There is a lot of sage advice about initial flight training readily available on the internet and other sources. Typically, this advice stems from personal experience, lessons learned by training others, or hearing about training pitfalls and successes through the aviation grapevine. One of the most frequently discussed topics is when to complete the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) private pilot knowledge test — before starting flight training, somewhere in the middle, or right before attempting a private pilot checkride.
Is there a correct answer?
According to the FAA, all three options are suitable so long as you complete the practical test within 24 calendar months of passing the written test. That said, one of these options has to be the best, right?
Like many things in flight training, there is no “one size fits all” approach. However, based on my experience, I do feel that one of the options best prepares students for success during initial training.
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I completed my written exam prior to formally beginning any flight training. I didn’t have a choice in the matter: It was a requirement of the program I chose for my initial training. Yet, even if I did have the autonomy to juggle preparing for the written, oral, and practical tests for my private pilot certificate, I would not have done things any differently.
I felt that completing the written exam prior to moving to the flight deck was helpful for two crucial reasons.
- It allowed me to build a baseline of knowledge for flying.
- As a result, I had confidence that I could perform at the level needed to fulfill the FAA’s requirements for becoming a private pilot.
How the written exam helps you build a baseline of knowledge
If you have never lifted weights, then learning about the theory of exercise and different movements before racking a few plates on the bar will help you achieve a productive and injury-free workout. The same thinking applies to flight training: Learning about the theory of flight and different flight maneuvers before stepping foot on the flight deck will help you have a safe and effective training session. Unsurprisingly, some things in aviation are complex and can be challenging to learn as you sit behind the yoke for the first time.
While the learning challenges of flight training can vary from person to person, learning to fly in an environment where one has the time and space to focus on a topic is always beneficial. For example, I find it easier to learn about airspace types while on the ground. It allows me to fully commit my attention to a sectional chart and other resources rather than zipping through the skies trying to divide attention between a flight instructor, a sectional, and, most importantly, everything happening outside the airplane.
Getting the written portion of the private pilot certificate requirements out of the way helped me simplify the process of becoming a pilot.
How it boosts your confidence
Learning as much book knowledge as practical prior to formally beginning flight training — and certainly prior to the first solo — is consistent with how many of us like to operate outside the cockpit. Whenever possible, I try to avoid going into a situation blind. I prefer to have some knowledge about the subject I will be discussing or defending.
Completing my written test before beginning flight training gave me a level of confidence about becoming a pilot that I would not have had otherwise. I was comfortable knowing that there were still many things I didn’t know (isn’t that the fun thing about learning?), but I think I could better grasp concepts by already having a baseline knowledge of flying.
Furthermore, I felt that if I already had gained a good level of knowledge on a subject, then applying it in the cockpit allowed me to experience and understand it more thoroughly. It also prepared me to ask my flight instructor questions that an uninitiated version of myself would have never addressed.
The bottom line
Focusing on one knowledge area at a time and completing its requirements before beginning flight training made becoming a private pilot less daunting for me. I knew that once I completed my written test, I could begin my flight training confidently with my eyes set on the end goal of successfully defending my airmanship skills and knowledge to an FAA examiner (that is, once my instructor deemed me fit to do so).
Had I needed to simultaneously contend with the complexity of studying for my written exam in the middle or latter stages of my flight training, I believe I would have been more overwhelmed by the process and missed a crucial knowledge base.
Of course, I am basing that opinion on my personal experience. The variance of schedules, needs, and goals within flight training may dictate a different timeline for other learners. However, regardless of when you take the written exam, doing your research up front and setting a reasonable timeline and expectations will help you plan your studying and stay on track in your flight training.
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