TAKING THE UNMANNED AIRCRAFT GENERAL EXAM
I recently took the FAA’s Unmanned Aircraft General exam so that I could get my Remote Pilot Certificate. The FAA gives good guidance on what to study for the exam, but it’s a large chunk of material. The material is not difficult, but it helps to approach it with a plan, and that’s what I’ll describe.
The FAA uses acronyms everywhere, so brace yourself. Although the FAA has their own glossary for these, it includes far more than you’ll ever encounter or need. You will need a way to separate what’s important from what’s not, so start building your own list and add to it as you go.
Two acronyms I’ll start with are sUAV (small unmanned aerial vehicle) and sUAS (small unmanned aerial system). An sUAS includes the sUAV, as well as the controller and software.
Start by studying the Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge (PHAK). You can download it as a pdf, but I recommend buying a hardcopy, as you’ll be spending some quality time with it. You’ll also want to flip back and forth with it, and that is easier with the hard copy.
You might call them drones (I did), but the FAA calls them small Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (sUAV), so it’s good start off by thinking of them as just that, unmanned aerial vehicles. Your license is therefore based on a subset of what any pilot needs to know, and that’s why you should start with the PHAK. Pay particular attention to these chapters:
Chapter 1: Introduction to Flying. Learn where to find information, including what’s in the PHAK, AIM, the FAA websites, the NWS website, B4UFLY, etc. Know how to get NOTAMs, METARs, detailed airport information, etc. You’ll learn about all of these in a bit, but take note of where you will find the information you need once you are an sUAV pilot.
Chapter 2: Aeronautical Decision Making. This is important, and I didn’t realize until later how important it is. At first, this material seemed at best like a substitution of jargon for what ought to be common sense. Worse, the chapter is poorly organized and doesn’t move linearly through the topic. Similar concepts are presented repeatedly in slightly different terms. Even so, safety is paramount to the FAA, and that is as true for an sUAV as it is for a 747. So much of safety is about making smart decisions, and this chapter presents the FAA’s framework for achieving that. Know the five hazardous attitudes and their antidotes. Know the PAVE checklist for perceiving hazards, and the IMSAFE checklist for the Pilot-In-Command (PIC). Know the CARE checklist for evaluating risks and the TEAM checklist for addressing risks. Know the DECIDE model as a way of making decisions. There’s a lot of memorization in this chapter.
Chapters 4, 5, 6: Principles of Flight, Aerodynamics of Flight, and Flight Controls. Your sUAV is an aircraft; know how it flies. Understand density altitude and how it affects flight characteristics. Much of this may not apply to an sUAV (such as how a jet engine works), so focus on the more universal principles like wings, propellers, thrust, lift, drag, rotation, etc. Realize that sUAVs come in all forms: you may be flying a quadcopter, but don’t assume that the exam will be geared towards them.
Chapter 10, 11: Weight and Balance, Aircraft Performance. Much of this is also different for sUAVs, but understand the basic principles such as center of gravity and center of lift, as well as the general controls on aircraft performance. You’ll see some of this material again when you focus on the sUAV-specific training, so it’s good to get the concepts down here.
Chapter 12, 13: Weather Theory, Aviation Weather Services. Weather affects much of how you fly, or even whether you fly, so the FAA wants you to understand it. Learn this, especially about stable and unstable atmospheres. Learn how to decode METARs and TAFs, which takes quite a bit of time and memorization. The FAA’s Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM) has examples of these for your practice, and you can find others with a web search. The National Weather Service’s Aviation Weather Center is the source for METARs and aeronautical forecasts. Practice by downloading and decoding them. When you find one you can’t decode, that’s a sign you need to learn how. You can find online sites like this one for more METAR decoding practice.
Chapter 14: Airport Operations. You won’t generally fly out of airports, and you likely won’t use their runways, but you need to know airports they work. In particular, you need to know how air traffic flows around an airport because it is your responsibility to watch and listen for that traffic and to get out of the way. Know how runway numbers work, what traffic patterns are, and the radio communications pilots use. Your goal is that you need to be able to listen to an aviation radio and understand what pilots are doing and where they must be relative to the airport. I found it useful to listen to the communications at my local airport.
Chapter 15: Airspace. This is one of the most important chapters. Learn Figure 15-1 inside and out, including the floors, ceilings, and lateral distances of all classes of airspace: A, B, C, D, E, and G. Know which air spaces require permission to fly in. Learn all the special-use airspaces and the conditions for flying in them, too. Know the visual flight rule minimums. You will need to operate your sUAV within the national airspace, and it is critical that you know the rules for safe operation.
Chapter 16: Navigation. This may be the most important chapter, particularly knowing how to read the maps pilots use, called sectional charts. Learn the legend of a sectional chart. The FAA has a Aeronautical Chart User’s Guide that you should also study, especially the VFR terms and VFR symbols. Learn how to recognize all of the airspaces on these charts, as well as which elevations are relative to Mean Sea Level (MSL) and which are relative to Above Ground Level (AGL). I highly recommend going to the FAA’s Sectional Charts Site and downloading a few for study and practice. Download some for rural areas (like Wyoming) and urban areas (like the northeast U.S.). Practice describing all of the characteristics for any airport: what radio frequencies they broadcast and what each is for, their airspace class, whether a control tower is present, the orientation of the runway, whether the airport is public or private, whether air traffic follows the left convention or is on the right, and so on. Practice, practice, practice. Learn every symbol associated with an airport. Pick any spot on a map and be able to the floor and ceiling for every airspace at that spot from the ground up to 50,000 feet. Know how to read latitude and longitude; you should be able to locate a given set of coordinates to a pencil point. Don’t focus on navigation and navigational aids (VOR, etc), as your sUAV won’t use those. Once you’ve mastered the sectional charts, learn how to read the sectional chart supplement, which describes individual airports in great detail. The supplement and airport-specific parts of it can also be downloaded from the FAA. The TPP and TPP Symbols tabs on the Aeronautical Chart User’s Guide will help you understand the detailed airport maps in the chart supplement. After you learn the sUAV-specific rules, review the charts and supplement again and focus on the implications of every symbol for how an sUAV should be operated.
First, go to the FAA’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems site. Start with the page for Getting Started, and commit this table to memory. Next, read the Where to Fly page, especially Airspace Restrictions (remember all those airspace classes?) and the safety guidelines. Memorize them. Download the B4UFLY smartphone app and test it out in several places near you. Know how to use it and what information it provides. Read the Frequently Asked Questions tab. Last, learn the rules for registering sUAVs.
Next, take the FAA’s online course for sUAS, small Unmanned Aircraft Systems, which includes not only the aircraft but also the controller and software. The course takes about two hours. Take notes and take your time. This will repeat much of what you’ve already read, but you can get a sense of what the FAA regards as particularly important by what they cover in this course. When you finish the course, it will suggest taking the practice exam on the materials not specific to sUAS, which you read about in the PHAK. Take it, and keep notes on what you missed; you will want to focus your studying on those areas. Don’t just study the questions you got wrong, study the entire section associated with every missed question.
Read the Federal regulations on Part 107 — Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems. Read it carefully, as there are things in here not covered elsewhere. Read the FAA’s Advisory Circular and their Fact Sheet on the part 107 regulations. Each source presents it slightly differently, and the repetition is a good way to study. You must know these regulations in detail.
Take the FAA’s Sample exam for Unmanned Aircraft General (UAG). This will give you a good idea of the format and detail of the actual exam. Use this exam to identify your weak spots and work on them. Don’t focus on getting those specific questions correct, but on understanding the entire topic related to those questions. Note that some of the questions are tricky and some are just poorly worded, so do not rush. The Treetop Academy offers these questions with answers as well as some advice on taking the exam.
For the Unmanned Aircraft General exam, read the FAA’s Guide, and follow their instructions for Becoming a Pilot. You will need to identify a nearby testing center (mine was one hour drive away), and you’ll schedule your exam online. The exam costs $150. There are sixty multiple-choice questions that count (and they may add a couple of extra questions that don’t count); you need a score of 70% (42 correct) to pass. When you finish, you will be shown which questions you got wrong. Your test print-out will also display the codes for the areas in which you missed questions, and you can look these up on the FAA’s Learning Statement Guide for Airman Knowledge Testing .
Once you’re done with the exam, follow the instructions on the FAA’s Becoming a Pilot for applying for your remote pilot certificate. You will need to create an account on the FAA’s IACRA system and apply for the certificate once you have an account. The FAA says you may need to wait up to 72 hours after your exam for your test results to be available on the IACRA system, and that was true for me. Even if they’re not yet available to the FAA, you can start your application and save it for when they do become available.
Once you apply for the certificate, TSA performs a background check. Your temporary certificate becomes available one week after you submit your application; my permanent certificate arrived in the mail about two months after the exam.