16.687: Private Pilot Ground School

Latest class: January 6-8, 2020

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Lectures recorded in 2019 are available from YouTube (links below) or at MIT OpenCourseWare.

Read in advance:

Please do read all of the above chapters in the evenings leading up to the class. Write down your questions. Don't worry if you are confused. We are going to cover most of this material during the class as well.

Official Blurb

Would you like to fly a plane, helicopter, or commercial drone? Or understand the engineering behind today's human-occupied aircraft and air traffic control system? Come spend 3 days with us and learn everything that an FAA-certificated Private pilot or Remote Pilot needs to know for the official knowledge test.

The course includes qualitative aerodynamics, airplane and helicopter systems, practical meteorology, navigation and cross-country flight planning, and human factors. We present the FAA-required theory, pose some thought-experiments, and offer practical advice based on instructors' real-world experience.

Course staff: Tina Prabha Srivastava, pilot and MIT alum (Course 16 S.B.; System Design and Management S.M.; Engineering Systems Design Ph.D, supervised in Course 16, ESD, Sloan); Philip Greenspun, an FAA Airline Transport Pilot and Flight Instructor for both airplanes and helicopters, MIT alum (Course 18 S.B.; Course 6 Ph.D)

Prerequisites: A few evenings of reading (see above). Ideal: Download ForeFlight (iOS only) or Garmin Pilot (Android or iOS; need to create a Garmin account for weight and balance to function) and set yourself up with a 30-day free trial. Bring a device to class, if convenient.


Video Lectures from 2019

  1. Introduction (slides)
  2. Aerodynamics (slides)
  3. Learning to Fly (slides)
  4. Systems (slides)
  5. Charts and Airspace (slides)
  6. Flight Environment (slides)
  7. Navigation (slides)
  8. Helicopters (slides)
  9. Meteorology (slides
  10. Communication and Flight Information (slides); first portion on why flaps and icing conditions are a bad combination
  11. Aircraft Ownership and Maintenance (slides)
  12. Performance (slides)
  13. Interpreting Weather Data (slides)
  14. Human Factors (slides)
  15. Flight Planning (slides)
  16. Seaplanes (slides)
  17. Drones a.k.a. sUAS (slides)
  18. Weight and Balance (slides)
  19. Multiengine and Jets (slides)
  20. Night (slides)
  21. Weather Minimums and Final Tips (slides)
Also available as a single YouTube playlist.

Special Lectures

After the Course

Take the FAA knowledge test at a local flight school, e.g., East Coast Aero Club. Start flying at one of our local airports. Hanscom Field in Bedford, Massachusetts (KBED) is the closest. Beverly (KBVY) and Lawrence (KLWM) are also popular with MIT students. Norwood (KOWD) is yet an additional alternative. All of these airports have flight schools, with Bedford being the most popular. You'll learn the basics of flying after about 10 hours and can earn a pilot certificate after about 50 hours in an airplane or helicopter. Whichever path you choose, you should be able to finish during the summer.

Our Philosophy (debrief following the 2018 class)

The world is rich in online teaching materials, starting with the FAA books in PDF format. People can read faster than they can listen. Why, then, does it make sense to have an in-person ground school? Apparently it made sense to the 65 people who showed up all day every day for three days! It seems that people find it easier to stay motivated when surrounded by like-minded peers.

That said, given the technical sophistication of our audience and the fact that they are capable of reading, we tried to have them do some reading in advance and also didn't try to teach into every corner of the FAA material. The students who wanted to go on and earn a 98 or 100 score on the FAA knowledge test could hit the books after our lectures.

The FAA materials are designed to be comprehensible to a motivated 17-year-old. Given our audience we decided to teach some of the Why? and How? as well as the What?.

One critical departure from the standard approach was made in light of sociology research that the iPhone generation ("iGen") is more risk-averse than previous generations of Americans. Any slide that said "You will crash and die if you do X" was rewritten to say "You will stay safe if you do not-X." More substantively, we use the class an an opportunity to introduce the crew concept in flying. The FAA materials stress single-pilot operations, which is odd considering that (a) a two-pilot crew running checklists is the cornerstone of commercial aviation safety, and (b) most of the FAA is devoted to preventing single-pilot operations (e.g., by airlines).

Our goal was to show students that they could learn something challenging, develop a skill that they could be proud of, and do some fun trips, all while staying closer to airline levels of risk than single-pilot-in-little-plane levels of risk. We took every opportunity to tell them that here is the kind of flying where it can be helpful to bring along another pilot and/or instructor.

Finally, we stressed that they didn't have to earn an FAA Private certificate in order to say that they had achieved the ancient dream of controlled human flight. The FAA certificate was about being a safe single-pilot operator, something that passengers don't even want. Learning to fly per se, we explained, is more like a 10-hour process and therefore much more affordable.

New Teachers in 2020

Teachers in 2019

Teachers in 2018 (first year for this version)

Gratitude Journal

This 30-year-old class leans heavily on work put in by at least the following: Thanks also to MIT Video Productions for camping out with us for three days in 2019, to MIT AV for keeping us mostly glitch-free, to MIT OpenCourseWare for their support in getting the class online, and to Marie Stuppard, Course 16 Academic Program Administrator.