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Training Tip: You passed! (with an 83)

The airman knowledge testing process has evolved over time, but basics remain the same: Read questions carefully, regard weirdly worded answers skeptically, and don’t fall for “distracter” answers sprinkled in to see if you were paying attention.

Photo by Chris Rose.

Follow that strategy and you should do just fine: In 2020, 90 percent of the 31,976 private pilot airplane knowledge test takers passed, booking an average score of 82.96.

A private pilot airplane applicant must pass the 60-question knowledge test with a minimum score of 70 percent. All questions are multiple-choice, with three possible answers. (Back when I took it, there were four.) The new batch of sample questions on the FAA website is dated March 23, if you'd like to try your hand.

Practice helps. Although you won’t find those exact questions on your actual test, you can see how information is presented and learn to sidestep distracters. Also, if a question has you stumped or rote memorization of facts abandons you, there are backup strategies that beat taking a one-chance-in-three gamble on a wild guess.

Sometimes the wording of answers is the tipoff. Consider a question asking for “the correct method of stating 5,500 feet MSL to ATC.” Possible answers are “five point five,” “fifty-five hundred feet msl,” and “five thousand five hundred.”

If you can’t recall the tip to “state the separate digits” of altitudes (Aeronautical Information Manual 4-2-9), try eliminating wrong answers: “Five point five,” although commonly heard on the air, is egregiously informal; discard it. “Fifty-five hundred feet msl” sounds more official—but when’s the last time you heard someone specify “msl” versus “agl” on the radio? That leaves “five thousand five hundred” as the right choice.

About distracter answers: They have official recognition and even are solicited as key ingredients of the knowledge test questions the FAA invites aviation community members to submit.

Here’s an example of a question that seems to contain a distracter answer regarding the location of Loup City Municipal Airport in relation to the Nebraska city. The question refers you to the test’s supplement. The correct answer is “northwest approximately 1 mile” (as anyone who knows how to interpret a chart supplement airport listing will determine). However, a careless individual could erroneously answer “northeast approximately 3 miles.” And for someone for whom an airport listing looks like total gibberish, the “7E” at the end of an unrelated data string could tempt them to select “east approximately 7 miles.” That’s a distracter!

There’s a saying: “When all else fails, read the question.” Same goes for the answers.

Dan Namowitz

Dan Namowitz

Dan Namowitz has been writing for AOPA in a variety of capacities since 1991. He has been a flight instructor since 1990 and is a 35-year AOPA member.
Topics: Training and Safety, Flight Instructor, Student
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