The Air Affair

How to Become an Airplane Pilot

by Ross Oliver
Last updated July 16, 2013

Note: this article is intended for adults interested in airplane piloting for recreation. If you are a student or young adult interested in aviation as a career, click here.

Who are you, and why are you writing this?

I am a licensed private pilot, and I am writing this article as a guide for prospective pilots. I have enjoyed my flying very much, and want to encourage others to embark on the grand adventure of aviation.

I began my flying in 1990, and have accumlated just over 1,000 hours of flying time. The most common measure of a pilot's experience is the number of "flying hours." he or she has accumulated. For comparison, my instructor has over 4,000 flying hours. Many airline pilots have 20,000 hours or more.

I want to fly airplanes. What do I need to do?

To operate an aircraft in the United States, you must be licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which since 9/11 is part of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). There are several levels of pilot's license; the most basic is the Private Pilot license. This license permits the holder to pilot an aircraft anywhere in the United States, and to carry passengers. A Private Pilot may not be paid to fly an aircraft (to ferry an aircraft from one location to another, for example), nor carry passengers or cargo for hire or compensation. However, you may share certain expenses with your passengers (with some restrictions).

The necessary steps to earn this license are:

How much does it cost?

Many factors will affect the final cost, including the location of where you train (rural vs. urban), the type of training aircraft, your learning pace and style, even things like weather. If I had to pick a number, I would say budget $10,000 to  $12,000 if you plan to fly in an urban area such as the San Francisco Bay Area, where I fly. This amount includes aircraft rental, flight instruction, books, charts, examiner fees, etc.

You don't need to pay this money all at once. Most flight schools operate on a pay-as-you-go basis, so the cost will be spread out over the time you are working on your license.

If you are not sure about whether you will (or can) make the full commitment to a pilot's license, a good intermediate step is to train to the point of your "solo" flight, i.e. when you are allowed to fly an aircraft without an instructor aboard (but still under supervision).  This is usually about the first 1/3 of training.  I recommend that amount as a minimum for starting.

How long will it take?

To receive a Private Pilot license, the FAA requires student pilots have a minimum of 40 hours of flight time, of which 20 must be dual (flying with an instructor). However, these are MINIMUMS. No one I know completed their training in 40 hours. I took 66 hours. The national average is 60 to 70 hours. About half of your flight time will be with an instructor, and and the rest "solo." For every flight hour, expect an additional 2-3 hours of reading, flight planning, and ground review with your instructor.

To maintain a good rate of progress, plan for two to three sessions per week, of two to three hours per session. Plan to schedule a few more sessions than you need, since some will be cancelled because of weather, aircraft maintenance, illness, etc. At this rate, you should be able to earn your license in six to eight months.

What topics will I need to learn?

Here is a brief overview of some of the topics you will need to master in order to earn a pilot's license:

Where should I go for flight training?

The best way to learn about flight training options is to visit your local airports. Small and mid-size airports usually have more flight traninig activity than major airline airports.

If you don't know the location of airports near you, use the Find Nearby Airports service at to locate airports near your ZIP code.

Enter your ZIP code, change the "Minimum Runway Length" to 0 and change "Approach Type required" to "Doesn't matter."  You may be suprised at how many small airports are nearby!

Flight training facilities go by several different names. Here are some of the most common types, and how they compare:

Fixed Base Operator (FBO): This type of business offers a full range of aviation services: aircraft sales and maintenance, fuel sales, aircraft charter, flight instruction, or any other services that transient or based aircraft and pilots might need. Aircraft rental and flight instruction may be only a small part of this business.

Flight school: a business whose primary business is flight training and aircraft rental. It may offer other related services such as aircraft maintenance and pilot supplies.

Flying club: a non-profit group of pilots and aircraft owners who join together to help reduce expenses and share resources. Some larger clubs may look just like FBOs or flight schools. Since clubs are non-profit, rental rates are usually lower than at FBOs or flight schools.

Colleges and Universities: many colleges and universities offer flight training as part of an aviation curriculum. If you intend to pursue a career in aviation, a college degree in aviation is a definite advantage.

Note that some FBOs and flight schools may call themselves flying clubs to imply non-profit status, give them a more "friendly" atmosphere, or provide an excuse to charge monthly dues.

How do I choose a flight school?

Here are some factors to consider when selecting a flight school:

Location: you will be making many trips to the flight school, so it should be in a location convenient to you. Be sure to include travel time to and from the airport in your lesson scheduling plans.

Insurance coverage: it is very important to have adequate insurance coverage for any flight operations. Training aircraft can be valued anywhere from $15,000 to over $100,000, and even minor damage can be very expensive to repair.

Ask the school for details about its insurance coverage, and whether you as a student/renter are included in the coverage. There should be coverage for damage to the aircraft itself (called "hull insurance"), damage to other property ("liability insurance," for damage to structures on the ground, for example), and medical coverage, should you or your instructor be injured.

Like auto insurance, aircraft insurance usually has a deductible. Find out amount of the deductible, and if you are responsible for it. Also ask if the insurance policy has a "no-subrogation" clause. This clause is desirable, because it means the insurance company cannot try to recover damages from you (except the deductible) for any incident in which you may be involved.

Some schools carry insurance that covers only themselves and the aircraft owner. In case of an accident, you could be liable for all damages. If this is the case, you can purchase renter's insurance. For an annual fee, this type of insurance will cover you for any liabilities not covered by the school's policy, up to the stated amount on your policy. You can also purchase renter's insuance to cover the deductible of the school's policy.

Scheduling: find out how many aircraft and instructors the school has. Ask to see the school's schedule book, and see if there are aircraft and instructors that fit your schedule. Scheduling lessons one week in advance is fairly common, but if you have to schedule two or more weeks in advance, the school might have too many students for the number of aircraft and instructors.

Instructors: most flight schools will want to assign you the first available instructor. However, if you have specific requirements, don't hesitate to request a different instructor. It is best to make your initial selection before beginning any training, as many schools and instructors are reluctant to switch instructors during training. However, during your training, you find an instructor is not meeting your needs, approach the school's manager or chief instructor to discuss the problem.

Aircraft maintenance: the quality of aircraft maintenance is difficult for a new student to assess. Because of the overall age of the general aviation fleet (the average aircraft is 23 years old), even well-maintained aircraft may appear dingy and worn. Many training aircraft have seen a lot of use, and this shows as worn carpeting and upholstery, and labels worn off of switches and controls. Check around the nose and the engine. Well-maintained aircraft have meticulously clean engine compartments, much cleaner than the average automobile. Any sign of leaking oil or soot build-up could be a sign of problems.

One way to find out about maintenance problems is to talk to other students, perferably out of earshot of instructors or other school personnel.

Rental rates and other expenses: compare the aircraft rental rates at differnet facilities. Be sure you are comparing apples to apples (see the next section for an explaination of aircraft rental terms). Find out if there are any deposit requirements, monthly dues, and if you will be billed later, or required to pay at the time of your session. Also check for block discounts. Many facilities will offer a discount if you buy a "block" of 5 or 10 hours at once. Don't get too carried away with this, however. Flight schools have been known to go belly up and leave their prepaid "block" customers with nothing but a receipt. Also find out about the terms of a refund if you decide not to use all of your block.

What do the aircraft rental rates mean?

Most aircraft are rented by the hour (to the nearest 1/10th, or 6 minutes), as measured by the length of time that the engine is running. A device called a Hobbs meter records the time, usually activated by the engine oil pressure. Rates for training aircraft usually include the cost of fuel for the airplane. This type of rental is called wet Hobbs. Some aircraft rental rates do not include fuel. This is known as dry Hobbs, and you must pay for fuel in addition to the rental rate. When comparing rental rates, be sure take into account any differences between wet and dry rentals.

More advanced aircraft are sometimes rented using slightly different measures.Tach time counts the number of revolutions of the engine rather than actual elapsed time. An hour of tach time will equal an hour of real time only when the engine is running at nearly full power. Otherwise, tach time will be less. Tach time can also be used if the aircraft does not have a Hobbs meter.Air Hobbs is frequently used for twin-engine aircraft, and measures the time the aircraft is actually in the air. Both tach and air Hobbs can also be either wet or dry.

Can I fly aircraft other than airplanes?

Yes! Flight training is available for helicopters, sailplanes (aka gliders), even hot air baloons!  More about these in a later update.

I can't afford flight training right now. What can I do to work toward my license?

There are many things you can do before beginning flight training:

Ground school: most flight schools and community colleges offer inexpensive classes that teach you all of the "book work" you will need for your license. Many classes will finish by allowing you to take the actual FAA written examination. A passing score is good for up to two years.

Flight simulators: PC-based flight simulators have become extraordinarly capable and realistic, so much so that the FAA now allows a certain amount of pilot traiing to be performed on a PC flight simulator (under the supervision of a flight instructor). Since Microsoft has discontinued Flight Simulator, X-Plane has become the most prominent PC flight simulator software.

Rides with other pilots: riding along in an airplane is not only a lot of fun, but will help you become familiar with the appearance of your airport and local area from the air, and help you develop pilotage skills (navigation by reference to the ground) This will be of great benefit for when you strike out on your solo cross-country flights.

Aviation conferences: the AOPA and EAA hold several fly-ins and conferences in different parts of the country throughout the year.  These conferences are usually low cost ($100 or less) and feature seminars and presentations on a wide variety of aviation topics.  Here are two of the largest:

EAA Airventure
AOPA Summit

FAA Safety Seminars: although aimed primarily at pilots, seminars are generally free and open to the public, so they are a great way to hear aviation speakers and meet other pilots.

Read, read, read: there are lots of aviation magazines, web sites, and books to feed your aviation apetite and keep your interest alive.

Can I make a career of flying?

As noted at the beginning of the article, my main interest is in recreational aviation.  But I still receive a lot of email from students and young adults asking about aviation as a career.  So I have created a separate article to address these questions.

Where can I find more information?

The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) has a large section of their web site devoted to information on learning to fly:

I have more questions, can I contact you?

I welcome any comments, corrections, or suggestions for this article, and I'm happy to correspond with anyone who has further questions.  Please include something relating to aviation or piloting in your subject line.  Subjects such as "Hi" or "Question" might get dismissed as spam.  Sorry, I don't generally accept Facebook friend requests or LinkedIn connection requests.

Ross Oliver