accelerated preparation programs (I taught more than 100 classes at last count), I found that the most common misconception was what I call the but-my-instructor-said syndrome. That's when students confused what they needed to know to fly safely with what they needed to know to pass the FAA exam. Your instructor will make sure you have the knowledge necessary to operate the airplane safely and pass your checkride; in ground school class - especially an accelerated class - you're merely flying a desk. Don't confuse the two.

Fire-hose style is a good description of the type of learning you can expect in an accelerated ground school class. Given that you're going to be exposed to weeks' worth of material in just two to three days, you'll want to accept the fact that some of it will spill over and be lost to you. To minimize the sense of being overwhelmed as you wonder, "How can I possibly learn all this material?" begin your personal preparations some weeks ahead of the course and gather the important reference materials recommended by the school, as well those suggested by your flight instructor for your specific course. In addition, you should review a general aviation knowledge text that's appropriate to your certificate level, whether you're preparing for your first FAA-knowledge exam for the recreational or private pilot certificate or your fourth such exam for an advanced certificate or rating. By reviewing what you're already supposed to know, you'll make learning any new material that much easier, and you will find the coursework makes more sense and can be absorbed more quickly.

Ready, Set, Study

Students who are seeking their first pilot certificate won't have a large knowledge base to build on. That's OK. If you're a first-timer, you should think of your advance preparation as a preview of the material that you'll encounter in class. I'd suggest that you - and more advanced pilots - start by reading the airplane flight manual (AFM) or pilot's operating handbook (POH) for the training aircraft that you fly. That's a great way to begin to gain familiarity with a variety of terms and aircraft systems. You'll notice the AFM or POH is divided into various chapters covering such topics as limitations, normal and abnormal operations, emergencies, systems, etc. You should be familiar with what type of information is presented in all of these chapters and where you can find the details and recommended procedures for each of your ship's systems.

The airplane's limitations and other specific numbers, such as weights, V-speeds, and operating temperatures, are particularly important and will always be need-to-memorize items for any airplane you plan to fly. If your accelerated course deals with a specific airplane type, you can leap ahead of your classmates by memorizing these limitations as well as the items on the normal operating checklists before you start your training. These benefits are the same whether you're an advanced student seeking a commercial certificate or a new student just getting to work on the private pilot certificate. If you're new to flying, I'd add that you should make a special effort to become familiar with your airplane's instrument panel before your training begins, whether you do it in a classroom or out on the flight line.

If your ground training is for a rating or license, rather than for a specific airplane, apply the same logic to learning the federal aviation regulations (FARs) and other course-specific terminology. Again, if all of this is new to you and perhaps you haven't yet taken a single flight lesson, be sure to sign up for your ground school course as early as possible. Most companies will send you a course book and a list of reference materials well in advance. But be sure to ask. Even programs that don't offer such lists as a rule can give you some guidelines about what to study and how to prepare. In addition, whether you're a first-time student or an advanced student, scan the chapter headings of any training manual for your rating (recreational, private, commercial, etc.) to get a good idea about the topics you'll be covering in class. At a minimum, take the time to read each subheading and its introductory and final paragraphs. This kind of previewing is invaluable and will substantially increase your classroom understanding and make homework assignments quicker and easier as well.

Speaking of homework, take yours very seriously. Accelerated courses in particular don't have nearly enough time to teach you all the material you will need to know, hence the extreme importance of doing your post-class assignments with the same diligence you demonstrated in class. You'll want to review what you've learned each day and then be sure to complete the reading and practice tests that are crucial to the next day's learning. Set aside your social inclinations (and catch up on your sleep before you begin class) and hit the books, hard, to achieve the maximum learning (and no doubt, a high test score) in the minimum amount of time.

Students seeking more advanced ratings should have some idea of what to expect when they get to ground school and should prepare accordingly. For instance, students seeking an instrument rating can ease the entry into the world of scenery-less flight by familiarizing themselves with the NOS en route and instrument approach chart legends so they are familiar with these symbols and terms before class begins. (While there are other popular brands of charts, the government-produced NOS charts are the ones you'll see on the knowledge exam, so they are where you will want to focus your efforts.) The FARs for instrument flying are also a must when it comes to training for your rating. Learning them before you go to school - even if you don't quite understand how to apply them - is one small step that will save you valuable study time. You'll find that a number of them need to be memorized verbatim, such as the requirements for designating an alternate airport and the IFR lost communications procedures. Others, while not strictly memory items, will save you time if you're familiar with their basic intent and help you to choose correct alternatives as you approach the testing phase. Should you find the legal verbiage confusing, there are several sources, such as Jeppesen's Federal Aviation Regulations Explained, that can help you to translate them into everyday English.

Weather seems to be the nemesis for everyone from student pilots to airline captains. Review a text on the basics of weather before you get to class so you can approach the new material with the background knowledge that's expected of you. Look over some of the practice questions that your course provider should make available and determine what kind of weather information you'll be expected to know. Focus on the big picture and save the details for your classroom training. Knowing weather terms and fundamentals can be your best ally when it comes to test preparation.

DUATS and The Weather Channel will also be invaluable sources, as will various Web sites, including aviation sites ( ) and government sites (FAA, DOT, and NOAA). It's natural to feel overwhelmed by the study of weather, but don't get hung up on the volume of material that exists. Just keep reading, and reviewing, those all-important (and potentially life-saving) weather facts. Your instructor will have good memory techniques to help you make sense of it all.

If it's been a while since you've been a student of aviation or anything else, take the time to review a study guide that provides note-taking and testing tips. Bring to class a supply of regular and highlighter pens, blank flashcards, note paper, an empty three-ring binder with blank dividers, and a supply of sticky notes. While you're in class, annotate the handouts you receive with your own explanations and take notes to help you with the homework. Almost every course I've ever attended (or taught) contained liberal applications of "hints," aimed squarely at making homework assignments easier.

Let me add one word of necessary advice for those of you who may love to fly but don't find yourselves to be very mechanically inclined. Don't try to use your aviation classroom as your first exposure to the basics of electricity, hydraulics, and pneumatics - something you may have missed by skipping that high school physics course so many moons ago. As you advance through your aeronautical training, you'll decrease your stress level and increase your confidence tenfold if you have a good understanding of the terms and symbols you'll likely encounter in ground school. Not knowing how to read a simple electrical diagram or how an accumulator works can severely hamper your progress in absorbing some rather technical classroom material. And it will only get more difficult as you progress through your ratings. So take the time now to learn some basic concepts and you'll be pleased at how quickly you can absorb technical aviation subjects with relative ease.

Testing Tips

When it comes to taking your FAA exam, there are a few tips I've found especially helpful. Perhaps the first and most important one is: Read the question. Read it, then read it again before you look at the answers. The first reading is to get an idea of the subject and the second time should be slow and deliberate - I'll actually mouth each word - to emphasize key phases and form a mental picture of what's being asked. Then, look at the answers to determine if one or more can be quickly eliminated. If you've got no idea of the answer, pass on answering it at this time and plan to come back to it later. Often you'll encounter other questions that can help you recall the fact you need or provide additional information to make one choice stand out as the correct one.

Don't spend too much time on any one question. Since all FAA test questions have the same value when it comes to scoring, you'll do better to answer five questions correctly rather than waste time fighting over one that requires extensive computations. Use the supplemental information to help you find data that can assist you with other puzzling questions. Save time to review your answers. In fact, take the whole test again if you have time to make sure your second-run answers match those you chose on your first go-around. Before you change any of those initial answers, make sure you have a good reason for changing your mind. Your first inclination when answering a question you're not sure about is, more often than not, the correct choice. Finally, when you're done with the test, make sure the answers you marked are actually the ones you intended to choose.

Although FAA testing is the culmination to the majority of ground schools you'll attend, remember that very little of the information is irrelevant, although you may sometimes doubt that fact while you're attempting to absorb the voluminous amounts of data. Store away as much of the information as you can because it may actually come in handy. In the mid-1970s one question on the FAA instrument rating exam always struck me as pure trivia. I remember wondering whether anyone really cared that the DME identifier for a particular navigation station is broadcast only once every 37.5 seconds. How would I ever use such a minor detail, since few GA airplanes (or airliners, for that matter) had a separate volume control with which to check it?

Well, last week, some 24 years later, I got the chance to actually recall that bit of wisdom from my memory bank and put it to good use. While en route from Cleveland to Houston, I heard another pilot query air traffic control about the functional status of a distant VORTAC station. Thinking we might be able to assist, I tuned in that station and soon realized that we were out of VOR signal range. Since we were receiving the DME, I listened to the ident feature and sure enough, there it was, every 37.5 seconds, the Morse code ID that told me the DME was working, even though I couldn't receive the VOR's signal. I smiled to myself as I watched the clock's second hand and confided to my first officer, "See, there's still hope for me and my supply of minor facts, some of which are finally worth knowing!"

Karen Kahn is a captain for a major U.S. airline and author of the book Flight Guide for Success - Tips and Tactics for the Aspiring Airline Pilot. Type-rated in the MD-80 and Lockheed JetStar, she's an FAA aviation safety counselor, holds an ATP, Gold Seal CFI:AIM, and is rated in gliders, seaplanes, and helicopters. You may contact her through her Web site ( ).

Type-Specific Training

If you find yourself feeling behind the curve as you approach your first professional pilot ground school, don't despair; you're not alone. Any pilot will tell you "been there, felt that way!" Many years ago, while attending my first "big airplane" ground school, I found myself becoming more and more mystified at how my classmates were uncovering various bits of information that I seemed to have completely missed during my seemingly thorough study sessions. I soon learned that many of the important details I needed to know were well-hidden in the recesses of my AFM.

What I needed was a study guide to ferret out all these secret sources. I then set about determining the best way to attack (read: study and learn the intricacies of) any new aircraft system. I devised an organized manner of digesting the technical information that would ensure I checked out all the nooks and crannies that might hide valuable need-to-know information, which those more experienced students seem to have found with very little searching. It merely involved knowing where to look.

My study journey began with a review of a system's limitations. Knowing the "numbers" right up front was going to be the key to understanding how it all worked. That's why they always required us to memorize those infernal operating limitations, starting from the Cherokee 140 I first flew as a student pilot, to the Boeing 727 I cut my teeth on as an airline new-hire pilot more than 23 years ago.

Once I knew the cold hard facts about a system, it was time to look at the normal procedures to see how the system was used in routine operations. Then, I followed up by reviewing the "fix-it" plan for those not-so-routine times - abnormal and emergency procedures.

Armed with these basic facts about my target system, I'd continue my mission by delving into the explanatory chapter in my manual devoted to this system. Now it made some sense as I had an idea of not only what it was supposed to do during routine operations, but how it could run amok when things went haywire and what actions to take to mitigate or cure the problem.

Finally, I'd look in the minimum equipment list - found mostly on larger airplanes - that describes which parts of the system can be inoperative, and to what extent, before you must get it fixed. To my surprise, a wealth of information (and more limitations) was hidden there, awaiting the inquisitive student who knew where to look. If only I'd know these tricks before I started the most intensive training program of my career, I'd have saved myself a lot of midnight oil, searching for the necessary detailed data that seemed (to me, at least) to be buried beneath a mountain of mumbo-jumbo.

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