Nine First Steps to Becoming a Pilot
Here is the sequence of steps you should consider in pursuing your private pilot license (it's technically called a "certificate" but we'll call it a license). As you'll see, the most important steps listed below deal with getting your flight training started. I recommend the following steps for your consideration based on my experience as flight instructor and flight counselor since 1973.
Step 1: Take an introductory flight:
If you've never flown in a small airplane then you need to have that experience before you decide to pursue a pilots license. Click here to find a flight school in your local area and arrange to take an introductory flight (sometimes called a "demo flight") with a flight instructor at this school. The cost for most introductory flights is around $99. Unless you live on the Bikini Atoll (or its Club Med cousin, the No-Bikini Atoll) you should easily find an airport nearby with a flight school that will provide these introductory flights. Believe me when I say that this experience will be well worth the money you invest. Be prepared to have a great time! My only advice here is to take the intro flight in the early morning or early evening. You shouldn't take your first flight in the afternoon's typically bumpy air. And whatever you do, don't forget to ask a lot of questions (and I don't mean questions like, "Are we there yet?").
Step 2: Evaluate Your Medical Fitness to Fly
If you feel that flying is for you and you have the funds and the time to invest in flying (and a "two- or three-hour" block for two days a week for four to six months), then you're ready for the next step. And this is a very important step, too. You need to obtain a third-class medical certificate. Now, these aren't too difficult to obtain. It's been said that if you can see lighting and hear thunder, then you'll easily pass the third-class medical exam. OK, that's a bit of an exaggeration but not really all that much. It doesn't make sense to invest your time and money in training to become a private pilot if you can't pass the FAA's third-class medical exam (don't fret! If you can't pass this medical exam, you can still fly earn a sport pilot license which allows you do almost everything a private pilot does without needing any type of medical certificate. More on sport pilots later).
You can obtain a third-class medical certificate by visiting your local Aviation Medical Examiner (AME). Click here to find an examiner in your local area (select "AME" in the Designee Type box). You'll want to apply for a third-class medical which is the minimum required to operate as a private pilot. These exams typically cost about $100 and involve a basic review of your health (and a test to see if you scream when the doc places a cold metal object on your chest as he listens to your heart beat).
Here's a word of advice. If you are not sure that you can actually pass a third-class medical exam, then please don't rush off and take one. Why? Because you can still train for a sport pilot certificate and fly as a sport pilot as long as your haven't previously failed a third-class medical exam. That's right. A sport pilot only needs to be healthy enough to obtain a drivers license (which means you can see and hear well enough not to scare people while driving your car...and a bit more, of course) Yep! That's the only "medical" qualification you need as a sport pilot (I promise I'll talk about the sport pilot license soon).
So what do you do if you're not sure you can pass a third-class medical exam? Here's what I recommend. If you're sure you still want to become a private pilot (because you have thoughts about plopping yourself down in front on an onrushing glacier and ending it all--slowly--if you can't), then visit the AME and ask him or her to conduct an "evaluation" exam. Make an appointment for a third-class medical exam and inform the doc's secretary that you only want the doctor to make an evaluation of your health and see if it meets the requirements for the third-class medical certificate. Don't fill out any official paper work for this exam. Make sure the secretary knows 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.
As a final note, there is another type of pilot certificate known as a sport pilot certificate that does not require that you have a medical certificate (see, I told you I'd get around to talking about this). It only requires that you be medically eligible to drive a car (which means there will be no doctor involved in testing your reaction to a cold metal object touching your chest). The sport pilot certificate allows you to do almost everything a private pilot certificate does but with a few limitations. The one additional caveat you must remember is that if you've failed to pass a third-class medical exam, then you are not eligible to become a sport pilot until you eventually manage to pass this exam. Now you see why I suggested that you visit the AME for an evaluation exam if you're unsure of your medical fitness to fly. At least you won't have a record of failing a third-class medical exam and can pursue a sport pilot certificate if you feel you are medically qualified to do.
Step 3: Become a Sherlock Holmes and do Research
If you're satisfied with Step 2 above, you'll want to consider where to take flight your flight training. It's quite possible that you'll do your flight training at the location where you took your demo flight. On the other hand, it would be wise for you to visit several flight schools and spend a few hours talking with different flight instructors about their training philosophy. The single most important recommendation I can give you is that your success at becoming a private pilot (or sport pilot) is based on finding a good flight instructor. Nothing else, and I do mean "NOTHING ELSE," matters more in my opinion. How do you find a good flight instructor? Reputation! Reputation! Reputation! Find someone with a good reputation. Read this article to help you find a good flight instructor. Remember, you are the consumer and, as all good consumers who invest their money and time, you need to be informed. Much like doctors, not all flight instructors are equal. There are good ones and bad ones. You must find the good ones to fly with. As the old (but updated) Chinese saying goes, "It's better to spend three years looking for a good instructor than to spend even three minutes flying with a poor one."
Step 4: Purchase These Important Training Aids
While you're doing the research in Step 3 (or even before you do Step 3), you should consider purchasing my Private Pilot Handbook, Workbook and the How to Fly an Airplane Handbook. (These books are also available as audiobooks.) Then again, you might like to obtain the Complete Private Pilot Digital Package (download only). This is ALL YOU NEED to get started on the path to becoming a pilot, this is also a great deal at one-third off the retail price. These books/audiobooks allow you to start learning the basics of aviation, even before you take your first official flight lesson. This material was written to be understandable by someone with no aviation experience whatsoever.
In fact, the chapters in my Private Pilot Handbook are organized so that you'll learn precisely what you need based on the typical progression of flight training. You'll start out with what makes an airplane fly and end up with how to navigate from airport to airport (except for the airport on the Bikini Atoll, since there was a big explosion there a while back and the runway, or the entire
atoll, may still be missing). These books also allow you to overcome one of the main hurdles that keep prospective pilots from progression: failure to take their written (knowledge) exam. This exam is not that difficult at all. The fact is, however, that few folks enjoy taking an exam--any exam. So don't delay here. Get an edge up on your training and begin your study now. And 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 syllabusto 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!
You'll also want to purchase and install Flight Simulator on your computer. And while you're at it, purchase a joystick for use with this program (rudder pedals aren't necessary at this stage). Why? I'm the instructor on Microsoft's Flight Sim X. I wrote the solo, private, commercial and advanced flight training lessons for this program. By studying the solo and private pilot lessons you'll learn some very important basic skills that will assist you in your flight training. I've received many letters from pilots who've used Microsoft's Flight Simulator in preparation for and during their flight training. Each and every one of these indicates that this desktop simulation software helped them learn more quickly and made learning more efficient in the real airplane. I designed these lessons to be as realistic as possible and I'm sure they'll help you. Besides, you'll really impress your instructor with your aviation familiarity after taking just a few of these lessons. Of course, if you use the program to assist you in your flight training, make sure you don't say to your real airplane flight instructor, "Push the pause button, I'm going for a soda."
Step 5: Decide on an Airplane for Flight Training
One of the wonderful things about aviation in this decade is the large number of general aviation airplanes in which you can train. In fact, the different types with all their variable equipment can offer a mind numbing list of choices. So here's what I want you to consider. First, it makes no difference whatsoever if the airplane has advanced electronics (such as what's known as a glass cockpit) or whether the airplane has the typical older but still trusty flight gauges. NONE! NONE! NONE! NONE! NONE! Don't let anyone talk you into flying a sophisticated single-engine airplane that can cost you $250 an hour or more to rent if that's not what you want to fly. If you don't insist on training in the airplane you want to fly (i.e., a simple, inexpensive airplane, for instance) then your flight instructor will probably insist on training in the airplane he or she wants to fly. But this is about you, not about him or her!
I recommend that you find the least sophisticated, least expensive airplane that fits your budget and train in it. Will training in a less sophisticated airplane keep you from becoming a good pilot? ABSOLUTELY NOT! There's never been any evidence to suggest that flying a more complex, sophisticated airplane will make you a better pilot. But it will make you a financially broke pilot! The evidence actually suggests that starting your flight training in a sophisticated, complex airplane can ruin the joy of flying for you. I can assure you that if you learn to fly in a Cessna 150 or a Piper-Cub, you'll be just as capable a pilot (if not more so) as anyone graduating from flight school where the training was conducted in a six-place, retractable geared airplane with a "glass" cockpit. Sure, by training in a simple airplane, you'll probably understand more about the real art of flying but less about fancy avionics. So what? With just a few additional hours of training, you can easily learn how to use even the most sophisticated avionics on the market today. That's a fact.
My experience informs me that the pilot who trained in the sophisticated airplane is going to have many more hours of time invested in his/her training before becoming a private pilot, and may very well find that flight training is a lot more work than fun. This same person might also find that he's not quite as confident and comfortable in an airplane as some of his fellow pilots are that learned to fly in a smaller airplane. Why? It often takes 25-35 hours of flight instruction to solo in an advanced, complex airplane, whereas it typically takes 10-15 hours to solo a Cessna 150 or a Piper-Cub. If you spend all your early time with an instructor flying an advance airplane then you'll begin to feel comfortable only when the instructor is on board the airplane. That's a fact!
Finally, keep in mind that, for years and years, the United States Air Force used to start all new pilots out in a T-41, which is nothing more than a Cessna 172. I hope that tells you something.
Step 6: Take Your First Few Lessons Conditionally
When you've chosen a flight instructor for flight training, I want you to initially agree on no more than three lessons at first. Tell the instructor that, after three lessons, you'll have a good idea about how you two will dance together (OK, train together. There's no dancing involved here...unless you want to, of course). After three lessons you'll know whether or not to make a further commitment to flight training with this person. Why should you use this strategy? As I said before, the single biggest item determining your success in flight training is your instructor.
Unfortunately, there are some folks who begin their training with their instructor who, after the first date (so-to-speak), goes from being a nice Dr. Jekyll to a mean Mr. Hyde on subsequent lessons. The problem is that most folks find it uncomfortable leaving for a better instructor after they've started with a bad one. You are the consumer and have a right to quality instruction. If you aren't getting it then you need to switch instructors NOW! And that's that. Sorry, but you're not taking flying lessons to put up with unprofessional behavior in the cockpit. The fact is that most instructors are just fantastic, but there are a few out there that have no business teaching others in an airplane. You don't want to be in the cockpit with one of these folks. Additionally, these folks can ruin the experience of flight for you and I mean ruin it for life! You deserve better.
Step 7: Buy Additional Flight Training Supplies
You now have another legitimate reason to visit your local pilot supply shop. Once you've begun your flight training and are satisfied with your instructor, you're now ready to invest in a few important flight training supplies. For instance, until this time you've probably been using the flight school's headset or your instructor's spare headset. Now it's time to buy your own. No, not so you can wear it at family gathering to impress your kin with your impending coronation as His Airworthiness.
Your instructor is your best source for recommendations on what additional supplies you'll need. So make a list and check it twice. Then print out this page and show it to your spouse as proof that Rod said you need to visit a pilot supply store.
As an aside, you might consider an airplane as an additional flight training supply (The airplane you see above is a Cessna 150 that I purchased for $20,000 and it is very inexpensive to operate. It's also a lot of fun to fly!) Yes, that's right. Many students look at the potential expenditures and decided to purchase an airplane in which to do their initial flight training. Is this a good deal? In many cases it sure is, especially when you consider that you can lease-back the airplane to a flight school and have it literally pay for itself. If you'd like to learn more about leaseback arrangements and airplane purchases, you might consider joining AOPA (Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association) for only $59 a year and having access to their extensive information database that covers this area. Or, you can visit the local flight school and ask to talk to some of the folks who leaseback an airplane. There's nothing quite like getting your news directly from the horse's mouth.
Step 8: Teach Your Instructor How to Teach You
I want you to become a proactive student. I want you to teach your instructor how to teach you. Since you know how you learn best, you should share this knowledge with your instructor. If you like seeing more demonstrations of a maneuver before you try it yourself, then tell this to your instructor. If you prefer to see something demonstrated once then try it yourself, then tell this to your instructor, too. If you don't like it when your instructor talks while you're trying to do a maneuver, then share this with your instructor. No one knows how you learn better than you do.
Step 9: Be a Good Student
And finally, don't be reluctant to be an enthusiastic student. One of the biggest secrets I learned when I was young was that if I acted excited and interested, then the instructor was more likely to be excited and interested in teaching me. This concept is so simple, yet so few folks know how to be good students. I can assure you that your instructor will share his/her more powerful "how to fly" secrets with you if you make yourself appear worthy by acting enthusiastic about learning. Who knows? If you receive good instruction, you might just be crowned, "His Airworthiness."
Read the next blog in this series titled: How to Become a Private Pilot.