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Learning To Fly: Ground School and Written Exam

I'm not gonna yammer on about how great ground school is. Let's face it, you don't lay awake in bed at night and dream of flying a desk and textbook. But before we run, we learn to walk, and you will have to take a certain amount of ground instruction in order to pass your written exam (Knowledge Exam). Accept it and endeavor to make the most of it.

I really enjoyed mine for the most part. Where To Start? Well, there's more than one way to go about getting your ground instruction, and at least two definite schools of thought on the subject. I know which way I went, and I have friends who took the other approach and it didn't seem any better or worse either way in the end, so I'll tell you both ways and you can decide for yourself.

The first way is to take Ground Instruction from your FBO where you are taking your flying lessons. I went the other way. The second way. I saw that the local Community College offered courses for both IFR and VFR, so I checked it out.

Turns out that you need an endorsement from a CFI to even take the test, and this course came with the endorsement. Better still, these courses usually are subsidized by the Govt. so they are a tremendous value for the student. I signed up and the course cost me about $300 complete with the deluxe Jeppessen Student Kit. This includes a flight bag, A-6B, Plotter, all required books, FAR-AIM. Pretty much everything you need. There is also no reason why you can't use both methods, too. Whatever works for you.

I met the instructor and the rest of the class the first night, and because it was a small group and space at community colleges is always in short supply, we were given the executive lounge to meet in. Our instructor was a CFII and was also a teacher by day, so he had first-hand knowledge and knew how to pass it on. I've included a couple pics of the group on this page. I think we were probably as average a group as any, so it'll give you an idea of what to expect. We met two nights a week, for about 6 or 8 weeks. We also went on a couple field trips, which were extremely helpful. Not the least of which, were the FAA Safety Awareness Program meetings that are held all over the country on the at various locations. These are great places to meet other students and pilots, and they always have a different topic and speaker. Best of all, they are free to attend, and you get the benefits of the other pilots' experience.

Anyway, you don't have to wait until you are finished with Ground School to start flying, but you can't get your license until after you've passed the written, and there is a lot of studying involved, so get started early. You will learn about lift and drag, flight restrictions and regulations, various aircraft types, weather, navigation, mechanical knowledge and more. Don't miss any classes and don't let any of the homework or studying go for too long, or it'll be tuff to catch up. My instructor's name was Darren Smith, and I felt very prepared when I took my test.

Another field trip Darren took us on was to the local airport to do a preflight on a Cessna 172. Darren vehemently recommended the 172 as a trainer. I took a slightly different route, but would have to agree with him now. We circled that thing like buzzards on road kill, and I took notes on everything. I later used them along with the POH (pilot operator's handbook that must be available in every plane) to create my own preflight check list. This procedure is not just a formality. You are betting your life and anyone else's on board on the quality of your preflight. Take nothing for granted. Since I've been flying, I've identified a broken horizontal stabilizer spar(!), low oil, low tire pressure, inoperative beacon light, bad battery and bad magneto - but that was on pre-takeoff check, which comes later. Rental planes take a real beating, so check closely.

Since we met in the evenings and rarely had time to eat before class, we started taking turns bringing in food for the bunch. I started by buying a couple of pizzas and showing up a little early. Bring it up with your class, it helps build fellowship. I also spent an hour here and there with my flying instructor going over the finer points of flying between flying lessons. These are inevitable, so don't fight it. You need this stuff for specific tasks and tests you'll be taking in the plane. But these hours are expensive. At $30 - $40 per hour at the FBO, you wanna keep these to a minimum. They will usually happen just before you solo, just before you start working on your cross-country, and mostly before you take your check ride (Practical Exam). Remember that your instructor's rep is on the line here too, so try to make the most of it and be pleased he/she is pulling so hard for you to be prepared. I promise that no matter how much they try to prepare you, that Check Pilot will still find a way to catch you off guard. They are the cream of the crop, and know tricks of the trade that even the most seasoned CFII hasn't thought of yet, but that's another chapter.

The Ground School class was very helpful and made it quite a bit easier to pass the written test. I diddled around and didn't take my written until after the first endorsement ran out, so I had to get my current flying instructor to give me another one. This was made much easier to ask for since I'd done about 5 hours of ground with him. This topic comes up again in the chapter about choosing a Flight Instructor. All in all, I really enjoyed VFR Pilot Ground School with Darren Smith, CFII. I was sorry when it ended, and I'll probably take the IFR class this year. Study hard and keep up. This is the first step to the dream and it's not an easy one, but when you're past it there's only the fun stuff left to do.

I would also recommend that you buy your instructor some small token of your appreciation at the end of the course. I bought mine a $50.00 gift certificate to Outback Steakhouse. These guys can't possibly be in it for the money, so be thankful that they shared their knowledge with you when you needed it.

You only have to get 70% to pass the written, and I passed with an 86% on the first try. It was pretty intimidating, and you have to go to a special place to take the test, but the people were really nice and it helped take some of the pressure off. I had gotten my physical several months before that, so by now I was ready to solo and fly some cross country! And by the way, yes they do perform a drug screen test when you take your physical.
Here's a shot of one of my classmates on his first flight ever, after the pre-flight. He had booked time with our instructor, who als gives flying lessons. Two of our group were Air Force from McDill, one was CAP on the weekends as a spotter, one was a maint. engineer at one of the big hotels downtown, and another was a rich kid from South Florida, and me. This is Vandenburg Airport in Tampa, FL.


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