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Know What?

"No!" I thought to myself as I stared at the computer screen in disbelief. I'd just taken the Certified Flight Instructor—Airplane knowledge test, but despite extensive preparation, I'd missed several questions! I passed handily, but my score still came as a shock. I'd never missed more than one question on any previous knowledge test, so this was outside my experience.

Then I remembered a brief news item that I'd read in AOPA Pilot magazine a couple of weeks earlier. The FAA had made unannounced changes to several knowledge tests, causing failure rates to spike sharply. In the worst case, over 50% of recent applicants taking the Fundamentals of Instruction test had failed. The unfamiliar questions I encountered on the CFI-A test showed that it was affected too.

I exchanged email with a customer service representative at my favorite vendor of test-prep materials about the changes. I knew that several years ago the FAA stopped publishing all questions, omitting those that duplicated other questions in every way except specific numbers. For example, they published only one version of a particular weight-and-balance problem, even though the test bank contained several versions of the same question with different weights and arms. But the service rep explained that the FAA has recently changed its policy even further, publishing only a few sample questions.

Well, I can't really argue with that. The old system definitely encouraged rote memorization, and I confess to relying on it for some of the more arcane and arbitrary knowledge, such as regulations. (How many different kinds of night are there? At least three: the night used for logging night flight time (civil twilight to civil twilight), the night used for passenger-carrying currency (one hour after sunset to one hour before sunrise), and the night requiring the use of position lights (sunset to sunrise).) With more conceptual material, such as aerodynamics and weather, it's easier to study for true understanding rather than just rote recall.

Still, without at least some sense of the required knowledge, it's hard to study efficiently. Part 61 of the FARs lists the aeronautical knowledge areas required for various certificates and ratings, but these are very broad. The practical test standards (PTS) provide some guidance, but these are oriented towards the checkride, not the knowledge test. AOPA, the National Association of Flight Instructors (NAFI), and other groups have called on the FAA to establish knowledge testing standards analogous to those provided by the PTS. I think this is a very good idea.

In the meantime, though, I need a new study strategy. In the spirit of observe-act-observe, I've started with reading Parts 61 and 91 of the FARs front-to-back. I won't retain all of it, but I will at least have seen it and am likely to remember where to look for key items. The next obvious step will be to read the various aeronautical knowledge handbooks and advisory circulars that the FAA publishes. As an instructor, I'm going to have to be familiar with these in some detail anyway. Third-party texts and study guides provide good explanations of this material (and they're usually better written) but the government publications are the definitive source for what the FAA wants pilots to know.

So, will I retake the test? I haven't decided yet. With the current state of knowledge testing there's no guarantee that I would improve my score. I might be better off thoroughly studying the knowledge areas that I missed to prepare myself for the oral exam portion of the checkride. This might be one of those times when I should swallow my pride, let go my perfectionist impulses, and do the expedient thing.

But I'm still gonna hit those books. I owe my students nothing less.

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