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Self Study Ground School: Is it worth it?


For those wanting to obtain a Private Pilot’s License or PPL, there is much more to do than just learn to handle a light aircraft. There is also a requirement to pass a detailed written test on a number of subjects related to flying. The study required for this theoretical knowledge is generally known as ‘ground school’.

Ground school is usually can be done on a structured course with an instructor.  But it is also possible to do the studying alone, using books and online course material.

So which of these is better? Is self study worth all the difficulties which are frequently involved for the student? Or would prospective pilots be better off paying out more money for a formal course?

The answer is quite complicated, so let us take a look at all the issues involved.

Is it Actually Possible to Only Use Self Study in the USA?

It is possible theoretically to use self study in the USA. The FAA does allow it, and there have been some cases of people doing it successfully.

However, it must be emphasized that an instructor will still need to sign you off before you take the final test. This is because the FAA requires an instructor endorsement before you can actually take the written exam. So even if you do all the work by yourself, an instructor will still need to make sure you are up to the required standard, and it could take several hours for them to verify that you know everything.

This means that you won’t save much money, if anything, by studying everything by yourself. So why would you want to do it?

Perhaps You Are Still Considering Studying Alone

Some people enjoy self study. They like the idea of being able to study in their own time, rather than having the requirements of a formal course and a ground school instructor. But if you think you are this sort of person, let us take a look at the issues involved here…

Are you accustomed to studying alone? If you have been to college and studied for a degree, then you are probably quite used to doing this. Even so, studying for aviation tests is somewhat different. And if you only went to high school, and perhaps didn’t even finish that, then you may never have acquired the skills needed for taking in a large amount of material and retaining it all by yourself.

To give a real life example, I taught a student once who had this as a very real problem. He had had very little schooling after the age of about 14, and he had no real idea about how to study by himself. He came to me in despair, convinced that he was just not smart enough and couldn’t pass the PPL exams. But with me teaching him formally, he managed just fine. It was the self study skills which he did not have, that was all.

What is Actually Involved in Self Study for the PPL? 

Before you can answer the questions concerning your ability to self study, you perhaps need to know more detail about what is involved.

Flying schools will often tell you that the theoretical knowledge required for the PPL is very easy. But this is not true for most people. The schools may really believe this….or they may just want to persuade you to do the PPL course with them! Bear this in mind.

For many people ground school is quite difficult. You need a certain amount of knowledge of math and science in order to understand some of the facts concerning topics such as theories of flight, and also navigation and some of the other subjects involved.

In addition, there is quite a large volume of work to be done. So it really is not something to be undertaken lightly.

How Exactly Will You Self Study for the PPL? 

Let us look at this step by step…

Firstly, if you decide to self study, you will need to make plans and stick to them. You will have to decide what books and other materials to use. You may be able to get recommendations on what is best, perhaps from former students or from your flight instructor, but it can all really be quite confusing.

You will then need to make a study plan. First, you will need to decide on what pace of self study works for you. This is important, for while there are a few people who can study for several hours a day and still take in the facts, most people cannot do this. Little and often may be best – perhaps two hours per day in total. Of course, you may also have to fit this around your job or family responsibilities.

In addition, you will need to reserve some of your allotted time to go over the related questions, which should be available in the books you are using. Then you will need to do some practice tests. And finally, you should go over anything you got wrong, and learn it again until you can get it right.

You will probably need to set aside several sessions per week or per month, depending on the number of flying lessons you are having. But bear in mind that you will need to put in the hours needed for self study. There is no point in getting through the flying course quickly, only to be held up by the theoretical side of things.

And finally, as mentioned above, you will need to find a CFI (Certified Flight Instructor), to spend several hours testing you, before you can be signed off as good enough to take the final exam

What Does the Test Involve?

The FAA final test has 60 questions on all the subjects involved, with a two and a half hour time limit. The pass mark is 70%.

However, it is worth bearing in mind that you really need to acquire all of the information in order to be a good pilot. You should therefore aim to do considerably better than just scrape through the exams with minimum marks.

So it is not just a question of passing the test; you really do need to have a good grounding in the subjects involved. After all, as a pilot your life could depend on your theoretical knowledge. So bearing that in mind, do you really think that 70% is good enough?

So Finally, is Self Study Worth the Trouble?

Now that you have read all of the above, you may have a better idea of how to answer this question.

For most people, the answer is definitely that it is not. The majority of people simply do not have the time, basic knowledge, or self-discipline required to self study effectively. There is really no substitute for a good instructor who can actually make sure you understand the topics involved; rote learning is simply not enough.

So for almost everyone, the best thing to do is bite the bullet and find a good formal ground school course. There will be experienced ground school instructors, plus facilities and training aids, with everything designed to help pilots get through the test first time.

Of course, you may balk at paying up to $70 an hour for one to one instruction, and you would not be the first to feel that way. But these days there is an alternative. There are online ground school courses which can achieve the same thing as an instructor, but at a much lower cost, and this may be the perfect compromise for you.

Pilot Institute has one of these courses, and details can be found here. This 35 hour course has everything you need, and enables almost everyone to pass the test.

So why not start now, and the best of luck!

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Pilot Institute


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