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!