Conquering the instrument written exam

BLUF: this was one of the most difficult written exams I’ve ever taken, far harder than any IT certification exam I’ve done,

Back in December I wrote about the instrument written, widely alleged to be the most difficult of the FAA’s written exams.

There’s a lot of disagreement over the “right” way to earn a new rating or pilot certificate. What works for me is to study the knowledge base that I have to demonstrate mastery of while I’m working on the airmanship portion. Some folks advocate completing the written before any flight training starts, while others prefer to put the written off until right before the check ride. I guess my approach is somewhere in between. At the time of my December post, I had envisioned taking the test sometime in the first quarter; right after Christmas, I had the opportunity to sign up at a reduced rate for the Aviation Ground Schools program, so I signed up and set a goal of taking the exam on 10 February, the day after the school ended.

My path to the exam involved several different sources of information. The FAA doesn’t publicly post its pool of test questions, but the exam has been around long enough, and the knowledge areas are well-enough known, that all of the major test prep products have more or less the same questions. Each provider has a different approach to how they teach the material; some prefer Gleim, some swear by ASA, and so on. I spent a lot of time with Sporty’s Study Buddy app, which is a pretty faithful simulation of the test, and I read everything about IFR I could get my hands on, including the excellent AskACFI web site and the forums at the Cessna Pilots’ Association web site. Caroline, one of my two flight instructors, gave me a list of stuff to read that was very helpful, and I started working my way through both the FAA Instrument Procedures Handbook and the FAA Instrument Flying Handbook. It’s fair to say that I was stuffing my head with a lot of somewhat disconnected facts and factoids, so I was a little concerned when I headed off for my test prep seminar last weekend.

The seminar I chose is run by Don Berman, who started flying the year I was born and started instructing before I was housebroken.  Online registration was simple and quick, and I got ample preflight notification of everything I needed: what to bring, where the class would be held, what the cancellation policy was, and so on. The seminar I attended was held at the Comfort Inn near Houston Hobby: not a fancy hotel, but adequate for what we needed. When I arrived, Don introduced himself, gave me a fat stack of material, and got us started right on time. He’s an extremely lively presenter and his long experience as a pilot, flight instructor, and classroom teacher shines through, both in his delivery and in the quality of his presentation and visual aids. He’s also clearly got a lot of experience with classroom management; he started and ended on time, gave us adequate breaks, and kept everyone on task. He handed out optional quizzes at lunch both days and Saturday at the end of class, along with a final exam (again optional) on Sunday. The questions were hand-selected by him from the pool of questions in the ASA book; he said that if we could handle them, we should have no trouble with the actual exam.

In fairness, I should point out that Don bills his seminars as test preparation seminars— that’s exactly what they deliver. There were a few areas (like how to interpret an HSI, a navigation instrument that I’ve never flown with) where I came into the seminar with weak skills. Don taught me what I needed to know to dissect and answer test questions about HSIs, but I’m still not ready to jump in an HSI-equipped airplane and use it for a cross-country flight. Which is fine— the test covers all sorts of other things that I will probably never use, including automatic direction finding (ADF) equipment. With the test out of the way, I can now focus on building skills with the equipment I do fly with.

One of my biggest customers asked that I be in Raleigh on the 10th, so I flew there straightaway and stayed there Monday and Tuesday (escaping just in time to avoid their snowmageddon). Today was my first window of time to schedule the test. I was a little concerned that I would forget some of the more esoteric material, and I did. However, my basic knowledge was pretty solid, and I think the random selection of test questions was feeling friendly since I only got a handful of questions on my weaker topics. One interesting aspect of the test is that a new set of questions, with associated diagrams, was just added to the test pool on Monday, so there were some question types that were new to me.

I passed the exam with an 87%, a score I am delighted with. That said, I have a few problems areas that I need to work on as I continue my training, and I realize that passing the written doesn’t mean that I know anywhere close to all that I need to pass my check ride… but I’m getting there!

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1 Comment

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One response to “Conquering the instrument written exam

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