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Getting StartedGetting Started

Higher AspirationsHigher Aspirations

An airport fence need not be a barrier. Student pilots are welcomed into the rewarding world of general aviation flying.

With the help of an instructor, student pilots quickly learn the basics of regulations and aerodynamics.

The use of charts, plotters, and E-6B computers quickly becomes second nature to students.


The first lesson typically begins with a thorough preflight inspection of the aircraft to assure a safe flight.

Flight training is a hands-on endeavor. From the very first lesson, the student flies the airplane.

When I first acted on the urge to learn to fly airplanes, little did I know that I had brought a lifelong dream within a few short months of realization.

If you had told me on that November day of my first flying lesson that I would solo in January, fulfill the various eligibility requirements for a private pilot certificate that spring, and pass the flight test on a glorious morning in July, it would have sounded too good to be true.

I have recounted the tale many times, often to would-be pilots who were ready to take the first step but did not know where to turn. They are always surprised to discover how easy it is to enter aviation, far easier than they had imagined. One of the wonderful things about becoming a pilot is that it doesn't only add a dimension to your life, it can be truly transformational. Whether you embrace flying as a career, or simply fly for fun and travel, flying reveals a new world of people, places, and ideas waiting to welcome you in.

In 1997, some 616,340 people, students, teachers, doctors, nurses, boat builders, businesspeople, grandmas, and grandpas, held pilot certificates issued by the Federal Aviation Administration. If you decide to follow in their footsteps, you soon will be asked the same questions you may be asking now. Often, once people learn that you are a pilot, you will hear, "That is something I have always wanted to do."

So what are you waiting for? It doesn't take much to get started. Here's the big picture. Then we'll get into the details.

The Big Picture

You must be at least 16 years old to solo a powered aircraft, and 17 to take the private pilot flight test. (You can solo a glider at 14.) To become a student pilot, find a nearby flight school or community college offering flight training. These businesses can help you acquire the necessary books or videos and other study materials. Then begin training, usually in a rented training aircraft, with a certificated flight instructor (CFI).

Flight lessons, with the student sitting in the pilot's seat and doing most of the actual flying, begin immediately. You must spend a minimum of 40 hours flying to qualify to take the flight test. The required hours are further subdivided into various flight operations that you will be trained in along the way.

At some point during the course you will need to take a computerized knowledge test covering Federal Aviation Regulations, aerodynamics, weather, aircraft performance, and navigation. You can take this test at any approved testing center, often right at the airport where you fly.

You must also make an appointment to see a designated aviation medical examiner (AME) and pass a simple physical examination for a third-class (or higher) medical certificate. This medical certificate also will double as your student pilot certificate. You will need this document before you can fly solo in an airplane. Solo flight comes more quickly than you may think, typically 10 to 20 hours into your flight training.

Later, you will do point-to-point flying, learn to communicate with air traffic controllers, learn and practice advanced maneuvers and flight operations, and finally prepare for a flight test using a study guide known as the Practical Test Standards (PTS). The PTS describes in detail the maneuvers that you must perform on the flight test and explains acceptable standards of performance. This final flight exam is given either by an FAA inspector or, more commonly, by a designated examiner who lives and works in your local area.

The pilot certificate you will receive at the end of this training allows you to fly a single-engine airplane in good weather, for pleasure, but not for compensation or hire. (Flying for money requires a commercial pilot certificate.)

The training basically divides up into four distinct areas of focus: ground training, pre-solo flight training, the en route navigation phase, and preparation for the final flight examination.

Ground School

You have great flexibility in choosing the way you want to conduct your ground study and designing a program that will fit into your schedule and the needs of your job and family.

Flight schools run by aviation companies at your local general aviation airport often run their own ground school programs to prepare students for the knowledge test. Some adult education programs at local public schools also run aviation ground schools in the evening or on weekends.

Home study, usually conducted in consultation with their CFI, is the choice of many student pilots. Study materials may be purchased at the flight school, an airport pilot shop, or through mail-order catalogs. You have your choice of books, videotapes, audiotapes, or CD-ROMs for most study products. There is no specific time during training at which the knowledge test must be taken, except that you must have passed it before taking your final flight exam.

Weekend or two-day seminars are another ground school option. These courses are available throughout the country at a variety of times.

Here's a word of advice: While it is sometimes necessary to arrange ground and flight components of training separately, keep in mind that they are complementary as far as the subject matter is concerned. So it is a good idea to coordinate, as much as possible, the air and ground work in a particular subject. Point-to-point (cross-country) navigation is a good example. A student who has done some actual in-flight navigating after studying the techniques is likely to receive a better score on the knowledge test than one who hasn't.

Flight School

A trip to the nearest general aviation (as opposed to strictly airline) airport in a convenient radius from home or work is all that is necessary to find out what kinds of flight training options are available to you. Or, if you already know someone who flies, ask him or her where you can train in the local area. Chances are you will become a customer of an FBO (this stands for fixed-base operator) that does business on the airport where you want to fly. FBOs often provide flight instruction, aircraft rentals, fuel, and aircraft maintenance services. Some also conduct air charter flights.

You may also choose to take your flight training with a school that does nothing but flight training, or a freelance flight instructor who owns the airplane in which he or she teaches.

You also may choose to join a flying club and take your training there. Clubs often have the best aircraft rental rates and may have members who are CFIs who can teach you to fly. Membership dues help defray maintenance costs, and it's a great way to make new flying friends.

Your local telephone directory will help you turn up some of these possibilities, and a trip to the airport usually will uncover the rest, and give you a look at the aircraft you will use. Typically, flight training is done in a two- or four-seat, single-engine airplane of somewhere between 100 and 180 horsepower. (You need additional training to fly aircraft with more than 200 horsepower.)

When you visit a flight school or FBO that you are considering using for training, ask to see the fleet of training aircraft. This will also give you a chance to get acquainted with the folks who run the place and do the training. While you're there, ask about costs.

The cost of earning a private pilot certificate varies around the country. A good estimate is between $3,500 and $6,500, depending mostly on aircraft rental rates and the number of hours that it takes you to get the job done. Forty is the minimum number of hours required, but 60 to 70 hours of flight time is a more realistic figure. (I became a private pilot in 61 hours and flew for several years before seeking advanced ratings and adopting aviation as my second career.)

Now, you may ask, what about the CFI? Who exactly is this person with whom you will spend so many hours in the snug interior of your training airplane? He or she is a certificated commercial pilot who took additional training and instructor certification to be able to teach people how to fly. No one but a certificated flight instructor may give the flight training that a student pilot must log (in an actual pilot logbook) to be eligible for the flight test, or "checkride" as it is also known.

Some CFIs are young pilots just entering the aviation profession. Others are senior members of the pilot corps who teach full or part time. Find the person with whom you will feel the most comfortable. Your training will involve hard work, but it should also be fun!

It is also perfectly reasonable for you, as a consumer of aviation services, to ask people you are considering hiring as your instructor to tell you about their experience, background, how many students they have previously trained, and how successful these students were. How each instructor responds to such questions will give you a good idea of his or her professional demeanor. Since many working pilots are actively in the job market, ask potential instructors if they expect to be available for as long as it will take you to complete your training. If the answer is maybe, make sure you have a backup plan in case your CFI moves up to the airlines before you are finished your training.

The training itself should follow a syllabus or other detailed plan so you know how to prepare for each lesson and have a means of tracking your progress. Student pilots often solicit recommendations about CFIs from other pilots. Remember, you may be a student pilot, but you're also your flight instructor's employer.

What You Will Learn

OK, so now you have found a flight school and a flight instructor, and selected the method you want to use to pursue your ground training. Now you want to know just what you'll need to learn to become a private pilot.

You'll be an active participant from the very beginning. No sitting and watching; flight training is hands-on from the first flight lesson. On that first day, your CFI will start with a 10- to 15-minute briefing to familiarize you with the lesson plan for the flight. Using the aircraft checklist, your CFI will show you how to do a proper preflight walkaround inspection of your aircraft to assure its readiness for flight. (You will perform this check before every flight.) Inside the airplane, you will be familiarized with the location and purpose of flight controls and instruments. Again using the checklist, you will proceed through engine start, taxi, and pretakeoff procedures. In a few short minutes, you will actually be airborne.

The first few lessons will focus on the four fundamental aspects of aircraft maneuvering and control: climbs, straight-and-level flight, turns, and descents. Later will come combinations of those fundamentals such as climbing turns and descending turns.

Next will come airspeed changes in level flight, in climbs, and in descents. You'll also learn to fly at slow speeds, which gives the airplane different handling characteristics from flight in the normal, or cruising speed realm.

All the while, you will be applying your ground school insights about aerodynamic forces (lift, weight, thrust, and drag) to the actual control of the airplane in flight. (This is an example of why it is a good idea to coordinate flight and ground training, allowing each to reinforce the other.)

After a few short sessions (the initial lessons usually last about an hour each), you will begin applying your new skills to ground-reference maneuvers, which teach you how to compensate for the effect of wind on the aircraft's track over the ground. Then it is on to takeoffs and landings. This, you will happily discover, is the stage where you will begin putting all together the flight-control skills that you have been practicing.

At this point you may hear your instructor say something about studying up for the pre-solo written test which he or she must give you before you take and airplane out all by yourself.

When will you be ready for your first solo? The federal aviation regulations (FARs) lay out in specific terms the flight skills and knowledge that you must have. FAR 61.87 covers solo requirements for student pilots. There is a strong emphasis on maneuvering skills and your proficiency in dealing with safety procedures. Your instructor will administer the pre-solo written test, and when the time is right, he or she will endorse your student pilot certificate and your logbook for that first solo. (Make sure you have completed your medical exam by then so that nothing gets in the way of this magic moment.)

After your first solo, your flight training will proceed along two parallel paths: pursuing the rest of your solo requirements and embarking, with your instructor, on the longer flights known as cross-countries during which you will learn and practice navigation, flight planning, and using the aviation weather reports and forecasts that apply to your planned flights. Don't worry, you won't actually have to fly from coast to coast. Cross-countries in training are defined as flights to a destination at least 50 nautical miles from the starting point. After three or more hours of dual cross-country training, your instructor will give you a cross-country flight to plan, and you will embark on it solo. In fact, included in the (minimum) 10 hours of solo time you will accumulate in training will be five hours of solo cross-country flying. One of those flights must be at least 150 total miles. This is when you'll begin to see close-up the possibilities of flying for fun and travel!

At around this time you will be introduced to night flight. You will fly at least three hours at night and perform a minimum of 10 takeoffs and landings in the dark. Back in the sunshine, you will also go to an airport with an operating control tower, if you are not training at such an airport, and make at least three takeoffs and landings there, to gain experience communicating by radio with air traffic controllers and complying with their instructions.

As your hours and your skill level increase, your instructor will add more and more dimensions to your flying. You will practice simulated flight by reference to instruments (as a safety procedure teaching you how to deal with an unexpected encounter with bad weather), execute unscheduled changes in your route of flight, fly in more challenging weather, and sharpen the required test maneuvers to checkride-level proficiency.

When your CFI knows the time has come, he or she will help you make an appointment with the local designated examiner. This is the person who will give the official nod to all of your hard work and study. This is the day you have been dreaming of since that first exploratory trip to the airport.

The checkride is a combination oral examination and flight demonstration. You must show the examiner the knowledge and skills that you have acquired. You will act as pilot in command on this flight; the examiner is only there to observe. Using the same Practical Test Standards booklet (PTS) with which you have been preparing, the examiner (often an experienced working pilot in your local area, tapped by the FAA for pilot testing) will start by quizzing you orally on regulations, characteristics of the airplane you will fly, your knowledge of the air traffic system, and the existing weather conditions and forecast for the day.

You will be asked to plan a cross-country flight to a destination selected by the examiner. You will plot the course on an aeronautical chart, as you did in training, and compute courses and the various aircraft performance parameters that you have learned.

Then you will go flying, typically for somewhere between one and two hours, to show the examiner your stuff. Everything the examiner asks you to do will come straight from the PTS. Follow the PTS closely and nothing on the checkride will seem new or unusual.

Then go home and celebrate, or come right back out and take your first passenger for a ride as a newly minted private pilot. You may have finished your training, but what you have really done is bring about a new beginning that lets you live a lifelong dream. Congratulations! You've earned it.

Stop Dreaming, Start Flying

Perhaps you've seen the ads on cable TV, "Stop Dreaming, Start Flying." These ads are the work of Be A Pilot, an aviation industry-wide campaign to encourage would-be pilots to live their dreams and learn to fly.

Now in its third year, the program, which started life with the name GA Team 2000, has been a success. With a toll-free telephone call (888/BE-A-PILOT), anyone interested in learning to fly can request an introductory flight certificate which entitles them to a first flight lesson for just $99 at participating schools.

The program itself has grown so much that it has hired an executive director. Cynthia Otis Brown, who took the helm late last year, has ambitious plans for Be A Pilot. In addition to continuing to offer introductory flight certificates to potential student pilots, Be A Pilot will now help flight schools to promote their business by distributing the Flight School Marketing Manual and other tools.

Efforts such as Be A Pilot, which is supported by more than 150 organizations, including AOPA, are successful. In 1997 and 1998, for the first time 20 years, the number of new student pilots began to increase. In fact, since Be A Pilot was created in 1996, student starts have increased by nearly 12 percent and more than 40,000 people have requested first flight certificates as more people have discovered the fun and excitement of flying. The time has come to join them, stop dreaming and start flying. — E. Tennyson

A Spotter's Guide to Training Airplanes

What sort of wings await you at your local flight school? Two- and four-seat trainers, some with wings on top of the fuselage and some with wings below are popular at flight schools. Here's a snapshot of some of the most common models. Chances are that you will do your training in one of these airplanes.

The Cessna 150/152. These two-seat, high-wing trainers are powered by 100-horsepower and 110-horsepower engines, respectively. The Cessna 150 is an earlier design than the 152, so there are some minor differences in features and performance between the two. Thousands of pilots have been launched in these tried-and-true favorites.

The Cessna Skyhawk. Also known widely by its model number, the Cessna 172, this is a true classic of the fleet. A four-seat high-wing trainer with a 150-, 160-, or 180-horsepower engine, it's a bit more powerful and slightly faster than the two-seat members of the Cessna family. Sturdy, stable, solid all the way.

The Piper Tomahawk. The PA-38 low-wing, T-tail, two-seat offering from Piper is similar in horsepower and performance to the Cessna 152. Whether to fly low wing or high wing is all a matter of personal preference, or what's offered at your flight school.

The Piper Warrior. There are many of these PA, 28-161s doing solid service in the training fleet. This 160-horsepower Piper airplane serves the same market as the Cessna 172. Earlier offerings in the same 150- to 160-horsepower category are known as Piper Cherokees. A slightly more powerful cousin is the 180-horsepower Piper Archer.

The Aerospatiale Tampico. This French import appeared on the scene when American manufacturers shut down their production lines for a time in the mid-1980s until the early 1990s. Sporty in appearance and similar in performance to the Piper Warrior.

The Diamond Aircraft DA20. This two-seater, also known as a Katana, is a recent arrival, as hinted at by its sleek appearance. This composite-construction aircraft comes in an 80-horsepower version and a 125-horsepower upgrade. The Katana is faster in cruise than the average trainer and is one of the rare birds outfitted with a control stick, instead of a steering-wheel-like yoke mounted in front of the pilot.