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Types of Flying

Training Airplanes


Cessna 172The airplanes that you’ll fly as you take lessons for your pilot certificate come in a range of types and sizes. The typical training aircraft for a private pilot or recreational pilot certificate is a four-seat, single-engine propeller aircraft that has either high wings like a Cessna 172 or low wings like a Piper Archer. If you choose to earn your sport pilot certificate, you’ll fly two-seat light sport aircraft. Once you earn your certificate, you can use general aviation airplanes for business or recreation. In fact, most people use their own—or rented—airplane just like they use their family car: to commute to work, visit family and friends, and go on family vacations.


FMI: International Aerobatics Club

While all types of flight are thrilling, the one that is most associated with that word is aerobatic (aerial acrobatic) flight. It’s like riding a roller coaster that you control and is defined by maximum performance flight usually flown under high G loading. People learn to fly aerobatics for the thrill, to sharpen their “normal” piloting skills, or just to have a unique challenge presented by the precision required.

If you want to see what aerobatics are all about, the first step is to find a flight school with a certificated, aerobatics-capable aircraft and a qualified instructor. Airplanes used for aerobatics are specially designed, so don’t try these maneuvers in a regular light aircraft. After only 10 hours of aerobatics instruction, you will learn the basics and be able to perform maneuvers such as spins, loops, and rolls.


FMI: Balloon Federation of America

Hot air balloonists learn unique methods to steer their aircraft—they change direction by climbing or descending into air currents that flow in the direction in which the balloonist wants to travel. Altitude changes are made by activating burners to heat air inside the balloon envelope or by allowing the air to cool naturally. Since the temperature and density differential between the air inside and outside of the balloon determine whether the balloon climbs or descends, the ability to control temperature inside the balloon is critical to flight. Landing is accomplished by allowing the air inside the balloon to cool and establishing a controlled descent to an area free of obstructions.

As with gliders, the minimum age to solo a balloon is 14. So for those wanting to get started with flight training and fly solo before the powered flight age requirement of 16, ballooning may be the way to go.


FMI: Seaplane Pilots Association

Flying a seaplane allows you to combine the fun of boating with being airborne. Seaplanes allow you access to some of the most pristine wilderness areas in the country, and you take your boat with you in the form of your airplane. Imagine landing on a remote lake, dropping anchor, and casting for a lunker trout, bass, or pike. Airplanes equipped with amphibious floats, which have retractable wheels, have the added advantage of flying from airports as well as water. Plus, seaplanes are fun to fly.

Although an additional rating is required to fly floatplanes, it is considered one of the easier—and more enjoyable—add-on ratings to obtain. No written examination is required, and the necessary flying can be accomplished in the matter of a few days. It’s the sort of thing you can accomplish on vacation or a long weekend.


FMI: Helicopter Association International

Nothing quite impresses the neophyte helicopter flier like the hover. To be cruising along in a helicopter and then just stop…. You look past your feet, and there’s the ground down below, and you’re just sitting there on this invisible cushion of air. Most people are hooked on helicopter flying after that first hover.

Whether you start out in helicopters or add a helicopter rating to your fixed-wing private pilot certificate, you are sure to be challenged by this fun and growing branch of light aviation. Helicopter flying offers unmatched versatility, utility, and enjoyment. From putting down in remote areas and shooting nature photos to landing in your own backyard (where permitted, of course), helicopters offer fun flying that is challenging to master, usually with great visibility outside the aircraft.


FMI: United States Parachute Association

Parachutists literally “fly” their bodies to maintain a stable free fall. Moving one open-palmed hand even a few inches in a terminal velocity free fall is akin to deflecting an aileron. Ask any jumper you know about the “snap roll” that can easily result.

After the parachute is opened, the nominal rate of descent drops to about 15 feet per second, and complex canopy control formations involving other team jumpers are possible.

After appropriate ground training, a student’s first jump is either on a static line attached to the airplane (a tether that opens the parachute shortly after the student leaves the aircraft), firmly attached to the same harness as the instructor for a 30-second free fall, or an accelerated free fall jump with two qualified parachute instructors manually holding on to either side of the student jumper.


FMI: Soaring Society of America; U.S. Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association

Gliding, hang gliding, and paragliding all fall under this section. Sunny hillsides, ridgelines, mountainsides perpendicular to the wind, heat-soaked concrete masses, and other objects that store heat or direct air currents upward are sources of lift that serve as fuel for gliders. Skillful pilots find these rising air currents and use them to climb en route from one place to another, thereby extending their range. When such ascending energy is found, pilots spiral into the updrafts for as long as possible to gain as much altitude as possible.


Glider flying requires FAA pilot certification but not an FAA physical examination. In addition, you only have to be 14 years old to solo a glider. Most gliders launch from runways and grass strips on tow ropes (200 to 300 feet long) behind appropriately certificated towplanes. Cross-country flights of greater than 1,000 miles are not uncommon in gliders. Mountain wave flights to altitudes in excess of 40,000 feet and speeds exceeding 100 mph have also been achieved. Competition is available at all levels from local to international. There is even world-class glider aerobatics competition.

Hang gliding

We’ve all seen TV clips of hang glider pilots jumping off of cliffs in an attempt to “catch air” under the synthetic fabric wings of their flying machines. There is much more to it than that, but the basic principle still applies. Once sufficient speed is attained, a hang glider pilot, who literally hangs in a harness, controls the flight by shifting his or her weight in relation to a fixed horizontal control bar. Landing is made with a landing flare in which the angle of attack is increased just before touchdown, much as in any other fixed-wing aircraft. Ground training usually begins in a suspended harness where the student pilot learns to make the necessary control inputs. Initial aerial training might be done in a larger hang glider with a side-by-side harness (for student and instructor) and with “training wheels” attached to the frame of the hang glider to allow for belly landings.


Paragliding replaces the fabric wing and rigid frame of the hang glider with a non-rigid airfoil that looks like a rectangular parachute wing. Directional control is accomplished by the use of toggle lines attached to the wing. Many paraglider pilots also practice the art of hang gliding, both truly one-with-the-eagles experiences.

Some people choose to start learning how to fly by soaring, while others learn powered flight first and then add on the skill of soaring. Either way, when you decide to give it a try, contact one of many soaring centers around the country. A glider certificate is an enjoyable add-on rating that may be attained by powered-airplane pilots with relative ease over a long weekend, although further training will be needed to become truly proficient at it.


FMI: Tailwheel Pilots Association

A taildragger, or conventional-gear airplane, has a small wheel under the tail and the two main wheels up front, while a tricycle-gear aircraft has the small wheel under the nose and the main wheels in back. Taildraggers simply are more demanding to handle during takeoffs and landings than their trigear counterparts; that’s why they were largely phased out of production. But that’s also why pilots continue to fly them—for the challenge.

Instruction from a qualified instructor, who makes a note of your qualifications in your logbook, is required to pilot tailwheel airplanes. Because taildraggers aren’t as common as they once were, the best way to find an instructor is to ask around at your local airport.


FMI: United States Ultralight Association

Ultralight aircraft range from triangular kites with tubular structures to fully instrumented, sleek-looking two-seat “cruisers.” The quality control and reliability of modern ultralights is infinitely better than at the inception of the sport. There are five classes of ultralights today: single-seaters, two-seaters, trikes, powered parachutes, and powered paragliders. There are even float-equipped ultralights and some with integral internal parachutes. To fly a single-seater you do not need an FAA pilot certificate or aircraft registration (N number). But recreational ultralights can only be flown during daylight hours in clear weather conditions (visual flight rules). Each class of ultralight is subject to varying pilot certification and configuration rules.

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