The sun burst into the cockpit, nearly blinding me as I leveled off to land just above the runway on final approach. Using the visual cues that I could, I hoped for the best as my otherwise graceful approach to land settled down on the runway – a lot harder than I would have liked. The FAA designated examiner sitting in the copilot seat next to me made a note on his clipboard. Great. I was on the final minutes of my check ride – the flight portion of my test to earn my Private Pilot Certificate. The final step to becoming a pilot. As the plane slowed down, I made a comment to him about the sun. Something about how I didn’t expect it. I probably should have just stayed quiet. I shut down and secured the airplane and we walked back into the terminal at Anderson, South Carolina (KAND), where my instructor waited patiently for our return. The examiner finally broke the silence. “Congratulations. You are now a Private Pilot.” Joy and relief radiated from the cockpit of that old Cessna 172 on the flight back to Athens, Georgia. I’m pretty sure I developed that pilot voice right then and there. You know, the low, confident “this is your captain speaking” kind of radio dialect like I was about to play some smooth jazz and dedicate a song.
Let’s dispel a few commonly misunderstood points of becoming a pilot. First, being a pilot doesn’t mean you fly for an airline. One of the first questions I often get when I mention I am a pilot is “who do you fly for?” I guess the answer to that is…well, me. Second, you don’t have to own an airplane to be a pilot. While many pilots do own an airplane, it makes more financial sense to rent a plane unless you are flying somewhere around 100 hours per year, based on my personal calculations. Most local airports have a flight school with a fleet of rental aircraft. Third – and this one is my favorite – you don’t have to want a career in aviation to be a pilot. While aviation hosts many great career options, there are plenty of pilots who fly for fun, adventure, a convenient mode of transportation, or a new challenge.
I recently went flying with my father in law. He’s always wanted to learn to fly so I had a lot of fun talking to him about the different phases of the flight. Since he takes a genuine interest in it, I was able to let my inner avgeek out a bit when talking aloud through what I was doing. We took a flight that routed us over the Augusta National Golf Course, where The Masters is played each April. I should have thought to bring some pimento cheese sandwiches for the occasion, and maybe a golf ball. Has anyone ever landed a hole in one from an airplane? What were we talking about anyway? Oh right, how you can learn to fly.
The Discovery Flight
While there are several approaches to gaining your wings, I’ll focus on two that are solid, widely available options. Regardless of the license you choose to pursue, I recommend starting the same way – with a discovery flight. By going to your local airport’s flight school, you’ll find that a flight with an instructor doesn’t have to be a commitment. Many schools offer discovery flight gift certificates for people who might just enjoy a ride, but if you are interested in flight training, it can be logged as your first training flight. An instructor will walk you through preflight and take you up on a flight that usually lasts 30-45 minutes. There are flight controls on both sides of the airplane, so you can follow along on the controls and try your hand at flying once up in the air. The important part for you to know is that you don’t have to come prepared with any sort of knowledge.
The First Step: Student Pilot
If you are like so many of us, you’ll be hooked and ready for the next step, which is obtaining your student pilots license. You have to be 16 years old, know English and pass a fairly routine medical exam. You’ll apply for the license with the help of your instructor and get a plastic license back in a couple weeks. The license and medical tickets are what you need to train. Now you just select which level of pilot’s license to train for – usually either Private Pilot or Sport Pilot.
Option 1: Private Pilot
This is the most common certificate to pursue. Common training airplanes are a Cessna 152 or 172, Diamond DA-20 or DA-40, or a Piper Cherokee. Each training flight lasts around an hour or so, and 40 hours are required to obtain your Private Pilot License, although the average is probably closer to 70. You must be 17 years old and the estimated cost is around $12000. Having this license will allow you to fly day or night as long as the weather is generally good. You may take passengers, although you can’t be hired as a pilot at this point. This path will allow you to rent and fly various single engine aircraft. To rent a plane, most flight schools simply require a flight with one of their instructors to ensure you are familiar with a particular airplane.
Option 2: Sport Pilot
A more economical path to getting in the air is the Sport Pilot License. This only requires 20 hours of flight time and a driver’s license, although the average pilot earns this license closer to around 33 hours. The estimated cost is around $5000. The training would be in a smaller, lighter aircraft like a Piper Cub, Aeronca Champ or a Cessna 162. There are a few restrictions compared to a Private Pilot. To name a few, you may carry only one passenger, and not at night. Certain airspace is off limits without an endorsement from a flight instructor. So while this might not be the option for someone who is looking for a pilot’s license to get from place to place with family in a practical manner, it is a great way to get in the air on nice days, build some time, or enjoy flight with a friend.
What To Expect
The training process itself is challenging, but a lot of fun. You’ll want to put in the study time at home to make sure you are getting the most out of your lessons and getting ready for the written test, which is normally done through a computer at your flight school. While you can complete this written test, which is multiple choice, anytime before going for your flight test, getting this done early is a great way to make sure you have a solid base of understanding to help you learn to fly. You’ll spend time on the ground with your instructor as well, talking about the flight lessons before and after. Sometimes weather will keep you from flying and you’ll end up working through a lesson on the ground. In your training, you’ll start out by staying close to the airport while you learn how the plane works, how to fly it, and how to navigate. You’ll progress to flying to other airports and before long, you’ll be ready to fly solo! This is when your instructor will let you fly a lap around the airport by yourself. It is a feeling of freedom like no other. The final step is the check ride, which is a flight with a designated examiner from the FAA. Passing this check ride means you are a licensed pilot! Time to take a friend flying to grab a burger at a nearby airport or sight see over your favorite places.
Go For It
All of this is much more attainable than you might think. If funding is a concern, there are scholarships and loans available specifically for flight training. The Aircraft Owner’s And Pilot’s Association (AOPA) is a great resource. Take a look at their scholarships here. at The first step is that discovery flight through your local airport’s flight school. You’ll then have gained anywhere from a very cool afternoon experience to a new lifelong passion. If you’d like to see what a discovery flight looks like, take a look at FlightChops. I really love what Steve and his team are doing with some very high quality flying videos. You can find his video of a discovery flight on the Flight Chops YouTube Channel.
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