Many don’t know where to begin. If you’re like I was, until someone points you in the right direction it’s really hard to believe that it’s even possible. So what does it entail? Lots. Not to worry, it’s easy enough to show you where to start.
To give you a little bit of background, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requires that certain minimums be met before you ever become a private pilot. Their regulations require that a person who wants to become a private pilot must
- Log at least 40 hours of flight time
- 20 need to be with an instructor in the airplane
- 10 solo (no instructor on board)
The 10 hours solo is similar to a teenager with a permit who is required to “log” so many hours with his/her parents. The main difference being that once your instructor feels you are ready to solo, he/she signs you off and sends you up on your own, usually for a short amount of time. During these hours, while you do not need your instructor with you, you cannot carry any passengers (sorry no friends or family just yet!).
What is important to remember is that while the minimum is only 40 hours to test for a private pilot certificate (in some cases that can be shortened to 35), the average I see is usually anywhere from 60-80 hours and depends on a variety of factors. You will be able to apply for your private pilot license in a shorter amount of time if you fly 3 times per week versus once per week. If you’re older you will most likely take longer to learn the fundamentals than the newly-graduated high school student. And then, sometimes it just comes down to…having a “knack” for it (and in that case sometimes these other factors don’t matter!). Some just pick up new skills faster than others, and most know where they stand. I’m probably as average as average can be. Not too fast but just not quick enough to brag either (bummer…)!
Alright, so there’s clearly A LOT of flying to be done…but not so fast! There’s a catch. There’s studying to do too. Don’t panic yet, if you’re not one that was ever great at self-study, there are ground schools and of course your flight instructor to sit with and learn in a classroom environment. Yes, you will have homework (you should), and while there’s no letter grade system (usually), you do need to give your instructor a reason to be confident in you, your ability, and your knowledge. When your instructor feels you are ready, he (or she) will sign you off to take the FAA Private Pilot Written Test which is required to be done and passed before you meet with an examiner to take your private pilot test (“checkride”).
There are some key milestones on your journey to becoming a pilot. The first (and most exhilarating in my opinion)? Solo. No more instructor sitting next to you, at least not in the short 30 minutes that it may take to do your first three takeoffs and landings all by yourself. Next are your two solo cross countries and last is your private pilot checkride.
Let’s tie everything together here for a moment before we get into the last stages of your training. The following is what you accomplish along the way and the order, more or less, which you do it in:
- Introductory flight lesson
- Most flight schools offer a discount, flat rate, so you can “get your feet wet” and decide if flying is for you
- Usually after this lesson, if you’ve decided you loved the flight, you schedule your next lesson and set up a plan with your instructor
- The introductory lesson is often done with an instructor that is available on the spot, and doesn’t have to be the instructor you continue on with, but once you choose your instructor (whether it be that first guy, or the guy that looks really experienced!) it would be best for you to stay with that instructor for the remainder of your training (unless you’re just not “meshing”, and even then you should try to work through it)
- Pre-solo flights with your trusty instructor
- This is more a stage than anything else, in this portion of the training you are flying with your instructor and accomplishing all the flight training that is required prior to you being endorsed to go solo
- At some point during this stage you are also going to need to obtain at least a FAA Third Class Medical/Student Pilot Certificate. This is typically not hard to get, ask your flight instructor for more information or message me below!
- Pre-solo written test
- Usually done a lesson or two prior to the lesson you are expected to solo on
- The test is administered by your instructor. It is not an “official” written test that the FAA gives, it is simply a required test that must cover regulations applicable to a student pilot, questions on your home airport, and questions specific to the airplane you will be soloing in. Once you are done, your instructor will sit down with you and go over it, correcting it to “100%” as you go – and that’s it!
- Solo flight
- The morning, afternoon, or evening you solo, your instructor will have flown with you and made sure that you could land without him/her saying or doing anything – and all done safely without any doubt of your abilities (I like to say proof beyond a reasonable doubt! We want to be sure you’re going to come back safe and sound!)
- After the short flight with your instructor he/she typically signs you off and sends you right back out again
- Don’t be worried if your knees are shaking when you get out of the airplane, you’ve just done what most have never done!
- Cross country lessons (ground and flight)
- What does the FAA define as cross country flight that you can use toward your license?
- A flight with a landing at an airport more than 50 nautical miles from the original point of departure
- The rules you will follow as a student pilot and that you need to meet to take your private pilot test are more strict than this but when you hear cross country, this does not mean traversing across the entire country or multiple states (although it could!); it can be as short as flying from one airport to the next nearest or as long as around the entire world
- These lessons include (not limited to)
- Learning new takeoff and landing techniques
- Learning to fly (and land!) at night
- You will log flight training at night including a night cross country and 10 night takeoffs and landings
- Cross country planning and procedures
- You must receive and log a minimum of 3 hours cross country flight training
- What does the FAA define as cross country flight that you can use toward your license?
- Cross country solo flights
- After you receive the proper cross country training (both ground and flight) you will be endorsed to fly cross countries solo
- You will need to log 5 hours cross country time solo
- Checkride prep
- Your “checkride” is the practical test that comes at the end of all your training and is described in the paragraph below
- When you’re ready for your practical test you’ll be endorsed to take it and usually during this “checkride prep” stage of training the checkride will be scheduled
- This portion of your training will include flight and ground training as your instructor sees necessary to prepare you for your private pilot test
- The only requirement that you would fulfill in this step is to meet the practical test rule which states that you must receive and log 3 hours of flight training in preparation for your practical test within the preceding 90 days
- English translation: your instructor will make sure that you have flown with him/her for at least 3 hours in the 90 days leading up to your test
- The Practical Test
- Here’s where you get to brag about your vast knowledge and display your amazing flying skills!
- More explained below
Your flight instructor will sign you off for your “checkride” when he/she feels confident in your abilities, knowledge, and decision-making. Your checkride will be with an FAA Designated Pilot Examiner and includes both an oral and a flight. For completion of the oral you and the examiner sit down together and the examiner questions you on a variety of topics (your instructor will prep you on what these can and will include). The examiner will quiz you until they feel they have an understanding of your knowledge.
The oral can be as short as a couple hours or as long as three or four or more. The reason for the vast differences in length? One big one is your answers. Are you answering well? The oral will usually be shorter. The other difference is in the examiner.
Is the examiner like your Uncle Ernie who can’t stop talking and adding in personal stories and experiences? If so your oral will no doubt be longer than “normal”. I prefer this guy! On the opposite scale, some examiners are strictly business, and this might suit you better…you’ll certainly be done sooner. If you have the option to choose an examiner then…examine yourself – you know you the best. Do you want to be in a stressed or relaxed environment? Which do you perform better in? Do you like stories and a conversationally-driven test, or do you like to get to the point, and so on…
After the oral (usually on the same day), the examiner goes flying with you in the airplane you’ve been training in and tests you on various procedures and maneuvers. This flight is usually around two hours. Afterwards, if you’ve passed both the oral and the flight, you will be an FAA licensed private pilot! You’ll deserve it too!
The last question usually comes down to cost. How much is all of this?
It depends largely again on factors I mentioned earlier, such as frequency of lessons, learning ability, and the airplane you fly in (what the hourly rate is). Plan on $8,000 to $10,000 and don’t be surprised if you go over budget for an unexpected reason such as weather delays. Keep in mind too, I’ve seen guys pass in the bare minimum 40 hours and I’ve heard of one guy taking 200 hours. The number mentioned is based on 50 hours and can vary depending on the flight school, their airplanes, and the instructors they have.
- Does the school have newer or older airplanes?
- Does the school cater to a “get ’em in and get ’em out” mentality or is it focused more on quality and customer service?
- Are the instructors there more experienced / considered life-instructors or are they on their way to an airline (i.e. working for cheap)? Such differences can make thousands of dollars in difference.
- No two schools are created alike.
- Don’t believe that the cheapest one is the best, and don’t believe that the one with the greatest pitch or the largest number of students is either.
- Schools cater to different kinds of customers. Find the school that fits you.
- The school with more students is more often airline-driven – maybe this fits you if you’re looking to pursue a career in aviation.
- The smaller school that costs a little more but has beautiful new airplanes and a customer-oriented staff may be for you if you’re looking to fly for business or recreationally
- Looking to buy your own airplane? These schools often allow their instructors to teach in “outside” aircraft, i.e. an airplane not provided by the school itself
You have to think of flying as a lifetime experience. Once you have your license, you will always have it, it never expires! There are also many uses for it: business trips (see my July 1, 2010 “To Fly or Not to Fly: The Benefits“), leisure trips to exclusive fly-in resorts and camping sites, day trips to visit friends for golf or to grab a bite to eat (breakfast, lunch, or dinner and back), simple “get-out-of-the-house-itis”, and many more I’m forgetting! Think of flying as a hobby. You wouldn’t necessarily give a second thought to the “costs” of your RV, boat, vacation home, or new car…it becomes a part of your lifestyle, and as such you see it in terms of value, and not cost.
Still interested in lessons?
Your first step is to find out as much as you can about your local airport. Is there a flight school on the field? There are several sources you can go to in order to find out: You can start with a simple google search. Try “flight lessons [city, state]” and see what you get. You may also try www.aopa.org/learntofly/school/index.cfm – a database of flight schools, but not a complete list just yet. If you’re not having any luck try http://www.airnav.com/, click on “Airports” and type in your city and state. Scroll down to near the bottom and you will find businesses on the field listed. Flight schools aren’t ALWAYS listed there, but it’s a start. If you find a flight school through one of these methods, but it’s the wrong airport, try calling the place and see if they know of any flight schools in your local area – they should be more than glad to help! The same goes for any businesses you may find on the airport, i.e. a maintenance shop, fixed base operator (FBO), or pilot shop. Any of these places should be more than willing to help an aspiring pilot!
Step two: Go to the flight school and ask questions. If the person you are greeted by doesn’t know all the answers to your questions, they will certainly try to find someone who does. This will usually be a flight instructor or manager.
Lastly, if you have any questions or comments you can also comment below and I will get back to you!
Up in the Air