Learn to fly in four easy steps
Whether you are young and hoping for a career in aviation or are older and always wanted to learn to fly, the first step is usually to pursue getting the Private Pilot certificate. The process can seem overwhelming, but it’s not as hard as you think.
First, a few facts:
- Your goal: A Private Pilot license.
- What you can do once you’ve got it: In a nutshell, fly a single-engine, propeller-driven aircraft, with passengers, in conditions where you can see the ground (or, at night, the lights).
- How much does it cost: Around $10,000 to $12,000 if you train regularly, more if you don’t. Costs in rural areas tend be less than urban flight schools. Buying into a partnership or club that allows using the aircraft for training can reduce costs further. It’s not cheap, but compared to getting some kind of associates degree, it is competitive and one of the most satisfying accomplishments one can have.
- How long does it take: Between six months and one year for most people, again depending on how often you can fly, with the cost spread out over this period. It is actually possible to do it in a much shorter period of time with a two to three week accelerated course, but we won’t cover that here.
Now, the details
The important thing to remember about the whole process of learning to fly is that it’s easier than you think. If you can drive a car, do high school math, and you don’t have any major phobias, you can learn to fly an airplane for fun. Many pilots will tell you that they thought about learning to fly for years, but didn’t follow up on it because they didn’t know how much it would cost, how much time it would take, or how to get started. Here are the steps to help you get going…
Step 1: Take a first flight
- Cost: About $150 for a one-hour intro, depending on the flight school.
- Time required: An hour or two, depending on how far you live from the airport.
Go to your local flight school (if you don’t know where that is, AOPA has a list of schools) and take a ride with an instructor. This may seem like putting action before planning, but if you think you’re interested in flying, the first thing you need is to get a taste of it. This will either hook you for life or quickly let you know you’d rather stay on the ground, thank you.
Step 2: Go home and talk it over with your parents or spouse
- Cost: $0, or maybe the cost of treating your spouse to a nice dinner.
- Time required: Depends on how receptive they are.
I know, this seems a little ridiculous, but when you start learning to fly you are undertaking something most normal people think is dangerous and expensive. Your job here is to a) do enough reading to convince yourself that flying is both safe and not that expensive, b) convince your parents or spouse that these things are true, and c) gently break to them that you’re going to be spending clear Saturdays at the airport for the rest of your life. Caveat: If they are completely unresponsive to the above, you may be stuck since you have now given yourself the flying bug in step 1. That’s the way the Cessna bounces…
Step 3: Choose an instructor and buy the books
- Cost: $300 for books and materials
- Time required: a few hours
This may be the most important step of the whole process. You need to make two decisions here: a) How formal do you want your flight training to be, and b) Is this particular instructor right for me?
As for a) some schools follow a fixed sequence of lessons dictated by the FAA (Part 141), while others follow their own curriculum. a) may be more appropriate for a career-minded individual, but both methods are OK. As far as b) goes, the most common method for choosing an instructor is walking up to an airport desk and saying “Are you a flight instructor?” If you want to be more scientific about it, consider whether your prospective instructor is reasonably patient, competent, and often around the airport. Nothing is more frustrating than blocking out time to fly, only to find your instructor is unavailable.
Step 4: Fly regularly
- Cost: $200 per flight lesson
- Time required: 2 hours per lesson, plus commuting time.
It is impossible to overstress the importance of getting in the airplane as often as possible. (Be sure to remind your significant other of this when your frequent airport visits come up as a topic of conversation.) Seriously, the more often you fly, the less time you need to spend to get whatever rating you’re working on. Plus, unless you live in southern California, you never know when the weather is going to ground you for three weekends running. Some tips for making sure you get in the airplane as often as possible:
- Always schedule your next lesson before you leave the airport.
Most good flight instructors will make sure you do this.
- In the summer, fly before or after work.
This concludes the four easy steps. For information on exactly what it costs, see the section below. The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association has lots more information about all aspects of flying, including a detailed description of the learn-to-fly process.
What it costs to get a private pilot license
These figures are on the high end and will vary from school to school. These are 2017 prices. It is not cheap, but if you compare to the price of getting an Associates Degree of some kind, a Pilot’s Certificate is competitive with other types of education. Also, there are many scholarship opportunities for young persons looking at it as a career opportunity. Buying into a partnership or club that allows using the aircraft for training can reduce costs further. Hang out at a local airport and ask if any clubs are available.
- Cessna 172 rental, 1 hour (includes fuel, etc.): $150
- Flight instructor, 1 hour: $60
- Realistic number of hours with instructor: 40
- Realistic number of solo hours: 30
- Flight test: $400
- Total cost: ~$13,000
Per month, flying about every week:
- Approximate number of months: 10-12
- Monthly cost: $1000
Per month, flying about every other week:
- Approximate number of months: 20-24
- Monthly cost: $500