So, you want to learn to fly?

So you want to learn to fly? You’ve come to the right place. Let’s see if we can answer some of the questions that most of us had when we first dreamed about becoming a pilot.

What does it mean to “learn to fly?”

In common parlance, it means obtaining a Private Pilot Certificate, which is the basic pilot certification issued by the Federal Aviation Administration. With this certificate, a pilot may fly a single-engine airplane in visual conditions, day or night, virtually anywhere in the United States (or most other countries, for that matter).  A Private Pilot Certificate is a lifetime membership in the spiritual fraternity of pilots — a pilot’s certificate never expires, although you must fulfill currency requirements to continue to exercise its privileges.

I have read that the Sport Pilot Certificate is a less-expensive way to learn to fly?  Is this true?

The Sport Pilot Certificate and, less recently, the Recreational Pilot Certificate have been well-intended attempts by the Federal Aviation Administration and the aviation community to make access to flying more affordable by reducing the required level of training.  We applaud this motivation; we have spent many years working to make flying as affordable and accessible as humanly possible.  Nevertheless, please understand that the Sport Pilot certificate confers rather limited authority.  Every pilot certificate comes with privileges and limitations and the Sport Pilot certificate limits the pilot to flying a small, light, two-seat airplane strictly in visual conditions with other more technical limitations.  For the pilot who wants merely to take the occasional sightseeing flight in good weather with a single companion the Sport Pilot certificate may be a practical avenue.  The pilot who wants to use an airplane for transportation will likely be frustrated by its limited utility.

Must I have perfect vision and be in perfect health?

Not at all. Look at any of us who fly and you will see for yourself that few of us are perfect physical specimens. You must obtain a medical certificate, but if you can see reasonably well with correction by either eyeglasses or contacts and if you are in reasonably good health, you will have no difficulty obtaining a medical certificate and you will be able to learn to fly and obtain a Private Pilot certificate. The principal disqualifying medical conditions would be only those that might cause sudden, serious incapacitation, such as neurological disorders or serious heart disease. Absent such conditions, you should have no difficulty qualifying for a medical certificate if you can see well enough to read a book or drive an automobile.

Must I be a U.S. citizen to learn to fly?

No.  If you are a foreign national and wish to learn to fly or obtain an advanced certificate or rating, such as an instrument or multi-engine rating, you will need to register with the U.S. Transportation Security Administration and submit to a background check, which will take several weeks. We have helped many foreign nationals register with the TSA.  The process is done mostly online and is not onerous.  Toward the end of the process, you will need to be fingerprinted and to pay a fee, which is modest when compared to the cost of flight training.

Must I prove that I am a U.S. citizen?

If you are a U.S. citizen, you are required to demonstrate your citizenship by presenting a U.S. passport, an original birth certificate, or one of several other qualifying documents. You can find additional information at

What can I do with my Private Pilot Certificate?

You are qualified to fly into any civilian airport, although for reasons of cost and complication, you might choose to avoid some of the largest air-carrier airports. You will be, however, qualified and legally entitled to land at any airport from a grass strip in the countryside to Chicago O’Hare.

With a Private Pilot Certificate can I fly at night?

Yes, so long as the weather is clear enough to allow you to fly by visual reference, you may fly at night.  A flight on a cold, clear winter night, with the stars above and the lights below, is one of the great pleasures we pilots enjoy.

What do you mean by “visual reference?”

A Private Pilot Certificate entitles the pilot to fly VFR, which stands for “visual flight rules.” The definition of weather suitable for VFR flight is more complicated than we need explore here, but suffice it to say that, in general, flight in low visibility or actually in clouds requires an instrument rating, which is an additional rating granted pilots who have learned to fly solely by reference to the instruments in their airplane and without outside visual reference. If you plan to travel over any distance by airplane you may well want to continue your training to acquire an Instrument Rating, which will increase the utility of your flying. Many pilots proceed beyond the Private Pilot Certificate to acquire an Instrument Rating or other advanced ratings and certificates, such as a Commercial Certificate or a Multi-Engine Rating. Such additional training is available from club instructors and many club pilots take advantage of the opportunity to enhance their skills and increase the utility of their flying.

Can I fly a twin-engine airplane?

You may fly a twin-engine airplane with a Private Pilot Certificate but you must also have a multi-engine rating, which requires additional training.

Is learning to fly dangerous?

You will often hear pilots say that the most dangerous part of any flight is the drive to the airport. I could quote statistics to prove that assertion; I could also quote statistics to disprove it. It would depend on whether we are comparing travel miles or travel hours and whether we are considering general aviation as a whole or whether we are factoring out corporate aviation and a number of other assumptions on which our comparison would be based. While it is difficult to simply state the risk inherent in flying, the question is a serious one and deserves consideration. The risks of flying are substantially less than those of many other activities in which we engage with little concern. While flying involves undeniable risks, those risks are both less and different than supposed by non-pilots. (For example, the non-pilot will often ask, What happens if the engine stops? In fact, engine failures are far from the most common or serious cause of aviation accidents.) Pilots, far from being daredevils, are among the most safety-conscious of people. Leaf through any aviation magazine or attend any aviation gathering and you will read and hear an emphasis on, virtually an obsession with, safety. Quality training will emphasize safety and a quality instructor will foster in you a respect for safe practices.  You will find that pilots are, in general, highly motivated people who are accustomed to pursuing ambitious goals. You will not find them to be risk-seekers. They are sober, careful individuals who have determined that the rewards of flying far outweigh the minimal risks and that those risks can be minimized even further by their own proficiency, discipline, and good judgement.

How long does it take to obtain a Private Pilot Certificate?

That depends. It’s a good question, because learning to fly requires a substantial commitment of time and money (more about that later) and it is wise to have some idea what’s involved before starting the process. It may take as few as six or eight weeks to learn to fly or as many as five or six years, depending on how much time one can devote to the task and a few other variables. Nevertheless, I would like to give you some idea of the time scale involved. Most people who learn to fly are able to schedule perhaps one or two flight lessons a week. On that schedule, one is likely to complete training for the Private Pilot Certificate in six or eight months. If you can devote more time, the process can be accelerated, but it is very difficult to complete the training in fewer than three months. We have had occasional rare individuals who have finished in six or eight weeks, but they were in a position to devote their time and attention almost exclusively to flying for that period – a luxury unavailable to most of us.  Furthermore, that accelerated pace is not necessarily the optimum pace:  there is much to be said for enjoying the learning process over the change of seasons and allowing time for the learning process to assimilate knowledge and experience.

What can I expect on my first flight?

After an orientation , you will be introduced to two important preparations for every flight:  obtaining a weather briefing and preflighting your airplane.  Your instructor will explain the controls and you will sit in the left seat – the traditional pilot or captain’s seat.  You will learn how to taxi the aircraft on the ground and you will probably be at the controls, assisted by your instructor, for your first takeoff.  Once in the air, you will have demonstrated to you the basics of aircraft control, including turns, climbs, descents, and straight and level flight, and you will have an opportunity to control the airplane yourself – an experience unlike any other.  Upon returning to the airport, you will experience your first landing from the pilot’s seat – the best seat in the house.

How often should I try to fly?

For most people who have other responsibilities — family, work, school — that is to say, a life, two flight lessons a week is a reasonable goal. It’s difficult to take full advantage of more than that unless you have a lot of time to devote to study between lessons. At the same time, if you schedule less often than once a week, there will inevitably be some inefficiency in the training process. Remember that weather will require cancellation of some flight lessons, so if you plan on one flight every week, you will probably average three flights a month.  If you can only fly twice a month, you may take a bit longer than average to obtain your certificate, but you can do it. We have had students take as long as five years to obtain a certificate, but they enjoyed flying when they could, enjoyed the learning process, enjoyed the association with other pilots, and eventually reached their goal.

Do I need to take a ground school?

You must pass a written test and a flight test to obtain a Private Pilot Certificate. (The FAA now administers the test via computer so it is now officially called a “knowledge test.” Those of us who have been at this awhile remember when it was a paper and pencil test and may still call it a written test.) You may decide how you wish to prepare for that written (excuse me, knowledge) test. You can simply buy some books and study on your own. An entire industry exists to provide you, for a price, with videos, CDs, and other learning aids to prepare you for the written test. A good ground school is perhaps the best way to prepare because you will not only learn the information required for the test but you will learn it in context. Note, I am speaking here of a good ground school. You will see advertised commercial ground schools, often weekend affairs, which promise to prepare you for the exam. They do that and nothing more. They teach specifically for the exam, in some cases literally drilling the actual questions ad nauseum. A good ground school will not only prepare you to answer the questions on the knowledge test but will help you understand the material and will bring you to understand aviation safety, how it is achieved and sustained.

Where do I find a good ground school?

Many community colleges offer Private Pilot ground schools, as do some flying clubs, even some FBOs and some independent instructors.  Look for a ground school that is well-established, does not simply teach for the test and is taught be a dedicated instructor with broad experience in aviation.  You are looking for information about aerodynamics, aircraft systems, weather, air traffic control procedures, safe piloting techniques and other of the knowledge areas you must understand as a pilot.  And safety should be emphasized at every turn.  Much of what you will need to know is how to estimate, understand, and mitigate risk through each of these knowledge areas.  You should learn what constitutes aviation safety and what habits, misjudgments, and assumptions lead to difficulty.  A thorough ground school should offer perhaps 45 hours of classroom instruction.

Should I take a ground school before I begin flight lessons?

Not necessarily. The ground school will prepare you for the written (aka knowledge) exam, which must be completed before the end of your training. The ground school will also provide you with a broad introduction to the theoretical aspects of flying — weather, aerodynamics, aircraft systems, airports, airspace, the air traffic control system, the Federal Aviation Regulations — all of which will enhance your flight training and save you and your instructor valuable time that can be utilized in the airplane. Therefore, the ground school will be a useful adjunct to your flight training, but do not feel that you must complete the ground school first. The ground school will take ten or twelve weeks to complete and your flight training is most likely to stretch over six or eight months, so even if you commence both at the same time, you will complete the ground school well before you complete your flight training and take your checkride. If a ground school is not being offered at the time when you are able to begin flying, do not let that inhibit you. Begin flying and take advantage of a ground school as soon as one is available.

How much does it cost to learn to fly?

It depends . . . Not a very helpful answer, I know. It does, however, depend on a host of factors that are impossible to predict precisely: how quickly you learn, the amount of time you have to devote to the task, the weather, and the frequency with which you can train. Because it is wise to have at the outset some idea of the commitment, in both time and money, required, your flight school or flying club should prepare a realistic estimate of all the costs involved, which will be primarily the cost of airplane use and instruction but which will also include such often-overlooked expenses as an aviation headset, books, your medical certification, and the cost of your check ride. The total usually works out to be in the vicinity of seven thousand dollars but the actual cost will vary for each individual.  This is a lifetime investment and will bring a sense of accomplishment that will endure long after many other purchases have lost their charm and their utility.

Do I have to pay that much to start?

By no means. Most of the time, you pay as you go, so you do not have to offer up that total sum at the beginning, and if you should find at some point in your progress that you do not wish or are unable to continue, you will have paid only for the expenses you have actually incurred. The flight time you have logged will remain in your logbook as a permanent record and you can resume your training later, either at the club or elsewhere.


What’s it like flying at your flying club? How is it different from a flight school or FBO?

First, the club is not a business. We do not make money when someone chooses to learn to fly with the club. We have no financial incentive to have you learn to fly with the club. We are not in the business of selling flight training, so this is not a sales pitch. The flying club is not the best avenue to a pilot certificate for everyone. For most people, though, I am convinced that there is no better place to learn to fly. It does cost somewhat less to learn with the club, but cost is not the principal advantage of the club. The most important reason is the collegial nature of the club. Much of what you learn about flying you will learn outside the context of your formal lessons. Flying well and safely isn’t so much about stick and rudder skills as it is about making good decisions and experience is the best teacher of judgment. At the club you can benefit from the experience of many other pilots.

The collegial nature of the club makes all the difference.  There is so much more to becoming a pilot over and above the flying.  At your typical flight training shop you show up, you take your two-hour lesson, and you go home.  You will learn to fly.  Here’s the difference:  at the club you will come to be at home in the aviation world.  You will meet dozens of other pilots, some of them new students, some of them military pilots, some of them international airline pilots, some of them pilots of experimental craft they have built. You will linger in the maintenance hanger and learn how airplanes work, how the systems are put together, how they break and how they are fixed.  You will share the experiences of pilots who fly to the next county or the next continent. You will learn how to read an airplane maintenance log.  You will learn how to buy an airplane, how to bring it into regulatory compliance and how to keep it compliant.  You will learn how to fly trans-nationally; how to deal with customs; how to file an EAPIS form.  You may choose to serve on the board of directors and learn about aviation insurance, taxation, and aviation financing.  If you dream of owning an airplane, you can turn to a mechanic for advice, you can come to know other pilots who have flown the airplanes you might consider owning, you can discuss aerobatics with pilots who share that interest, you can meet pilots and instructors with thousands of hours of tailwheel experience. You will not only learn how to fly; you can learn how to own an airplane — which is not anything like owning an automobile. The depth and breadth of experience in the club is truly remarkable.  And these people will become your friends and fellow pilots.

Do I have to join a club to learn to fly?

If you want to learn with a club, you will have to join a club. There are many other places you can learn to fly. Many of us have found the club to be the very best place to fly, but we want you to find the training environment that best suits you.


Can I have an airplane to fly any time I want one?

Not quite. For a club such as ours, we must balance availability and utilization. We could have thirty airplanes and we would each then be able to have an airplane at any time but the airplanes would not fly very often and the fixed costs they accrue would be amortized over a relatively small number of hours and the hourly cost would be prohibitive. So we could have an airplane when we wanted but it would cost a great deal to fly. We would have availability but not affordability. Or we could have just three airplanes and they would fly many, many hours and the hourly cost would be very low but we would have three hundred people fighting for three airplanes and you would never be able to have an airplane for your personal use. We would then have affordability without availability. We are always trying to balance availability with utilization. Therefore we have club rules to give everyone an equal opportunity to use the airplanes. As it generally works out, you can get access to a club airplane most of the time if you can plan a week or two ahead for long trips. For a casual or training flight of an hour or two, you can almost always find a club airplane available.

Can I get those advanced ratings you mentioned with the club?

Yes, you certainly can. For many of us, the Private Pilot Certificate was just the beginning. Many pilots go on to obtain an Instrument Rating, which enables them to fly by reference to instruments in low clouds or reduced visibility, or a Commercial Certificate, or even a Flight Instructor Certificate. Each of these can be obtained flying club airplanes and training with club flight instructors.


I have some questions. Where can I find additional information?


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