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8 steps to controlling costs when learning to fly

In a perfect world, money for flight training would grow on trees and obtaining your pilot certificate would be only a matter of time, not cash. But training to become a certificated pilot is an expense that forces most of us to prioritize the greenbacks over other considerations, unfortunate as it may be.

One of the most effective ways to save money while training is to study (above). Come fully prepared to each lesson, and be sure to bring the right gear (below). Fly often so that you can practice your maneuvers continuously.
Consider buying an airplane or joining a local flying club so that you can fly as much as you need at a lower cost.

But imagine for a minute a flight school that gave students 20 percent back for every hour of ground or flight instruction that they purchased. What a bargain! Sweetheart deals like this are possible, although they’re not as obvious as a cash rebate. With some hard work, discipline, and time management, it is possible to save significant sums (read thousands) on learning how to fly.

1. Have a plan

Organization is the gluten that binds the flight training course, from the first step of taking an introductory flight to the last step of passing the checkride. Just like project management at the office or earning a degree in college, going through specific, predetermined steps will save untold money and frustration. No one would ever dream of showing up for a presentation at work without first going through some organized preparation. So why show up for a checkride without going through a structured, logical training regime in the weeks and months prior?

The key to a good, organized training program is sitting down with your instructor at the beginning and mapping out the entire course. A syllabus is critical to make sure the schedule is maintained and prevent deviations. Also, make sure that as the student, you know what’s expected of you before every lesson. That will go a long way toward advancing your progress.

One of the potential major impediments here admittedly are flight instructors, or perhaps more accurately, how many of them operate. When a lesson is scheduled, it’s in an instructor’s nature to make good use of the time. But often, rain or a mechanical issue that precludes the scheduled lesson is used as a reason to do some groundwork or to get in a simulator. That can be a good idea. But as the one paying the bill, make sure to verify that paying for that lesson will forward your progress. Many times it will, but there may be cases in which you’ll end up paying for, essentially, nothing.

2. Study hard

After organizing a training program, the single biggest way to minimize the cost of flight training is to study, and study hard. Learning to fly is a fantastic, rewarding experience, but like most things in life, it takes work. Doing the work should be enjoyable, and it can be if the right training materials are used. But no matter if you decide to use a full course from a well-known provider, or take the piecemeal approach and select a different book for every subject area—the key is to read, watch, and study hard.

Most pilots will tell you that flying is, above all, a mental exercise. The physical act of controlling the airplane is the easy part. But the knowledge required to do that well is vast. Study the topics and concepts before a lesson. Take cross-country flying, for example. To fly cross country, a student is expected to understand airspace, navigation, weather, radio communications, and many other topics. Imagine if a student showed up for a cross-country lesson without a navigation log and with no understanding of the airspace the flight was expected to cover. Instead of getting in the airplane and flying the predetermined plan, the instructor now has to sit down with the student and go over those subject areas at length—that’s money that doesn’t have to be spent. Studying at home is free but for the time you invest; studying with an instructor is not. And that goes for every lesson in the curriculum. One of the biggest complaints from instructors is that students don’t show up prepared.

3. Come prepared

Studying hard is only the first step to arriving prepared for a lesson. Show up without having read your assignment, or without completing a navigation log, and chances are the instructor will charge you for his or her time to help you learn that material or fill out that log.

Just think what a shame it would be to have to cancel a lesson because of a forgotten headset or view-limiting device. The same goes for arriving unprepared. Make sure to eat well, get sleep the night before, and—ideally—be detached from the stresses of life and work. Most students will fly much better without these distractions and hindrances. The lesson will count for more if you’re physically and mentally prepared, and you bring the necessary tools.

4. Fly often

This may seem to go against conventional wisdom, but the more you spend, the more you’ll save. Well, at least the more you spend up front, that is. Because learning to fly involves a high degree of repetition and knowledge retention, increasing the frequency of lessons is a great way to shorten the time involved in finishing the course. That equals less money.

Just like shooting baskets, flying does involve a certain degree of motor skills that must be practiced over and over again before they’re fully ingrained. The same goes for the knowledge base. There are tasks that involve a cognitive level of learning, but much of what is required during training is rote memorization. What are the cloud clearance and visibility requirements of Class C airspace? What is required to be working on the airplane for the flight to be legal? Just as this material has to be studied continuously to get the full picture, landings, stalls, steep turns, and other maneuvers must be practiced often to get them right. That’s why flying three times a week is far better than flying once a week. Besides, it’s more fun.

5. Get a mentor

Here’s a free tip: Go find a mentor. Aviation is sometimes referred to as a small club, and in many ways that’s true. Like a social or service club, new members of the aviation club benefit when a more experienced member helps them adjust to the various ins and outs of being a part of a new community. Mentors offer many benefits, not the least of which is saving money. Paying for flight instruction costs money, but working with a mentor doesn’t. It’s as simple as that. Don’t take that to mean a mentor should fill in for an instructor. A mentor is not your flight instructor, and using a mentor in that capacity can complicate the student/instructor relationship. Rather, mentors can help guide you through the process of learning to fly and offer encouragement and support. They can be there to lean on for advice on gear, which flight school to choose, why you need to keep pushing if landings give you trouble, and so on.

There’s more to it than just saving money. The ultimate goal of every student is to finish the course and become a certificated pilot. This is where most mentors work their magic. Students who utilize a mentor through AOPA’s Project Pilot program are three times more likely to become private pilots than those who don’t. That’s a great return on a free investment.

6. Use a simulator

As flight simulators become more widespread, using them for primary flight training has gained acceptance. It’s a great way for students to save money and also increase profits for flight schools. But the savings can be limited if the school charges a lot for the simulator’s use, and remember that an instructor has to be present for you to log the time in an FAA-approved device. Furthermore, the FAA limits their use for private pilot training.

A great way to save even more money with simulators is the DIY method. Instead of paying $60 an hour for instruction in the school’s simulator, do it yourself at home to build a foundation. The setup doesn’t have to be elaborate. A simple home computer and a copy of Microsoft Flight Simulator or X-Plane will suffice. Just be careful not to ask the simulator to do something it shouldn’t. Don’t expect to learn how to perform stall recoveries from a computer chair, for example—it’s counterproductive. But home flight simulators are great for learning the basics of VOR navigation and flight by reference to instruments, for example.

Scholarships, grants, and more

A scholarship can go a long way toward defraying the cost of training. And there are many aviation scholarships out there, if you know where to look. Don’t assume that they only exist for college students. Dig around, ask around, and do your research. There are scholarships for primary training, endorsements, type ratings, and other kinds of advanced training. You may be surprised at the opportunities that are available.

AOPA’s Aviation Subject Report on Scholarships and Loans is a good starting point. Peruse this selection of articles to find leads on scholarships plus guidance on putting together the sharpest application possible.

Heather M. Cook’s Aviation Scholarship Directory 2008, reviewed in the February 2008 issue of AOPA Flight Training, provides information on more than 500 scholarships.

7. Buy an airplane

Buying an airplane for flight training may seem like an outside the box type of solution, but it has worked for many students. Owning an airplane is the eventual goal of many pilots, although most wait until after obtaining a pilot certificate to take the plunge. Why wait? A good rule of thumb is that pilots who fly more than 100 hours a year will save money by owning. Considering that many students take almost that long to finish their private pilot training, why not buy at the beginning and continue to use the airplane throughout training and beyond?

There are many benefits to owning, aside from the potential savings. There are no scheduling conflicts. The airplane is always equipped with what you want. You know who’s flying it and what maintenance is being done. Once obtaining a pilot certificate, the benefits continue to grow. There’s no minimum rental per day, pride of ownership is immense, and in many cases, expenses can be written off in a business.

Buying your first airplane can be as daunting as buying your first house, so consider all the variables carefully. There are many resources out there to help with the process, and many are free from AOPA. To get started, ask the owner of a typical training airplane at your airport about the costs of buying. Who knows, maybe you’ll get lucky and your mentor will also be an aircraft owner! If you decide buying isn’t for you, consider joining a local flying club. Flying club rates are often significantly lower than those of a local flight school.

Fly a less-expensive airplane

Training airplanes don’t have to be new. Shocking, isn’t it? Thousands upon thousands of pilots have obtained great training in older airplanes, and they’ve done it safely. Sure, glass cockpits are nice, but they are unnecessary for initial pilot training. There is little data to suggest glass accelerates training or is safer in the training environment. Since most glass-equipped airplanes are more expensive to rent, save money by going with an older airplane.

The same goes for smaller airplanes, such as a Cessna 152. It’s a safe, stable platform and a great training airplane. Typically a 152’s rental rates are $20 to $30 cheaper than its bigger cousin, the 172, and that translates to big savings over the entire pilot training curriculum.

Although flight training can be expensive, there are easy, practical ways to reduce the cost. Study hard, get a mentor, come prepared for lessons, look for less expensive airplane alternatives—and that road to becoming a pilot will be awash with money you’ve saved along the way.

Associate Editor Ian J. Twombly holds commercial pilot certificates for airplane single engine and multiengine land and single engine sea. He is also a CFI.

Want to know more?
Links to additional resources about the topics discussed in this article are available at AOPA Flight Training Online.

As originally published in June 2008 edition of Flight Training magazine.

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