How to Become a Private Pilot
By Rod Machado
What Does it Take?
What does it take for you to become a private pilot? If you’re like most people, once you get the thought of flying airplanes in your noggin, it continues to play like a musical tune that just won’t go away. If this describes you, then congratulations, you’ve got a bad case of plane on the brain. This is one of the few times when an invading thought is actually good for you, instead of being something you want to go away. Perhaps I can help relieve your symptoms by telling you all that I know about earning a private pilot license (OK, certificate if it pleases you). Being in the flight training business since 1973, I’ve learned a few things that will assist you in this process. Not only can I help you reduce the costs of flight training, but I can also help you overcome the frustrations occasionally associated with the experience. So hold on, buckle up and prepare for takeoff as we explore what it takes to become a licensed private pilot.
Aviation - A Wonderful Business!
Aviation is a wonderful business. If you have what it takes—I don't mean a rich uncle in high places, either—you can fly for a living. What does it take? The most important quality is desire. Over the years I've taught many, many people to fly. Quite a few of these folks went on to become airline pilots, corporate pilot and flight instructors. In every case, anyone who wanted a flying job got one (maybe not the job they originally wanted, but they did get a flying job, and upward mobility in the aviation industry quickly followed, too). Let me state this in a different way: Everyone I've known with a deep desire to fly for a living was eventually able to do so. That's a fact! Desire is the one thing that motivates you to find unique and novel ways to pay for your flight training (and I don't mean "bank robbing," either), as well as commit yourself to the required study hours for private pilot licensing. Of course, you need to have the basic physical and mental qualifications, too. That being said, it’s your desire to fly that’s the single most important thing you need to earn a private pilot license.
The Private Pilot Certificate
Here’s the big picture that will help you understand what it takes to become a private pilot. First, you need to be at least 17 years old and be able to read, speak, write and understand the English language to hold a private pilot license. You can solo an airplane in the United States at 16, but you must be 17 to hold the license. You should be prepared to invest between $8,000 and $12,000 to earn the license, too (read my article titled: Am I Too Young to Start Flight Training?) As a practical matter, your flight training will take place over a period of five to six months and typically consist of two flight lessons per week before you’ll be ready for your private pilot checkride (this is similar to the DMVs driving test but involves an airplane and no parallel parking). Your first 11 to 20 hours of flight training will be with an instructor (this is known as "dual instruction" and not because swords or pistols-at-20-paces are involved, either) in preparation for solo flight (which is where you fly the airplane alone). During this time you’ll prepare for a written knowledge exam (you’ll take this exam on a computer at an FAA approved testing facility).
After a few hours of solo flight, you’ll learn about navigation and cross country flying, then you’ll make several cross country flights on your own. This is followed by practicing the flight maneuvers required for the private pilot exam. Finally, you’ll take the exam, pass and obtain a private license (I have so much confidence in you that I just know you’ll pass). Once you have your license you can rent airplanes in much the same way you rent a car. You can also buy an airplane if it pleases you (and if you have the money, of course). Now that’s the big picture. There is another type of license known as the sport pilot certificate. This requires only half the flight time and often less than half the cost of the private pilot license. This license does restrict you to flying one- or two-place airplanes that fall into the light-sport airplane category. You can, however, carry one passenger with you. There are other limitations, but these are the most significant ones. We’ll talk more about the sport license later.
Where to Start
If you have no experience with smaller airplanes, then the first thing you should do is visit your local airport and walk into a flight school. These schools are sometimes called FBOs or Fixed Based Operators. You can find a flight school in your area by visiting AOPA’s (Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association) flight school database. Your objective here is to ask questions, look at airplanes and get a general feel for general aviation. At the FBO, you’re likely to find a flight instructor that can answer many of your questions (but no chemistry questions, please. They get nervous when you chat about electrons). If you’d prefer to chat with a flight instructor first, then just give the FBO a call and ask to talk to an instructor on the phone (they're good with phones, of course). You can also look at this database to find a flight instructor in your area to chat with, too. Contact this person and ask if he or she has a little time to chat with you about flight training. Most flight instructors will gladly help you understand how the flight training process works.
While visiting the FBO, please consider taking an introductory flight. Many flight schools offer these flights at a typical cost of $99. This is an excellent way to see what aviation is like first hand as well as get the feel for what a particular instructor might be like (no, don’t feel his biceps or touch her nose). As you’ll soon see, the flight instructor is the most important component in your eventual success at flight training.
Nothing—NOTHING!—is more important than finding a good instructor. NOTHING! NOTHING! NOTHING! Period! Got that? In this sense, you’re trying out the instructor as well as seeing whether or not you really like airplanes (I know you will). There’s one additional benefit to the introductory flight, too. If the instructor is willing, he or she may log this flight as "dual instruction" for you, meaning that this flight time is applicable to the total flight time needed to obtain the private pilot license. Of course, you’ll need to purchase a log book to log this flight (a log book is what pilots use to keep track of their flight times and it’s not made out of logs, either). Fortunately, most flight schools have these books for sale starting at approximately $12 and up (get a simple but nice one).
Once you've found a good flight school and good instructor, you're ready to begin your training (if you haven't already done do, read this piece on how to find a good instructor). The FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) requires that you have a minimum of 40 hours of flight time for the private pilot certificate. About half of this will be spent with your flight instructor and the other half will be solo flight (by yourself—you’ll love it!). To be realistic, it normally takes a little longer than 40 hours to earn the private pilot certificate. In fact, the national average for the private pilot certificate is 71 hours. But don't let that disturb you. If you train frequently enough, have a good instructor and fly a simple, non-complex airplane, you can do it in 40-45 hours. That's a fact! Remember, some folks stretch out their training for a year or two, which results in their needing many more hours to finish the program. This, of course, inflates the average hours needed to complete their training.
Generally speaking (even if you don't hold that rank) it takes approximately 50 to 55 hours of flight training to become a private pilot. How long will it take? Earning the private pilot license normally takes about six months. Of course, if you're planning on taking flying lessons in the middle of winter, then plan on canceling and rescheduling many of your flights, especially if you live where the winters are intense. In some parts of the country, it's so rare to see the sun during the winter that, when it pops out from behind a cloud, everyone reports it as a UFO. If you can train where the weather's good, then that's even better for you. I have to admit that I've known some pretty creative instructors who manage to accomplish a lot of flight training even when the weather is downright awful.
With good weather, however, it's possible to earn a private certificate in a much shorter time. My friend and fellow flight instructor Wally Funk once taught someone to fly in 13 days. But then again, Wally is one of the best flight instructors in the business and she lives in New Mexico (hint: good weather). Want to know how her student did it in two weeks? You are so lucky, because I’m going to tell you. Read on.
How Someone Earned Her Private Pilot Certificate in Less Than Two Weeks Wally's student (let's call her Susan, because that's her name) had already taken and passed her knowledge exam (written test). Yes, you must pass a 60 question (multiple choice) written test to obtain a private pilot certificate (in addition to a practical flight test). How do you go about preparing for the written exam? First, you'll need a good text book. I just happen to know someone who writes educational and humorous books on aviation—me. Take a look at my Private Pilot Handbook and my How to Fly an Airplane Handbook. You'll be amazed at how much fun it is to read and learn from, and how much learning material it contains. It will make your training a lot easier with its clear explanations and abundance of pictures. You'll also want to purchase the Private Pilot eWorkbook, too. It has over 1,800 questions that provide you with a programmed learning format while using the Private Pilot Handbook. If you like to learn while driving your car or while listening to your MP3 player, the Private and How to Fly Handbook are also available in audiobook form, too (Private Pilot Audiobook and How To Fly Audiobook). And an ebook version is also available if you like learning on your desktop or laptop computer.
Oh, one final note on the written test. While you don't have to have the written exam passed before you start flight training, you should plan on having it passed by the time you solo (solo usually occurs within the first six to eight weeks of training). Therefore, you want to start studying for the written exam as soon as you begin your flight training. If you’re ready to go now, you can even begin your preparation for the written exam before you ever step foot in an airplane, too. That’s just fine. Order my Complete Digital Private Pilot Course and begin your training now. And no, you don't need to have any flight experience to begin preparing for the written exam, as long as the book you're using is sufficiently explanatory (hint!). And don't forget to download my FREE "Stick and Rudder" flying syllabus as shown here. Click on the picture, add the syllabus to the cart then checkout. It's all free and it will show you all the wonderful things you'll learn when you begin your flight training. You'll also want to add my FREE ground school syllabus to the cart, too. This syllabus is an excellent guide to show you how to prepare for your 60-question private pilot knowledge exam. Both of these items are FREE!
Susan had also obtained her medical certificate before she began her flight training. Yep, you have to demonstrate some degree of good health before you can solo an airplane, much less act as a private pilot. Therefore, you'll need a third-class medical certificate (a sport pilot license doesn’t require a medical exam. It only requires that you have a driver’s license). Don't worry, the medical exam isn’t really all that tough. Some folk even say that if you can see lightning and hear thunder, you're probably healthy enough to pass the exam (you get the idea, right?). In fact, you'll be amazed to know that it's possible to fly with many different disabilities including certain types of diabetes, vision impairments, amputations (hopefully, not too many amputations, of course), etc.
If you want to know more about these medical standards, then you should join the AOPA (Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association). The AOPA has a special aviation medical hot line just to answer these types of questions (I can't answer them for you since this is not my area of expertise). Once you've begun the medical examination, don't be surprised if the Doc asks you to do strange things like jump up and down on one foot for 20 seconds. Don't worry, this is all part of the test (I always thought this was a test to see if you could dislodge a stuck landing gear during fight). Make sure you listen carefully during the exam, too. A friend once told me that he heard the Doc say, "OK, touch the nose with the finger." Unfortunately my friend tried to put his finger on the Doc's nose.
If you'd like to schedule a medical exam, then check for an FAA medical examiner in your local area by clicking the link shown. This exam typically costs around $100 and usually takes less than 30 minutes to complete. I always advise my students to obtain their third-class medical before they start flight training. This way they'll know if they're medically qualified to fly before investing their money. Click here to search the FAA's database for an aviation medical examiner in your local area. Let me mention an additional and very important thing for your consideration.
Here's a word of advice. If you feel that you might not be able to pass a third-class medical exam, then you might still want to visit the AME and have him/her conduct an evaluation exam. Simply make an appointment for a third-class medical exam and inform the doc's secretary that you don't want to fill out any official paper work for this exam. Let the secretary know that you are only looking for the doc's opinion on whether or not you could pass the exam had you actually taken it. Most AMEs are more than willing to do these type of evaluation exams, especially because you are more than willing to give them $100 to do so. It's a win-win for everyone.
Once Susan passed the written test and the medical exam, Wally began training her every day, nearly all day, for 13 days. Susan did get her license in less than two weeks. Of course, Wally didn't just pull the license out of her pocket and give it to Susan. She had to take a practical test (a.k.a., the checkride), to obtain the private pilot certificate. This checkride normally takes about four hours and is given by FAA designated flight examiners. You can search for one of these designated flight examiners in your local area just in case you have any questions you'd like to ask them (except chemistry questions, of course. They hate that).
Can you earn your license in two weeks? Well, the stars, moon and all the planets would have to be perfectly aligned, to say nothing about having accommodating weather and an incredible flight instructor (also known as a CFI or certified flight instructor). You'd also need to be a dedicated, bright student, but it can be done. Nevertheless, I think it's more realistic to plan on about four to six months to complete your flight training. At least you know what’s possible.
How Much Does a Private Pilot Certificate Cost to Earn?
This depends on several things, one of which is the type of airplane you use for training. My recommendation is to find an airplane that's fun and affordable to fly. A two- or four-seat trainer is a good choice. Generally, people that are six feet or taller or who weight more than 200 pounds, will usually find a four-seat airplane more comfortable. As a general rule, find the easiest airplane to fly that's within your budget. And don't let anyone talk you into flying a more complex airplane under the assumption that it will make you a better pilot. There’s simply no logic or truth in this idea. Remember, you're training to be a private pilot not a fighter pilot.
You should plan on paying between $110 and $120 per hour to rent a two-seat trainer. A four-seat trainer usually costs between $130 and $150 an hour to rent. If you hear someone say that airplanes are rented wet that doesn't mean that the owner will hose it down before you fly it. It means that fuel is included in the price of the airplane (the quoted rental price almost always includes fuel). The flight instructor generally costs around $40 or more per hour. Let's examine the cost of obtaining a private pilot certificate under the assumption that it takes 60 hours of flight time (which includes the checkride).
Here's what you can expect to pay for the private pilot certificate:
✈50 hours of airplane rental @ $150/hr. = $7,500 (with a good CFI you'll learn in about this amount of time)
✈40 hours of dual instruction @ $40/hr. = $1,600
✈Medical exam = $100
✈Written exam fee = $75
✈Designated Examiner fee for checkride = $300 ($600 in some instances)
✈Rod Machado's Private Pilot Handbook and eWorkbook = $64.95 +19.95 (or audiobook version)
✈Rod Machado's How to Fly an Airplane Handbook $59.95 (or audiobook version)
✈Additional supplies = $200 Total Cost = $9,919.85
NOTE! The numbers above represent prices for some flight schools of which I'm aware. These schools are exceptional in their training philosophy and they don't teach in airplanes with fancy avionics (Glass Cockpit airplanes). You should expect to pay 20% to 50% more at the average flight school.
Of course, this estimate can vary based on several variables. You can acquire your private pilot license for a lot less if you complete the training in 45 hours. Can this actually be done? You bet it can and there are several flight schools that do it regularly. Perhaps one of the most important secrets to assisting you in keeping down the costs of flight training is to use Microsoft Flight Simulator (X version). Yep, that's no joke. As long as you aren't still using a Commodore 64 computer (circa 1980), you can benefit by installing this software ($59 as many stores) on your computer and taking the flight lessons offered in the simulation package. Flight lessons? You bet. These are actual flight lessons that teach the fundamentals of flying as best they can be taught on a computer. Are they realistic lessons? I think so. Then again, I wrote those lessons so I'm a little biased. That's right. It's my voice you'll hear on all those flying lessons. In my opinion, and based on all the letters I've received from pilots over the years, these lessons can help you learn much more quickly when you actually enter the airplane.
Let's keep things in perspective here. Drop into your local Kawasaki store and check the price of any Kawasaki jet ski watercraft. You’re sure to see costs anywhere between $7,000 and $13,000, to say nothing of the trailer on which you'll need to tote it. You'll probably use it for a year or two, after which time you’ll stick it in your garage and forget it’s there. For a similar investment of money, you can earn a pilots license which will be something that lasts a lifetime and provides a lifetime of fun (and it won’t have to stay in your garage, either). And, if you want to get comparative about it, you might actually be able to buy a small used airplane for the cost of new, high end Harely motorcycle (and you don't have to wear a helmet when you fly—unless you really want to. Scarf and goggles are also optional...but very cool!).
Believe me when I say that the investment in a private pilot license is worthwhile, because it's an investment for life. A pilot certificate lasts forever. It's an investment in your future. And if you’re a parent with a son or daughter who has expressed an interest in flying, then you might want to encourage them. Why? Read this article I wrote about why young folks should be encouraged to fly an airplane.
If you're thinking about financing your flight training then check out Pilot Finance for a possible source of support.
What Does the Private Pilot Certificate Allow You to Do?
Impress neighbors? Meet girls? Guys? Well, I suppose it allows you to do all of these, although it's ultimately a license that permits you to carry passengers in an airplane. The advantage here is that passengers can help share the cost of flying, thereby making this enterprise less expensive. And yes, you can rent airplanes, too. Take a look at the price rental sheet for Orange County Flight Center and Sunrise Aviation located in Southern California. This represents the average costs for rental airplanes in an upscale urban area. Rural areas typically show slightly less costs for rental airplanes and flight instructors.
Renting an airplane is similar to renting a car. In some cases, it's cheaper and the contract is less scary. You can expect to pay anywhere from $100 per hour and up for rental airplanes. Since I mentioned jet skis, keep in mind that a Double Waverunner jet ski typically rents for $130 dollars an hour. So, besides price, there are many more advantages to flying an airplane than driving a jet ski (and I've never known anyone who fell off an airplane and drowned, either). And yes, there are many airports with FBOs that will rent you an airplane once you meet their checkout requirements. Once you obtain your private pilots certificate, you can get a checkout in larger airplanes, too. For instance, some places rent six-seaters. Just think, if you rent a four-seat airplane costing $140 per hour and share this expense with three passengers, that makes for an inexpensive flight, doesn't it? Not bad, eh? Rent a three-person jet ski and everyone wants to drive. Rent an airplane and everyone will want to drive, too. But all you have to do is say, "Show me your license," and the best that most can do is show you a picture of their new jet ski.
Now you're ready to travel. So get going. There are airports all over these United States. As a private pilot, you'll be able to land at nearly all of them (most are open to the public).
Is Learning to Fly Difficult?
Not necessarily. Yes, it does take dedication and study. As a flight instructor since 1973, my experience indicates that almost anyone can learn to fly. Age is no barrier. I've taught folks advanced as 70 years of age and as young as 16. I've even taught them as early as 10 years of age (but they can't legally solo an airplane until they're 16). Young people can, however, solo a glider or a balloon at 14 years of age (why? These two activities are "communal" activities that involve at least one or more adults, thereby providing some type of adult supervision).
I'm often asked if it's wise for a person younger than 16 to begin taking flying lessons. My response is, "Yes." I've known young people who began taking flying lessons at 13 and, when reaching their sixteenth birthday, they soloed an airplane.
Do you need athletic-type reflexes to fly? No. Although if you're the type of person whose reflexes are so slow that you're likely to get run over by two guys pushing a car with a flat tire, then you might have some difficulty. You don't, however, need what some folks call The Right Stuff. What's the right stuff? Well, let's just say that Forest Gump didn't have it, if you understand what I mean. If you have enthusiasm and desire, then you probably have what it takes.
What's the Biggest Obstacle to Obtaining A Pilots Certificate?
As I see it, it's the instructor. Not all instructors are created equal. Your success at flight training hinges on finding a good CFI (Certified Flight Instructor). You might want to read a little more on this subject by clicking the following link: Finding a Good Flight Instructor.
What About Part 61 and Part 141 Flight Training?
Part 61 is simply the FAA regulation rule number under which flight training is conducted. This is similar to saying that the laws of the road are based on vehicle code number blah, blah, blah. Part 141 is another block of regulations under which a flight school may operate in training students. All flight schools operate under Part 61 of the regulations unless these schools have specifically applied for and met the FAA's requirements to train pilots under Part 141 of the regulations. Why would a flight school want to train you under Part 141? The main reason is that it allows you to achieve your licenses in a slightly lower amount of total time (35 hour minimum under Part 141 as compared to a 40 hour minimum under Part 91). In a sense, the FAA keeps a closer eye on Part 141 certified flight schools. I'd like to say that this always ensures a higher quality of training, but this isn't necessarily true. There are Part 61 flight schools that are simply spectacular and offer excellent training, too. What determines whether a school does or doesn't do a good job is not the regulations nor is it the FAA. It's the owner, manager and other people involved in that school. Based on my experience, students--training with the same frequency/schedule--take about the same amount of time to complete their training under Part 141 as they do Part 61. Therefore, when choosing a flight school, look for things like a good reputation, enthusiastic instructors and good airplane maintenance. Generally speaking, if the school advertises themselves as a Part 141 or Part 61 facility, this really doesn't make all that much difference.
Is There Anything Else That Will Help You Become a Private Pilot?
Yes, absolutely. Never--NEVER!--forget that you're the consumer. You deserve to be treated properly and professionally. You have the right to expect quality flight training, so ask for it. And remember, you get what you pay for. If you're looking for a good deal, then good luck. I've found that the best way to lose in the long run is to always look for the good deal! It's taken me many years to learn how goofy this type of thinking is. If you have to pay a little more to get higher quality service, then do so. You simply can't expect as much from poorly maintained airplanes, underpaid instructors and overall cheap services (even if no one at the flight school wears overalls).
As an additional note, there are two others versions of the private pilot certificate you might want to consider. It's called the sport pilot certificate. Here are a few things you should know right now about this license.
Similar to the private pilot certificate, the sport pilot certificate requires flight training, a written and a practical flight test. The major difference is that the sport pilot license requires only half of the flight time required by the private pilot license, or 20 hours total. Sure, there are limitations to being a sport pilot such as being limited to carrying only one passenger and being limited to flying a one- or two-place airplane that fits into the light sport airplane category (we’re only talking airplanes here, not powered parachutes, weight-shift vehicles, etc.). Nevertheless, the sport pilot license allows you to do what all pilots want to do and that is to fly with a passenger. And, if you’re motivated, you can easily earn this license in just a few weeks. That’s the truth!
If you wanted to earn a private pilot certificate just to have fun, then you can stop reading right here. If, however, you have other ambitions, like flying for a career, then take a look at the next blog in this series titled, Obtaining Your Advanced Pilot Ratings.