Flight School: Ground School

When is the best time for a primary student to do ground-school work? Before starting flying lessons? At the same time? Or after getting the basic skills mastered?

Flying asked two nationally recognized flight instructors to weigh in on what they'd recommend regarding ground school. Both agreed that the best option is a syllabus that integrates ground-school lessons with the flight lessons, so ground-school information can be put into immediate practice. But there are times when concurrent ground and flight training isn't possible, or even the best choice. Here are their thoughts on some alternative options and scheduling:

Doug Stewart is a Master Flight Instructor, 2004 FAA Flight Instructor of the Year and chairman of Society of Aviation and Flight Educators (SAFE). Doug says:

"My perspective is that it is best if formal ground-school classes are attended concurrently with the flight training. Unfortunately in many cases, the curriculum of the typical ground school is designed to achieve a passing grade on the knowledge test, and nothing more. Therefore, the learning rarely progresses beyond the rote level and, as a result, is usually forgotten by the time the student has progressed to the applicant stage in a practical test." (In my role as an examiner, ask me how I know.)

"If a student pilot is using a ground school solely to prepare for the knowledge test, then my recommendation is that the studying begin as soon as possible, but that they not take the test until they have progressed in their flight training to the point that they are ready for solo cross-country flight. Again, the experiential knowledge they will gain from their flight training will add immensely to their "book" knowledge and aid in correlation."

Arlynn McMahon is the 2009 FAA Flight Instructor of the Year and has been the chief flight instructor at Aero-Tech Inc. in Lexington, Kentucky, for the past 25 years. She has given more than 9,000 hours of dual flight instruction and is the author of the book Train Like You Fly. Arlynn says:

"If the training program is organized from a flight syllabus (and it should be), then it is preferable to do flight and ground training concurrently. It helps the student understand the practical application of what is being learned and reduces rote memorization. Most students graduate having fewer flight hours, and spend the least money to certification, when ground is concurrent with flight. Most professionally written, commercially available syllabi (Cessna, Jeppesen, etc.) use this technique — assuming the instructor is using it as designed.

"But for students who have lost continuity in flight training because of changing CFIs several times, or who have chosen to work with an instructor who doesn't use a flight syllabus [as mentioned above], then it's best to complete ground training early on or before flight. The benefit here is that the student can see the big picture of what it means to be a pilot.

"Completing ground first is also preferable if the student has minimum time or money resources. I often suggest that 15- to 17-year-olds complete ground school first. It fuels their continued interest even when they are too young for certification, and it gives parents warm fuzzies that their youngster is interested enough to follow through before investing in flight.

"Having said all of that, if there is a chance to participate in a traditional, classroom-style ground school, do it, regardless of where it falls in flight training activities. Students gain much from the discussions that fellow classmates bring up. Flying is a humbling experience, and it's comforting to know that others are struggling with the material as well. And because the class has a beginning and an end date, the chances of actually completing it are strong.

"Flight training is a personal experience. There is no one-size-fits-all. Sometimes training begins with one plan then must change because of the unexpected curves in life. I believe that the student-pilot dropout rate could be greatly reduced and more students would finish training if they understood how many options they have and how to customize a training program to fit into their life."


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