Nine First Steps to Becoming a Pilot

   Here is the sequence of steps you should consider in pursuing your private pilot 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 for the past 35 years.

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 this $99 Intro Flight site and register for a demo flight. You should hear back from someone in your local area about your demo flight. If you're just too excited and can't wait even a minute for your demo ride, then click on the aircraft owner's and pilot's association (AOPA) Find a Flight School site and search for a flight school in your local area. 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 honor the $49 introductory intro ride price. You'll be given an introductory fight by a certified flight instructor. 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. 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: Join AOPA/Flight Training
    You probably wouldn't believe the following information if I didn't tell you it was the real deal. By visiting AOPA's "Let's Go Flying" site you can find some very useful information to help you with flight training. The information on this site is worth its weight in "William Shatner autographs" for student pilots. Additionally, by signing up, AOPA will send you, free of charge, a student welcome kit consisting of a video, information packet and a six month subscription to Flight Training magazine. You can't beat this deal.

Step 3: 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. It doesn't make sense to invest your time and money in learning to fly if you can't pass the FAA's third-class medical exam (necessary to become a private pilot). On the other hand, if you visit an aviation medical examiner (AME) for a third-class medical exam and find that you aren't medically qualified to fly as a private pilot, don't worry (yet). All is not necessarily lost. You can work with the AME and he/she can assist you in finding a way to meet the qualifications for the exam (this may involve more tests or more thorough tests to satisfy the FAA's medical requirements).
   If, however, you have a medical problem that will permanently restrict you from obtaining a third-class medical certificate and are officially turned down for that certificate (i.e., you went to an AME for the exam and pass), then you are no longer eligible for a sport pilots license. That's right! A sport pilots license doesn't require that you have a third-class medical. You only need to be medically qualified enough to drive a car (i.e., have a drivers license). The sport license does, however, require that you haven't been turned down for a third-class medical certificate. Therefore, if you knew about a limiting medical problem that would prevent your obtaining a third-class medical certificate, it might be best to work on your sport pilots license instead of trying to become a private pilot.
   So what's the advice I'm offering here? If you think you have a medical problem that would keep you from obtaining a third-class medical, then visit an AME for a medical consultation, not a medical exam. Make it clear to the AME that you're there to see if you could pass the exam if you actually were to take that exam, but for gosh sakes don't take the exam in this instance. This way you can honestly say you weren't denied a third-class medial and, assuming you "drove a car" to visit the AME (hint?), you can still become a sport pilot if you desire. In the end, if you know you don't have a limiting medical problem then obtain the third-class medical certificate (which will often be issued with a student pilot certificate, too).

Step 4: Become a Sherlock Holmes and do Research
   If you're satisfied with Step 3 above, you'll now 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 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 a lot of money and time, you need to be informed. 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 5: Purchase These Important Training Aids 
    While you're doing the research in Step 4 (or even before you do Step 4), you should consider purchasing my Private Pilot Handbook and Workbook (or the Handbook/Workbook/Audiobook combination) and Microsoft Flight Simulator 2004. The books/audiobook will allow you to start learning the basics of aviation, even before you take your first official flight lesson. These books were written to be understandable by someone with no aviation experience. In fact, the chapters 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 will 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 like taking an exam--any exam. So don't delay here. Get an edge up on your training and begin your study now.
   You'll also want to purchase and install Flight Simulator 200X on your computer. You'll also want to purchase at least a joystick for use with this program. Why? I'm the instructor on Microsoft's Flight Sim (2000, 2002 and 2004). 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 them say that it 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 6: 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 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! 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. 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? There's never been any evidence to suggest that flying a more complex, sophisticated airplane will make you a better pilot. But there's a lot of evidence 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. The fact is that 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 tells 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 person may 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 35-50 hours of flight instruction to solo in an advanced airplane, whereas it typically takes 14-20 hours to solo a Cessna 150 or a Piper-Cub. If you spend all your time with an instructor then you begin to feel comfortable only when the instructor is onboard the airplane. That's a fact! Finally, keep in mind that the United States Air Force for years and years 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 7: Take Your First Few Lessons Conditionally  
When you've chosen a flight instructor for fight 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 well you two dance (OK, train) together. At that point, you'll know whether or not to make a further commitment to flight training with this person at that facility. 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 was nice on the first date but then does a Dr. Jekyll-Mr. Hyde routine on subsequent lessons. The problem is that most folks find it uncomfortable leaving for a better instructor. 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 8: 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 your instructor's headset. Now it's time to buy your own. No, not so you can wear it at family gathering to impress your kind 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. Yes, that's right. Many students look at the figures 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 for only $39 a year and having access to their extensive database covering 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 9: 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.

   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."


Rod's Message to You
Flying is a transforming experience. If you'd like a good reason to get your son or daughter involved in flying, please read my article titled, "Reluctant Moms and Dads."

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