Learning to fly


My friend Chris, who is 14 years old, asked me how to get started in aviation. When I was a kid, it was possible to go to any small airport and hang out there and chat with pilots and instructors who often spend their spare time at the FBO. I didn’t know that when I was young or I would have spent time there learning about airplanes and flying. FBO stands for ‘fixed base operator’, and it’s a business that takes care of things at the airport like selling fuel, managing a flight school, and may also have an aircraft repair operation. On larger airports, there may be several FBOs. On really small grass airstrips, you may not find any.

Over the years, security at airports has become a concern, especially if it handles any commercial traffic so they’ve been fenced in. However, it’s still possible to get through the fence, usually by walking through the FBO’s office. Then you can walk out on the ramp looking at the airplanes if it doesn’t look like you’re up to something. You might get chased off, but if you tell them you love airplanes and just want to look around, they usually won’t bother you. Sometimes you can wander over to the hangars and chat with the pilots who like to tinker with airplanes in their spare time. This is especially true with pilots who build and fly experimental airplanes.

I’ve heard stories about kids who paid for flying lessons by exchanging labor washing airplanes for aircraft rental and instructor time, although I’ve never personally met anyone who has done that. The cost of an hour’s plane rental can be as much as $100/hour or more and along with an instructor at another $40/hour, it would take a lot of minimum wage labor to work one’s way through pilot training. I’m not saying it’s impossible, just that it would take a lot of hours. When I was training nearly 20 years ago, the costs were about half of what they are today. Something that doubles in 20 years is increasing at an annual rate of around 3.5%, which the average rate of inflation. So the real cost of learning to fly hasn’t changed in all that time. I think you’ll find that to be the case for as far back as you look when it comes to flying expenses.

If I were to give advice to someone today to minimize the cost of learning to fly, the first thing I’d recommend is to be born into a family that owns an airplane and have a dad who is an enthusiastic flight instructor. Failing that, I’d say to look for a local EAA chapter and find out when they have their meetings and attend one of them to meet some pilots. EAA people are the friendliest in aviation because they typically fly for the love of it and most of them are not rich. If they were rich, they’d probably just buy regular airplanes and not spend so much of their lives working on building them to save money. You can find EAA chapters in every major city in the U.S.

EAA also sponsors a program called Young Eagles where members take kids ages 8-17 up for an introductory ride in an airplane for free. So far, more than 1.2 million Young Eagles have been flown. Each EAA chapter generally sponsors several Young Eagles rallies a year. You can also request a flight on the Young Eagles website.

The minimum number of hours of training required to get a private pilot’s license in the U.S. is 40 hours, half of which must be flown with an instructor. There is no age limit on how early you may start your flight training and logging hours. However, you must be 16 to solo and 17 to receive your pilot certificate.

If you do the calculations using the numbers I mentioned previously, namely $100/hour for aircraft rental and $40/hour for an instructor, you will come up with a minimum cost of around ($100*40) + ($40*20) = $4800 if you were able to finish in the minimum time. There will be other incidental costs too, like the study materials and the check ride fee. However, most people take more than 40 hours to be ready for a check ride. The last time I checked, the average was around 72 hours, so if you multiply $4800 by 72/40, you get about $8600. That’s a lot of money any way you look at it.

A way to reduce this would be to get a Sport Pilot certificate, which was a topic of a previous blog post. That training requires only half the hours that a private pilot certificate requires. The only issue with the Sport Pilot is that it’s so new that Light Sport Aircraft and instructors who understand the rules may be hard to find. Still, it would be worth looking into it.

To get a pilot certificate, you need to pass a written test and a practical (i.e., a flying) test. The preparation for the written test is often called ‘ground school’, because you can learn the material and pass it without every stepping into an airplane. I learned this material at the same time I was learning to fly. In retrospect, I think it would have been more efficient to have done the ground school first and passed the written test before I started flight training. You can do this for next to nothing because all the questions are available on the Internet and there are good study guides available from Jeppesen and Gleim to help you understand the material and test questions. You might also consider a ground school class at a local community college or flight school, especially if you think you’d benefit by having the material presented to you by an instructor.

You can also stop at a flight school and ask for some old sectional maps. The ability to read and understand aviation maps is an important part of learning to fly. So studying aviation maps is time well spent. These maps expire every 6 months. The expired maps are usually available for free from an FBO or a pilot friend.

I’d also spend as much time as possible using a flight simulator such as Microsoft’s Flight Simulator. You don’t need the latest and greatest version. The older versions are available for next to nothing and are very good for training yourself to be familiar with handling an airplane. A flight simulator will familiarize you with the instruments such as the Tachometer, Airspeed Indicator, Altimeter, Directional Gyro, and Artificial Horizon. Being able to hold an altitude and heading are critical piloting skills and with a simulator, it will teach you to scan the instruments to make sure you’re not climbing or descending or veering off course. It will also teach you how to properly trim an airplane which is absolutely vital for holding a heading and altitude.

Having the written test under your belt and a lot of time in a flight simulator could help to prepare you for the practical test in the minimum time, potentially saving thousands of dollars.

That’s probably enough for one posting. I will follow up with some other advice and tips on flight training in another posting…

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