How (and Why) to Get A Pilot’s License

I’ve practiced this sequence of actions more than a hundred times in the past few months, but today it’s special. This time there are passengers aboard. My wife is sitting next to me, and my daughter is in the back seat.

After announcing my intentions on the appropriate frequency, I taxi onto the runway, then ease the throttle all the way forward and start my takeoff roll.

Engine gauges are green. Hold the centerline. Airspeed is alive. Fifty five knots. Rotate. A little more right rudder. Pitch for seventy nine knots. Continue on the runway heading for another minute, then turn crosswind. There’s the runway to the left, a thousand feet below us now.

We’re flying. I’m flying.

I’m at the controls of a vehicle that weighs less than a compact car, and I just loaded my little family aboard it and drove into the sky. I’ve been dreaming about doing this since the age of five, and now it’s finally happening. I’m a pilot.

Cape Cod Bay from 5,500', on my solo cross-country flight.

Cape Cod Bay from 5,500′, on my solo cross-country flight.

If you’ve been nurturing a similar dream, perhaps I can help. You’ve probably already spent hours reading about general aviation online, maybe even searched for local flight schools and thought about calling them. But the whole process seems so alien, and so poorly mapped.

Every aviation site parrots the same vague guidelines. How long will it take? Well, 40 hours of training in theory, but more likely 60 to 80, except for that one guy who did it in less than 45, or you could get your Light Sport pilot license in 35, unless that takes longer. In any case, you can do the whole thing in two weeks. Or maybe two years. What does it cost? Maybe $5,000, unless it’s more like $10,000, but it really depends on where you live and how long it takes, and when the site you’re reading was last updated. What’s ground school? Oh, that’s essential. Unless it’s not. You should really just buy this set of videos we’re selling. And so on.

I had an advantage in navigating this mess: I grew up riding in the backs of little planes. Mom, Dad, and a couple of uncles flew and my stepfather was a flight instructor. That background inspired me to develop a detailed plan that I was pretty sure would work. It did.

Of course you can do it in other ways, but here’s what worked for me:

  1. Decide why you want to learn how to fly. Because it’s been a lifelong dream? For the thrill? As an intellectual challenge? Because mastering a new complex skill is a rush? Because you want to make a career of it? Those are all great reasons, and there are many more.

The only really bad reason is “to avoid the inconveniences of modern airline travel.” Despite what the general aviation industry wants you to believe, flying your own airplane hasn’t been a useful skill since about 1978. General aviation is never cheaper and seldom faster than driving or using the airlines or other mass transit. Between the regulations of the FAA, the perversity of meteorology, the sophistication of the interstate highway system, and the laws of thermodynamics, that situation isn’t going to change anytime soon. Learn to fly for the pure joy of it, or don’t bother.

  1. Save your money. Many people start flight training, then have to interrupt it because they’ve run out of cash. That ends up being much more expensive, because when they re-start their training they have to relearn everything they’ve forgotten. Don’t save just enough money for flight training, either. Expensive disasters invariably occur at the worst possible times, so make sure you can spend at least $10,000 learning to fly, and also buy a new transmission for your car or a new furnace for your house in the same year. If you can’t save that much money, it’s better to put off the whole thing until you can. My flight training cost about $8,500 from start to finish, including exam fees, books, materials, headset, and of course aircraft rentals and instructor time. Having budgeted more for it, I was pleasantly surprised to have a good bit left over.

Eight to ten grand is a lot to spend on a hobby, yes, but let’s try some comparisons. Have you looked into buying a boat? Taking up golf? Driving a sports car? Riding a nice Harley-Davidson? Those entirely mainstream activities all cost at least as much as flying. This is not a cheap sport, but it’s not an exceptionally expensive one, either.

  1. Hit the books. Before taking your first lesson, study for the written test. Technically you can take this anytime before your final checkride, but it’s better to understand what the instruments do and how the plane flies before you set foot inside it. That maximizes your learning during the much more expensive time you spend in the air. I started with the Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge and the Airplane Flying Handbook, both of which are available as free downloads from the FAA or cheap paperbacks from commercial sellers. There’s more in those books than you’re required to know for the Private Pilot license, but the extra information provides important context so you’ll really understand the material.

After you’ve read the background books, pick up the Private Pilot Test Prep book. You’ll also need a plotter and an E-6B slide rule (yes, you’re really expected to use a slide rule for this). Work through the whole test prep book, then take the free online tests that came with it until you’re consistently scoring above 80%.

  1. Take a flight lesson, then immediately take the written exam. Your first flight lesson, and your studying for the written, will give you a very good feel for whether you want to continue with this. If you don’t, you’ll only be out a few hundred dollars. If you do, tell your instructor what you’ve done to prepare for the written test, and have them sign your logbook to approve your “home study course” so you can take the test. Take the written test as soon as possible after that, ideally before your second flight lesson. If your instructor insists you take a specific ground school course instead, find a different instructor. By the way, if you’re anywhere near western Massachusetts, the flight school at Northampton Airport is excellent.

  2. Get your medical certificate. Depending on your health, you might want to move this up to #3. For a Private Pilot license you’ll need a Third Class medical certificate, which is very straightforward if you’re in good health. If you have a history of heart disease, epilepsy, or other conditions that might freak out the FAA, though, you should get this step done before you start studying. If you flunk the medical, you might look into getting a Light Sport license instead of a Private Pilot – it gives you many of the same privileges without the medical requirements.

  3. Fly, fly, fly. As a freelancer, I was able to take six weeks off work and become a full-time flight student. My first flight lesson was at the end of March, and then I flew every weekday the weather allowed. By mid-May, I’d passed my medical and written, soloed, and was working on cross-country navigation. Work started up again then, but I still flew at least twice a week. I passed my checkride on 9 July, and including that the entire process took 49.4 hours of flying time. I’m certain my instructor would agree that I have no special talent for this, so anyone should be able to achieve similar results with sufficient effort and focus.

So why does the average student take 60-70 hours to finish flight training? I have a few theories, but the main difference is probably the intensity of the lessons. Immersing yourself in a subject makes it stick better in memory, which is a major reason the military trains people that way. Puttering through a few lessons a month will take a lot longer, both on the calendar and in total hours. Because time translates directly into money in flying, that will also drive up the cost. Passing the written and medical tests at the beginning also helps, because the things that happen in the airplane actually make sense to you, and the paperwork is already done for your solo flights (the medical certificate doubles as your student pilot’s license).

You might have noticed that I didn’t mention computer flight simulators. I have one and have played with it a bit, but didn’t find it terribly useful for this part of my training. The hardest part of Private Pilot training is learning how to land the plane, and even the best simulators just can’t teach that. Now that I’m licensed I find the simulator good for practicing navigation, and if I decide to get my IFR rating it should be very handy. But there’s nothing like flying in the real world. You should try it.