Getting Testy About Exams

Limited testing availability is compounded by a cancellation and a recent FAA announcement reducing exam time.

A ginger cat lies across an aeornautical sectional chart near a copy of the FAR/AIM

The author’s cat has no respect for airspace rules. She was not cleared into the bravo. The FAA is unsure what to do with her as she is not a recognized aircraft type and does not hold a certificate of any kind.

It seems every pilot and CFI out there has a different philosophy about when to take the FAA knowledge exam during training. Many sources recommend completing ground school and taking the test before getting into an airplane, to have the background knowledge in hand and the milestone checked off the list before you start the practical side of training. 

I made a conscious decision to begin training concurrently with studying for my exam, and to delay taking the knowledge test until after I began cross-country training. While I can learn by reading and memorizing, my most effective learning mode is kinesthetic. Things just stick better after I use them, and I want my aeronautical knowledge to stick. To ensure the best retention and depth of understanding, I wanted to have practical experience with activities like reading aeronautical charts, calculating takeoff distances and fuel burn, and navigating airspace to supplement what I’d read in my books and give me a physical memory source. 

Early in my training, I read about compass errors, and while I intellectually grasped that there was a difference and a relationship between the heading indicator and magnetic compass, I was a bit fuzzy on exactly how that translated into activity during flight. 

My instructor, always on the lookout for good spontaneous teaching moments, asked me to perform some turns for him in one of my early lessons, and then to exit the turns on specific headings. He watched carefully as I consulted the magnetic compass—easy for my beginner eyes to spot on the busy instrument panel—and totally missed the mark. I suspect he did this exercise specifically to identify and correct this tendency. 

He guided me through a discussion of compass errors to probe what I’d learned, and then asked me to redo the exercises correctly, methodically pointing out the compass errors. It was an empowering moment, and the knowledge for me is now solid. It seems in retrospect like a silly thing to mix up in flight, but task saturation can draw your focus in the wrong direction. Since that lesson, I’ve stayed on top of calibrating my heading indicator every 20 minutes in flight. I know when to check each instrument. And I understand from direct experience how accelerations, climbs, and turns affect the compass. That’s just one of many examples of how doing a thing has strengthened and deepened my understanding. Could I have answered the questions about compass errors correctly on an exam at that point? Likely. But would I have understood why the information mattered? Not exactly. And like many things memorized in haste, it likely would have washed away after the exam.

I completed my first solo last November, and began cross-country flying this January. I finally felt like my practical grasp of textual knowledge was beginning to be firm enough to schedule the FAA exam. So I logged into the PSI testing site—and had my first surprise. 

There are no test centers close to me. The website’s default setting is a radius of 50 miles from your home Zip code. My closest exam location, 55 miles away, is a U.S. Air Force base—I’m not authorized to be on base, so that one is automatically ruled out. 

The next location, 62 miles from me, is at my alma mater, the University of Central Missouri, which has an aviation program on campus. I initially opted for a date at this location in late January, but I subsequently realized that it would be a hardship to make one of the weekday dates (the only options available at that site as far as I could discern). Not only would I need to take a day off of work, but the exam would be bookended by a tight drive to get kids to and from their school—which is 25 miles from our house in the opposite direction. That’s not a friendly mental setup for focusing on a professional exam, I reasoned. 

I decided to look for Saturday test dates. 

Eventually, after moving my search forward several weeks and expanding my radius, I found two test sites in the Kansas City area that offer Saturday exams. One was at ATD Flight Systems in Kansas City—101 miles away, and the other at a PSI exam center in Olathe, Kansas—116 miles from home. I set a date at ATD (a two-hour drive if there’s no traffic, and not including parking) for March 18, which would have been my dad’s 99th birthday. He earned his pilot certificate in the 1950s, and it was issued on March 22, 1956. I thought it would be special to commemorate March—also the month I began training last year—with this milestone.

A Small Hiccup

Monday, I had a new surprise in my inbox. The subject line read, “Re: Reschedule Your Exam.” 

“That’s weird,” I thought. “I didn’t request to reschedule my exam.”

I opened the email.


Your appointment has been updated to allow you to reschedule. A refund for this appointment will be processed within 1-2 days and you will need to remit a new payment upon rescheduling.

The appointment reschedule [sic] may be needed due to the situation around COVID-19, as it continues to deepen globally. Our priority remains to be the health and safety of our staff, customers, clients, and the communities we service [sic].

All test center closures due to COVID-19 can be found by checking

Please check back regularly as these test center closure notices are subject to change.

You may now log back into the Federal Aviation Administration's Exam Application (website given below) to reschedule to take your Exam.

- Your login ID is: *****

If you have any questions or difficulty, please feel free to reply back [sic] to this email.


My appointment has been updated to “allow” me to reschedule. How…convenient. 

I clicked through to the COVID information page, curious how many test centers “may be needed” to be closed due to the virus, currently. The page displays some outdated general information about the pandemic (last updated mid-May 2022, as far as I can tell), but no list of test center closures. So I took the suggestion at the bottom of the message and replied: 

Is this accurate? My exam was canceled due to a COVID closure? The link takes me to a page with general COVID information but I don’t see a list of affected centers. Was this maybe sent in error?

And One More Thing…

Also early on Monday, the FAA announced that exam time will be reduced for the knowledge exams, beginning in late April. 

How convenient. 

I received a reply from a PSI customer service representative a few hours later: 

Your appointment was cancelled [sic] as the center will be be [sic] closed on that day.

Kind Regards

How illuminating. I did not receive a response from FAA customer service, which I CC'd on my query. 

So now I’m looking ahead at exam dates (the earliest available to me, with my full schedule taken into account, on a Saturday is now mid-April. I was hoping to be able to complete my check ride by then), beginning the process of planning a hotel stay, and figuring out what to do with my kids. And—bracing myself for the two-hour drive on either end. A sympathetic aviator friend in Kansas City has offered to let my teens hang out with his son, who’s about the same age—and even offered them jobs helping him wash his airplane for some pocket money. Thanks, Joe! 

I think a lot of pilots are in the same boat. Mid-Missouri, where I train, has a fair number of student pilots. There are two Class D airports within an hour-ish drive of me, and a lot of locals train there or at nearby Class E fields like mine—we visit each others’ airspace for those required towered and non-towered landings, and you start to recognize voices and tail numbers. We’re all facing the hurdle of a drive and negotiating the exam time around our lives. And it just got a notch more stressful.

I’m generally a good test-taker, blessed not to be struck down by exam anxiety. However, I do like to use all available time to take an exam and catch the mistakes I might make in haste, and now I’m feeling added pressure to arrange for my test before the time reduction kicks in on April 24. I don’t like feeling pressured to do anything in aviation. And I certainly don’t want to waste my $175 (plus meals, gas, and hotel) and have to do it all again because I miss my slot due to an accident at some point on my route that slows traffic—or simply because I was facing too much stress and get-there-itis on exam day and made preventable mistakes.

Amy Wilder is managing editor for Plane & Pilot magazine. She fell in love with airplanes at age 8 when her brother-in-law took her up in a Cessna 172. Pretty soon, Amy's bedroom walls were covered with images of vintage airplanes and she was convinced she'd be a bush pilot in Alaska one day. She became a journalist instead, which is also somewhat impractical—but with fewer bears. Now she's working on her private pilot certificate and ready to be a lifelong student of the art of flying.

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