How to Become a Pilot
People pursue a pilot’s license for a wide range of motivating factors, from a desire to achieve personal growth to pursuing an airline career path. Some aspiring pilots are fortunate to have close friends or relatives with aviation experience, who can provide guidance, advice, and mentorship. However, for many people, learning about aviation is an unfamiliar new territory.
Don’t be a Flight School Dropout
Did you know 8 out of 10 people who start flight training don’t actually get their pilot’s license? While a small percentage of people stop flight training for medical reasons – most are smart, sharp, motivated, and have the potential to be excellent pilots. So why do they quit? Read on to discover why people quit flying before they get their certificate – and how you can make sure you don’t.
The top three reasons student pilots stop flying are:
- 1) Becoming frustrated with flight training: Having an unprepared or unorganized instructor can make your lessons feel unproductive and wasteful. Having a mediocre ground school can mean you start flying without understanding basic aviation concepts. This can also make students feel like they don’t have the skills or abilities to successfully reach their goals.
- 2) Running out of funds: If you do not have the funds to pay for all of your flight training, consider applying for scholarships, getting financing, or other options so you don’t have to stop before you can really get started.
- 3) Feeling like flying isn’t enjoyable anymore: The “fun” of flying can be lost when you put too much pressure on yourself or compare your journey to others who learn faster. Learning to fly is about the journey, not just the destination.
Becoming a pilot is a desirable goal and a rewarding achievement, and you have many options to reach your goals. Although it may seem like a far-off dream, with dedication and consistent effort, most people who meet basic medical requirements are able to earn a private pilot certificate, and more.
What You Can Do With a Pilot’s License
When you begin your flight training, you start with your private pilot’s license. The private pilot license is the first step for all pilots. This is often referred to as a “license to learn.” For people pursuing a career as a pilot, each rating is an important step:
- Private pilot certificate: Once you have your private pilot certificate, you can fly with passengers and share flight expenses with them, as well as fly volunteer flights for non-profits. You can get paid for a limited number of jobs like towing gliders (with an endorsement) , or demoing aircraft for sale, while working as an aircraft salesman.
- Instrument rating: Once you have your instrument rating, you can “fly by instruments” and operate an aircraft in limited visibility such as flog, clouds, and rain. You will also learn a lot about weather reports, forecasts, and considerations for planning cross country flights.
- Commercial pilot certificate: You can get paid to fly and do jobs like aerial surveys, pipeline patrol, news traffic reporting, banner towing, and agricultural flying. This is also a necessary rating to being a flight instructor or airplane transport rating.
Click here to learn which type of pilot license is right for you and what you can do with your license.
How To Get A Private Pilot License
A big part of getting your private pilot license involves spending time in a small airplane. Some of those hours will be solo, but the majority will be with a certified flight instructor (CFI). You can accomplish your flight time in several ways:
Enrolling a Flight School
A flight school is the most common route to learn to fly. If you go to a flight school at a local airport, the school may own or lease aircraft, and have instructors on staff available for you to take lessons with. You will have the option of selecting an instructor you relate well to. The school may be a “Part 141 flight school” or a “Part 61 flight school.” A Part 141 school has specific approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to teach a structured and organized program. A 141 program sticks to a rigid schedule and can be completed in the shortest amount of time. If your school is not a 141 flight school, they are a Part 61 flight school. This means they are governed by Part 61 of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR).
Part 61 vs Part 141
This is a complex topic of which school is right for you to choose. We go into a lot more detail about Part 141 and Part 61 Flight Training Schools here, but for now, let’s just take a quick overview. You will hear the salesman at the 141 school say, “We can make you a pilot faster for less money”. You will hear the salesman at the 61 school say, “We can make you a pilot on a flexible schedule, and for less money”. They are both right and wrong. The article linked above gives much greater detail, but to summarize:
|Part 61||Part 141|
|National Avg. Flight Hours to Complete Training||73.1||71.2|
|National Avg. Rental Aircraft Cost per hour||$126||$156|
|National Avg. Instructor Cost per hour||$60||$68|
|Flexible scheduling, lesson progression, and aircraft switching||Yes||Generally No|
|National Avg. Cost for Private Pilot License||$13,596||$15,948|
Read this if you still have questions about Part 141 vs Part 61 Flight Training.
Working with an Independent Certified Flight Instructor
Many certified flight instructors own their own trainer airplanes. If you find an instructor you like, you may be able to train with them in their airplane. This can be extremely convenient if they have good schedule availability. The downside of learning to fly in one aircraft is that if the airplane is down for maintenance or repair, you will not be able to fly.
Joining a Flying Club
Flying clubs are member-run groups that allow members access to airplanes. Flying clubs can be very small with several people and 1-2 aircraft, or several dozen aircraft at multiple airports. One advantage of learning to fly with a flying club is multiple aircraft available. This means backups available if one is reserved or down for maintenance. Flying clubs often have instructors who teach part-time while working corporate flying careers (airline, air ambulance, corporate, etc.) If you have a career goal in mind, finding an instructor who can mentor you towards your desired goal can be beneficial. The advantage to a flying “club” over a flight school is they are generally non-profit groups that keep aircraft rental costs low by relying on volunteer work from their members to maintain the aircraft and facilities.
Buying an Airplane
It may seem crazy to buy an airplane that you do not know how to fly, but many people do this. No regulation states you must know how to fly an aircraft that you own. In order to learn to fly, you must spend a minimum of 40 hours flying an aircraft. In reality, most people spend much more time learning to fly before they are ready to test with an examiner and get their license. For people that know that they want to own an aircraft, buying an airplane at the beginning of flight training can mean cost savings in the long run. This won’t make sense for everyone, and you will still have to pay for fuel, maintenance, and insurance, plus the hourly cost of paying your flight instructor.
You will generally need to find a flight instructor first if this is the route you choose as you will need someone to fly the plane from the place you buy to your home airport where you will train from. Also, getting acquainted with a more experienced pilot like a flight instructor can help in the process of choosing a good used aircraft to buy (yes, buying a used plane is a lot like buying a used car, they’re not all in the best of shape).
Requirements to Become a Pilot
|Minimum Flight Hours||40 hours|
|Minimum Flight Training Hours||20 hours|
|Minimum Age||17 years old|
|Citizenship||U.S. Citizen or have TSA approval|
|Medical Requirements||FAA 3rd Class Medical or Higher|
|Language Requirements||Read, Write, and Speak English|
|Driving Record||No DUIs or License Suspensions|
You must meet certain basic requirements to become a pilot. You are required to be at least 16 years old to fly solo (see § 61.87 Solo requirements for student pilots) and be at least 17 years old to get your pilot’s certificate (see § 61.103 Eligibility requirements: General). In addition to that, you also have to be able to read, speak, write, and understand the English language. To begin flight training (beyond your initial introductory or discovery flight), you need to be either a U.S. Citizen or have the necessary approval through TSA’s Alien Flight Student Program.
There are two additional requirements you must meet before you can fly solo:
- You must apply for your student pilot certificate through Integrated Airman Certification and Rating Application (IACRA).
- You must get a medical certificate. Most flying organizations advise that a third-class medical is appropriate for student pilots. You should get a third class unless you have specific concerns and want to make sure you will be able to get a medical certificate. If you are under age 40, the third class medical is good for 60 months. If you are over age 40, the third class medical is good for 24 months.
Taking Your Discovery Flight
A discovery flight, sometimes called a “disco flight” or an introductory flight, is your first flying lesson. This is where the fun starts. You will spend about 30 minutes in the air in a small aircraft, possibly a Cessna 172, Piper Cherokee, or Diamond DA40. You will get a chance to take the flight controls and feel how the aircraft handles and turns. This first flight will allow you to experience the joy of flying, and decide if you want to pursue getting your pilot’s license. These introductory flight lessons are usually conducted on good weather days, during calm conditions. The instructor should point out local landmarks, and depending on where you live and the airspace, you may even get to fly over your house.
Discovery flights are often offered at a discounted rate, and are a common birthday or holiday gift to aspiring aviators. If you know you want to learn to fly, your discovery flight is a chance to tour the flight school and interview your flight instructor. You can ask questions about their experience and background, and how they got their license. The instructor should be friendly, relaxed, and safety-focused.
Your discovery flight is also a good opportunity to talk to a certified flight instructor and get answers to your questions about how to become a commercial pilot, or how to become an airline pilot. Many flight instructors are building hours toward becoming an airline pilot, and can offer insight and advice.
Determining Your Timeline and Budget
The actual amounts of money that people spend on flight training vary widely, as does the amount of time it takes people to get their private pilot license (and subsequent ratings). Student pilots who are paying as they go may budget a certain amount of money per month to spend on flight training. In theory, this is feasible. However, in reality, learning to fly involves practicing maneuvers over and over, building habits, and fine-tuning techniques. When pilots allow 1-2 weeks to go between flights, instead of 1-2 days, they generally tend to get rusty and are more prone to making mistakes.
Rusty pilots need more practice and review to complete maneuvers with ease. So the money saved by flying 3-4 times a month may end up costing more in the long run, because student pilots are needing additional time to review and relearn.
Also, it is important to keep in mind, as pilots near the completion of their course, they may need additional checkride preparation. You will also have to pay your examiner for your checkride, which may be between $500 to $1,000. The final weeks of flight training and getting your certificate can be more expensive than the initial weeks of lessons. This should be planned for.
It is possible to get a flight training loan or financing for your training. Some people get a credit card to cover flight training costs. Everyone’s financial situation is different. However, having funds available will allow you to fly as often as you need to. If you are pursuing a career in aviation and will be getting your instrument rating, commercial pilot certificate, and multi-engine rating, you will have additional expenses beyond your private pilot certificate. Just like a college education, you must think about how you will pay for the entire education, not just the first milestone.
Ways to Save Money On Flight Training
Saving money on your flight training increases your odds of finishing and reaching your end goals – and actually getting your private pilot license and becoming a pilot. The following tips can help you save money in your flight training:
- Learn as much as possible on the ground, by yourself. Everything you learn on your own is without paying an instructor or airplane rental. The Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge (PHAK) and Airplane Flying Manual are free books available online, with a wealth of information. Also, go with a reputable ground school. Watch videos of maneuvers before you try them in your trainer airplane. A word of caution: Not everyone who posts flying videos on youtube is a “good” pilot, and it’s possible to pick up bad habits. If you’re learning on the internet, watch videos published by a trusted source.
- Get a handheld radio to copy down the airport’s weather recording prior to engine start. When you start your aircraft, you will have to input information into your altimeter. New student pilots often struggle with copying down the information, so getting the weather information before the engine starts can save a couple of minutes off that expensive airplane rental clock. Additionally, you’ll have a backup radio if you experience any radio system failure in flight.
- Study for your knowledge test, and take it early. If you have to take a weeklong break from flying near your course completion to study for your knowledge test, you will lose your momentum and potentially have to take more time to review and study.
- Don’t stop or take a break after your solo flight. Flying an airplane by yourself is a huge accomplishment, but don’t stop with that solo. Keep going, and before you know it, you will have your private pilot certificate.
With an organized plan and some determination, you can be one of the 20% of pilot students that reach their goals and succeed! Have questions about how to become a pilot? Ask us in the comments below.