The FAA private pilot written test often proves to be a daunting task for the student pilot, requiring hours of study that prove to be the undoing of many would-be pilots. Although the traditional ground school suffices for some, the established trend seems to be computer-based home-study programs, of which there are a handful of options. For this report, were examining multi-media options from five well-known suppliers, comparing both DVD-based and online-based offers. The field can be split into two categories: a traditionally simple modular style that resembles learning from a textbook and a more state-of-the-art, visually intensive approach that makes extensive use of real instructors, in-flight video and graphics. As we see it, a home-study knowledge course of either style should aim to fulfill three main criteria: Most important, it should cover all of the material necessary for the test in an easy-to-use and digestible format. It should prepare the student to pass the written through efficient use of time and, last, the cost should be reasonable for a product thats only used once. If taking the course requires a big investment, it should return a high value. Heres how they stack up.
The FAA private pilot written test often proves to be a daunting task for the student pilot, requiring hours of study that prove to be the undoing of many would-be pilots. Although the traditional ground school suffices for some, the established trend seems to be computer-based home-study programs, of which there are a
handful of options.
For this report, were examining multi-media options from five well-known suppliers, comparing both DVD-based and online-based offers. The field can be split into two categories: a traditionally simple modular style that resembles learning from a textbook and a more state-of-the-art, visually intensive approach that makes extensive use of real instructors, in-flight video and graphics.
As we see it, a home-study knowledge course of either style should aim to fulfill three main criteria: Most important, it should cover all of the material necessary for the test in an easy-to-use and digestible format. It should prepare the student to pass the written through efficient use of time and, last, the cost should be reasonable for a product thats only used once. If taking the course requires a big investment, it should return a high value. Heres how they stack up.
The private pilot course from Sportys Pilot Shop, offered either on DVD or online, exemplifies strong integration of in-flight video, experienced instructors and accompanying graphics buttressed by comprehensive notes. It also has a well-designed written-test prep section that gets right to the point of the FAAs questions.
When initially logging onto the Sportys course, the most noticeable element is a well-designed and functional home page. The student can easily access the video training, syllabus, practical test standards, maneuvers guide and written test prep all from one screen, a plus.
Hosting the series is Rob Reider, an air show announcer and pilot since 1983. Occasionally, theres also a contribution from Richard Collins, former editor of Flying and AOPA Pilot. Having a familiar and experienced onscreen persona helps bring alive the visual aids.
The ability to witness a demonstration of a maneuver at the same time the host is explaining it is another definite advantage to this system. The professional video quality shines throughout the program. This means that if the subject is climbs and turns, the student is bound to see a clip of the throttle being advanced forward, the rudder being pressed, the yoke being manipulated and the sight picture from inside the cockpit change as each element is mentioned. This helps with retention.
The price is about average for these offerings, with both the DVD and online courses priced at $215. The only downside, in our view, is the pacing. The information comes fast and furious and some students might not adapt to that style.
King Schools are well known for their line of computer-based and DVD materials, and not just the private pilot course. In format, the courses are somewhat similar to Sportys, but with John and Martha King doing the teaching. We found John King to be adept and engaging when reviewing general knowledge test questions in his video segments, helping the student to understand not just the answer to one example, but the general concepts behind the question in order to apply them to any example that the FAA exam throws at its victim.
A definite plus found solely in the King Schools training is the practical test section with videos of John King going through the motions of a typical practical test with an actual examiner. This goes a long way towards preparing a student to take the check-ride with a of foretaste of what the test should look like.
The video style of the King course is not quite as tech-savvy as Sportys, in our view, but it does lay all of its courses out logically in a flowchart, making it easy to track progress and see the general concepts covered in each section.
When the boxes in the flowchart are clicked, it links you to a new page with the lessons within that subject. After all of the lessons are completed, that box gets a green check mark and the date of completion is noted.
Weighing in at a hefty price tag of $398 for the Private Pilot Combo, which includes both the practical and knowledge test sections, this program is the most expensive of the crowd. The cost proves to be its most crucial drawback, but it does include the practical, which the others dont.
In the realm of study-intensive ground school resources, Gleim clearly reigns. The stated purpose, as found in the notes section, is to “Expedite your passing the FAA knowledge test.” This philosophy is clearly manifested throughout the presentations and tests. The video integration of King Schools and Sportys is nowhere to be found; instead the instructor is there to teach the practical skills focused solely on passing the knowledge exam.
Most of the competition has a short (three to 10-question) quiz after each section thats worded exactly the same way that it was in the original presentation. Gleim, on the other hand, has much longer tests (100 or so questions) at the end of each short section, thus exposing the student to a broader range of test questions the FAA might present.
In order to progress from the first half of the course to the second half, theres another test that must be passed with a 70 percent or better grade.
Throughout the ground school, theres a consistent, straightforward design thats attractive and logically laid out, but not glitzy. Finding the correct section or lesson outline is effortless and progress is tracked directly on the main page next to each study unit.
Its also worth noting that the Gleim FAA Test Prep Software (an extra $55) rivals that of Sportys and is well calibrated to the rigorous program found in the ground school program itself.
The lack of what Gleim considers “extraneous materials” translates directly into a drastically lower price. A 12-month enrollment in the Gleim online-only course, which is more than enough time to complete the full course, costs a relatively paltry $100. For a student on a humble budget or with strict time constraints, Gleim offers an unquestionably attractive deal. But the tradeoff is a tilt toward more traditional study effort. No spoon feeding here.
Blending the simplistic style of Gleim with the video integration of King Schools, the Jeppesen Online Training and Test Prep is also a strong contender in this market. When the student lands on the homepage, he or she is greeted by the same logical system of modules and progress tracking found in the Gleim course. Each module consists of a few sections and each section is divided into a number of different concepts.
After the narrator describes the illustration (every few minutes), the program pauses, waiting for the student to right click a flashing “next” button at the top of the page. This component could be seen as either a convenience or a nuisance, depending on the learning style of the user. If the extra time is needed to finish taking notes or review parts of that section, its a great help. On the other hand, it can serve as a drawback if the student wishes to learn at a faster pace, moving through multiple concepts in a short amount of time.
The visuals included in the program are useful and clear, explaining the concept concisely and listing all of the important subjects on the right-hand side of the screen as theyre covered by the narrator. Notes are easily recorded by focusing on the conceptual descriptions listed on the page.
Lack of a visible, personable instructor leading the course may serve as a detriment for some learners who enroll in the Jeppesen course. Although it does make use of actual in-flight video to help visualize situations and maneuvers, production quality is not to the level of the Sportys or King School courses, in our view. At a price of $239, Jeppesen is exactly in the middle of the market pricewise, making it an interesting option if none of the others satisfy your tastes.
Aviation Supplies & Academics, Inc. (ASA) Virtual Test Prep offers an interesting option: the choice to purchase their DVD Virtual Test Prep set in widescreen or Blu-Ray editions, although Blu-Ray is an extra $50 and requires a Blu-Ray-capable player.
The widescreen edition of the Virtual Test Prep comes in a box with four main lesson DVDs and one bonus “Expert Interview” DVD. Each main lesson DVD contains a few general concepts available to learn about and track your progress as the others do. This is the point at which similarities to other programs end, however.
Instead of the typical three-to 20-minute lesson found in the rest of the competition, the ASA program contains fewer, much longer video components of about 45 to 60 minutes each. Once again, the effectiveness of these depend on learning style. Some may find the longer sections beneficial to lock in details, while students who like to breeze through technical material will find them a burden. Given the pace of modern life, its hard for some of us to find an uninterrupted hour to concentrate on a single stream of information, much less prepare for a test from it.
The format of the segments differs from the others as well. There are a few different mentors throughout the program, making use of a variety of experienced pilots to teach the material in which they specialize. For example, a pilot who is also a meteorologist serves as the instructor for the weather segments
At times the longer format can prove irritating and uninteresting and the inability to pause at a specific section and return to it without searching is a hindrance to the overall quality of the program, in our estimation.
Though lacking in some areas, the ASA course is favorably priced at $150 for the widescreen edition and $200 for the Blu-Ray.
In our view, the Sportys course is the premier program for the student searching for a visually appealing and highly educating program that preps to pass for the written. It has the best combination of price, production quality and overall informational content and thus the most universal appeal, in our opinion. The price, although not cheap, is fair.
For a student whos study oriented, digests technical material quickly and is inclined to learn from a textbook, Gleim is the route to take. Its clear, concise and to the point and, at $100, a bargain. If you want a taste of what the practical oral will be like, consider the King Schools offering, although youll pay more for it.
As for the choice between DVD and online courses, both offer obvious advantages and disadvantages. DVD-based programs make accessibility possible in areas without broad-band access and allow playback on either a computer or DVD player. The online version eliminates the need for any physical material and can be used anywhere an internet connection is available. The choice is a purely personal one, in our view, based on the students tastes and predilections.
Jordan Nations is a student pilot, writer and editor.