Learn to Fly: A Practical Guide (2024)

Learn to Fly: A Practical Guide (1)

Though not from any official poll or study, the desire to learn to fly is one of the most often unrealized dreams in our society. I can’t count the number of individuals who have said to me, “I always wanted to learn to fly,” during a conversation. It’s usually said in a wistful voice that trails off into silence. I can see the zeal in their eyes along with the coinciding look of resignation, as if that goal were the most unattainable in the world. “You’re so lucky,” they add, “I should have just done it.” I always reflect and ask, “Why don’t you do it now?”

The inference is that, somehow, it’s too late. However, learning to fly isn’t age restricted. Sure, legendary pilot Bob Hoover hung up his flying goggles as he approached 90 years old, but at 82, he was still flying aerobatics just for the fun of it—in an Extra 300 no less.

Aviation can be learned and experienced at any stage in life, and its rewards can be sweeter with age. Life experiences give new meaning to a sunset viewed from 7,000 feet, and time provides the perspective necessary to appreciate the nuances of our country from the perch of a general aviation aircraft. Whether you’re a teenager who was bitten by the flying bug, a middle-ager whose career aspirations derailed the dream of flying for a few decades or a retiree looking to fulfill a long-held goal of flying an airplane, the cliché stands: It’s never too late or too soon.

Learning to fly is different from other worldly pursuits, and it’s not the province of only the rich or those with “The Right Stuff,” though the misconception still holds. It’s nothing like earning your scuba certification, or learning to drive a race car or boat, or learning to ballroom dance. Learning to fly changes your life and forever affects who you are. It opens the door to a new world, to new people and even a new way of thinking. It involves training all of your senses to do things they weren’t meant to do and developing motor skills that seem unfamiliar at first. Learning to fly is the only pursuit that combines sensory training with learning about science-related concepts like weather, navigation and mechanical systems, and then adds the complexities of federal regulations that govern everything from airspace to certification.

Learn to Fly: A Practical Guide (2)

A question I get often is, “Is flying difficult?” The truth—and some pilots won’t admit this—is that flying an aircraft is actually pretty easy. The skills necessary to do it safely come in about 20 hours of instruction, and that’s the point when a student “solos” (fly the aircraft by themselves). Landing is more difficult from a skills perspective, and like anything that involves muscle memory and motor skills, practice is the key to improving. That’s not to trivialize what’s involved in learning to fly, because mastering an aircraft is different than just being able to control it, but the essence of flight is something everybody can master.

A reader recently sent in a letter saying he was frustrated with his training because it was taking longer than he expected. His instructor added to his frustration by suggesting he “didn’t have what it takes.” I encouraged him to stick with it and work through the frustration. I also suggested a different instructor right away. I told this reader the truth—people all learn at different speeds and respond to different styles. He took my advice and recently contacted me to let me know he had soloed and was doing great with a new instructor. What got him over the hump was the realization that there’s no “right stuff,” and that given enough time and patience, anybody can learn to fly.

Learn to Fly: A Practical Guide (3)

Given this knowledge, the next step is gathering information. Aviation can be overwhelming with its various levels of certification, its lingo and the public’s perception of it. There’s much misinformation about general aviation, and confusion exists about the different avenues for becoming a pilot. Weeding out the good information from the bad is a difficult task in this day of Google searches, aviation blogs and public forums. Here are some basics:

The cost of flying is the elephant in the room. It’s the most-often-cited reason why people don’t take flying instruction. The bad news is that flying has never been and is never going to be what we could call “cheap,” though neither is golf, sailing, traveling or most other hobbies. The good news is that the vast majority of people in aviation are far from wealthy. The secrets to the cost puzzle are setting your priorities, sufficient research and getting creative. For the record, I’ve never met a person who wanted to learn to fly and couldn’t find a way. My mantra is, “There’s always a way to fulfill a dream.”


The FAA has made it easier by introducing the “sport-pilot” certificate, which cuts costs in half and provides all the sizzle of the private certificate for a lot less money. Sure, there are tradeoffs, but if you want to—need to—learn to fly, the sport-pilot certificate is the place to start. To offer some very general estimates, expect a private certificate to cost you between $8,000 and $10,000, while a sport-pilot certificate can be had for $4,000 to $6,000. Costs will vary depending on four key factors:

1. How often you train: Four times per week is ideal and will end up taking less time overall than if you train one time per week.
2. Location: Small airports in rural areas are less expensive than busy airports in big cities.
3. Aircraft type: A new Cessna 172 or Diamond will cost far more than an older Cessna 150 or small tailwheel aircraft such as a Cessna 140. The aircraft you train in will make the biggest difference in your final costs.
4. Learning speed: Only you can determine how much you’ll absorb and how much you retain from lesson to lesson. Everybody learns at a different pace.

Aviation safety is a key consideration for prospective flying students. The most current aviation accident statistics are contained in the 22nd Joseph T. Nall Report, which covers accidents through 2011. According to that report, 2011-2012 was the second-safest year for general aviation in the past 30 years. The last 10 years have shown a steady decline in the number of fatal general aviation accidents, and the years with the fewest accidents have been the last five. In fact, each decade since 1972 has shown dramatic improvements (as high as 27%) in safety over the previous decade. Looking at raw statistics, there were 216 fatal general aviation fixed-wing accidents in 2012, resulting in 333 fatalities. The accident rate is about 6.30 per 100,000 hours of flying.

A comparison we can make is recreational boating. According to the United States Coast Guard, there were 651 deaths from recreational boating accidents in 2012. We can’t easily compare the accident rate of the two because the Coast Guard calculates the rate per 100,000 registered vessels, not operational hours. Meanwhile, in 2012, some 33,561 Americans died in motor vehicle accidents, but the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration calculates the accident rate based on number of miles, not driving hours or number of vehicles.

Learn to Fly: A Practical Guide (4)What Is It Like?
You’ll start by finding a flight school. This can be at your local airport, at a dedicated training academy, like ATP or several others, or at an aviation college or university. You’ll then receive flight training in sessions of about one hour in the air and 30-60 minutes on the ground. You’ll also have to study to pass an FAA written knowledge exam. When the instructor feels you’re ready, you’ll solo (fly the airplane alone). You’ll then fly “cross-country” flights both with your instructor and solo, of various distances. You’ll fly at night and continue to train until you’re ready for the check ride. When ready and after you’ve passed the written exam, an FAA-designated pilot examiner will conduct an oral interview and a flight test with you. If you pass both, you earn your private pilot certificate!

How Do I Find A School?
AOPA has a free online directory with over 3,000 flight schools across the country at www.aopa.org/learntofly/school/index.cfm.


What Are The Requirements?
1. Be at least 17 years of age to earn your private certificate in an airplane.
2. Read, speak and understand the English language.
3. Pass a basic medical examination administered by an FAA-designated aviation doctor.

Is The Medical Exam Difficult To Pass?
There are many misconceptions about what’s required to pass the medical exam. Vision must be at least 20/40 for near and distant vision with or without corrective lenses, and you must be able to perceive those colors necessary for safe performance of flying tasks. Disabilities don’t necessarily disqualify you. For example, there are thousands of pilots who fly with monocular vision (vision in only one eye), prosthetic limbs and other limitations. You can find and talk to a qualified FAA medical examiner through the online directory at www.faa.gov/pilots/amelocator.

How Much Will It Cost?
Learning to fly requires a variety of physical skills and aeronautical knowledge. You’ll be paying an hourly rate for both the airplane and the instructor, and for ground instruction. The cost of the airplane and instructor is calculated hourly. Also, you’ll need to add in the cost of training materials and miscellaneous gear you’ll need, such as a headset and other items. Costs depend on geographical location, the model and year of your training aircraft, how often you train, and how quickly you learn. The private pilot certificate will typically cost $8,000-$10,000, and the sport-pilot certificate will cost about half of that.


How Long Will It Take?
FAA regulations require a minimum of 40 hours of flight time to earn your private pilot certificate. This is broken into 20 hours of dual (with your instructor) and 10 hours of solo. Those regulations were created when our airspace was less complex. Today, the national average time to earn your private certificate runs around 60-70 hours. Training three times per week, you could do it in four to six months. Accelerated programs exist that take 10-21 days.

Is There A Minimum Age To Learn To Fly?
No. However, you must be at least 16 years old to solo an airplane (14 years old for operation of a balloon or glider), and 17 before you can be issued a private pilot certificate. Also, you need to be able to reach all the aircraft’s controls. From a cost standpoint, beginning flight training too early can get quite expensive. Otherwise, there’s no minimum age.

Is There A Maximum Age?
No. The average student pilot today is 30-40 years old, and the typical average active pilot is in his/her 50s. More than 25% of all U.S. pilots with current medical certificates are in their 50s. There are many active pilots in their 70s and beyond.

It’s difficult to make an easy comparison between these different activities, but calculating for exposure, factoring in the number of vehicles operated, and figuring in the accident rate, flying a general aviation aircraft can be compared somewhat to riding a motorcycle. Though by eliminating the two top causes of general aviation accidents—running into terrain and fuel exhaustion—through simple common sense, aviation’s accident rate drops to a level safer than driving. Aviation isn’t risk-free, but it’s far from what the sensationalist media makes it out to be. Ultimately, more people are injured falling out of bed than flying general aviation aircraft.

Learn to Fly: A Practical Guide (5)

The next big question is, “How long will it take?” FAA studies have proven over and over that the time necessary to learn the skills and knowledge required to pass the FAA knowledge exam and practical exam (“checkride”) varies with the individual and is based on frequency of training. The key there is study and retention of skills.

The knowledge necessary to pass the written exam isn’t trivial and needs to be mastered because it will also prove necessary during the oral exam. The FAA isn’t flippant about letting just anybody fly airplanes around the sky. People who start flight training and think they can just “fake it” will be unpleasantly surprised. Regular, frequent study with the proper materials is one of the lesser-known secrets to finishing training and passing all the exams to become a pilot. On the bright side, it’s fun, interesting and useful in other areas besides flying.


Various studies show that a student who trains three or four times per week will, in the end, take less time to pass the checkride than somebody who stretches it out once a week for many months or more. Like athletic conditioning, nothing beats repetition and consistency.

The FAA says you need a minimum of 40 hours of flight instruction to become a private pilot (this minimum was created decades ago). The reality is that AOPA statistics show the national average inching closer to 70 hours. Most of this is due to more complex airspace, technology and regulations. Some pilots still earn their certificate in 40 hours, but they train hard and often. A student who trains three times per week can realistically earn their certificate in four to six months if they do their part in practice and preparation before each lesson.

If all this sounds like it’s too much of a time commitment, “accelerated” programs exist that can get you trained in 10-14 days. These are intense, full-immersion programs that demand a great deal from the student and include up to five or more hours of flying a day along with several hours of ground instruction. Demanding and tough, these courses are the way to go if time is critical. Look for companies like ATP, AFIT, American Flyers and even some local flight schools that offer accelerated programs.

The FAA introduced the sport-pilot certificate in 2004 after a great deal of lobbying and hard work by the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA). The idea was to address the “barriers of entry” that the FAA says block many people from becoming pilots. The sport-pilot certificate targets the cost and time prohibitions inherent in the Private pilot certificate. Since it was introduced, the light-sport (LSA) category of aircraft (two seats or less and weight 1,320 pounds or less) has blossomed into a bright spot in the aviation industry.


The sport-pilot certificate is designed for people who want to experience flight but don’t need or want to progress further, though the hours flown as a sport pilot do count toward other ratings and certificates. The private certificate requires students to build 40 hours minimum flight time, made up of different types of flying: solo hours, night hours, cross-country, etc. FAA studies show that most pilots earn their private certificate in an average of 65-70 hours nationwide. This is mostly due to today’s more complex airspace, regulations and co*ckpit technology.

In addition to the flight training hours, private certificate students can expect to spend some 200 hours in ground instruction and private study in order to pass the FAA knowledge exam. The sport-pilot certificate requires a total of only 20 hours of flight time. Light-sport aircraft use less fuel than traditional training aircraft due to their smaller engines, so they’re cheaper to operate and rent. The knowledge requirements are lower, too, due to less complexity, so training and study times are reduced in comparison. According to the FAA, national training times average 30 hours for the sport-pilot certificate.

There’s no formal medical certificate required for Sport pilots. As long as you have a valid driver’s license and the DMV says you can drive, you can fly.

The most compelling reason to earn the sport certificate is if you just want to fly for the love of flying. Many have no desire to get advanced ratings Studies show that most general aviation is flown alone or with a single passenger. For those reasons, the sport-pilot certificate is a great invitation to join the ranks of aviators at a fraction of the cost.

Flight Training Options
There are three basic avenues to becoming a pilot: local flight schools, an aviation college or academy and the military. Local flight schools (also called “FBOs” or “fixed base operators”) include freelance instructors. The military is steadily declining as a source of pilots for various reasons. Today, most pilots come from dedicated training academies, aviation colleges and local flight schools.

People who want to learn to fly but don’t are stopped by a list of common hurdles. The FAA calls these “barriers to entry.” As we enter 2014, a pilot shortage is looming, fueled by retiring pilots, an increase in air travel worldwide and salaries that haven’t kept pace with the economy. For the first time in at least a decade, the major airlines are hiring new pilots, while regional airlines keep adding incentives to attract pilots. One of the ways the FAA is minimizing barriers to entry is the sport-pilot rule.


If being able to fly in 20 or 30 hours of instruction sounds more feasible for you than the 50 or 60 hours for the private, then the sport-pilot certificate may be for you. The FAA requires only 20 hours of flight instruction, along with relaxed medical requirements (all you need is a driver’s license) and lessened knowledge requirements. In return, you can fly an aircraft that weighs 1,320 pounds or less, has no more than two seats, during the day only, at altitudes of 10,000 feet or less. If you just want to experience the joy and beauty of flight for less than $5,000, then the sport-pilot certificate is the greatest change in aviation since the headset.

A runway and a blue sky are the calling cards of adventure, and nothing beats an aircraft from which to experience it. If learning to fly has intrigued you, there’s nothing that should stop you. Those of us who fly all share in a secret: We do it because nothing in life can imitate what it feels like to fly. All of us—any of us, would love to show you.

A Shining Future For Professional Pilots

Learn to Fly: A Practical Guide (7)The news is everywhere that a pilot shortage is in full swing. Though many in the industry continued to claim that it would never happen, the fact is that the demand for pilots is reaching a level that’s causing alarm in many sectors of the industry—especially the regional airlines. For anybody who has had the dream of flying professionally, both the present and the future look especially bright.

Several factors have created a shortfall in the number of pilots available to the airlines. In 2007, the mandatory retirement age for pilots was raised from 60 to 65. The first wave of those pilots have reached 65 and can no longer fly. They’ll be followed by more waves each year. New flying time minimums for regional first officers took effect August 1, 2013, along with increased rest rules. Also, the military is training fewer pilots, and fewer civilians are opting for pilot training. The result is that a hiring boom is here.

Among the major airlines, American, Delta, JetBlue, United, Virgin America and others are hiring pilots for the first time in years. Southwest Airlines accepted 5,000 pilot applications during a two-week application period to prepare themselves for the new FAR 117 duty requirements. Some airlines, like Republic, are offering a $5,000 signing bonus and $500 referral fee to attract new pilots. Internationally, the demand is so high that airliners sit parked and unused due to a lack of pilots. Some airlines in China, for example, are offering salaries of $270,000 plus extensive benefits for pilots willing to live and work in Asia. Boeing predicts the need for 185,600 pilots between now and 2031, based on the number of jets ordered by Asian countries. Domestically, regional airlines have had to cancel flights because of a shortage of first officers. In the coming years, regional airlines will be the hardest hit by the shortage.


Meanwhile, both the United States Air Force and the Royal Canadian Air Force are offering unheard-of incentives to keep experienced military pilots from jumping to the airlines as demand there heats up. In all, the industry is forecasting a need for more than 500,000 pilots and 600,000 aviation maintenance technicians worldwide in the next 20 years.

Learn to Fly: A Practical Guide (8)This article couldn’t have been written even five years ago. The ingenious tablet device that Steve Jobs and Apple Corp. conceived as the “iPad” in 2010 (and that now seems to be everywhere) has changed how we function in the co*ckpit. Though the idea of using an iPad in the co*ckpit is only a few years old, it holds special significance for the student pilot. In fact, the iPad might be the most valuable student pilot tool out there.

Practicality, ease and safety are the main motives for using an iPad during flight training. It replaces pounds and pounds of paper, books, manuals, checklists and charts. Second, it provides a convenient way to access a wide variety of flight planning resources. It allows students to check weather from many sources, access graphical tools and use up-to-the-minute resources that can include the latest airport facilities and flight plans. Last, it provides unmatched navigation possibilities, a backup to paper charts and a way to review material both in the air and on the ground. The iPad can even be used as the main tool for ground school courses such as those from Sporty’s and King Schools and ASA.

Having used an iPad for all facets of my instrument rating, I can attest to its usefulness in aviation. I found it an indispensable tool in the co*ckpit. Though there are any number of blogs, forums and websites dedicated to using iPads for aviation, the number of differing opinions makes choosing the right apps to load onto it difficult. With the student pilot in mind, here’s a list of the most useful apps I’ve found for the iPad.


Student pilots should carry a copy of the FAR/AIM with them at all times for study and quick reference. This app is from ASA, and includes everything the paper version has, along with all the applicable federal aviation regulations. Lots of cool search features, too.

$9.99 in the App Store.

Live ATC

In the old days, aviation scanners allowed students to learn radio communications. Today, this app lets you listen to over 550 live ATC feeds anywhere you have an internet connection.

$2.99 in the App Store. (NOTE: designed for the iPhone but can be scaled up on the iPad screen.)

LogTen Pro

Paper logbooks can easily get lost, stolen or damaged. This app makes it easy to log time and stay legal, all the while making your data safe. Allows your instructor to sign off each flight, too.

$79.99 in the App Store.

Airplane Flying Handbook

The official FAA book. One of the best student pilot resources of the last 30 years. App includes table of contents for quick access to each section.

$1.99 in the App Store.

Aviation Weight And Balance

Super useful app to calculate weight and balance before every flight. Designed by pilots. You can build your own aircraft’s numbers or use a pre-loaded template.

$9.99 in the App Store.

Sporty’s E6B flight Computer

Sporty’s E6B app is the best version to come along since the original mechanical E6B in the 1930s. Expands on all the features of the traditional E6B, including 23 aviation functions, 20 conversions and timer features.

$9.99 in the App Store.


Useful tool excels as supplemental weather tool. Provides accurate, looping radar picture. Great for analyzing precipitation and thunderstorms.

Free in the App Store.


Handy little app allows you to load all your favorite airports and see their ATIS/AWOS in a columnar format. Great for quick flight-plan updates or $100 hamburger runs.

Lite version is free in App Store.
Pro version $4.99.

Sporty’s Learn To Fly Course

Excellent ground school course. Includes 20 hours of video training modules for private pilot, sport pilot or recreational pilot. Includes written test prep and sample tests. Features written test endorsem*nt after completing.


Complete electronic flight bag app. Includes VFR flight-plan filing and weather briefings, digital sectionals and airport/facility directory, in-flight navigation (with a GPS), in-flight weather (from Stratus ADS-B or XM), instrument en route and approach charts. Excellent backup to paper.

$74.99 annual subscription in App Store. (includes all VFR/IFR charts and updates for the U.S.)

Learn to Fly: A Practical Guide (2024)
Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Laurine Ryan

Last Updated:

Views: 5604

Rating: 4.7 / 5 (77 voted)

Reviews: 84% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Laurine Ryan

Birthday: 1994-12-23

Address: Suite 751 871 Lissette Throughway, West Kittie, NH 41603

Phone: +2366831109631

Job: Sales Producer

Hobby: Creative writing, Motor sports, Do it yourself, Skateboarding, Coffee roasting, Calligraphy, Stand-up comedy

Introduction: My name is Laurine Ryan, I am a adorable, fair, graceful, spotless, gorgeous, homely, cooperative person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.