The Cost of Learning to Fly

   At a recent aviation seminar, I listened to a fellow lament the substantial cost of learning to fly. He confessed to spending upwards of $14,500 to obtain his private pilot certificate. Ka-ching! To him, aviation was too expensive for the average Joe. So I asked a few questions about his flight training experience. Here’s what I discovered.
   When our friend, Lament Man, signed up for flight training the FBO suggested that he train in the airplane he’d most likely fly after receiving his certificate. That resulted in scheduling a technically advanced (glass cockpit) airplane for his lessons.
   When I asked The Lamenter how he’d selected a flight instructor, he said the FBO simply assigned him one—as if they opened a closet, pulled one off a rack and said, “Here, make this fit.” Furthermore, he never used any type of flight simulation device at home to assist in his training. The FBO told him to stay away from desktop simulators because they don’t handle like real airplanes.
   Are you hearing the warning klaxons sound? Our friend made choices that dramatically increased the cost of his flight training, most likely doubling the price he paid for his private pilot certificate. Surely there’s a way to earn the private license at less cost, right? There is. Let me explain.
   If you elect to do your primary training in a technically advanced airplane (TAA), then you should have a technically advanced bank account. That’s one having a big pipe that moves money from your bank directly to the FBO’s bank. TAAs often rent at twice the cost of traditional two- and four-place aircraft. If you’re on a budget, there’s no good reason to start training in anything but the simplest airplane that you can afford. If that’s a J-3 Cub or an LSA, all the better. Learning in an airplane with traditional gauges instead of a glass cockpit won’t make you less of a pilot. But it will most definitely make you a pilot. As a budget conscious primary student, that is your objective. You can learn to poke buttons on advanced avionics equipment just as easily right after you graduate from private pilot school.
   Here is where it’s important to understand our all-too-human nature. People respond to incentives, and flight instructors are people. Given a choice between a TAA and a basic training airplane, and without any input from you, a flight instructor might suggest that you learn in a TAA. And why shouldn’t he? To him it’s exciting, because the cockpit lights up like a Christmas tree on steroids. So, unless you can afford to fly such a machine, you’d better say that there’s no way you’re going to pay for a TAA today. Persist to insist on flying an affordable basic trainer. If the instructor suddenly feigns a long-term illness or claims he’s been called to join the French Foreign Legion, then you’ve just eliminated an instructor who was more interested in flying an airplane for his entertainment than flying with you for your training. Ka-ching! You’ve just saved some money.
   Walking into a flight school without any idea of the type of instructor you want and need is also a very bad strategy. This is why you want to be an educated consumer. You want to find a flight instructor who loves to teach, and who uses a very simple and practical syllabus that emphasizes the essentials of stick and rudder flying.
   In one sense, some parts of our aviation training industry have come under the influence of a very big Jedi mind trick. What trick is that? It’s the belief that it’s not possible to produce a safe, competent private pilot close to the minimum flight time specified in the FARs. While the reasons for this are far too numerous to elaborate here, let it be said that a private pilot taught primarily with emphasis on stick and rudder skills is far less likely to end up bending an airplane or a few bones. Statistically, nearly half of all accidents are the takeoff, approach, landing, stall and spin type. Good stick and rudder skills are the antidote to these problems.
   So how can you identify a good stick and rudder instructor? I suggest you find out how long on average it takes for an instructor’s students—those who train two to three times a week—to obtain their private pilot certificate. Compare these numbers to the national average training time (approximately 70.1 hours) and the FAA minimum time for the private certificate (40 hours). You’re looking for an instructor capable of training closer to the FAA’s minimum than to the national average training time.
   Finally, Lament Man’s FBO wasn’t incorrect in stating that a desktop flight simulator doesn’t handle like a real airplane. On the other hand, I’ve flown real airplanes that didn’t handle like real airplanes. When using a desktop simulation device, you’re not trying to replicate the actual flying experience. Your objective is to reinforce the motor, perceptual and cognitive skills you learned on the previous lesson. Any reasonable desktop simulator will serve this function, and such a device can easily reduce the time and cost of flight training by 10%.
   Is flight training too expensive? It almost certainly will be if you’re not an educated consumer. So, find yourself a good flight instructor, a two-place steam gauge airplane, some simulation software and you’re in a position to earn a private license at a much more reasonable cost.

By Rod Machado | | Learning to Fly | 4 comments
next post → ← previous post


  • Christine - December 22, 2015

    Stay with this guys, you’re heilnpg a lot of people.

  • Dan Fregin - November 29, 2015

    Re: Hugo’s comment – GET TAILWHEEL TIME – When I was doing flight reviews, I could tell just from the way a pilot I had not previously met taxied out to the runway, 95% of the time. Now (retired) I still can often tell when an airline pilot needs TWT. Even a cargo company flying C-402’s required it of new hires.

  • Hugo - January 30, 2015

    I would like to thank for the advice. I am an international student starting the PPL training next month and this will help me to find a good CFI, focus more on stick and rudder techniques that would help to reduce costs.

  • Max Denney - November 04, 2014

    I am interested in your Private Pilot Audio for my students. I was wondering if you had a sample track I could listen to before I recomened my students get it. Thank you for your time.

Leave a comment

Stay in Touch

Physical Product Ordering Only (800) 437-7080

If you'd like to order a PHYSICAL product by phone, please call the number above. Digital (downloadable) products can't be ordered by phone.

Latest Posts

  • The FORBIDDEN Question

    By Rod Machado During my high school years, it was known as the forbidden dance—the Lambada. Do it on the dance floor in front of the principal and you’d be “dancing with the scars” resulting from that encounter. Some things... read more

  • Rod's Letter to the FAA and ACS Committee Members

    Yes, really! The Private Pilot ACS adds 363 Risk Management items to the PPL practical exam testing requirements. Students are responsible for knowing the answers to each and every one of these items, all of which require highly subjective answers (according... read more

  • Minimum Cost Private Pilot Certificate

    Greetings Folks:Below is a recent letter from a young man named Joel Thomas. Joel earned his pilot certificate at a very low cost using many of the recommendations I've made over the years. Yes, it's entirely possible to earn a... read more

  • Why Vx and Vy Change With Altitude

    Recently, someone asked about why Vx and Vy change with altitude. This isn't necessarily an easy thing to understand since it involves several variables. So here's a modified "quick" version of the explanation on this topic that is covered in... read more

  • How to Flare Any Airplane Any Time and Anywhere

    Princess Buttercup and I were walking on the Redondo Beach pier last month and unknowingly stumbled onto the “live” movie set of Big Momma 2. As I passed one of the props, an ice cream kiosk, I stopped to buy... read more

  • The Airman Certification Standards

    As most readers of my blog know, I'm not a fan of the new Airman Certification Standards (ACS) for many reasons, not the least of which I originally posted with the FAA in 2013 (click here to read that response). Apparently, the... read more

  • Risk Management? Really?

    Is the Emperor Naked? It Sure Looks That Way The illusion here is based on the FAA’s belief that student pilots can be taught risk management skills. Learning to manage risk, however, requires prerequisite knowledge that student pilots typically do... read more

  • Hot Props

    Crocodiles and Propellers - Not Much Difference Sometimes we need to be reminded just how dangerous a propeller can be.  The first video below shows a fellow pulling a propeller through to check for nicks when the engine started and... read more

  • Striving for Too Much, Too Soon - Fantasy Flight Training

    Early in the previous decade, the FAA began heavily promoting a flight training concept known as scenario-based training (SBT). SBT was billed as a highly structured script of real-world experiences to address aviation training objectives in an operational environment. Hailed... read more

  • Rod Machado's "FREE" Private Pilot Flight Training Syllabus

    I'd like to offer you two different syllabi (FREE). The first is my Private Pilot Flight Training Syllabus. This is intended for use by the flight instructor as well as the student. Both should have a copy for their own... read more

  • Flight Instructor Training Resources

    I'm often asked about resources for CFI applicants. Here are a few resources that you might find useful. When I discover more, I'll be happy to list them here.  Rod Machado’s Private Pilot Handbook - A  must have book to help... read more

  • In Defense of Stick and Rudder Training

    It happened in the early 1990s. That was the time we saw the diminishing influence of WWII flight instructors (and their instructional progeny). Our pilots didn’t fly jets during that war. Instead, they flew airplanes that demanded exceptional stick and... read more