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How it all Works: Learning to FlyHow it all Works: Learning to Fly

Learning to Fly

Who hasn't imagined soaring free like a bird? Learning to fly is a goal held by many people. Even people who have grown up in areas of the world not blessed with general aviation (GA), have spontaneous dreams of flight while sleeping. If you've mastered your career and it's time for some new challenges and some new friends, then consider learning to fly. You'll gain significant advantages in your personal life and in business.

Here are the answers to frequently asked questions about learning to fly. For more complete answers, or answers to other questions, please contact your local flight school.

How long does learning to fly take?

Learning to fly is not difficult, but it does require study and practice. Federal Aviation Regulation (FAR) Part 61 itemizes the things you must learn and requires a minimum of 40 hours of flight training (20 with an instructor and 20 solo) to earn a private pilot certificate. 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 Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) 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 of the Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs), you'll learn the same things and take the same Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) tests. The only real difference will be the order in which you learn things. Part 141 schools must use a structured curriculum that teaches skills in a specific order. If you fly every day, this curriculum ensures the 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?

While most lessons are based on a one-hour flight, they may take two hours from start to finish because there's more to it than flying. 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.

How safe is it?

General aviation (GA) is as safe as any other mode of travel, if not safer. You don't need a parachute because airplanes (and helicopters) do not fall from the sky, even if the engine stops. An aircraft without an engine, even if it's supposed to have one, is a glider and can be guided safely to the ground. If an engine quits, for example, the most common cause is the pilot ran out of gas. In other words, flying is as safe as the pilot makes it.

What kinds of licenses are there?

Pilots earn certificates, not licenses. Students work toward either a sport, recreational, or private pilot certificate. While the training for these is basically the same, the sport and recreational certificates are designed for fun flying close to home. In other words, sport and recreational pilots don't need or get the same training that private pilots must have for flying at night, on cross-country trips, or in more complex airspace.

Once you earn a private certificate, you can move up the ladder, if you so desire, to a commercial certificate, which enables you to fly for hire. A flight instructor certificate enables you to teach others to fly, and an airline transport pilot certificate is needed to captain an airliner. You can add a number of ratings to these certificates that let you fly airplanes in bad weather, seaplanes, gliders, helicopters, balloons, and airplanes with more than one engine.

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); however, it's a good idea to discuss this with your instructor in advance. Recreational and sport pilots may carry only one passenger at a time; private pilots may carry as many passengers as the airplane will legally seat.

What about a medical exam?

In most cases, a student pilot certificate is also the medical certificate. This dual-purpose piece of paper is good for 24 months, and you get it from an aviation medical examiner (AME), who is an FAA-approved doctor. There are approximately 5,500 AMEs in the United States, and your instructor or flight school can connect you with one. You will need your student/medical certificate before you can fly an airplane solo (with out an instructor on board the aircraft), but it's often a good idea to get it before you start training.

How do I pick a flight school?

Find the schools in your area through the yellow pages or through aviation Web sites, and 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 airplane — for example how to navigate from one airport to another. Before you can earn a pilot certificate, you must pass a computerized Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) knowledge test on this information. You have several ground school options, including a scheduled classroom course that may be offered at a flight school, weekend ground schools, or a home-study course.

When will I actually begin flying?

You'll be flying on your first lesson, with your flight instructor's (CFI'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 airplanes can I fly?

Most likely you will learn to fly in a two- or four-seat airplane with one engine and fixed landing gear. How fast the airplane goes really isn't important. You're learning to fly, not going someplace. How far you can fly is only important during cross-country training. 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?

First, there is the obvious. You can make local sightseeing flights with friends and family, visit local airports, and make new friends. And you can travel to more distant airports for personal reasons or business. You also can learn to fly aerobatics for fun or competition, build and fly your own aircraft, or restore and fly antique/classic aircraft. You can fly for the good of society for a growing number of humanitarian flight organizations that provide transportation to people in need of noncritical medical treatment.