Saturday, October 18, 2008

Ten Tips for the PPL Theory Test

I'm happy to report that I passed the PPL Theory Test with 95% good answers. The threshold is 70%. Big self-indulgent pat on the back to me.

The exam contains about 40 multiple-choice questions. Most questions have 4 possible answers and some questions count double. It's the usual deal: one answer is ludicrously wrong and can be discarded straight away, another one can be discarded with a little bit of thinking and you're finally left with two possible answers to choose from. That's when you really need to switch your brain into gear.

Below are some tips that I hope will help others. Keep in mind that this is about the Australian PPL Theory Test. Things are probably different in other countries, although from what I gather multiple-choice questionnaires seem to be the norm. The main differences are with the aeronautical information and the textbooks. For example, the Australian ERSA corresponds to the American A/FD (Airport/Facility Directory) , CAR (Civil Aviation Regulations) are similar to the US FAR (Federal Aviation Regulations) and so on.

1. Book your exam well in advance
Don't do what I did. I procrastinated and booked late. The only date left was two days before my PPL in-flight pre-test, with only three seats left. Lucky I got in. Success was my only option.

Depending on which assessment center you go to, there may be multiple sessions per week or only one every month or even two months. Or you may be sick on the day. Or have a personal emergency. Remember that if you fail the exam there's a minimum amount of time before you can take the exam again, and it increases with your percentage of wrong answers. If you have more wrong answers than correct ones, you may have to wait 28 days.

The exams are delivered by a private company called ASL on behalf of CASA and one option is to book with them, which is what I did. Some flying schools and aero club allow you to sit the exam on their premises, which may be cheaper but not necessarilly more convenient since you'll need to find an instructor who is allowed by CASA to invigilate the exam (not all of them can).

Just like when flying cross-country, make sure you're not caught out with no options.

2. Study as if you're instructing
If you've ever had the chance to teach in a formal setting, be it a classroom or a university lecture theater, you will have realized that you never really know a topic unless you're able to teach it and answer questions from students.

Apply the same techniques to studying PPL theory. Picture yourself explaining the different types of carb icing, or cloud types, or navigation techniques, to someone else and imagine that person asking you hard questions about it. Better still, find an actual person to bounce your knowledge (or lack thereof) off. This could be a friend, a work colleague with an interest for aviation or an understanding family member. Or team up with other PPL students in a study group. If you have a blog, blog about it. Even airline captains do it.

Diagrams are especially tricky. Sure, you can follow the oil system diagram and explain what each component does, but would you be able to draw it unaided on a blank piece of paper? If you can, you really know your stuff. If you don't, more studying won't hurt.

Remember, this is not only about passing the PPL theory test, it's also about acquiring knowledge that will hopefully stay with you for your whole life as a pilot. And who knows, it might even save your life one day.

3. Show up early (and with your logbook)
Allow yourself plenty of time to get to the examination center. This way you can get familiar with the location, find where the bathroom is, drink and eat before the exam, nicely organise your material on the table and relax before the exam starts. The last thing you want is pull into the parking lot downstairs two minutes before, run up the stairs and drop your stuff on the table with your hearth still racing and sweat across your face. Only to realise you left your wallet in the car and your flight computer fell off the bag on your way up.

It is also mandatory that you show your logbook on the day of the exam so that the examiner can check you passed the BAK (Basic Aeronautical Knowledge) exam. That requirement is written multiple times in documents you'll get from ASL. If you don't have your logbook, you won't be allowed to sit the exam, will loose your money and will need to rebook for a later date. Don't let that happen to you. I know one person it happened to.

4. Read the bloody question
More. Than. Once. Understand what the question actually says, not what you would like it to say. It's way too easy to fool yourself into thinking a question matches an answer you already know, or a question you've seen in a practice exam.

Negations, for example, can be easily overlooked if reading in a hurry: there's a difference between "which of the following animals is a bird" and "which of the following animals is not a bird".

Watch out for qualifiers such as "most likely". This is an indication that, although more than one answer are formally acceptable, one is definitely more acceptable than the others and is the only right answer to the question. To a question such as "which animal is most likely to stomp on your roof in Brisbane at night" the correct answer would be "a bloody possum".

There are no "trick" questions. If you've studied well and read the questions carefully you will pass. Studying "well" is different from studying "a lot" though. Which brings us to the next point.

5. Do plenty of practice exams.
OK, that's an easy one. Of course you'll practice beforehand, right? CASA even released a set of sample exam questions a few years ago. You won't find the exact same questions at the exam obviously, but they're very close in spirit.

PPL textbooks also have their own sets of practice exams. I practiced with Bob Tait's PPL and CPL books and it's very good training. My suspicion is that CASA contracted Bob to write some of the PPL exam questions :-)

Practice in exam conditions: time yourself and only use the documentation you will have at the exam. No cheating. Identify the questions you got wrong and also the ones you got right only by chance. This will give you a list of topics you need to study again. Only redo the practice exam after you've studied and understood the topics you got wrong.

6. Practice PPL exam at CPL level
That's less crazy than you might think but only applies if you plan to move on to CPL later because the cost of buying the seven CPL theory books is rather prohibitive ($341 new for Bob Tait's collection). If you can get your hands on pre-loved or someone else's books of course go for it. Check they're not too old though.

The idea is as follows: when you look at CPL books you realise that a large portion of the material is already covered in the PPL books. In the case of Bob Tait's series of books, some sections of the CPL books (particularly Meteorology) are an exact copy and paste of the PPL book. That's fair enough, a cloud is a cloud, there's no PPL clouds and CPL clouds. By practicing at CPL level, you build up extra knowledge and confidence that will help you achieve a good mark at the PPL exam, and get you ready for the CPL exam later. Double whammy.

Now, here's the caveat: this works well for General Knowledge, Meteorology, Navigation, Human Performance & Limitations and Aerodynamics. I would not recommend it for the two topics of Air Law and Performance since these are very different at PPL and CPL level.

7. Know the VFR Flight Guide inside-out
The exam is open book as long as the book you bring are on the approved list of aeronautical documentation: CAO, CAR, ERSA, AIP, VFG, etc. You cannot bring the textbooks obviously.

Now here's my experience: don't bother at all with CAO, CAR and AIP. They're big, heavy, expensive, and if you don't know where to look you won't find what you need, or will waste time finding it. Every question about regulations that I came across in the PPL exam could be answered straight out of the VFR Flight Guide (VFG). And when you think about it, that's what the VFG is about: extract all the aeronautical information relevant to VFR pilots and present it in a form that's easy to consume. Don't forget you can use the index at the back of the book too.

Of course you'll also need the ERSA, but you'll most likely already have one forthe navigation part of the PPL curriculum. Make sure it's current since some questions require looking up specific information about aerodromes or navaids that may change from one issue to the next.

8. Double-check every single answer
An obvious one again. What I did was keep a separate sheet of paper on which, for each question, I wrote down how I came to the answer. If the question required, say, a weight and balance calculation I would write down the entire calculation. If is was about regulations or facilities, I would write the page number in VFG or ERSA where I found the answer. Do that even for answers you are absolutely sure about.

After you've answered all questions, go through the list, re-check every single answer and double-check you didn't make any stupid mistake such as clicking the wrong answer or answering question 34 using the multiple choices of question 35. I did that and found one such mistake.

9. Stay hydrated and well-fed
The exam is three and a half hours long. Think about it as a long flight in an airplane with toilets. Don't let yourself get dehydrated or your blood sugar level fall too low, this will impair your ability to think. Don't let your bladder distract you either, pee breaks are allowed. Bring a bottle of water or energy drink and cereal bars. Take a short break when needed, have a sip and a bite to eat. 210 minutes is plenty of time for answering, double-checking and triple-checking all questions if you know your stuff. No need to rush.

As a matter of fact, students on average complete the exam in 165 minutes, which is about the amount of time it took me. Then you click the final button and wait for what seems like a long long time for the result to come back. Shane described it a lot better than I could.

10. Aim for a very high mark
The pass threshold if 70%. But you should aim much higher. Why? After you've submitted your answers the examiner will hand you a certificate saying that you passed as well as the somber-sounding Knowledge Deficiency Report (KDR). The KDR lists the sections of the PPL Syllabus curriculum that match answers you got wrong.

Kindly enough CASA on their website list the areas where students fail most often:
  • Effect of lowering flaps on performance of glide or descent.
  • Factors affecting the angle of climb.
  • Calculation of beginning and end of daylight
On the day of your final PPL test, you will have an oral examination as well as a flight test. In the oral examination the examiner will quiz you on every topic you got wrong at the theory test to make sure you've fixed your knowledge deficiencies. A high mark at the theory exam will keep the oral examination short and ensure you give a good first impression to the examiner. This is the difference between the examiner thinking this guy sounds fairly switched on and motivated and Oh God, here we go again.

That's it, I hope it helps. If you have questions just leave a comment below. Remember, by law I cannot reveal which questions I had at the exam, so don't ask. Anyway, if you've found this blog post and read that far you're probably very motivated and I'm sure you'll pass first time. Good luck!


Marek said...

Bloody well done! Congratulations, Julien!
And good luck this week! :-)

Anonymous said...

Congratulations on your PPL!

Thanks for another informative, interesting and useful post.


Karim said...

Thank you, well done guide!!! Hope it'll help in my PPL.



Julien said...

@Karim: Good luck with your PPL!

Ashley Lewis said...

Thanks for taking the time to share your experience. Very insightful. Congratulations on a fine result!

Unknown said...

I find this article very helpfull, I know I will pass my PPL the very first time. I am a beginner aspiring to be the best Helicopter Pilot.

Anonymous said...

Nice work. Great post. Thanks for taking the time I put this together! And congrats on the pass.

Anonymous said...

Congrats on your PPL. And thanks for the very informative and useful tips. Cheers.

Karl Millar said...

Some great tips, I am only at the Selling my Car and Motorbike stage and booking the course. but starting to read the book.

Cheers Fella
Karl (Isle of Man)

Julien said...

Thanks Karl! You'll see lots of things that you read about in the book start making a lot more sense once you sit in the airplane...

Lisa Hall said...

Congrats on your result! How long did you spend studying before you attempted the exam?

Julien said...

Hi Lisa. I studied a little every day all throughout the GFPT phase. In the last few weeks I did a few practice exams at home. But clearly for a few months aviation books were the last thing I saw before turning the light off in the evening :_)

cadetpilot said...

Great post.... Thanks for taking the time to share your experience.