cost to become a pilot

Why Does the Cost of a Pilot License Vary?

Private Pilot Training Costs

Why is it that depending on who you talk to the price to get your pilot license varies so much?  Is it that no one knows, the price always changes, or they just want to see how much money you’ve got to spend?

There are a number of reasons why the cost of flight training can vary so much, and we will explain them here, as well as show you how to save real $$$ on your flight training costs.

Note: there is no such thing as a “Private Pilot License” or a “Pilot License”, the correct terminology you will hear is Pilot Certificate.

Variables that affect flight training costs

  1. Cost of aircraft used
  2. Cost of instructional time
  3. Total flight time and instructor time paid
  4. Flight Training Accessories
  5. Variable Fees
  6. Hidden Costs

Cost of Aircraft Used

Cessna 150 rental airplane

The aircraft you choose to train in will play a large role in the final cost of your pilot license.  Student pilots

choose different aircraft for different reasons.  Some folks like the idea of training in a newer, more modern aircraft (that costs a lot more to rent).  While other flight training students simply want to get into the air and to earn their license as affordably as possible.

We could spend many hours debating the pros and cons of renting a new vs old airplane for flight training.

cirrus rental airplane

Ultimately, here is what matters.  Whatever airplane you choose to train in, you will earn the same exact Private Pilot Certificate at the end of your training.  No one will care what airplane you learned to fly in except you.  And in all honesty, older airplanes typically make you a better pilot in the long run given less automation and more tasks for the pilot to handle.


How to cut this cost

There are several ways to save money on your flight training here.  The different ways to save include:

  • Find a cheaper plane to rent
  • Join a flying club with cheaper rates
  • Pay for “block time” or prepay for hours for a discount
  • Ask for a discount for paying in cash
  • Purchase your own airplane (this only works if you plan to fly it often to offset fixed costs)
  • Minimize the number of hours you need to rent the plane (studying hard will allow you to learn quicker and save you on extra training time)

Cost of Flight Instructor Time

When you begin flight training in an airplane, you will pay not only for the rental cost of the plane, but also for the time your CFI (certified flight instructor) spends with you.  If you schedule a 2-hour long flight lesson, you will likely be with your CFI for 2 hours, but only fly the plane for 1.3 hours.  The extra 0.7 is the time used to brief and debrief you for the lesson.  If you are not prepared for the lesson, that 0.7 can easily become 1.2 or 1.5 hours, and you will have to pay your CFI for the extra time they spend with you on the ground.

Assuming you are paying $75/hr for your instructor’s time, you would have to pay an extra $60 just for the extra time they spend explaining to you what you could have studied on your own.  The problem lies in the fact that many CFIs do not assign homework for you to study, and without guidance, you will not be sure how to show up prepared for your lesson.  Using the Free Private Pilot Ground School on can help you become familiar with the concepts your CFI will present to you.  For a more thorough course to prepare you and help you plan your studying and success in flight training, check out the Premium Private Pilot Course.

How to cut costs on flight instruction

The best way to cut costs here is to be prepared for your lessons which will save you on both aircraft rental time and ground time with your CFI.  You can also shop around to different schools to find who might be the most affordable flight instructor in your area.  You typically get what you pay for, but that doesn’t mean that the CFI charging $90/hr is any better than the instructor charging $65/hr.  To determine which instructor will be the best fit for you, see “choosing the right CFI“.

Total Flight Time and Instructional Time

Like anything, the longer it takes, the longer it will take.  What I mean by that is if you experience delays in flight training, you will begin forgetting things, other commitments you try to put on hold outside of flight training can only be put on hold for so long.  Ultimately, as you begin to take more and more time between flight lessons, it will only be natural for that gap to continue expanding.  Another key factor here is that if you do not devote the time to studying and accomplishing the Private Pilot Written exam PRIOR to beginning flight training, your lack of study time before beginning flying the plane will start to manifest itself in difficulty during lessons, lessons needing to be repeated, and drastically increasing your total aircraft and instructor time required to train you to proficiency.

If you want to earn a license closer to the minimum hour requirements (and minimum costs as well), proactively studying PRIOR to beginning flight training will allow you to spend far less time in the aircraft and on the ground discussing topics with your flight instructor (and getting charged for all of it).  Your best bet it to absorb as much information before you go to a flight school, and continue your studying (allocating sufficient time) while you are in flight training.  Getting set up with a plan to follow will help you stay on track and make the whole process of learning to fly much easier.  You can download our free guide to saving money on your flight training here.

Flight Training Accessories

First, Let’s talk about all the fun stuff you can buy and you should.

  • Headset ($350-$1,100)
  • Logbook ($10)
  • FAR/AIM ($12)
  • Paper Sectional Chart  ($10)
  • E6B Flight Computer ($25)

The list above are good extras you should consider purchasing only once YOU BEGIN your flight training (with the exception of an E6B, which can help you in your ground school and on your written exam prior to flight training).

As far as headsets go, the $1,100 Bose A20 is probably the best on the market.  It will last you about 5-10 years and has unmatched audio quality and noise cancelation to protect your hearing.  As a side note, noise-canceling headsets that are powered by batteries are called ANR or active noise reduction, they don’t work well without batteries.  A $350 David Clark (passive noise reduction, no batteries required, and not as quiet as ANR), is a good option if you are on a tight budget.  You can also borrow a headset from the flight school (although they may charge a rental fee).

Ultimately, you get what you pay for, if the flight school offers free headsets, they probably are not very good and are dirty.  If you buy a $99 headset on amazon, you WILL regret it (not being able to hear well on a lesson will make it harder to learn, more frustrating, and ultimately increase the number of hours you need to train to clearly understand everything.  If you spend $1,100 on a Bose headset, it may actually save you that much on your training costs by having clear communication, understanding ATC, and being more comfortable (or at least you can use this argument when trying to convince your significant other you need to spend over a grand on a pair of headphones).

Other Accessories

Moving on to logbooks, FAR/AIMs, and Sectional Charts.  We recommend using a free electronic logbook app.  There are lots available in the app store and google play, but a paper logbook is a great back up to have and nice for posterity.  A paper logbook is a tradition in aviation that is worth partaking in for $10-$15.

A “FAR/AIM” is not how far you can aim.  It is a book thicker than the phone book full of aviation regulations and best practices (FAR- Federal Aviation Regulations, AIM – Aiman Information Manual).  The paper copies are updated about once a year (although the actual regulations are updated several times a year).  Even though your paper copy may not be the most up-to-date, it is nice to have as a quick reference during your flight training lessons for $12-$15.

Lastly, paper sectional charts are a must once you begin flight training.  Sectional charts expire every 6 months, so try to buy one at the beginning of the cycle for your local area.  Even if you have an Ipad and plan to use all digital charts, you should have at least one paper chart as a backup, and to help you study the chart legend printed on the side panel.

Variable Fees

Let’s face it, we live in a world of fees.  Since you are pursuing flying planes lots of folks assume you have money to burn.  A lot of people would like just a little bit of it (how nice).  Let’s list out the common fees that can vary in price.

  • Medical Certificate (flight physical)
  • Checkride Cost
  • Ground School Cost

A medical certificate is required to become a pilot.  You will need at least a 3rd class or higher certificate (3rd is easiest and cheapest, 1st class has higher standards, requires more testing and costs more).  You can apply for a 3rd, 2nd, or 1st class medical, but all you really need when starting out is a 3rd class.  The doctor giving the exam has an authorization given to them by the FAA to administer the exam.  It is up to the doctor to name their price for the exam (it is highly unlikely your health insurance will cover any of this).  Doctors (or more appropriately called AMEs, aviation medical examiners) typically charge between $75 and $200 for a 3rd class medical.  They come up with the price based on geography, office overhead, and how much they feel like charging pilots.

Note: 3rd class medical required for Private Pilots.  2nd Class is required for Commercial Pilots who are getting paid to fly.  1st class is required for Airline pilots.

Moving on to checkride costs, this is similar to medical certificates in a way.  The DPE (designated pilot examiner) is an experienced pilot given authority by the FAA to administer checkrides (your final flight test).  The FAA does not take any money for checkrides or medical certificates, it is only the professionals administering the test (AME or DPE) who charge and keep the money.  A DPE will likely value their time somewhere between $150 and $300/hr.  DPEs will typically come up with a flat fee to charge for checkrides based on what other DPEs are already charging in that local area, generally between $600-$1,000.  In rare cases, this can be as low as $350 and up to $2,500.  There are no regulations that limit these prices.  If you fail a checkride, the examiner keeps the money, and will likely charge you full price to try again.

Failing a checkride

If you are not fully prepared for a checkride (meaning your ground school and flight training from your instructor does not adequately prepare you for the test) you will be paying a lot more to become a pilot.  Imagine you have already spent $8,000 in all of your costs, and only need to spend about $1,000 more to take the checkride ($750 for the DPE fee and $250 to rent the plane).  If you fail the checkride, you will now need to go back to your CFI, take a few more lessons (likely $1,000-$1,500) plus take the checkride again.

In addition to the fee you already paid the DPE the first time, you will now shell out another $750 for their fee and $250 to rent the plane again (perhaps these numbers could be less if the examiner does not require you to perform the whole test again, but just the parts you failed).  Bottom line, if you study hard, have a good ground school and CFI, you can save yourself easily $2,000 or more and a lot of time from having to retake a checkride.

It is such an important part of saving money on your flight training that you have a good instructor and good, clear material to study from.  FLY8MA offers a guide to choosing the right flight instructor in our Premium Private Pilot Ground School.  Completing the FLY8MA online ground school and checkride prep course also guarantees you will pass your checkride (over 3,000 other pilots have already used that course to pass their checkride).

Ground School Cost

The cost of a ground school varies quite a bit.  Of course, you think you get what you pay for, but that is only partially true.  In-person ground schools range from $400-$800 and require you show up to a classroom several times per week at a specific time for 4-8 weeks.  In-person ground schools are like going to night school.

Online ground school courses cost anywhere from $250-$500.  Online ground schools are typically video-based, and can be accessed any time.  FLY8MA offers a complete online ground school you can access from anywhere, on any device, and complete at your own pace.  The FLY8MA Ground School also helps you choose the right flight school and instructor, and guarantees you will pass your checkride with our proven Checkride Prep course.

Hidden Flight Training Costs

You guessed it, more hidden fees.  These come in various amounts and disguises, and not all flight schools try to hit you with extra hidden costs.  (It is best to find a school that is up-front about all of their fees).  The most common fees a flight school may try to get you to pay are:

  • Renter’s Insurance
  • Buying your own checklists
  • Buying a Flight Training “Kit”
  • Flight Bag
  • Handheld Radio
  • Flashlight
  • Extra Books

While no one is going to charge you a baggage fee on your flight lesson (luckily this isn’t Spirit Airlines), other “upsells” that may not be totally necessary can really add up in the end.  None of the items mentioned above are “bad” for you to buy, they just cost money, and that is money you could put towards actually flying a plane rather than on items that don’t exactly get you off the ground.  The bottom line here on these types of items is this:

Listen to the advice of your CFI (not the flight school sales person), and if they recomend that you REALLY need to buy extra items or spend extra money on something, politely accept their advice and let them know “you will give it serious thought for next time”.  It is way too easy to make a large impulse buy you will regret.  Go home, do research on what they recommend, if you feel it will help you, make the purchase when you go back on a future flight lesson.

The Summary

In conclusion, the cost of flight training will vary based on how many hours you rent a plane for, how many hours you pay your CFI for, and how much you spend or save on the various fees.  To save money on flight training:

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