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The Path to Becoming A Pilot

Private Pilot Overview

To become a private pilot, one must meet certain requirements set forth by the FAA (FAR Part 61). As a private pilot you will be able to carry passengers, under Visual Flight Rules – in very general that means when the visibility is good enough for you to see where you are, where you’re going and to stay away from clouds. (The regulations are quite a bit more detailed and complicated, but that’s basically it.  Your training will include a complete understanding of these rules.)

Privileges and Restrictions

So, what can you do with a Private Pilot License (it’s really a certificate, but it’s okay to call it a license)

  • You can act as PIC (Pilot in Command) by yourself or with passengers in an airplane of the same Category and Class of aircraft that you were trained in – such as an Airplane, single engine, land.  In other words, a fixed wing airplane (not a helicopter or balloon), with only one engine, which takes off and lands at an airport (not water).
  • The big restriction is that you cannot act as PIC carrying passenger or cargo for hire.  You cannot be paid to act as PIC.  There are a few very specific exceptions (if you sell airplanes you can do demo flights, etc.) which will be covered in your training.
propellor of cessna airplane

Commercial Pilot Overview

Privileges and Restrictions

To become a commercial pilot, one must meet the requirement set forth by the FAA (FAR 61.121).
 
Understanding the privileges and restrictions of a Commercial Pilot Certificate is a bit complicated.  The short answer is that, under certain circumstances (this is where it gets complicated) a Commercial Pilot may receive compensation to fly.  So, if you are going to get a paycheck to fly an airplane, you must have a commercial certificate.  If you’re going to tow a banner up and down the coast, you’ll need to be a commercial pilot.  

Flight Instructor Overview

Privileges and Restrictions

To become a Certified Flight Instructor (CFI) one must meet the requirement set forth by the FAA (FAR 61.121).
 
A Flight Instructor is a teacher. They are qualified to prepare students for Private, Commercial and Instructor certificates.  An added Instrument rating to the initial CFI – CFII – will allow an instructor to provide Instrument training as well.  Instructors have the authority to provide a variety of endorsements. In addition to demonstrating an ability to fly and teach from the right seat, CFIs are required to study Fundamentals of Instruction
Howard Cooper of Tailwinds Flight School

Why People Quit Flight Training

The good news is that if you are set on becoming a pilot there is an excellent chance you can be successful.  Unfortunately, for every 10 people that begin flight training, only 2 or 3 complete it. So, before you begin, it’d be a good idea to understand why so many people don’t finish their training so that you don’t end up as part of that statistic.

A fair amount of research has been done focusing on this issue which means we do have some good data.  Here are the major reasons reported. Certainly, more than one reason may be applicable.

Time/Commitment

Flying requires a serious commitment of time, energy and resources. If you do it right, you’ll be out at the airport for multi-hour lessons at least twice each week.  On top of that, there is home study – reading books, watching video presentations and taking practice exams.

Remedy:  Educate yourself so that you have a very good idea of what you are committing to.

Finances

This pretty much speaks for itself.  For most people, flying represents a serious financial commitment.  A single lesson which involves paying for an instructor and an airplane can cost several hundred dollars.  

Remedy:  Do the math and make sure you have the available funds.  Do not assume you can beat the odds and complete your training in the minimum amount of time. And remember, once you have your pilot’s license, you still have the cost of aircraft rental to consider.

Lack of Direction / No Curriculum or Syllabus

Many schools do not use a written curriculum or even a syllabus.  They rely on experience to get their students properly trained and ready for their checkride and may not maintain clear records documenting student progress. For some students, this is too unstructured.  They get frustrated by what they perceive to be a lack of direction, unclear goals and a meandering approach to training.

Remedy: Prior to starting your flight training, ask to see the curriculum that is used and the system for tracking student progress.

Instructor Issues

The relationship an instructor develops with a student is key to a successful training experience.  If the personalities are off or the chemistry isn’t there, it can be an unsatisfying experience. Good instructors should adjust their teaching style to the needs of the student.  Unfortunately, not all instructors can do that and have a one-size-fits-all approach.  As with all professions, some instructors are just not very good at what they do.

Remedy:  Spend some time talking with the prospective instructor before you begin your training.  Ask lots of questions and try to gauge whether or not you feel comfortable with him/her and like the way they present material.  Ask if they can do a brief ground lesson so you can get a sense of their teaching style.

How It Really Works

In the beginning, flight training can seem a bit confusing and it’s not uncommon for new students to ask, how does this work?  For the most part, your flight training will be done one-on-one  at the airport with a CFI (Certified Flight Instructor).  See Track #2 below.   At the same time, you’ll also need to be engaging in home study – both as a supplement to what you’re learning with your Instructor and to prepare for your Knowledge (written) test – see Track # 1 below.

TRACK 1 – TEST FAA KNOWLEDGE TEST PREP

Per FAR 61.105 ALL applicants for a Private Pilot Certificate must take a Knowledge test (often referred to as the Written) – sixty multiple choice questions (A, B or C) that cover the range of material also described in FAR 61.105.  Preparing for the Knowledge test is often done concurrently with flight training, however, that is not required.  In fact, you can take the Knowledge test without ever setting foot in an airport.

Here is an example of a question from the Private Pilot Knowledge test:

The term “angle of attack” is defined as the angle between the

  1. A) chord line of the wing and the relative wind.
  2. B) airplane’s longitudinal axis and that of the air striking the airfoil.
  3. C) airplane’s center line and the relative wind.

The correct answer is, A

There are many ways to prepare to take the tests:

  1. Read a book
  2. Take an online course (many companies offer these)
  3. Attend a ground school test-prep class (these are given in a variety of settings and formats).
  4. Work one-on-one with an instructor

In addition to citizenship requirements for flight training, there two specific requirements for taking the knowledge test:

  1. You must be at least 15 years old.
  2. You must have an endorsement from an instructor indicating that you have completed an appropriate course of study and are properly prepared to take the test.  Most home-study programs have an automatically produced endorsement when you complete the course.

TRACK 2 – FLIGHT TRAINING

Per FAR 61.109 applicants for a Private Pilot Certificate must meet also meet the Flight Experience requirements as described in FAR 61.107.   Flight training is generally done one-on-one with your instructor. Each time you come to the airport for a lesson, you will meet with your instructor for one of 4 types of one-on-one lessons.  Used in combination these form your training sessions:

  1. Ground Lessons may take the form of a short pre-flight or post-flight briefing, or be long involved lessons using a white board and a variety of teaching aids.  The important part being that they take place on the ground. Ground lessons are often your first exposure to new material.
  2. Simulator Lessons.  Simulators are great teaching tools and provide an excellent and cost-effective way to learn and practice most anything you can do in an airplane.  Simulators have “pause” buttons and provide a great way to present new material without the distraction and cost of being in flight.
  3. External Power Lessons.  Using an external power source, you can “plug in” an airplane and turn on all the electrically powered devices without running down the battery.  This is a great way to get comfortable with avionics.
  4. Flight Lesson.  The Ground, Simulator and External Power lessons provide the background and foundation for flying the airplane. Airplanes are not good classrooms – too many distractions.  By the time you’re in the airplane you will have already been exposed to the new skill and won’t be learning it for the first time.

Hopefully, your instructor will provide you with a detailed syllabus of your training.  The syllabus will outline the many skills you will need to master before you are eligible to take the flight test (checkride).

Most people take significantly longer than the FAA minimum requirements.  The current average is more than 70 hours, and that’s in a basic trainer, like a Cessna or Piper.  If you train in a technologically advanced airplane (like a Cirrus) you can expect it take longer.

Your training schedule plays a huge role in how long it takes to go from zero hours to your private pilot’s certificate.  Are you flying 2 or 3 times each week; once a week; twice a month or less often? When you train infrequently – less than twice each week, on average – you begin to bump into retention issues and end up spending more time reviewing what you have forgotten instead of learning new skills.  So, what might’ve taken 1 or 2 lessons to master might now stretch to 3,4 or more lessons.  

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Private Pilot Requirements

Here are the very basic requirements.  Keep in mind that this is a rough overview with much of the detail omitted:

  • If you are a US Citizen you must show a valid passport or other acceptable documentation as required by TSA
  • )If you are a foreign national, you must receive permission to train by making application through the TSA’s Alien Flight Student Program
  • You must be at least 17 years old and have a good command of the English language; reading, writing and speaking. You can solo at 16, but you can’t take the practical test (known as the Checkride) until you are 17.
  • You must be able to pass basic medical exam given by an Aviation Medical Examiner.
  • You must pass the FAA’s written knowledge test which requires appropriate ground instruction.  These are given at testing centers and consist of 60 multiple choice questions. A passing grade is 70%.
  • You will need at least 40 hours of total flight time. Of those 40 hours
    • At least 20 must be with a flight instructor
    • At least 10 must be solo flight
  • Have series of logbook endorsements given by your instructor, which indicate that you are proficient in various areas of your flight training.
  • Pass practical test (often called a checkride), given by an FAA examiner (or a Designated Pilot Examiner), which will last several hours, and consists of an oral exam and a flight test. The parameters and guidelines for these exams are provided in the Airman’s Certification Standards (ACS), which can be downloaded here.

Keep in mind that these are the minimum requirements and most people require significantly more flight time to become proficient.

Commercial Pilot Requirements

Here are the very basic requirements.  Keep in mind that this is a rough overview with much of the detail omitted:

  • If you are a US Citizen you must show a valid passport or other acceptable documentation as required by TSA
  • If you are a foreign national, you must receive permission to train by making application through the TSA’s Alien Flight Student Program
  • You must be at least 18 years old, hold a valid Private Pilot Certificate and have a good command of the English language; reading, writing and speaking.
  • You must have a valid Medical Certificate.  To exercise the privileges of a Commercial Pilot Certificate, you must hold at least a 2nd Class Medical Certificate.
  • You must pass the FAA’s written knowledge test which requires appropriate ground instruction and an endorsement. 
  • You must have accumulated at least 250 hours of total flight time. Detailed flight experience is outlined in FAR 61.129
  • You must pass a practical test including an oral exam and flight test given by an examiner.

Flight Instructor Requirements

  • Be at least 18 years of age
  • Hold a current FAA Commercial Pilot Certificate or ATP Certificate
  • Hold at least a 3rd class Medical Certificate
  • Be able to read, speak, write and understand the English language
  • Pass the FAA Flight Instructors Knowledge Test and Fundamentals of Instruction Test
  • Pass the FAA Practical Flight Test and Oral Exam (check ride)