Learning to fly will unlock a world of possibilities and give you unparalleled freedom to see the world. It is a truly unique experience—one of the last great adventures in our modern life. It is challenging, rewarding and flat out fun!
Some people start flying to make a career out of it, eventually working as a professional pilot. There are numerous jobs in aviation besides just airline pilot. Career opportunities include business aviation pilot, flight instructing, cargo airlines, military flying, law enforcement and many more.
For others, flying is a convenient and cost-effective method of personal or business travel. You can set your own schedule, use airports that airlines don’t serve and leave the hassles of security lines behind. For business use, airplanes allow you to do more in one day than you could do in a week traveling by airline. Flexibility, privacy and freedom are all great reasons to use a personal airplane for travel.
In the end, though, many pilots fly for pure enjoyment, taking local flights on nice days to see new and interesting places. You can take a friend and fly for lunch at another airport, tour local landmarks or attend fly-ins to meet other pilots. No matter where you’re headed, being up in the air is the greatest thrill of all.
Whether you want to fly for a living or just for fun, general aviation offers a safe, rewarding and surprisingly affordable way to get around.
There is no “right” type of person to become a pilot. Aviators come from all kinds of backgrounds, each with unique reasons for flying. You can take lessons at any age—there is no minimum and no maximum. You must be 16 years old to solo, and 17 to carry passengers. And no, you don’t have to be a math genius or have perfect health (see below).
Attitude is more important than age or skill. A commitment to take the training seriously, and stick with it will serve you well. Learning to fly is a long, sometimes arduous journey marked by elation and occasional frustration. The process will be easier, and more enjoyable, if you can maintain a positive, always learning attitude.
Do I Need a Medical Exam?
If you’ve talked to other pilots, you may have heard about “the medical.” Don’t worry—you do not have to have perfect health or 20/20 vision. Recreational and Private pilots do need to pass a basic medical exam from an Aviation Medical Examiner (AME). There are hundreds of AMEs across the county, and you’ll most likely find one very close to your home. Your flight physical will be a brief medical exam, including tests of your hearing, vision and blood pressure.
The Sport Pilot Certificate has a self-certification medical requirement. For Sport Pilots, a driver’s license and a personal assessment of your health is all that is needed.
What are Part 61 and Part 141 Flight Schools?
You may hear flight schools talk about “Part 61” and “Part 141” programs. This refers to different parts of the Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs) that set minimum standards for flight training. In general, Part 61 schools are local flight schools that train students on a one-on-one, customized basis, and are not necessarily career-oriented flight academies. Part 141 schools are usually larger, more structured programs, often emphasizing professional pilot training.
No special designation or certification is needed to operate as a flight school. However, a flight school can choose to be certified under FAR Part 141, “Pilot Schools.” In addition to specifying minimum qualifications and requirements for the school’s personnel and facilities, Part 141 provides for Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approval of the school’s training curriculum. The school is subject to FAA inspection, and must meet minimum performance levels in terms of preparing students for the FAA flight test.
Certainly, Part 141 certification can be viewed as evidence of at least a minimum standard of quality and performance. However, it does not mean that instruction at a Part 61 school will be inferior. In fact, many Part 141 schools also train students under Part 61 because it allows for greater flexibility in accommodating a part time student’s schedule and pace of learning. Don’t base your decision solely on whether a school is Part 61 or 141.
Even once you’ve picked a flight school, spend some time to find the right flight instructor. He will be a key element in your training and how much enjoyment you get out of flying. While all flight instructors are certified by the FAA and meet minimum standards, your personality and attitude will naturally be a better fit with some instructors than others.
Just like you “interviewed” the flight school, sit down with a prospective instructor and get to know him. Talk about your reasons for learning to fly, your goals and your questions. Ask about the instructor’s background, his previous students and what training curriculum he’ll use. And as always, judge whether your personalities will be a good match. Your gut feel is usually more important than the age or experience of an instructor.
Also keep in mind that, at most flight schools, you can change flight instructors if the relationship simply isn’t working well.
Sport, Recreational or Private Certificate?
When you start flying, you may be presented the choice of pursuing your Sport Pilot, Recreational Pilot or Private Pilot certificate. Understanding the differences between them will help you to choose the right one for you.
The Sport Pilot certificate is a newer development that allows you to earn your pilot’s license in as little as 20 hours of training, and does not require a medical certificate (see above). In practice, most students will take more than the minimum. You are, however, limited to flying Light Sport Aircraft (LSAs), defined as a maximum of 1320 lbs. maximum weight and 120 knots maximum speed (a Cessna Skycatcher, for example).
Another great option for new pilots is the Recreational Pilot Certificate, which requires a minimum of 30 hours of flying. This certificate will allow you to carry a passenger during the day, and in aircraft with seats and up to a 180 horsepower engine (a Cessna Skyhawk or Piper Cherokee, for example). This is perfect for local flights with family or friends, and will get you into the air quickly. You can also add additional privileges or transition to the Private Pilot certificate when you’re ready–you’ll just do some additional training on cross country and night flying.
The Private Pilot certificate has been around the longest, and is often what people mean when they say they “got their license.” There are fewer restrictions on the type of airplane you can fly and the places you can fly to, and there are plenty of options for add-on privileges, like Instrument and Multi-Engine ratings. The minimum training time is 40 hours–20 with an instructor and 20 solo–but most students take 60-80 hours.
For all three of these certificates, there is a written exam and a flight test. Also remember that you can change your mind as you train. For example, Sport Pilot training time will count towards a Recreational or Private license.
What Does it Cost?
No one wants to pay too much for a product or service, and it’s certainly no different with learning to fly. Learning to fly involves some expense, but it’s important to examine this expense as an investment that will provide a lifetime of return. The extent and depth of the training you will receive for your money makes learning to fly one of the all-time great bargains compared to many other recreational or business pursuits.
For your investment, you will acquire the basic skills needed to safely enjoy an extraordinary and unique activity for years to come—a pilot’s license never expires! Cost varies by flight school and license, but it is usually about the price of a family vacation for a week (around $10,000). And, you can pay as you go, so there’s no large payment due up front.
As with many things, in the long run value turns out to be more important than the bottom-line cost of your flight training. You should be concerned with what you are getting for your money, not just how much you’ll spend. Value is measured by the quality of the training, and the relationship that develops between you and your instructor or flight school. The cheapest usually isn’t the best.
When researching cost, be sure to ask about all the expenses associated with training: instructor time, including preflight and post-flight briefings, aircraft rental, ground school, the written test, the oral exam and check ride, and the necessary supplies.
Some schools, and most ab initio career-training academies, charge an all-inclusive price covering flight and ground training for all certificates and ratings in the program. Look carefully at these deals. A seemingly low package price may cover only the minimum instructional flight hours required in the regulations. Since most people take longer, you could end up spending considerably more. Also check on the school’s financial stability and refund policy in the event you must withdraw for whatever reason and always be cautious of paying large sums of money up front.
If cost is a critical concern, make it a priority on your school shopping list, but don’t lose sight of the importance of value.
How Long Will it Take?
The length of time it takes to earn a pilot’s certificate varies widely, and depends on how spread out your training schedule is. A major milestone in your training is your first solo. This is when you fly the plane without your instructor. Most students reach this point after 15-20 hours of flight instruction.
From there, you will train for the Sport, Recreational or Private Pilot Certificate (see above). Federal Aviation Regulations require a minimum of 20 hours of training for the Sport Pilot Certificate, although many students need more time. The requirement is 30 hours for the Recreational Pilot Certificate, and most students complete this certificate in 30-40 hours. For the Private, the minimum is 40 hours – 20 with an instructor and 20 solo – but most students take 60-80 hours. Note that these figures represent only flight time, and do not include time spent on ground school or personal study.
The biggest factor in determining how long training will take is how often you fly. If you fly only once a week, you will spend half of each lesson “relearning” concepts that you have forgotten. This approach will take longer, so it’s is best to try to fly at least twice a week. In that case, you could earn your certificate in only a few months.
What Do I Need to Buy?
While the list can of things a pilot can buy seems endless, we recommend the following as the basics to get going:
Home Training Materials
- Interactive Video Course (available online)
- Federal Aviation Regulations/Airman’s Information Manual
- Airplane Flying Handbook
Your First Flight Lesson
Getting into the air and taking your first flight is the most important—and most enjoyable—step you can take in your journey. There’s nothing like your first takeoff in an airplane to show you the fun and freedom of flying. If you’re on the fence about learning to fly, go take a first lesson!
For your first flight, you and your instructor will probably spend about an hour together. You’ll do a pre-flight inspection of the airplane, talk about some basic concepts and then go flying. You’ll most likely sit in the left seat, with your hands on the controls—you are flying!
The instructor will show you a normal takeoff, basic maneuvers (straight and level flight, turns, descents, etc.) and a normal landing. When you land, your instructor will make your first logbook entry. You’re now on your way to becoming a pilot.
Learn to Fly Checklist
The process of learning to fly can seem overwhelming at first. But you can do it, and the flight instructors at Sporty’s are here to help. That’s why we’ve developed this quick checklist of key steps:
- Locate flight schools in your area and take a tour
- Choose a school that best fits your needs
- Choose an instructor and get to know him
- Take a first flight lesson
- Decide whether you’ll pursue the Sport, Recreational or Private Certificate
- Schedule an FAA medical exam with a local AME
- Pass your FAA Knowledge Test
- Pass your FAA Flight Test and earn your license
- Have fun!