Taking the private pilot written exam

I recently took the written FAA Private Pilot exam. My first challenge was to find the testing location. My registration confirmation indicated that the test would be held at Mt. San Antonio College, but it simply gave a street address, without a building or room number. When I arrived, the college had no idea what I was talking about. When I called the CATS service with whom I’d registered, they didn’t have a building/room number either. However, they gave me a local phone number and I was able to call in and get additional guidance. Whew!

The proctor escorted me into a glass-walled room with three computer terminals. She checked my ID and my logbook endorsement, then spirited them away for safekeeping. She went through some paperwork and then called up a “demo” test (one question was “Who is in Grant’s tomb?”) to show me how the interface worked. Then I was left alone to dive in!

You are given 2.5 hours for the test. I had taken 3 practice tests, consuming about 45 minutes each time. But this time was the real thing, so I went slowly and carefully and took about 1.5 hours. I got 62 questions (60 graded and 2 “validation” questions, which are not distinguished). There were questions about weather and aircraft systems and instruments and flight planning, VOR navigation and airspace regulations and aerodynamics. I was surprised that I *didn’t* get a question about computing the heading to fly from A to B given winds of X. In fact, I didn’t get to use my protractor nor my E6B at all! :(

I spent a lot of time, like 15 minutes, on a single thorny question. It asked:

What is load factor?
A) The ratio of the bank angle to the stall speed
B) The ratio of the bank angle to the power-on stalling speed in a specified configuration
C) The maximum weight that the aircraft can support divided by the aircraft’s weight

At first glance, all three seem to be wrong. The first two can’t possibly be right just given a units analysis. Load factor is a dimensionless multiplier that is a function of bank angle. Options A and B are angles divided by velocities (degrees / knots?). Also, stalling speeds are not fixed values, so you wouldn’t be able to compute either one.

But option C has problems too. As bank angle increases, so does load factor. By this definition, an increase in bank angle would have to increase the maximum weight the aircraft can support (???) or decrease the aircraft’s weight (?!??!).

After the test, I looked this up, and I think option C was meant be worded “the maximum weight that the aircraft MUST support,” due to banking, and assuming that altitude is maintained. I am pretty sure that my test didn’t have “must” in the answer, but it’s always possible that I misread and then misremembered it. Anyway, I guessed C and either that was the answer they wanted or this was one of the validation (ungraded) questions. Either way, I think this is a terrible question since it doesn’t get at what load factor really captures — that banking trades vertical lift for horizontal motion. Wikipedia much more intelligibly states that “the load factor is defined as the ratio of the lift of an aircraft to its weight”.

I found these books to be very useful study aids. Do not simply dive into the prep book and trust that to get you through! It is (necessarily) a simplistic skimming of topics more thoroughly covered in the PHAK. But it does give you good example questions to practice on. I found that at least 40 of the 62 questions I got were in this prep book (or slight variants), and the remaining ones were on topics covered by (both) books. There were no surprises.

In the end, I scored 59/60 (98%). I missed this question:

The radius of the procedural Outer Area of Class C airspace is normally
A) 10 NM
B) 20 NM
C) 30 NM

I selected 10 NM because class C usually has a 5-NM low-altitude radius and a 10-NM radius above that. I didn’t recognize “procedural Outer Area” as referring to the larger 20-NM radius within which you’re encouraged (but not required) to establish radio contact. I am now required to receive remedial training on this subject from my instructor before I can proceed to the checkride. :) And maybe that will be one of the things the examiner zeros in on during the oral component!

Why I want to learn more aerobatics

I’ve been trying to put my finger on why my spin training lesson was so enjoyable. I think it comes down to feeling that much of my current regular training is fear-oriented: don’t get too slow, don’t get near a spin, don’t retract the flaps too fast on a go-around, don’t deviate from the centerline, don’t bank more than 45 degrees. This isn’t a criticism of my instructor; much of that fear is self-imposed due to the newness of the experience and the awesome responsibility of controlling a large machine in the air. And those warnings are about avoiding dangerous boundaries and, in some cases, experiences that have killed other pilots. Further, I understand that as a beginner, those boundaries need to be very conservative. But it’s taken a while to move past induced terror to some degree of familiarity, and that is a stressful place to operate in.

Spin training was different. Even though we were doing things that *should* have felt terrifying, it wasn’t scary at all. It felt like pure play. I got to just fly the plane. The plane was so responsive that I felt smoothly in control, even though all the controls were different from what I’m used to.

This has inspired me to do a bit more “flying the plane” while I’m doing solo practice. I’ve experimented with finding the true best rate of climb (when it’s just me in the plane, the speed is much lower than Vy!). Now I can sense when the plane starts to climb or descend by pitch changes in the engine noise. I *still* want to get better at sensing (lack of) coordination (why is that so hard???). I really like slow flight, with that feeling of breath-held tiptoeing, careful attention to rudder, and oh-so-gentle turns, because I can feel that the plane is in an altered, nearly wobbly state.

I also try to come up with variations on the things I regularly practice, to see whether there’s a boundary there or just an unexplored option. I ask my instructor first, to ensure I don’t do something stupid: “Can I try power-off stalls with no flaps? Can I try a power-off stall recovery without using the throttle? Can I practice coordinated rolls?”

But ultimately, I want to learn more aerobatic skills and really feel where those boundaries are. This article captures some of what I’m looking for:

“Aerobatic training will give you a feel of what it’s like to be at the edge of the envelope, and you will eventually be able to feel the changes as the aircraft passes in and out of its flight envelope, thus reacting appropriately and therefore avoiding any life-threatening stall or spin accidents.” From Why fly aerobatics?

Instead of “just don’t do that”, I can learn “here’s how that happens, what it feels like, and how to get out of it.” And maybe even “here’s how to do it on purpose”, like Patty Wagstaff :)

So now I just need to finish off my pilot’s license, and then there’s so much more I can learn!

Sibling dynamics in picture books

This week for my History of Youth Literature class, we were tasked to pick out three picture books, written in different decades, that portray family dynamics, and compare them. Here are the three picture books I chose, spanning 1964 to 2008:

1. A Baby Sister for Frances (by Russell Hoban, 1964)

This is a story about the challenges of a new sibling entering into the family (in this case, a skunk family). Frances feels left out and unimportant; her dress doesn’t get ironed before school, and there are no raisins for her oatmeal. “Things are not very good around here anymore,” she says, and decides to run away. She packs her things and runs away to the dining room. Her parents talk about how much they miss her, so as to be deliberately overheard. “A family is everybody all together,” they say. She comes back and her mom makes a chocolate cake.

2. Rosie Runs Away (by Maryann Macdonald, 1990)

This story about a rabbit family has almost the exact same plot as A Baby Sister for Frances. Rosie struggles to compete with baby Mat for Mama’s attention. Rosie tries to help by shushing Mat, then taking him outside to play, but she gets in trouble for this. She packs her things and runs away to sit under a tree, far enough to see her house but not be seen. She reflects how even if Mama doesn’t miss her, Mat and dad will. She comes back and bakes pies with Mama.

3. Kitchen Dance (by Maurie J. Manning, 2008)

This story begins with a mystery; the children wake up to strange noises coming from the kitchen. They investigate and find mother and father dancing around while washing the dishes. When they are discovered, their parents pull them in for some whole-family dancing, then gently put them back to bed. There is a strong atmosphere of love and acceptance. There is no sibling rivalry or competition.


In all three books, children are indulged. Frances is allowed to “run away” and then provided with affection that compels her to choose to come back on her own. She negotiates for a higher allowance because she’s a big sister now. Rosie also runs away and is welcomed back with hugs and pie-baking. Rosie does get reprimanded for taking Mat outside by herself (and getting him dirty), but the feeling is exasperation rather than anger. These messages can help children work through their own feelings of frustration and sibling competition for attention without fearing punishment.

The children in Kitchen Dance are not chastised for getting up at night, but instead embraced and included. The magic in this book, I think, is the fascination kids have with the mystery of what adults do, once the kids are in bed, and the feeling of being drawn in and loved and included in that special time.

For the first two books, from 1964 and 1990, the gender roles are very traditional. Frances’s mom feeds the baby (from a bottle, not her breast), gets Frances ready for school, knits, and bakes a cake. Rosie’s mom bakes and tends to the baby. Frances’s dad (literally) reads a newspaper, smoking a pipe, in a comfortable chair. Rosie’s dad only appears on the last page, when he comes home (with groceries), and in a fond memory Rosie has of telling him jokes when he “comes home tired”, presumably from work. (In the picture, he too is sitting in a very comfortable chair with a newspaper on his lap.)

Kitchen Dance departs from the traditional view in that both parents share the domestic duties equally – washing dishes and putting the children to bed. They are equally domestic and nurturing. We don’t get to see what they do for work or childcare during the day.

All three families are two-parent families with a mom and dad. No extended family are present. The first two books have animal protagonists, but they feel very “white.” Kitchen Dance is explicitly hispanic. The father sings “Cómo te quiero,” a phrase that is repeated multiple times in the book. The family members all have dark skins rendered with beautiful colors.

The theme of conflict between a single child and a new sibling is one with enduring appeal and relevance. Still, I was surprised to see almost exactly the same plot in books written 26 years apart. Kitchen Dance portrays sibling dynamics in a subtle way; when the narrator (the youngest child) wakes up, she wakes her older brother to include him in investigating the noise, rather than seeking out parent time for herself.

There is also a consistent theme about food providing comfort. At the conclusion of the first two books, the family celebrates being back together by baking a cake or a pie. Kitchen Dance occurs in the aftermath of (presumably) a family dinner.

From this small sample, I would conclude that traditional family structures and gender roles continue to appeal to authors, illustrators, and readers. Our lecture notes for the week discuss the 1980’s and 1990’s as a time when working mothers were more recognized and social issues like divorce and out-of-wedlock pregnancy began to be portrayed, but these books don’t touch on any negative aspects. Overall, I enjoyed having this chance to dive into the world of picture books!

Too old to direct air traffic

I recently learned that there is a *maximum* age at which one can start training to be an air traffic controller. While a minimum age for various efforts is common, specifying a maximum age seemed curious, and especially given that the oldest you can be to start ATC training is 30 years old. So young!

Naturally, I wondered why this limit had been chosen. After some digging, I discovered that it derives from studies done in the 1960s and 1970s such as

Trites and Cobb (1962) conducted a study of ATC trainees and their subsequent job performance (in the first year of work) that showed a marked increase in training failure rates with age, up to age 45:

Trites Fig 7

They do not speculate about reasons for the reduction in performance, concluding that

“Whatever the nature of the casual factors associated with chronological age and underlying the relationships of this study, there is no doubt that the number of potential training failures can be reduced and undesirable controllers eliminated by specifying a maximum age for entry into air traffic controller training. In the best interests of air safety and financial economy, establishment of an upper age limit is recommended.”

The FAA must not have heeded this advice, because nine years later, Cobb was still working to persuade them of the dangers of older ATC trainees. The Cobb et al. (1971) study is of 710 air traffic controllers, aged 21-52, that concluded that “age correlated negatively with 21 of the 22 aptitude measures and with training course grades.” This is a study of a biased sample, however: “because of their highly specialized pre-employment experience, these men were not required to qualify on the CSC ATC Aptitude Screening Test.” It is perhaps unsurprising that they might have lower aptitude measures, since these were not used to screen them as applicants. However, the negative correlation of performance with age is there. In Figure 2 from this paper, black means “failed basic training course”, hashed means “course grades comprising the approximate lower half of pass group”, and white means “course grades comprising the approximate upper half of pass group”:

Cobb Fig 2

The numbers in the right column are the number of subjects in each age group. “Although the subjects over age 34 represented only about 23 per cent of the 710 men involved in the entire study, their failure rate (31.1 per cent) in Academy ATC training was about three times that of the younger trainees.”

Cobb et al. went on to test these subjects on a variety of mental tasks, including simple arithmetic, spatial reasoning, following oral directions, abstract/logical reasoning, and a job-relevant task described as follows: “A highly-speeded test consisting of two parts of thirty items each. In each part, the subject is presented a flight data display for several aircraft and must determine whether certain changes in altitude may be directed without violating a specified time-separation rule.”

Performance on every single test, except arithmetic, was negatively correlated with age.

Maybe this result, or others like it, did the trick. The right of the FAA to establish a maximum age for its air traffic controllers was passed into US Law in 1972. The current version of the law states that

“The Secretary may, with the concurrence of such agent as the President may designate, determine and fix the maximum limit of age within which an original appointment to a position as an air traffic controller may be made.”

Cross-country flight planning

Recently I planned out my first cross-country (i.e., >50 nautical miles) flight, from El Monte to Banning. The flight was done with my instructor along, but I was in charge of the planning. If this were a road trip in the car, here’s how it would have gone:

First, you consider weight and balance. You weigh each of the people going on the trip and use an Excel spreadsheet to calculate the car’s center of gravity (CG) based on each passenger’s weight and which seat they’re in, along with the weight of a full tank of gas and its position in the car and any luggage in the trunk. You look up the resulting CG in the car manual and find that the car is too tail-heavy, so Uncle Bert needs to sit up front instead of the back, and you decide to only to add 8 gallons when you get fuel instead of 12.

Next you decide on your course. You decide to take Interstate 10 west; pretty straightforward. But that’s only the beginning. You need to decide if 8 gallons is enough to get you there, so you specify the speed you plan to drive (70 mph) and your expected fuel burn (74.6 miles at 40 mpg = 1.9 gallons). Pretty good, except you need to include fuel to reach a viable alternate destination (more on that in a bit) and a 30-minute reserve (what if you get lost and end up driving in circles for a while?)… even though the total expected driving time is only an hour.

You don’t want to run into traffic coming the other direction, so you specify that you will drive in the right-hand set of lanes, and possibly exactly which lane you will use for each section of the route. The freeway is invisible, so you calculate the compass headings you’ll need to follow to stay on track, and you pick out visual confirmation markers about every 20 miles, such as the Covina Ikea, the Ontario airport, and Citrus Plaza in Redlands. You mark these on your roadmap along with how much time you expect it to take you to get to each one and how much gas you’ll burn before each one.

In case there is some reason that you cannot reach Banning, such as a road closure or major earthquake, you pick an alternate destination so that you won’t have to find it in the midst of “oh no!”. There aren’t many choices, since you are only allowed to park at about 30 different locations in the entire Los Angeles basin, but you settle on Redlands and confirm that you can get there within your 8-gallon total, and that they have gas available, should you need more for the return trip.

Now your plan needs to be matched against actual weather and road conditions. You request a weather briefing which informs you that the winds on the freeway are from 250 at 10 knots, so you tweak your timing and fuel burn estimates accordingly. This is southern California, so there isn’t a lot going on weather-wise, but you are still informed of “mountain obscuration” in the hills due to low-lying clouds and a basin-wide low-pressure area. Happily, there are no Temporary Driving Restrictions on your route, such as Obama visiting Ontario, in which case you would have had to select a different route and start over, or go through extra steps to get approval to drive through.

During the flight, you hold all of your flight plan details clipped to a kneeboard, and between glances at the road, speedometer, fuel gauge, map, and other traffic, you carefully note down your actual progress versus your planned progress. If it takes you significantly longer than expected to reach a waypoint, perhaps due to an unexpectedly strong headwind, you may consider diverting to your alternate destination.

You are also maintaining radio contact with SoCal controllers along the way, so you are listening with half an ear to the radio chatter in case your name comes up along with “Traffic at 2 o’clock, black sedan slowing to 50 mph” so you can avoid it and confirm, “Traffic in sight.” This is challenging since your car’s brakes don’t work on the freeway, so all you can do is speed up, turn, or let off the gas pedal and coast. The SoCal controllers keep tossing you along their bucket brigade, causing you to tune your radio to a new frequency with a new controller every 5-10 minutes. They may also suddenly instruct you to “Switch to lane 4″ or “Reduce speed to 65 mph”, with which you scramble to comply.

Simultaneously, you are constantly scanning for possible emergency stopping points. The engine could die. The timing belt could break. The oil could dry up, a tire could fall off, the engine could catch on fire! You need to be ready! As you’re driving, you note every off-ramp and wide shoulder that could accommodate your car in an emergency. You never know.

Because the freeway is invisible, it has effects on your car that you can’t anticipate, only react to. Invisible potholes and bumps jolt you down or up unexpectedly. The location of the freeway moves up and down with the current atmospheric pressure, so you periodically tweak your altimeter with an updated setting announced by the SoCal controllers so that you can find the road again.

There are no bathroom breaks.

(For longer flights, you would pre-plan a landing at an intermediate airport as part of your flight plan that would allow you to stretch your legs, use the restroom, and eat food, as needed.)

All that planning and effort gets you near your destination, a large parking lot. You approach on the diagonal from the northwest, calling out your intentions every minute or so in case anyone else is trying to park at the same time. You might think you would just see them, and you are vigilantly on the lookout, but at 70 mph on an invisible freeway, there’s no guarantee they’ll be where you expect. You make the final turn into the parking lot and then begin slowing to attempt to park. This is non-trivial, because you are trying to figure out how to align the invisible freeway with the very visible parking lot, at precisely the right speed and angle, and since the brakes don’t work, all you can do is fiddle with the gas pedal or pop the trunk to increase drag. You roll in to a nice stop and wipe the sweat off your forehead.

Then you turn the car around and do the same thing back again.

I’m happy to report that we did the flight from EMT to BNG and back just fine. It took about 40 minutes each way — slightly longer coming back because, indeed, the wind was from the west. We had plenty of fuel, burning about 10 gallons with tanks that hold 38. The CG was fine, the morning clouds burned off in time for us to leave, I was able to find the visual markers, and I talked to all the controllers, sometimes with some very welcome coaching.

Here’s my flight plan on the chart. It’s a little hard to see, but the course is KEMT -> PIRRO -> PDZ -> ACINS -> KBNG. It’s almost exactly 60 nm. It stays under the LAX Bravo airspace, and at 5500′ it is above the ONT airspace and skims the top of the RIV airspace — but since we were talking to SoCal, we were allowed in. On the way back, we were at 4500′ but again had flight following from SoCal so were allowed through RIV and ONT airspace. Fun!


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