A passing score for any of the written pilot exams is 70%. The question then, is what 30% of the material covered on the exam doesn’t matter?

The “written” is often looked upon as an annoying hurdle to overcome while enroute to a pilot certificate. The majority of attention and effort is put into the mechanics of physically flying the airplane and assembling flight plans while the written looms as an unglamorous, tedious homework assignment. This attitude robs flight students of the opportunity that lies within the written: to become a knowledgable aviator.

There are four levels of learning: rote, understanding, application and correlation. A rote level of learning is simply being able to repeat something. Sadly, many approach a written exam with nothing more than the rote memorization of the test questions acquired through any number of commercially available test prep guides. Knowing the answer to any question without understanding why that is the answer is problematic at best, and possibly even dangerous.

For example, a test question on the private pilot exam may ask:

The term ‘angle of attack’ is defined as the angle between the:

a) chord line of the wing and the relative wind

b) airplanes longitudinal axis and that of the air striking the airfoil

c) airplane’s center line and the relative wind

The answer of course is “a) chord line of the wing and the relative wind.”

If we knew that answer, but did not understand what that meant, how surprised might we be to find ourselves stalling an airplane well above a published stall speed? What concept of a stall might we have? Knowing that answer without the underlying concept hints at a huge void in knowledge.

This may be an extreme example but the question remains: what parts of the written exam aren’t important?

The truth is all of it is important and worthy of your time, attention and study. You may not use every bit of that knowledge on every flight. You may not even use one fifth of it. But every so often you will encounter a new situation that you have not experienced before. It is in those moments when a healthy, thorough understanding of aviation as outlined in any of the written exams may come into play and help you determine a safe course of action.

So what do we do? We should approach the written not as an annoyance but as a great opportunity to learn as much as we can about the art of flying. If you choose to study using a test prep guide you should ask yourself “why is this true” with every question. Do not accept an answer without also understanding why it is the answer.

For those of us that have been flying for some time, challenge yourself to go back and retest yourself. Could you still pass a private pilot write exam? An instrument exam? We have a tendency to get very good at the flying we do most often and lose track of those topics we don’t visit upon. We get tunnel vision. We should push ourselves into those subject areas we don’t see often. 

While it may be impossible for any one person to know everything there is to know about aviation, we should all do our best to climb into the cockpit as prepared as can be.