Tips for passing pilot theory exams

Contributed by Learn to Fly Melbourne student Howard Lau.

I know nothing grabs your attention like the words’ exams’ and ‘theory.’  Here I will give you the scoop on what to expect from your theory exam. No matter which course you have enrolled in, you need to study –  so let’s get pumped for pilot training exam preparation!

Aviation is a complex and sophisticated profession. Airlines are not looking for cowboys and hotshots, but well-rounded, intelligent statesmen and women.

The purpose of this post isn’t to change whatever ‘type’ you happen to be, but to remind you of the importance of approaching the exam runway carefully. I’m in the fortunate position of having completed all seven of my CPL subjects (woo-hoo!). Besides, I have passed my PPL theory exam and all RA-Aus theory exams (in flying colours I might add!). I’m not here to brag, but instead, offer my experiences to help you.

Let’s separate the post into three sections: Recreational Pilot Certificate, Private Pilot Licence and Commercial Pilot Licence.

RECREATIONAL PILOT CERTIFICATE (RPC) EXAMS

First of all, congratulations on embarking on a dazzling journey in aviation. These days, it’s common to start with a Recreational Pilot Certificate (RPC) under Recreational Aviation Australia (RAAus). The theory exams of the RA-Aus syllabus comprise of:

  • Pre-Solo Air Legislation
  • Human Factors
  • Basic Aeronautical Knowledge
  • Flight Radiotelephone Operator Licence
  • Pre-Certificate Air Legislation

Each subject has a degree of difficulty. One advantage is that they all come in multiple-choice format. It’s always B (just kidding). As it occurs in the early stages of training, an instructor will usually decide whether or not you are ready to sit. The exam requires self-discipline, concentration and rigorous study.

Before you hit the cockpit, you need to hit the books! When you thought you’d finished school forever, study is the best way to get your career off the ground.

To tackle my RA-Aus exams, I set aside two hours of homework each night after class. It allowed me to iron out weak spots and plug up any knowledge gaps. If you have any questions (and you should), always contact your instructor (perhaps not at 3 am, no matter how bad your dream was).

All RA-Aus exams require a pass mark of at least 80%. So you can’t just bluff your way through. Rest assured you will only be quizzed on what is covered in class. That said, sometimes a question can have more than one right answer – RAAus will be looking for the one that is the most correct one. That might sound funny, but it’s not just a matter of recalling information from memory but displaying your understanding of concepts.

PRIVATE PILOT LICENCE (PPL) EXAM

The PPL comprises of one exam. The advantage is that you can focus all of your attention and energy into one test. The exam will cover a wide range of topics, so your knowledge base will have to be up to speed. The PPL exam has around forty questions, with a variety of multiple-choice and single answer.

Some sections offer double marks and require calculations. It’s vital to answer as many of these doubles correctly as they will ultimately make or break your campaign. These questions relate to take-off and landing distances, weight and balance, density, height and pressure calculations.

It’s advantageous to memorise the formulas for these problems as an over-reliance on the flight computer could throw off your answer due to rounding errors. Flight mathematics must be precise. Slight variants will result in an incorrect answer (and when you are in the sky, an accident).

There’s no room for guesstimates. Don’t be alarmed – the questions aren’t complicated, and you’re not expected to know everything at this stage.

You are allowed to take charts and materials into the examination, so you need to be organised. It’s a good idea to familiarise yourself with the region(s) depicted in the charts as they’re based in Sydney. Most navigation questions require you to draw on the chart.

My best advice here is to take it slow. You have a sufficient amount of time to complete the exam. Slow and steady does win the race. You don’t want your charts to look like a doctors prescription pad or a spider on drugs! There’s a saying in the military that applies to exams: “Slow is smooth, smooth is fast.”

I found that taking the AIP (Aeronautical Information Publication) into the exam didn’t help me. I referenced the Visual Flight Rules Guide (VFRG), and that covered all my bases. This is the only exam which allows you to carry the VFRG – which is concise and easy to follow, so this exam was a breeze (well, less of a gust).

COMMERCIAL PILOT LICENCE (CPL) EXAMS

Since there are seven separate exams for the Commercial Pilot Licence (CPL), I will give a bit of overview advice. The last thing I want to do is overwhelm you (there’s plenty of time for that). All exams except Aerodynamics, Aircraft General Knowledge (AGK) and Human Factors, require reference materials and tools to complete the questions.

For all exams, a sound knowledge of the basic concepts is paramount as you could get quizzed on anything. The difficulty for each exam can fluctuate wildly, depending on whom you talk to. I found Aerodynamics and Aircraft General Knowledge easy, while others struggled with these.

It’s worth taking other students reports on an exam with a grain of salt. Everyone will have their strengths and weaknesses within each subject. The best bet is to be prepared for anything! You can always set yourself a practice exam (what better way to spend a Saturday night!). For my preparation, I tackled each exercise in the Bob Tait books twice, ensuring I scored above 90% before considering myself ready for the real thing.

Preparing for exams is stressful and tiring. If you’re still completing your CPLs, it’s worth reducing your flying time. It sounds like a drag, but this is one case where too much multi-tasking can be your downfall.

Use the extra energy to find which study times and locations suit you best. Some work better at home, in the morning – while others may be able to concentrate at school during the afternoon.

For subjects like Navigation and Performance, there are various calculations and chart reading exercises. You will benefit from completing the practice exercises and familiarising yourself with the formulas and formations. Again, it’s important to remember that rounding errors can jeopardise your entire exam. If you don’t carry the zero, you could end up with nothing! You don’t need to be a genius mathematician; CASA prefers the most conservative rounding.

To conclude, all exam success relies on sound study. Practice, be prepared and remember to take your time. Slow is smooth. There are no shortcuts to aviation knowledge, and being ready for all-weather is a good rule for life and an even better theory for flying. Good luck!

passing pilot theory exams