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!

Thursday, October 9, 2008

God's Acre at Archerfield Airport

At the main entrance of Archerfield Airport in Brisbane is a small peculiar graveyard called God's Acre. It is located on the airport grounds, right in-between the road and the greasy spoon eatery favored by local pilots for lack of any other option. And as Aviatrix remarked when describing a similar place in the US, this is not an airport with its own graveyard, but rather a graveyard with its own airport.

It would be easy to believe that this cemetery is the resting place of pilots and passengers involved in fatal accidents flying in or out of Archerfield. The dates however tell a different story. The cemetery was consecrated in 1859 with the burial of Volney Grenier who fell from a horse at the age of 16 while fox hunting on a nearby farm. Archerfield Airport opened 70 years later in 1929.

To put things in an Australian perspective, Australia was only "discovered" by Captain Cook in 1770, with the first settlement established in 1788.

A well-documented history of Archerfield airport tells us that the US 5th Air Force upgraded and used Archerfield aerodrome during WWII, most notably as a base for B17 Flying Fortress heavy bombers. The airfield received the visit of General MacArthur, whose wartime headquarters were in Brisbane, as well as Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of the then President of the United States.

There is however one aviation-related plaque in the cemetery. It is dedicated to the memory of Robert Copas and Lace Maxwell, who died in a flying accident in 1994. The airplane involved in the accident, a Tiger Moth VH-UNA, was based at Archerfield.

According to the ATSB report, the accident happened while performing a wing-walking stunt at the Luskintyre airfield in the Hunter Valley in NSW.

Because of the extra drag caused by the wing-walking frame bolted onto the wings, the pilot had developed a take-off technique that would give him a decent climb rate despite the added drag. Unfortunately, this involved climbing at a speed very close to the stalling speed of the aircraft.

According to the investigation report, the engine failed soon after take-off because of a problem with the carburetor needle. The problem had already been identified on similar airplanes in other countries, but had not resulted in an Airworthiness Directive in Australia. The pilot tried to perform a flat turn to get back to the runway by kicking the rudder. This resulted in a stall and spin which killed both occupants.

I wonder how many of the local pilots take the time to visit this place. It really is less than a couple hundred meters from many of the local flying training organisations. I'm glad I did.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Nav7: Back to Redcliffe

Before starting up in Goondiwindi for the last leg of Nav7 I didn't forget to turn the GPS logger back on, so this post will be illustrated with the actual track I flew. Hopefully this will compensate for the lack of photos. GPS tracking is the aviation equivalent of reality TV: no details will be spared, and all embarassing navigation mistakes will be exposed.

The plan was to fly from Goondiwindi (YGDI) back to Redcliffe (YRED) via Millmerran (YMMN), Toowoomba (YTWB) and the township of Esk. As can be seen below, I departed Goondiwindi on runway 22, flew a short crosswind leg, turned downwind and kept climbing for an overhead departure.

I could have made my life simpler by departing on downwind rather than overhead since my outbound track was nearly parallel to the downwind leg. Another thing I could have done better would have been to make sure the extended outbound track pointed at the airfield instead of being about one mile to the north of it.

I kept climbing to 5500ft while maintaining a heading of 033 degrees to Millmerran. The track to Millmerran as drawn on the map was actually 041, but given the forecasted westerly winds at 25 knots I had computed before the flight that the nose of the airplane had to be pointed 8 degrees left of track to compensate for the expected drift. The idea was to keep flying the planned heading and check later if I was where I expected to be or if any adjustements had to be made. In a nutshell, that's the navigation technique known as dead reckoning.

About two thirds of the way to Millmerran I could see on the left-hand side a power line oriented north-south crossing a road oriented south-west north-east. From the WAC chart I could easily tell where I was, which was good, except this was not where I was supposed to be!

I was actually about 5 miles north of the track. I had already flown 45 miles from Goondiwindi, with 20 more to go before Millmerran. Maybe the wind was not as strong as forecasted or had assumed a different direction, resulting in my heading over-correcting the expected drift and taking me further to the left of track. Or maybe I misaligned the compass and the DG. Finding why it happened was anyway secondary to fixing the problem.

That's when the navigation technique known as one-in-sixty comes in handy. It is based on the fact that being off track by 1 mile after 60 miles flown means an angular error of 1 degree. 2 miles after 60 miles mean 2 degrees, and so on. It works great, at least for small angles. From a mathematical point of view, this relies on the fact that the function tan(x) can be approximated as x for small values of x. But let's not complicate things, since the beauty of the method is that it can be done in the cockpit while flying.

It goes a little bit like this: I am off track by about 5 miles after about 45 miles flown. Let's say 50 instead of 45 because it makes calculations easier. 5 in 50 is like 6 in 60. So I was over-correcting drift by 6 degrees. If I turn right 6 degrees now, I will fly parallel to my intended track. However, if I do that I will still be 5 miles off-track. So I need another one-in-sixty calculation to determine the closing angle that will take me straight to my destination. I still have 20 miles to run till Millmerran, 5 in 20 is like 15 in 60, so if I add an extra 15 degrees to the 6 degrees found previously, this means I need to turn right 21 degrees to be on a track to Millmerran. New heading is therefore 012.

And it works, as can be seen in the picture above: after turning onto the new heading my new track was pointing at Millmerran. Near Millmerran I went a bit right of track in order to keep the aerodrome on my left, simply out of curiosity. Then I turned onto a new heading and tracked for the Toowoomba aerodrome. I used the drift correction from the one-in-sixty exercise conducted a few minutes before to compute a new heading.

I picked up the ATIS for Oakey on their VOR frequency. The sequence letter for the information was Zulu, meaning the military control zone was not active and had reverted to a CTAF. My track only clipped the CTR by a mile or so, but I would nevertheless have needed to request a clearance if it had been active. No need to upset the military. I prefer to see fighter jets and big black helicopters at airshows rather than at the end of my left wingtip.

Toowoomba is blessed with an NDB navaid, so I tuned it in and the needle on the ADF was pointing straight ahead. The ADF needle points at the navaid in relation to the airframe, not in relation to the track as is the case with VOR navaids, so one has to take drift into account. However, since I was no longer offsetting a lot of drift, the nose of the airplane was pretty much pointing where the airplane was going, and therefore the needle pointing straight ahead was good news.

I made a couple of calls on the Toowoomba CTAF to let everyone know I was intending to overfly the field at 5500ft. At this altitude I couldn't really have conflicted with traffic in the circuit, but it's good practice. The GPS logger can be cold and cruel at times, pointing mistakes that would otherwise go unnoticed, but in the present case I'm happy to report that my track took me right overhead the airfield.

After Toowoomba I tracked for Esk. Under my left wing were the Cressbrook and Perseverance Creek reservoirs that I had overflown on Nav3 six months ago on my way to Oakey. The hilly scenery was really beautiful in the low light near the end of this winter afternoon. I found Esk and confirmed it with Mount Esk, the racetrack and the red rooves of the Esk Hospital. I descended to 3500ft and once clear of the ranges kept descending to 1500ft to remain under the CTA steps of Brisbane International. 

The GPS logger got its revenge when I joined the circuit at Redcliffe. I was coming in from the west at 1500ft and my track was taking me straight to the airfield. I turned right a little so as to be on the south side of the extended centerline for runway 07/25.

The dead side at Redcliffe is always to the south because all circuits are over the water, i.e. left-hand circuits for 07 and right-hand circuits for 25. That's both for reasons of not overflying populated areas, and avoiding any controlled airspace violation. The Brisbane CTA step over the Redcliffe aerodrome is at 1500ft, and there's a 1000ft step just a couple of miles south of the field.

I knew from listening to the CTAF frequency that runway 07 was in use, which I confirmed by looking at the windsock as I was descending to circuit height over the dead side. The winds had changed since earlier in the day when I took off on 25.

I joined crosswind above the opposite end of the runway. I turned downwind a bit too early so I widened the leg a bit. This is why the track does not look anything like the nice figures in flying training books. I landed on 07, taxied out and refuelled the airplane. I cancelled SARTIME by phone then sat down a few minutes to jot down some notes about the flight so that I could blog about it later. Total flying time today 4.3 hours, at $185 an hour plus $29 for landing at Archerfield. Oops. Looking forward to being able to take passengers with me to share the cost.

So that's it. The navigation part of the PPL is now over. It's a bit of a weird feeling. Next step, PPL pre-test and then test. And hopefully many more adventures after that. And I need to blog about the CSU endorsement. And the PPL theory test. And the airshow in Singapore. And write a guest post for Plastic Pilot. Too many blog topics, not enough time.