How to Become a Pilot

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This page last updated on 04/17/2017.

Copyright 2001-2017 by Russ Meyer


There are a lot of great reasons to become a pilot, but I won't go into that now.  Let's cut right to the chase.  Here's what you'll have to do and what it will cost you to earn those golden wings.

Things You Must Accomplish

To get a VFR Private Pilot's certificate, you have to accomplish the following:

  1. Get a third class medical certificate.  You get one of these by having an FAA approved doctor give you a brief examination.  They check things like blood pressure, hearing, vision, and general overall fitness.  It's sort of like a sports physical or a scaled back annual check-up.  Not too taxing.
     
  2. Take a "ground school" course to prepare for the FAA written test.  The curriculum covers weather, aircraft systems, flight operations, regulations, radio work, etc.  It's all the theory stuff.
     
  3. Take the FAA written test (multiple choice questions) and pass with at least a 70% grade.  The test consists of 20 questions that spot check the stuff you should have learned in ground school.  Some of the questions are easy, but there always seem to be about a half dozen pretty tough ones.
     
  4. Accumulate at least 40 hours of flying time, 20 hours of which must be with an instructor.  Bear in mind, this is an FAA minimum; your flight time will probably be more.
     
  5. Take a check-ride with an FAA examiner and pass.
     

What is it Going to Cost?

The cost of getting a certificate varies a lot.  The three biggest factors affecting it are:

  • Your natural aptitude for learning and applying the practical aspects of piloting.  If you just can't get comfortable landing the plane or working the radios then your training will take more time.  More time means more dollars.
     
  • The instructor's teaching ability could impact the cost quite a bit.  Some instructors are terrific flyers but can barely communicate how to start the engine!  Find a guy you have some chemistry with...it'll help a lot.  You'll both have more fun and it'll cost you less.
     
  • How often you fly during your training.  When you're learning to fly, there's a lot going on.  All kinds of skills that you are only partly proficient at are used during every flight.  You're assessing weather, using the radio, doing take-offs, practicing maneuvers, and working on your landings all at the same time.  Between lessons, it's easy to start forgetting all the myriad of details you've been working to master.  It's important take flying lessons at an appropriate rate, like two or three times a week.  If you fly less than that, you forget so much between lessons that you spend half the next lesson getting back up to speed.  That makes your training take longer which translates to more dollars.  If you fly too much, like every day, you can get overwhelmed with all the information coming at you.  You should give yourself a day or two between lessons to digest what you've learned.

These factors mainly influence how much one-on-one instructor time you pay for and the number of hours you rent the airplane.  The ground school, FAA test, medical certificate, and other supplies are pretty much fixed costs.

Below is a table of estimates for what it will cost to get your certificate.  I tried to estimate realistically or maybe on the high side just a smidge.  You might also find this online "Learn to Fly Cost Calculator" of some use.

Activity

FAA Minimum Requirements
(20 hrs instruction and
40 hrs aircraft rental)

Average Student
(30 hrs instruction and
65 hrs aircraft rental)

Instructor Costs $500 $750
Aircraft Rental $3800 $6175
Ground School $325 $325
FAA Written Exam Fee $80 $80
Medical Certificate $75 $75
Supplies (maps, etc.) $40 $40
FAA Check-ride $300 $300

Total

$5120 $7745

The figures in the table are based on the following assumptions:

  • The instructor costs $25/hr
     
  • You are able to rent an airplane for about $95 per hour wet.  The term "wet" means the cost of gas is included in the rental price of the airplane.  The rental rate for airplanes at almost all flight schools is a "wet" rental rate.  A $95/hr airplane would be something like a Cessna 172N.  You may also be able to find a Cessna 152 to rent.  They go for about $75/hr and could shave $1300 off the cost of training.  However, Cessna hasn't made 152s since 1986, so over time there are fewer available for rent.  You just have to go out and see what the flight school has on the line.
     
  • You are taking a computer oriented training course, which seems to be the most prevalent way of doing ground school these days.  Of course there are other kinds of ground school.  The cost varies a bit, but they all run somewhere in $200 to $350 range.  Keep in mind that how well you understand and apply this stuff affects the safety of every flight.  You'd better not skimp here.  Your ground school options are:
     
    • Crash Course - (pardon the title)  This is a three day crash course that packs your short term memory with just enough information to pass the FAA test.  I've seen these offered at places like American Flyers.
       
    • Video Tapes - A learn-at-your-own-pace series of video tapes.  You can purchase tape sets from places like Sporty's or the King Schools.
       
    • Computer Base Instruction - This is software you install on your computer.  It contains a series of lessons complete with instructional videos, various data (like regulations), and built in quizzes.  It's a variation on the video tape theme but improved.  It's a little easier to use and works better than video tapes because the computer can generate and score quizzes.  Sporty's and the King Schools are common sources for this type of material.  Cessna Pilot Centers also repackage the King material in their training curriculums.  This appears to be far and away the most common form of ground school these days.
       
    • Six Week Ground School - This is the old-style, six week, class room oriented, ground school hosted by an instructor.  I think this type of ground school is best, if you can find it.  They are usually given at community colleges or sometimes at the better flight schools.  I believe the class room/instructor approach really helps because you can participate in discussions of course material.  It helps immensely to be able to ask questions and hear the questions of others.

One last observation about cost.  I was president of a flying club for three years and took that opportunity to do a little research.  I averaged the number of flight hours our students were taking to get a certificate.  To my surprise, it was taking them 75 hours; 35 of which were with an instructor.  That was way longer than expected.  I found this was partly due to the fact that the club rented planes at a very busy downtown airport.  The students were spending a lot of time taxiing and flying beyond the edge of town to practice maneuvers.  The national average is more like 65 hours, 30 of that with an instructor.  The message here is to get your instruction, if you can, at a little airport away from town.

If you're not sure whether you have enough interest to go the whole way with the certificate then just try sticking with the training through solo.  To get to that point, all you have to do is get your medical and spend some time in a airplane with an instructor.  The average student solos in about 20 hours.  It will only cost you $2400 to get to that point ($500 for instructor + $1900 for airplane).  With that done, you can re-assess whether you want to go the whole distance.  Even if you quit there, at least you've given it a fair shake and will be able to say you flew an airplane all by yourself.
 

My Experience

When I learned to fly in 1987, things were a lot cheaper.  My memory is a little fuzzy, but I remember spending about $2700 getting my private pilot's certificate.  I flew out of Vista Field in Kennewick, Washington.  It's a tiny little airstrip way out away from any bustling metropolis.  You could taxi 100 feet to the runway, take-off, and fly 5 minutes to the practice area.  Very economical.  I lucked out and got a fabulous instructor, Chad Heims.  We got along great.  He was good at explaining things, and I tried very hard to absorb what he said.  Chad was also a very progressive kind of instructor and tried to push you forward through the curriculum as quickly as practical.  All these things worked in my favor to keep costs down.

I tried to fly as often as I could, but finances interfered a lot.  I was only able to manage one flight per week.  Two or three would have been better, but I just didn't have the cash.  This added to the number of hours I needed to get my ticket.  Despite this, it only took six months for me to complete the training.  I was able to solo at 10.2 hours and get my private certificate at 48.8 hours.
 

How to Get Started

Get the phone book and look up the flying schools at one of your local airports.  These are typically co-located with Fixed Base Operators (FBOs).  These outfits sell gas, do aircraft maintenance, sell pilot supplies, and sometimes sponsor flying schools.  Go out there, find the flying school, and tell them what you want to do.  The pilot community is very closely knit, and they are excited to see anyone show interest in learning to fly.  I predict they will take you into their arms and cluck over you like a hen over her chicks...and it's not just because you represent a wad of greenbacks.  It's almost an inviolable rule that anyone who is into flying is madly passionate about it.  They are just thrilled to have the chance to talk to you.  You are amongst friends.  They'll help get you set-up and going.

If you are lucky enough to have several flight schools in your area, go out and visit as many as you can.  You're looking for several things:

  • Thoroughness of instruction - No skimping on the ground school part of it.  You want the best ground school you can find.  The objective is to thoroughly learn and master all that stuff about weather, navigation, etc.  You need free and easy access to an instructor so you can ask questions and have the complex stuff explained to you.  No amount of reading, watching videos, or plowing through computer lessons can replace that student-teacher relationship.  It's important.
     
  • A clear syllabus - Exactly what are you going to learn and in what order?  What are the learning objectives at each stage?  If they can't produce a written syllabus then they may not do a very efficient job of teaching you what you need to know.  That could produce dangerous misconceptions or omissions in your training.  At the least, it increases the likelihood that you'll struggle with a concept and that will cost you more money and time.
     
  • A good instructor - Someone who is enthusiastic and can explain things in a way you can understand.  If you find an instructor you click with, consider yourself blessed.