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Beyond the PrivateBeyond the Private

How to ascend the aviation hierarchy

By William L. Gruber

The private pilot certificate, which allows you to carry friends and family into the wild blue, does not have to be a stopping point. Although some pilots fly quite happily and safely for years and perhaps always with the certificate, many pilots opt to delve further into aviation esoterica with additional certificates and ratings. Although many types of flying will broaden your experience and help you get more enjoyment out of aviation, there is a pretty standard set of advanced ratings that virtually all would-be professional pilots pass through on their way to a flying career. Less glamorous than, say, float flying or aerobatics, these ratings can't be surpassed for increasing the utility and versatility of your flying. Even if you intend to fly only for fun, you may well decide to go after a rating in what we call "The Basic Four":

Instrument Rating

The instrument rating, which equips you with the exacting skills needed to fly in the clouds and under conditions of reduced visibility, is the most frequent "next step" taken by private pilots seeking to advance their aeronautical education. If the private pilot certificate is the airman's bachelor's degree, the instrument rating is graduate school.

Although some instructors advocate moving straight into instrument training after earning the private pilot certificate, others suggest waiting awhile until you have built up flying time, solidified your skills in the airplane, and gained the confidence as a pilot to tackle instrument training with assurance. There are no steadfast rules. It's really a matter of your own comfort level. Pilots on a fast-track training program for a career in aviation undoubtedly will move right into instrument flying. Others may want to concentrate on improving their fairweather flying skills before adding the complexity of weather flying to the equation.

Although the instrument rating is widely considered one of the hardest to attain — a tough written exam and hours of rigorous dual flight instruction stand between the new instrument student and the rating — it also is among the most rewarding. Intended to prepare pilots for flying in poor weather, with reference only to the instruments inside the cockpit, the rating also hones all basic flying skills to tighter tolerances. Simply put, instrument training makes you a sharper pilot.

Most important, with the instrument rating in your wallet or purse, light airplanes truly become practical transportation tools. No longer will you be troubled by the cloudy conditions that keep non-instrument-rated pilots on the ground. With the help of the same air traffic control system that guides airliners, you will be safely and confidently on your way.

To find out more about instrument training, first talk to your instructor. Peruse the ads in your favorite aviation publications. There are lots of ways to go about earning the instrument rating. You can study at your local flight school at your own pace or go away to a full-time, intensive training program.

Some companies will even send the instructor to you. Choose the training method that makes you most comfortable and that allows you to learn at your own best pace. The cost of earning your rating can vary pretty widely, as can the number of flying hours it takes, depending upon how you decide to pursue it. Like any other flight training, if you go about it sporadically, it probably will end up requiring more total training hours and costing you more in the long run. And larger, better-known flight academies usually charge more than the hometown airport. Generally speaking, you should expect to fork over about $3,000 and spend several months in training, flying about three times a week totaling more than 40 hours of instruction. Your progress will depend a lot upon your own aptitude and how diligently you keep at it.

The Multiengine Rating

Another common upgrade to the private pilot certificate is the multiengine rating. This qualifies you to fly "twins," or airplanes with two engines. The multi is a virtual necessity for pilots planning a career in aviation. To others, it's still a fun and interesting challenge to undertake. Some people fly twins — which tend to be faster and carry more than singles — for personal and business use. Twins also offer the reassurance of a second engine, especially when flying at night, in poor weather, or over water or mountains. Be advised, though, that most companies won't rent a multiengine airplane to you unless you also have an instrument rating.

The multiengine rating is one of the quickest and most economical add-on ratings for pilots to pursue. If you're willing to spend $600 or $800 and a weekend at an intensive training course, you can walk away with a multiengine rating attached to your pilot certificate. No written exam is required. A quickie course is fine if all you want is the rating — but if you really want to become a safe and proficient multiengine pilot, you should take your time and follow a thorough training program. Twins are complex machines. They are very safe in the hands of a skilled and competent pilot but can be unforgiving with an inexperienced beginner at the controls. If one engine fails, for example, asymmetric thrust can cause the airplane to yaw severely. Much of the multiengine flight training curriculum centers on handling such emergency situations.

Chances are, you can work on your multi at the same flight school where you earned your private. You should be able to earn it for less than $1,500 after about eight hours of instruction. Ask your flight instructor. And again, you'll find multiengine courses advertised in most aviation publications.

The Commercial Certificate

Even if you don't plan to fly for a living, working on your commercial pilot certificate can be a good idea. Like the instrument rating, the commercial hones basic flying skills.

Essentially, you do a lot of the same things while working on your commercial that you do for the private you just have to do them better. The margin for error on the commercial check ride (a sort of airborne driving test) is much more narrow than on the private check ride. The written exam, although similar in many ways to the private pilot test, is more difficult and covers added areas pertaining to commercial aviation. The candidate for a commercial certificate must perform additional types of maneuvers and generally fly with more smoothness and precision than a private pilot. He or she also must demonstrate additional flying experience, including substantial cross-country flying time to airports other than home base.

Although it is a standard check-off for the person planning to fly for a living, the commercial certificate also is a good way for the recreational flier to gain increased confidence and become more professional in the cockpit. It can be earned in a few weeks for around $2,000. Talk to your instructor to learn more about what it takes to gain this worthwhile rating.

The CFI Certificate

If you do decide that you want to fly for a living, chances are you will start out as a certified flight instructor. It's in the cockpit of cramped trainers that most civilian-trained professional pilots pay their dues before moving on to corporate aviation, commuters, and — holy grail to many would-be professional pilots — the major airlines. Ask most instructors where they picture themselves several years hence, and they are likely to get a gleam in the eye and recite some fantasy about the left seat of a Boeing 747 ... the New York-to-Bangkok route....

Although considered a flight-timebuilding occupation by many ladder climbers on their way to airline jobs, flight instructing is arguably the most important job in aviation. The future of the industry — and the safety of the skies — depends upon the people who train the pilots. Your first instructor will make impressions upon you that will last throughout your entire flying career. Fortunately, nearly all instructors are intimately aware of the gravity of their jobs.

You may choose to work on your flight instructor certificate right at the local flight school or go away to a flight academy or college program. It will cost you another $2,000 or so to become a CFI. To find out more about becoming a flight instructor, first discuss it with your own instructor and other CFIs at the local school, then contact the National Association of Flight Instructors in Dublin, Ohio, at 614/889-6148.

William L. Gruber is a writer and pilot living in Venice, Florida.