Maybe you are curious about flight training – you love the idea of being a pilot but don’t know if you have what it takes (Read the Clayviation blog What Does It Take To Become A Pilot?). Perhaps you’ve always wanted to do it but just don’t know how to take the first step. I have good news for you. Going after your pilot’s license isn’t like going back to college. You don’t have to come up with a bunch of money up front. You don’t have to apply and make a commitment to your flight school. While there are schools like ATP, Flight Safety and Embry Riddle that do offer the start to finish style programs like college classes, local flight schools tend to work differently. And all you need to start is a nice day and about 150 bucks.
The Discovery Flight
For many pilots, their first ever bit of time logged in their logbook was from their discovery flight. It’s simply a flight with an instructor to get a sense of what a lesson might feel like. You don’t have to apply for anything or commit to flight lessons or to take one. You don’t have to know anything before you go. All you need to do is find a flight school near you, call them up and ask them to schedule a discovery flight. It’ll likely cost from $100-$150. They will have everything you need for your first flight, which is likely just a headset to use. The instructor does the flying to start but will show you some basics and let you fly some once you are in the air. Training airplanes have controls on both sides of the plane, so even when you are flying, the instructor has his hands right there by the controls to help you.
Wait For It…
After your Discovery Flight, just go home and think about it. If you determine that it wasn’t for you, chalk it up to an airplane ride on a nice day. But if the bug bites you like it has for all of us pilots, you can call back and schedule your second lesson. And you know, it’s ok if that lesson isn’t next week or even next month. It’s at your pace. Sure, when you commit to training, you’ll want to fly as often as you can – a couple times a week, if at all possible. This keeps the material fresh and prevents any rust from forming on your newly developed skills. Plus, weather is bound to cause you to cancel a flight very so often. But here is the kicker: because flight training is at your pace, you can go take a discovery flight, log it as your first hour of training, and then decide you need time before hitting the training hard – time to save money, discuss it with your family, join a traveling circus and see the world, or whatever it might be that you decide to do before continuing with your flight training.
I was training for my Private Pilot License while I was in college and certainly didn’t have a steady flow of funding to pay for it, but when I found myself with a little pocket of cash, my first call was to the airport to schedule a lesson. Here are a few different methods to help pay for flight training:
1. Self Funding
If you can just stroke a check for it, congratulations. As a college student, I self funded my flying when I could save enough money to fly. This wasn’t optimal, since my training wasn’t consistent, but it was what I had to work with. Getting a job at the airport, washing planes or pumping AvGas is a great way to get plugged in, earn some cash and fly more.
Loans are available to finance your flight training. A tradition loan, such as that through a bank or a credit union, is a straight forward approach. There is also a loan program at pilotfinance.com specifically for flight training. Once you have the cash in your hands, you can often times pay for time in blocks at your flight school. For instance, if you put $2000 on account there, you might receive a rate per hour that is $10-$15 cheaper per hour than the standard rental fee. I would caution you, however, not to put more money on account than is necessary, since you often cannot get that money back if you can’t continue training or decide to choose another flight school.
There are a ton of aviation scholarships available – some for initial training, some for advanced ratings, some for students – basically, a little something for everyone. Some are not well known, so they end up having very little competition for the payoff. I have found a great scholarship guide that keeps up with most of them called Aerospace Scholarships. If a scholarship is something you want to pursue, this book will be the best $10 you could spend.
Build Your Flight Bag
Let me start out with the most important part of this section – you don’t need a lot of gear to fly, and you don’t need ANY gear to go take a Discovery Flight. As a student pilot, depending on your flight school, you can likely get through your first several lessons with little in the gear category. Once you establish your commitment to continue training, however, your inner avgeek might show itself in the format of some gear shopping. Once finding a good pilot store, you might find yourself overwhelmed by all the gadgets and resources. I’ve put together a list of the products that I use and recommend from a couple of different good online retailers.
The one thing that I do recommend you buy for your first flight is a good logbook. It is likely every pilot’s most prized possession. I had long term flying in mind when I went to buy a logbook, so I went straight for the Jeppesen Professional Pilot Logbook, but you might find the smaller version more appropriate for you.
You will need a headset to fly, although many flight schools have some that you can borrow or rent until you get your own. They will probably be the biggest investment in gear that you make, so it would behoove you to do some research and try some on. I fly with David Clarks, which you’ve probably seen pilots wearing in movies and such. To simplify a huge product category, you will see both passive headphones (which, for this discussion, just means regular headphones) and electronic noise cancelling (ENC). The ENC headphones have a feature that quiets outside noise, creating a kind of sound vacuum so that you hear more clearly.
You will need to figure out how to get places – and how to get back. You can pick up a current sectional chart – which is an aviation map of your region – at many flight schools. You could also subscribe to get a new one mailed to you each time they are updated – every six months. While you are at it, you’ll need a plotter, which is a ruler calibrated to your aviation map. This way when you want to fly over to the next town for a burger, you can use it to draw a line on your map, measure how far it is, and determine which direction you will need to fly. Pretty handy. Pick up an Airport/Facility Directory while you are at it for a detailed layout of each airport in your region.
4. Flight Bag
You can tote your gear in any bag that suits your fancy, but finding a flight bag that fits your style AND functions well is a good combo. I use the Flight Outfitters Thrust Bag for its compact size and the ability to throw it over my shoulder for easy transport.
Study materials are vital, and there are no shortage of them on the market. I am a fan of the Jeppesen Private Pilot Manual. You’ll also want a copy of the new Airmen Certification Standards (ACS), which show the standards that the FAA set for each of the areas of knowledge and flying proficiency for your check ride to get your license. The official source of the Federal Aviation Regulations and Aeronautical Information Manual is called the FAR/AIM. To start prepping for your written test, I recommend that Gleim Private Pilot “red book.” For a little fun, and to immerse yourself in flying culture, you can subscribe to AOPA Flight Training Magazine. The Aircraft Owner’s And Pilot’s Association is a group who works to keep General Aviation strong, and student pilots can get 6 months of Flight Training Magazine free.
6. Flight Computer
Even in this technology heavy world we live in, you’ll learn to make some different calculations with a basic flight computer, that ironically isn’t anything at all like your MacBook. The E6B Flight Computer is a rotating slide rule – made of metal – that can be used for all sorts of calculations and conversions. A common use is time-speed-distance calculations. For instance, if you used your map and plotter to determine that your destination airport is 80 miles away and you will fly at 110 miles per hour, how long will it take? Once you learn a little about your E6B, that’ll only take you a few seconds to figure out.
This isn’t the kind of kneeboard you pull behind a ski boat (that wouldn’t fit in the cockpit, anyway). A good aviation kneeboard will keep your map clipped in place, hold a notepad and keep your pencil at the ready. I’ve used the ASA Tri-Fold Kneeboard for years and enjoy it’s robust simplicity.
A Note About iPads
iPads are incredible. Using a program like Foreflight on an iPad can help with weather briefings, filing flight plans, planning routes, referencing airport data quickly, increasing situational awareness, and storing maps and charts in a compact device. Short of spawning tiny super heroes to save you from peril, an iPad can do almost anything. Well, perhaps that is a slight exaggeration, but when used responsibly, they can be a great flight tool. HOWEVER, as a student pilot, I do not recommend using an iPad to start off your training. Learn to read maps on a map. Learn to look up airport data in the Airport/Facility Directory. Learn to plot lines and measure courses with a good old pencil. Get weather briefings by calling a briefer. Make your calculations by spinning your E6B. In other words, learn it the “old fashioned way,” and save the iPad for later in your training. How much later? You’ll have to make a good decision with your instructor on choosing the right time to integrate, but there is too much going on in the cockpit to be fumbling with an iPad in the early stages of training. Just like a video game, you will get the most out of your experience by leveling up – step by step, bit by bit. Starting out with an iPad is kinda like putting in cheat codes to unlock all the levels and gain invincibility and unlimited coins. So learn it, then earn it.
Ready For Takeoff
Starting your flight training is a very exciting time. It’s normal to be both excited and nervous, but most of all, you’ll never be the same again after the aviation bug bites. I walked right into the bushes a couple days ago because I was looking up at the sky, thinking about being up there. Discovering flight and earning your wings is something that humans have only been able to do for a few generations now. It is both challenging and very rewarding, but whether you intend to be a career pilot or want a fun way to get from place to place, the whole journey begins with the first step. So find your nearest flight school and set up a Discovery Flight. You’ll thank me later.
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