As with most things in life, the paper part of aviation training can be at best tedious and at worst onerous and just plain wrong. In a perfect world, all ground school instruction would be cheap, conducted by enthusiastic and qualified teachers at times and locations which dont interfere with frenetic schedules and Santa Claus would be real.
In your dreams. Realizing this, scads of vendors have developed PC-based instructional software intended to provide a reasonable simulacrum of aviation nirvana. We dont pretend we looked at all of them but what follows is tour-the-horizon view of some major players.
Simple Test Prep
At their most basic, this variety of ground school is nothing more than a scan of the official FAA test book with some sort of subroutine for slogging through by category or to sort out a sample practice test. The more elaborate products supplement the published FAA materials to varying degrees. At least one web site offers a no -frills ability to practice test questions for free (or humiliate yourself, just for fun). http://www.flightdata.com.
We didnt feel that any offering in this category was sufficient on its own with respect to real world comprehension for the private or instrument rating. Theres too much arcane or counterintuitive material and monkey-see-monkey-do just doesnt cut it.
With respect to more advanced ratings, however, the test categories generally dont add to the critical core knowledge so much as they make you go back and review it or acquire enough arcana to jump through the required hoops. After all, when was the last time you had an intense discussion at a cocktail party over the respective importance of primacy and recency in instructional technique?
All of this genre loads completely to the hard drive and will track your study progress in a variety of ways, the most obvious being percentages and missed questions. Each provides information on how to locate the nearest official computer testing center. Occasional advertising hyperbole notwithstanding, the products from Gleim, ASA and Smart Regs are electronic test booklets not comprehensive groundschools. King Schools also has an entrant in this most basic category. Paper books were all that existed back around the Civil War when we were doing primary and the ability of the computerized versions to eliminate all that page-flipping would have been worth the freight if they didnt do anything else.
Gleim has two versions, one DOS study program with just the Q&A on disc and the significantly slicker CD-ROM Windows program, which includes all test diagrams and illustrations in the database.
If you want to get by on the absolute cheap or havent abandoned that 286 boat anchor yet and you dont mind clunky ole DOS, by all means go for Gleims diskette version at $30. (Youll still have to buy the paper supplement to get the official illustrations and figures.)
For $20 to $30 more, however, well take the pretty pictures and greater utility of the Windows version.
In study mode, you can select the subject areas you want to review or you can run the entire array. In the Gleim CD version, all answer selections for that category are displayed on the left, with the question under review in a right hand window.
It will track which ones you answered right the first time, after correction or not at all. A brief explanation is provided after youve selected the answer in both iterations.
Managing the on screen diagrams can be problematic on occasion. Laying a plotter up against a computer screen that can display only part of the map doesnt work well, so youll want at least the FAA Computer Testing Supplement or the paper book to go along with the on screen practice.
What with all that moving windows around and resizing, we found it more efficient to ignore most of the on screen diagrams completely and just flip to the right place in the book, which is the way youll take the test anyway. We found some nice touches in the Gleim Windows program, including the ability to conform your test prep to the type of testing center youll be using and setting it up for the actual time youll have during the test (as if youll need it).
Gleim will generate the test sign-off form and offers a free e-mail update service, which ought to be handy if you do the program then get behind in actually taking the exam in question.
Gleims computer test prep for individual use is $30 for all DOS programs. CDs are $49.95 private/rec and $59.95 for all others, up through FE. FBOs and flightschools get a break on most multiple orders.
Unlike Gleim, ASAs CD test prep programs wont let you enter a wrong answer in study mode. If your response is incorrect, ASA will display the underlying reference until you select the correct answer. (You can also select an explanation before answering.)
Questions you initially got wrong display with a double (correct) answer. Obviously, when you go to grade the results, you received a perfect score. We found this less useful than the ability to assess progress during repetition, but you can mark any questions you want to revisit later.
In study mode, ASA pops up text material supporting each category selected before displaying the test questions. Whether that appeals depends on whether youre the type who prefers to read the directions or just yell Clear to get a quick read on where you stand from the outset. The ASA CD contains no figures or illustrations, but comes with the official FAA testing supplement.
ASAs program sets itself up automatically in the Start menu, which we found annoying. It includes a long list of recommended study materials and accessories.
In an amazing serendipity, every one is available from ASA and is displayed complete with an item order number. Like Gleim, ASA will give you a free pre-test update, in .pdf format. Each test CD is $49.95.
Smart Regs is a computerized test prep for private and instrument ratings created as a sideline for a company established in the CPA testing field. Both the private and instrument test preps are $45.95.
Its a bit clunkier visually than either of the other two programs in our view and, our version at least, had a peculiar habit of displaying portions of text inadequately spaced. Unlike ASA, it will let you answer the question incorrectly in Study mode, to mark progress.
In Diagnostic mode, a sample test is run and the program will tell you whether you got the answer correct as you go along, but wont let you change it. Smart Regs also markets an interactive FAR program for an additional $19.95. Its $5 less if you buy it with the test program.
Fair warning with this one: It took us a half a dozen tries to get in a working version of the correct program and none of the materials we saw indicated a pre-test update service as is offered by Gleim and ASA.
Two vendors, Jeppesen and King Schools, offer significantly more explanatory material than any of the programs discussed above. The core program loads to the hard drive, but both require the CD for display of most supplementary material. As a result, neither will run well on a low-end PC.
Jeppesens private and instrument FliteSchools (the artist formerly known as Mentor) organized around a syllabus which appears to proceed in an orderly fashion. In FliteSchool, you start with a on-screen chapter on the particular topic with lots of selectable stills and movies to illustrate the points.
We found the small .avi snippets a bit grainy and jerky and the graphics less than dazzling, but general execution of the explanations and supplementary materials was adequate.
Each lesson text concludes with links to the appropriate FAA reference sources, which are included on the CD. In the instrument curriculum, some lessons included an optional directed simulator session using Jepps FS-200 PCATD, a nice application exercise and an even better marketing strategy.
Phase checks in the form of interim tests are available when youre ready. During study/testing, Jepp will circle back to questions you missed earlier in that session, an excellent reinforcement technique. The related hints and assorted explanations are made available for review after youve selected an answer.
All test illustrations and figures are in separate printed materials rather than on screen and test question updates are available for print out on the Jepp Web site.
Jepp markets this as a groundschool product, but in our view, standing alone, it would be more appropriate as a supplement, refresher or as more detailed test prep. Jeppesens single CD private version is $169. Instrument, commercial, CFI and ATP are $199.
In the Works
As usual with computer products, somebodys got a major rerag in progress. If you waited for everybody to have their non plus ultra on the market, the piece would never get written.
That honor falls to Jeppesen for this round. Planned for release on or about Oshkosh, the new and improved Jepp instrument FliteSchool was made available in a less than fully functional demo form just before we went to press.
As a result, we can offer only a few observations rather than comprehensive conclusions. The visuals in this version are much improved over the existing FliteSchool. The program is set up along around a campus map/menu motif and, unlike the prior version, will be tied in directly to their Guided Discovery test materials.
A how to explanation for navigating and using the program is found in the Welcome Center. Course work (as opposed to testing) consists of straightforward explanations, generally a pleasant voice over for static but well done diagrams as opposed to the active video used throughout in the King programs.
Searchable text and FAR-AIM is included. Predictably, the presentation emphasizes Jepp charts and plates. Both formats are generally (but not always) depicted visually in the course materials where differences exist. We found this a bit troubling, as an instrument student will test on NOS and the only a vanishingly small percentage would have access to Jepps during training.
While the tie-in is understandable from a commercial perspective, we feel this split between study format and training and test reality might cause some difficulty for the budding instrument student.
On the other hand, this beta FliteSchool was already up to speed on the new departures procedures (DPs), as opposed to SIDs and IDPs. The new FliteSchools cost had not been established at press time.
King Schools entry into the mid-level of computer aided training is vastly more elaborate than either of the single-CD Jepp entries. The TopFlight private course is based on 14 substantive CDs and a FAR/AIM disc. A test book and text explanations are included.
Even though this product is extensive for the genre, it doesnt bill itself as a groundschool and is organized entirely around the test subject areas and format. You proceed by category and section and each group of related test questions is preceded by a full-screen video explanation of the material.
As with the complete ground school, discussed below, the explanations are cogent, visually attractive and well executed, in bite-size pieces. Test diagrams and figures are available in the database or in the accompanying book and the on screen explanations work directly from the test illustrations.
We found this last point useful, as the presenter could indicate unmistakably the precise portion of the supporting FAA illustration, diagram or chart and explain the significance of it with respect to its related question(s). The King multimedia test prep curriculum is $279 for either the private or instrument.
As of this writing, theres only one real contender as a comprehensive private pilot groundschool, born of a collaboration between Cessna and King Schools. The private pilot PC-based ground school is called Cleared for Takeoff. Its a breathtaking 25 CDs, arranged as sequential lessons under the Cessna Pilot Center syllabus. The course is organized around orderly introduction of principles, not wedded to the test and, while the test subjects are covered, the exam is not the focus here.
Initially, Cessna planned to keep the course in house, at its Pilot Centers. Recently, however, theyve capitulated to the obvious and now allow individual groundschool use of the private-pilot curriculum. Students who live more than 60 miles from a CPC get immediate activation of the program by ordering through King Schools.
Purchasers with a zip code inside that magic ring have to make one pilgrimage to a CPC to get the activation codes. We assume this mandated visit is to give Cessna a chance to hook you for the in-flight portion of the curriculum.
John and Martha Kings videos are easy and frequent targets for sardonic commentary and weve found our own blood sugar levels getting dangerously high on occasion. On the other hand, when was the last time you tried to make Coriolis force or the four-stroke cycle interesting and simple?
Each lab is tied into a specific flight syllabus as well as the corresponding chapter of the textbook. Topic areas are handled by individual movies which, unlike the current Jepp refresher, display full screen.
The resolution isnt DVD, of course, but the full-size display makes it easy to see what theyre trying to teach. The illustration graphics are very good, generally comprised of stills or motion video of the real thing. At the end of each block-let, the student is presented with one or more mini-tests to reinforce the materials.
If you blow an answer, the correct information will display in a text window and the program will automatically return to the specific supporting block of instruction, which you can then stop or review, as you choose.
We dont normally gush, but the Cessna/King curriculum is truly impressive. Its logical, well presented, visually appealing, comprehensive and easy to use. We wont hesitate to recommend it to the next budding student who falls into our Project Pilot clutches.
In addition to the CDs, the Cleared for Takeoff kit comes with the PTS, a huge textbook with ample margins for notes, the Cessna 172R POH, a hardbound logbook, course syllabus and E6-B, all in a very nice canvas satchel.
The $279 entrance fee might seem a little steep at first blush, but its apparent that a staggering amount of time, money and effort went into the production values. Weve seen stand alone ground schools offered by instructors for a lot more than $300, without factoring in the scheduling and travel issues.
As long as you retain the ability to ask questions of a real live human instructor (which, in some cases, is an oxymoron) and you have the discipline to work steadily through the materials on your own, we think Cleared for Takeoff would be an effective and convenient way to get through private ground school and test prep.
We didnt find Santa Claus in any of these, but all serve a reasonable purpose, depending on your needs. If you just want to slog through the test, wed go with Gleims offerings. Cheap, effective, to the point.
Jepps single-CD FliteSchool private and instrument would be cost effective and adequate dust off for the core information for those getting back into the game after a significant layoff or if youre just buried in rust.
Whether the 13 additional CDs offered in the mid-range King product is worth an additional $110 is a judgment call. We dont think its a drop-dead good value. For instrument types who want the twists and turns of IFR minutiae, subscribe to our sister magazine, IFR. (We can do self-serving tie-ins, too.)
With respect to potential roll-your-own full bore groundschool for the private, the Cessna/King offering truly is a remarkable product and the only contender worthy of the name currently available. At $279, its a bargain.
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-by Jane Garvey
Jane Garvey is an instrument pilot, attorney and freelance writer. She lives near Raleigh, North Carolina and flies a Cessna 182.