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A quick look at basic questions about learning to fly.

Learning to fly is not difficult, but it does require study, practice and commitment. The Federal Aviation Administration has a series of regulations (known as FARs) that spell out the requirements for different ratings and aircraft.

You will follow a series of steps when you learn to fly.  You must master aeronautical knowledge. Then you will achieve flight proficiency and finally, you acquire experience by amassing training hours in the aircraft.

But before that, you must meet the basic FAA criteria:

  • Be at least 16 years old (14 years old for operating a glider or balloon).
  • Be able to read, speak, write, and understand the English language.
  • Hold at least a third class medical certificate (not required for glider or balloon certificates) from an aviation medical examiner (AME), who is an FAA-approved doctor, if you’re pursuing a recreational or private pilot certificate, or hold at least a current and valid U.S. driver's license if you plan to earn a sport pilot certificate. If you have physical limitations that make it difficult for you to meet the medical requirements, the FAA may place operating limitations on your pilot certificate to ensure the safe operation of the aircraft. AOPA's Medical Certification specialists are available to assist members in getting their medicals or obtaining waivers. Call us at 800/USA-AOPA for assistance.

How long does learning to fly take?

To earn a private pilot certificate, FAR Part 61 details the information you must learn and requires a minimum of 40 hours of flight training: 20 with an instructor and 20 solo. Few people complete their training in the minimum amount of time; most take 60 to 80 hours. If you learn to fly at a flight school that is governed by Part 141 of the FARs, the minimum is 35 hours, but most students take 50 to 60 hours.

What's the difference between Part 61 and 141?

Whether you train at a flight school under Part 141 or Part 61, you'll learn the same things and take the same FAA tests. The only real difference is the order in which you learn things. Part 141 schools must use a structured curriculum that teaches skills in a specific order. This ensures an effective, efficient use of your training time. Part 61 schools are not bound to a structured curriculum; they can rearrange the order in which you learn things to suit your schedule, which benefits those who can fly only on weekends and evenings.

How long does a lesson last?

Although most lessons are based on a one-hour flight, they may take two hours from start to finish because there are pre- and post-flight discussions in which you and your certificated flight instructor (CFI) talk about what you're going to do during your flight, how you performed, what you did well, what needs work, and what you'll do on your next lesson.

Can I carry passengers?

Student pilots cannot carry passengers when flying solo. Friends or family may ride along on dual lessons (when the instructor is in the airplane), if your instructor approves. Recreational and sport pilots can carry only one passenger at a time; private pilots may carry as many passengers as the airplane will legally seat, provided it stays within the airplane’s performance and weight-and-balance limitations.

How do I pick a flight school?

Search the internet for aviation schools in your area. Then call and visit them. Look around and have an instructor explain the school's training program. Ask a lot of questions. Ask students how they feel about their training experiences. Remember, you are the customer.

What's ground school?

Flight training is divided into two parts: ground school and flight training. Ground school teaches you the principles, procedures, and regulations you will put into practice in an aircraft, such as how to navigate from one airport to another. Before you can earn a pilot certificate, you must pass the FAA knowledge test on this information. You have several ground school options, including a scheduled classroom course from a flight school, weekend ground schools or a FAA-approved home-study course.

When will I actually begin flying?

You'll be flying on your first lesson, with your certified flight instructor's help, of course. With each successive lesson, your CFI will be helping less and less, until you won't need any help at all. When you reach this point, you will make your first solo flight, an important milestone in every pilot's training, in which you will fly as the sole occupant of the airplane. After you solo, you and your CFI will work on such things as flying cross-country trips to other airports.

What kinds of aircraft can I fly?

If you are pursuing a sport/recreational, private, instrument or multi-engine certificate you will most likely learn to fly in a two- or four-seat airplane with one engine and fixed landing gear. Most training airplanes carry two to four hours of aviation fuel and fly about 100 mph.

Once I earn it, what can I do with my pilot certificate?

The options are endless! Take local sightseeing flights with friends and family, travel farther for business or recreation. Test your mettle (and your stomach) learning to fly aerobatics for fun or competition. Build and fly your own aircraft or restore and fly antique/classic aircraft. Join a flying club to connect with other aviation enthusiasts. You can also support a growing number of flight organizations that support humanitarian causes, such disaster relief or transportation for non-critical medical treatment.