Learning to Fly


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The cost and length of your training will involve several factors so the discussion below will begin with discussing what traits you need to bring to the table and other factors that can help minimize the time and cost of obtaining your Private Pilot License.

How fast do you learn?

Two types of learning need to be addressed, since they are directly related to how much you will need to accomplish your goal of becoming a pilot. These two types can be described as that of academic or 'book' learning and physical or 'eye-hand coordination' learning.

The type of academic or 'book' learning that you will do will include studying for the FAA's written test and some other memorization items. You will also be learning to do some simple calculations for your cross-country phase as well as weight and balance calculations to make sure you and your passengers and cargo aren't too heavy.  All of the math you will be doing will be very basic, thought so don't be too worried, it's not rocket science!

In terms of 'book' learning, ask yourself some questions.  Are you an attentive student? Do you have a good memory?  How are your analytical, logic skills?  Don't worry if you are or were a 'C' student, the wonderful thing about flight training is that you can learn at your own pace, and there is only a pass-fail test for each rating (license, we'll discuss terms a little later) which can be retaken at any time.  The FAA doesn't punish you if you're a slow learner, or don't take tests well, you can still become a pilot, it'll just take a little longer that's all. 

There is a great deal of studying involved in pilot training, so just keep your abilities in mind, and take this as an opportunity to improve your study skills along the way.

Flying is a also very much a physical skill, like driving a car, riding a bicycle, or any sport.  You must be able to react quickly to things as they happen in a dynamic environment.  Think back to when you first learned to ride a bicycle, you probably didn't know what would happen if you tried to turn a corner really fast, or didn't lean into a turn but you soon picked it up through trial and error.  Therefore, the more experience you've had with sports and other eye-hand coordination activities like riding a bike or driving a car, the more quickly you will be able to pick up piloting.  Skills like these will transfer nicely to flight training.  Conversely, if you don't have as much experience, your training may take a little more time as well.

The Costs - Airplane Rental

The two most important things that will cost you money are your airplane rental, and your instructor.  Each time you have a lesson, you will be renting an airplane to fly, and hiring an instructor to teach you.  You have other costs like study materials and supplies, but since the cost of your instructor and airplane are the highest, these other costs shouldn't amount to much more than those of a lesson or two.

As a rough rule of thumb, the airplane is going to cost you 3 to 4 times what your instructor charges you.  Since this is the biggest expense item, let's discuss airplane types and rental rates.  Where you live and the airport where you will be training will depend on what you will pay for your airplane.  The type of airplane you rent will also have a bearing on your costs as well.  The most common trainer airplane in the U.S. is the Cessna 172, but Cessna made some smaller versions called the Cessna 150 and 152 that are usually cheaper to rent. 

Cessna 150/152's rent from as low as $50 an hour and up, and Cessna 172's depending on the year (since they make brand new ones) can rent from $75 to over $120 per hour. 

Costs - Instruction and Time requirements

Flight instructors usually charge between $15 and $40 per hour, again that will depend on where you live, but can also be quite different between different schools and instructors on the same airfield.  At the airport where I did my initial training, the instructor rates currently vary from $20 - $35 and hour.  We'll talk about shopping for instruction on the next page, but first we're going to talk about the types of instruction you can receive.

The Federal Aviation Administration (the FAA) is our governing body and has requirements that must be met in order to qualify for your Practical Test, which is basically your final exam, comparable to the test you take for your driver's license.  When you pass this, you're officially a pilot!

There are two different ways you can train to become a pilot.  They are, either learning directly from an instructor, or attending an FAA approved Flight School. All flight training requirements are defined by the FAA's regulations Part 61 and 'FAA approved Flight Schools' also follow Part 61 but additionally follow the requirements of Part 141.  So, if you hear the terms Part 61 or 141, they are really talking about the way the training is conducted.  When somebody says 'Part 61' they are essentially saying that instructor is more of a self-employed person who doesn't want to jump through all the hoops to become a full blown 'school' in the eyes of the FAA. When they say 'Part 141' they are talking about a school that follows all of the FAA's rules for becoming a school (and a bunch of other requirements) and is therefore 'FAA approved'. 

Each has its advantages and disadvantages.  The advantages of a Part 141 school is that it must have a building, office, or whatever to perform training and you will know that their flight training curriculum is approved by the FAA. You will have more of an 'I'm at school' feeling at a 141 school - you may  even be required to wear a uniform. Additionally, since the FAA has approved the syllabus of the school, the minimum training time required by them is only 35 hours. The disadvantages are that Part 141 schools must teach each student the same way in the same order with the same curriculum - there is no real personalization. Part 141 schools will also cost more than training under Part 61.

The advantage of learning under Part 61 is that you can better control how your dollars are spent and how you learn.  It's a more laid back environment where nothing stands between you and your instructor.  Your instructor can develop a training curriculum based around who you are and how you learn.  And because there isn't as much overhead and FAA hoop jumping, learning from an individual instructor will be less expensive.  The disadvantage to learning under Part 61 is that the minimum requirement for training is bumped up to 40 hours.

It really boils down to personal preference, whether you want more structure, or more flexibility.  It doesn't really matter - you'll still get the same training either way.

Costs - Bottom Line

Here's the bottom line - you should expect to pay anywhere from $75-$160 per hour for flight instruction and airplane, that's a pretty big difference, but again it will depend on where you live (or where you are willing to relocate for awhile).  Now that you have an idea of an hourly rate, you need to know how many hours of instruction you will really need.

So, you might be asking, does everybody complete their training in 35 or 40 hours?  Not hardly.  According to the FAA, the national average to obtain a Private Pilot certificate is between 60-75 hours.  So, as you're playing with your calculator, don't factor your training at the 'minimums' of 35 or 40 hours, start with at least 60-75, so you won't have any surprises later (or worse, not be able to finish at all).

Keep in mind that if the national average is 60-75 hours, how would you honestly rate yourself as a student? Are you above average, average or a little below? Give yourself a fair and honest assessment and then adjust the estimated time you might expect to need for training appropriately. 

Another big factor in figuring costs is how often you will take your lessons.  If you are planning on flying 2 or more times a week, you will finish faster, become more immersed in your training and have less time to forget things.  If you can only train 1 day a week, or every two weeks, you will have to plan on spending much more money for your license, since you will be spending more time reviewing the previous lesson and possibly relearning altogether.  Since flying is a dynamic skill, your body needs to learn and remember how to handle an airplane and cannot do that effectively if it hasn't been in one for 2 weeks.

So, for example:

Airplane Rental

$78.00 / hr


$30.00 / hr

Total Hourly Lesson Rate

$108.00 / hr

I'm a little below average as a student

I'll estimate it will take me about 75 hours

$108 x 75


Don't forget, this is only an example and it's kind of on the high-end time wise.  Your costs can vary greatly from place to place.  Just be honest with yourself about your abilities, then plug in the numbers that you get from the training facilities at your airport.

Keep reading to learn how to find flight schools, and instructors in your area.

Finding training in your area  -  NEXT >

I hope this has been helpful for you, please drop me an e-mail and let me know what you think, or if you have any questions. 

Some more links:

Federal Aviation Administration - Information about types of flight schools