Any flight instructor will tell you that students often show up unprepared for the day's lesson in spite of having been assigned topics to study beforehand. This is readily apparent once the flying lesson begins, and instead of covering what the instructor had planned to teach and answering questions about the homework, the instructor ends up covering the subject the student was directed to learn on his or her own. Needless to say, learning something in an airplane with an instructor that you could have learned on your own at home is an expensive proposition. Do yourself a favor and study what your instructor suggests before your lesson. This means more than taking a casual glance at the material; it means studying in detail until you know the subject matter and can bring any questions you have to your CFI. Walk into the flight school for your next lesson as if you were going to be tested on the material that your instructor suggested - because, in a sense, you are.
Flying is not one of those skills that you can ignore for a long period and then pick up where you left off. Both the intellectual and physical aspects of flying are perishable and tend to fade rather quickly. While this is a problem for all pilots, it can create an unnecessary financial burden for student pilots. A student who has been away from flying lessons for a few weeks inevitably spends money to rent an airplane and pay an instructor simply to bring himself or herself back up to the previous knowledge level. This is - yes, you guessed it - expensive. Ideally, as a student you should fly twice a week - more if you have the time, money, and energy. The more regularly that you fly, the easier it will be to retain those new skills between lessons. At a minimum, student pilots should fly once a week; after that the skills and knowledge start to slip, and you must pay to relearn what you've forgotten. Sometimes intervals away from the cockpit are inevitable - personal matters, weather, aircraft maintenance schedules, and other factors may make consistent training impossible. What is important for you to recognize is that flight training is a linear process that should be accorded a priority in your personal schedule. Do not, for example, plan to earn your certificate over a four-month period if you intend to be away for one of those months.
Many airports have flying clubs. Usually clubs will have various levels of memberships, each with costs and benefits. New pilots are sometimes put off by the membership dues of such clubs and don't bother to do the math comparing the cost of training at a flight club and the cost of training in a more traditional flight school environment. The savings can be considerable. For example, let's say that a club has a $600 per year membership fee, and that members can rent aircraft for $20 per hour less than non-club members. For a new student pilot who will need a minimum of 40 hours of aircraft rental (and probably more than that), this means the club fee pays for itself after 30 hours; after that, the student will be saving $20 per hour on the rental. That's a good value, and it continues for the entire year that the pilot is in the club. There are many variations on club fees and benefits; check out the ones near you.
The odds are pretty good that if you hang around an airport taking flying lessons, you will meet pilots who own their own airplanes. Get to know them a bit, and chances are that they'll offer you a ride to their favorite airport restaurant one Saturday morning. Even if they don't let you take the controls, you can still learn an awful lot just by riding along. Watch the pilot conduct the preflight, listen to the radio, and pay attention to communications procedures. Watch how the pilot works the controls, and bring along a sectional chart and navigate. There are many opportunities to learn about flying as a passenger, and it's much cheaper to learn these things without paying the full price of an aircraft rental and a flight instructor. The knowledge you absorb in this way will pay real benefits in your training flights.
As with anything else, the more you talk with people in the field, the more you learn. Flying clubs or organizations such as local or state pilot groups or national groups such as AOPA are ideal for this. Pilots, as a group, like to share the joy of flight with others and help those who are earning their wings. There is a lot of aviation wisdom out there that you won't find in any textbook. You can get great tips and techniques from pilots who have learned from experience. What better way to learn than by talking with those who have done what you aspire to do? Furthermore, you may feel less intimidated talking informally with other pilots about matters you would be uncomfortable bringing up with your instructor. Perhaps your instructor has a weak teaching area and a particular aspect of flying isn't clear to you in spite of his or her best efforts; fraternizing with other pilots can be a great way for you to clarify matters that are confusing. Finally, the ever-expanding realm of the online world now makes it possible to get information from others all over the planet. If you post a question on an aviation discussion group, you may get responses from airline pilots, military pilots, air traffic controllers, aviation engineers-you name it. One word of caution about all this: Never believe everything you hear, and don't blindly go trying something that somebody you do not know suggests. Use common sense.
This doesn't mean you can't save money; it's an acronym for Non-Owner Pilot Exchange. Under such a program, an aircraft non-owner helps to pay the operating costs of an individual who owns an airplane. In return, the non-owner gets to fly the airplane. Such an arrangement can be beneficial for both parties because each saves money. (For more on NOPE, see "First-time Owner: The NOPE Program" in the January 1999 issue of AOPA Flight Training.) There is one caveat, however. Aircraft owners tend to be reluctant to let students fly - or more precisely, land - their personal airplanes. They do not mean to discriminate against student pilots. The fact is that students tend to fly and land airplanes a little hard. If anything, owners remember their own student pilot days and don't want the same thing done to their own airplane - especially if it's new. Having said that, an owner may be persuaded to let a student fly his or her airplane if the student is well along in training or displays above-average flying ability. The owner of an older aircraft may be more willing to work with a student pilot but stay away from a machine that is poorly maintained. Look around... there may be some good options available.
Aviation history is rich with tales of the "airport kid" who hung around washing airplanes, hoping to be offered a flight or perhaps even lessons. Sadly, that practice is largely consigned to the past, but there are still ways to earn flight time out at the airport. Working in nearly any position at a fixed-base operator (FBO) will bring you into contact with pilots, especially working at the front desk. This is a great aid in learning about all aspects of aviation as well as a great way to meet people. And it pays money and/or flight time. There may be some other new opportunities worth looking into as well. Flying clubs usually have officers, and often their responsibilities have a (limited) stipend attached to them. No organization ever has enough computer talent in this day and age, and most are hungry for some assistance, airport operations included. Ask around and see if there is a need for someone with whatever talents you may have.
After a lesson or two, student pilots learn that there are various costs associated with miscellaneous "stuff" - a flight bag, clipboards, plotters, flight computers, and such. As with everything else in flying, this "stuff" is expensive. Some of this gear, however, is not unique to flying, and often you can save money by purchasing off-the-shelf varieties. For example, most flight bags are variants of the standard gym bag. Instead of paying extra for a couple of nice but unnecessary features at a pilot shop, check out the gym bags at your local discount store. If you are willing to forgo a specially configured headset pouch, you can save some bucks. In some instances you can buy identical equipment at a lower price. A leading pilot shop, for example, sells a small timer that can be attached to an airplane yoke for $24.95. Wal-Mart sells the exact same make and model in the kitchen supplies area for $14.95. Before you rush down to the nearest mega-discount store, however, take care that the off-the-shelf "stuff" will not compromise safety. If you aren't sure, ask an instructor or other pilots.
The phenomenal growth in personal computer power over the last few years has brought capability previously available only in mainframe computing to the desktop (or even laptop). With this power has come more realistic flight simulator software. It isn't completely realistic yet, but neither is any simulator ever invented, as any pilot who has trained in one will tell you. While no simulator time can be logged as hours toward a private pilot certificate, even simple PC simulators can be useful in learning certain aspects of flying such as navigation (especially radio navigation), checklists, general flight characteristics, instrument use, and instrument scan. Be reasonable about which software to buy, however. The amount of useful experience you're going to get out of Microsoft Flight Simulator is going to be much greater than what you may experience in playing F-18 Hornet. There is specially designed flight simulator software that can be used for loggable flight training in some ratings such as the instrument, but these systems usually require more realistic flight controls and such. The more sophisticated the software and support equipment, the more the price curve goes up. For the private pilot student, the less-expensive options are preferable.
A recreational pilot certificate is less expensive and easier to earn than a private pilot certificate. While you need a minimum of 40 hours of flight time to earn a private pilot certificate, a recreational pilot certificate can be earned with only 30 hours in the air. Keep in mind, however, that this number is a minimum and, as with any pilot certificate or rating, it will probably take more than the minimum hours of flight training to earn the recreational certificate.
Because you need to learn fewer skills for flying long distances and operating in busy airspace, there are some restrictions on recreational pilots that do not apply to private pilots such as the distance you can travel, the type of airports where you can land, and the number of passengers that you can carry. The good news is that most of these restrictions can be lifted with endorsements from an instructor as you gain experience and demonstrate that your skills are up to the task.
Flying will never be cheap, and there will probably never be a way to drastically reduce the cost of flight training and maintain high safety standards. Using some common sense and ingenuity, however, it is possible to save some significant money. Think creatively, carefully, and safely.