- Where do I start?
- Is it safe?
- What are the different certificates and ratings I could get?
- What can I do with a private pilot certificate?
- I'm afraid I'll get motion sickness.
- What materials do you recommend? How much do they cost?
- Do I need to join a flight school? What are my options to getting into flying?
- What are the requirements for getting an airplane private pilot certificate?
- What are the costs? How much time and resources will it take to become private pilot?
- What about flight packages? Accelerated programs?
- What training plane should I choose?
- I want to be a professional pilot.
- Are there forums where I will get good answers if I have questions?
- Are there iPhone, iPad, and Android flight apps?
- The fun side of flying.
- headset: can have passive (cheapest $50-$400) or active (expensive and requiring batteries $200-$1000) noise reduction. I prefer in-ear headsets, like the ones from Quiet Technologies. Low tech which means fewer parts to break, no batteries, light, and great noise attenuation (at a cost of about $350).
- logbook: there are plenty of paper logbooks on the market (Gleim or Jepessen are both good, around $20), and lately many electronic logbooks (e.g. Logbook Pro). You need to have the paper version, but it's a good idea to back things up on a computer.
- study books I found useful (not all are needed, and you can get away with just using the FAA books):
- the FAA manuals: The Pilot's Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge, The Airplane Flying Handbook, Federal Aviation Regulations (FAR - CFR 14), Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM). All can be found for free on the FAA website (faa.gov).
- Jepessen private pilot manuals
- Gleim written exam preparation and flight maneuvers books (the red study guides)
- Rod Machado's Private Pilot Handbook
- Say Again Please: Guide to Radio Communication.
- kneeboard (kneepad)
- a few online stores I use: mypilotstore.com, sports.com
- iPad, iPhone: I don't own one of those, but from what I've seen at work I liked ForeFlight, WingX. They have moving maps, sectional charts, approach plates if you have an instrument rating, flight planners, even overlaid weather and fuel prices; many pilots are happy with the large screen of the iPad with ForeFlight on it, just beware - your iPad may easily turn off to protect itself from overheating when placed in direct sunlight; also, there is a price you pay for each such app, generally $100-200.
- Android: I've used several free apps for aviation on my phone, the most remarkable ones being Navzilla - moving maps; Avilution Maps (requires monthly subscription); OruxMaps and RMaps for which you can download georeferenced VFR and IFR charts (using Mobile Atlas Creator) or cache them over your data connection; AirWX, AviationWeather and RadarNow for your weather information needs.
- Windows phones and tables should not be forgotten, as there is good software for its various versions as well. Navzilla is free, whereas AnywhereMaps and JeppView are great products but at a steep price (starting at about $350). You may want to save your money or put it towards renting a plane with an on-board GPS.
Where do I start?
There are many ways to get into flying, based on major categories of aircraft: airplane, glider, rotorcraft, lighter than air ships (e.g. balloons) and others. Each has its own features, but the most common (judging by sheer number of pilots) is being an airplane pilot. The airplane category encompasses several classes of planes: single or multi-engine, land or sea.
If you have never been in a small two or four seater plane, it's easy to get a first taste via a 'discovery flight'. That's what most flight clubs call an introductory lesson, when usually an instructor takes you out for a spin, and lets you manipulate the controls for the first time. It will leave you grinning for a couple of days, and with a great desire to get back in the skies.
The first step, whether you want to be a professional pilot, or just want to fly for fun every once in a while, is to earn your private pilot certificate. Alternatively, you can get a sport pilot certificate, which limits you to flying only very light sport aircraft (more on that later), or you can get a recreational pilot certificate which severely limits your flying.
In US, once you locate an FAA approved physician, you are supposed to receive one of the three classes of medical certificates available for pilots. To be a private pilot, you only need to posses a third class medical. If you are under 40, this will be valid for 5 years. You need to be in an acceptable health condition, but for the most people this does not pose a problem. Even if you do not meet all the health criteria, there are exemptions and waivers you can apply for, for almost any condition (like color blindness, lack of night vision). If you don't plan on flying commercially, you are almost guaranteed to get a pass on a very cursory medical exam. To operate as a commercial pilot, you need a second class or better medical certificate. This has more stringent requirements, however, many health conditions are not disqualifying as long as they are correctable (glasses, pills for high cholesterol, etc.). If you really can't get a medical certification, you can still fly as a sport pilot (no medical required). You will however be limited in the weight of the plane, number of passengers you can carry, no night flying and so forth.
You will also need to study for a few months, and oh yeah, some money. Best things in life don't come cheap (more on that in a few).
Is it safe?
Safety is always the first concern in the field of aviation. There are times when we hear on TV news about planes crashing or doing emergency landings. However, car accidents, a much more frequent occurrence, are accepted as a part of the day-to-day life, which seems unfair from the perspective of a pilot. What the media fails to mention is that engines in a plane are built for reliability, and while maybe being simpler in concept than a car, they are also more resilient. Most planes in general aviation (GA) are older than your average car, however they have their engine rebuilt at regular intervals, essentially returning it to 'as new' condition. Additionally, regular inspections are required (usually every 100 hours, as well as annually). Finally, most planes fly much less than land vehicles drive, thus limiting the mechanical wear and tear. All these facts add up to making your typical airplane be in a better mechanical condition than an average car.
Pilots are trained from day one how to handle with emergencies, and, yes, you can land a plane without the engine running (or with it idling). It is also a required part of the certification test; and you will practice emergencies a lot in your training. You should know that the plane glides pretty well even without the engine running, for every mile you lose in altitude you have a horizontal gliding distance of eight to twelve miles (and much more than that for some planes). Therefore, in the unlikely event you do lose your engine, you will still have plenty of time to select a flat spot to land. Overall, the chances of anything like this happening to you are very very slim, but you get the appropriate training nonetheless. New technological advancements augment the level of safety: some planes are equipped with a ballistic parachute, new avionics are being used on a wider scale (e.g. GPS), increasing the level of safety provided by the sound engineering of the mechanical part.
What are the different certificates and ratings I could get?
Normally, people start off with a private pilot certificate. This certificate grants you the privilege to fly yourself, and your passengers under weather conditions in which visual flight rules apply (VFR - basically, you are out of clouds and can see around you enough to navigate and not hit other planes). "Lesser" certifications that can be achieved are: recreational pilot (limits your flying range), or as a sport pilot (you are restricted to flying ultra-light or light sport aircraft, day flying, but requires no medical). Seriously, if you really enjoy flying, you should not settle for anything less than a private certification.
Second, there is your instrument rating, which allows you to fly by reference to instruments only (e.g. when you can only see inside the cockpit, due to clouds). It's a very useful rating as it helps you not get stuck in an airport for days waiting for the skies to clear. Studying for an instrument rating also sharpens your flying skills and your knowledge of regulations.
A commercial certificate becomes available when you have acquired enough experience to be qualified in FAA's view to be paid for flying planes around (minimum 250 hours as part 61 pilot - see more on this later). Of course, the chances of actually getting a job with only 250 hours hours are very slim. You may have to instruct others for a while to acquire enough hours to be hired as a pilot. Most jobs, like banner towing, traffic watch, oil pipeline inspection usually require at least 500 hours, for insurance reasons. Again, your experience may be different.
As I have already mentioned, once you have your commercial certificate you have the option to become an instructor (for private/commercial, instrument, or multi-engine students - commonly known as CFI, CFII, and MEI). Or to obtain an ATP (Airline Transport Pilot) certificate, if you have accumulated enough hours. The FAA requires a minimum of 1500 hours.
What can I do with a private pilot certificate?
The sky is the limit. Literally. Or more accurately, the weather is the limit. If you don't have your IR, you are restricted to flying in good visibility and outside clouds. Despite the restrictions, this can provide for lots of fun times, and trips of thousands of miles with your spouse / buddy as your co-pilot manipulating the radios or just fast asleep. Even shorter trips of a couple of hours, are usually more enjoyable than spending twice the amount of time in a car. And the views are way better.
The famous phrase "$100 hamburger" refers to another delight pilots gain access to, along with their certification. The phrase refers to the pretext of flying to a nearby airport to have a meal there. Of course, any meal tastes better when you know how much money you've spent just to get there. Nowadays, the more correct phrase should be "the $200...". Still worth taking a date out there every once in a while (if all else fails to impress her/him, this should do the trick).
There are other activities you can enjoy as a pilot, including volunteer work with groups such as Angel Flights. Remember, however, that you can't receive money for your flying (other than a prorated amount from your passengers), until you have a commercial certificate (and meet some other conditions).
I'm afraid I'll get motion sickness.
You most likely won't get motion sickness. When at the controls, you typically forget about being sick. But just in case you are one of the few people who don't, there are multiple solutions available to you. I've seen people buy a motion sickness bracelet from REI for $10. Some of these bracelets use the pressure points, some use magnets, other a small electrical current to stimulate pressure points on your wrist.
What materials do you recommend? How much do they cost?
To get you started, in the beginning you'll just need a headset (probably your instructor can provide one for the first few lessons), a logbook, charts, and studying materials. Let's take them in turn:
Do I need to join a flight school? What are my options to getting into flying?
The FARs allow for training under a structured and approved syllabus - part 141 of the FARs, or unstructured learn-as-you-go - part 61. The former is usually the way to go if you want to get to the airlines in a hurry (although they don't seem to be hiring too much lately). The latter is the common way to go if you want to take your time and do this for your pleasure (this doesn't preclude you from working for the airlines later if you so desire).
Part 61 instruction is provided by a flight instructor (CFI). You will be renting a plane through a club or an FBO (fixed based operator) and advancing at your own pace. You can get ground instruction through a ground school (organized by clubs or community colleges in your area), or learn by yourself with your instructor's guidance.
If you are not a US citizen, you can still receive instruction in US, but you first need to ask for the approval to start training from TSA. Once you have selected a CFI, you can initiate the process online at www.flightschoolcandidates.gov. If this is the first time you do it, budget in a couple of weeks before you can start training.
What are the requirements for getting an airplane private pilot certificate?
Health-wise, you need a third class medical certificate. It is easy to obtain from an FAA approved physician, and if you are under 40, it's valid for 5 years (2 years for people over 40). Age-wise, in US you need to be 17 (16 to solo, aka with nobody else in the plane).
You will need to pass a written knowledge exam. The questions are multi-choice, and are published along with answers and explanations (the Gleim book is a highly recommended source). Of course, there are FAA regulations you need to know, known as FARs, as well as the AIM which explains the plane operation and flying procedures. Both, along with other materials, are available on the FAA website (faa.gov).
The minimum amount of hours legally required to obtain a private pilot certificate is 40 (part 61). It's an antiquated number, which doesn't take into account the complexity of nowadays airspace, avionics and regulations. You will likely be flying more than 40, especially if you are not able to train every day - and most people aren't. The skill is just like that, if you don't use it, you lose it... The average flying time a student puts toward getting his or her license in US seem to be around 70 hours. Let's say you fly 2 times a week, for a total of 3 hours, you will probably finish up in 55-60 hours and 4-5 months. It's all up to you. Some people do it in a month in accelerated programs, for others it may take 1-2 years.
There are 2 phases in training: pre-solo, where you fly with an instructor and practice a lot of takeoffs and landings; and a post-solo phase when you combine flying with an instructor with practicing by yourself. You must also have at least 5 hours of solo cross-country (with a leg of at least 50 nautical miles), and a bunch of other minor requirements (such as 3 hours of night flying - with an instructor). When you complete all requirements and the instructor thinks you are ready he or she will endorse you to take your checkride (I will add a description of my checkrides soon, in a different article).
What are the costs? How much time and resources will it take to become private pilot?
Expect location to play an important part in estimating your costs. Flight instruction can vary from $25 in the some states to $100 or more in others (for instance, in certain parts of California). Consider $40-60 to be the average. Most instruction is done both in the air and on the ground, in pre and post flight sessions. For every hour of flight time, expect to pay 1.2-1.5 times or more than the actual flight time, for instruction.
The price of fuel plays a big part in the rental rates; as such, rentals for single engine planes can vary from a $80/hour in a Cessna 152 to a $300/hour Cirrus (wet - which means 'including the fuel'). In the beginning of your training, it's probably beneficial if you stick to the low end planes (just as you wouldn't start learning to drive in a Ferrari). The basic principles of flying are the same and you will want a plane that flies slow enough and is not overly complex, such that you don't feel overwhelmed. Some people do their private pilot training in multi-engine planes, but they are the exception, rather than the rule. Since multi-engines have (usually) two engines burning fuel, the costs of such training is proportionally greater.
There are several ground school courses, if you choose to go this way, which vary in cost from $100 to $500. They vary in time span from a weekend crash course aimed at helping you pass the written test, to a 10 weeks or longer course with one topic per week. Remember, these courses are not mandatory for part 61, so feel free to study by yourself if that works better for you than being in a class.
You should factor in costs for the FAA final exam (checkride), about $400-500, as well as the written exam $100. Hopefully, you only have to take them once. Another expense is the medical exam, which is around $100.
Miscellaneous costs should include a basic headset, from the used passive ones you can get on ebay for around $50 to the high-end active noise reducing (ANR) Bose X or Lightspeed Zulu you can get for around $900 new. You may want to go for a low end headset first, at least till you know you are hooked to flying. Later you can pass it on to your passengers while you go for the better ones. Don't forget books (though you could do with the online versions, you probably will need a hard copy as well), DVDs if you learn better that way, calculator, bag, chart subscription and other minor costs. Many flight clubs have quite expensive joining fees and monthly fees, whereas others (a minority) have no fees at all.
Overall, your costs can vary anywhere between $8 to $12000. It greatly depends on how often you train (the more frequent you train, the cheaper it gets), what plane you choose, where you train and how thrifty you are.
What about flight packages? Accelerated programs?
Some flight schools advertise training packages of maybe $5 to $6000. Honestly, if you can achieve your certification with that little money, kudos to you. However, you should keep in mind a few things: most such packages are based on the minimum FAR requirements. This assumes a very intensive training schedule to get things done quickly, with little or no retraining between sessions. The miscellaneous costs are usually not included, neither are the exam fees. Don't forget the delays caused by maintenance problems (these are almost a given). Some might be able to do it in such a short time, but likely most can't, in my opinion. I'm not saying accelerated programs are a bad thing, just do your own math before getting into one.
This is usually the path to go when pursuing a more advanced rating, such as multi-engine. It is a different type of training, requiring fewer hours and can be readily done in a more condensed fashion.
What plane should I choose?
Most people train in a single engine plane. It's much cheaper and you can always add a multi-engine rating later. The same concept applies to a land plane versus a seaplane, as well as the tri-cycle gear versus taildragger. A taildragger is less and less used nowadays, although there are instructors ready to proclaim taildragger supremacy in teaching new students the proper way to fly. However, most clubs don't have taildraggers, and the majority of pilots never fly one.
The most common trainers, as well as the most common planes in general aviation (GA), are the Cessna 172. They've been built for more than 50 years, with no radical changes in the design (though the avionics have certainly changed). A Cessna 172 carries 4 people (and not much luggage), and can travel 5-800 miles at speeds varying between 110 to about 140 mph (depending on year, model, engine, etc.). Its smaller and younger brother is the Cessna 152, which can carry 2 people for about 4-500 miles at about 110-120 mph. Both have a high wing, which gives good visibility to the ground, but hinders visibility above you.
Pipers are low-wing major trainers. The Piper Cherokee and it's younger (and larger) brother, the Warrior, have the nice visibility and gentle handling abilities of the Cessnas. Pipers are as old as Cessnas, and boast similar performance. Both of them can carry 4 people (though tight in the Cherokee). Range may be a little longer for a Piper, depending on the size of the tank - based on the year the plane was built. Keep in mind; when considering range, you should think in terms of [almost] straight lines across the map. It makes quite a difference when compared to driving car miles. Pipers and Cessnas rent for similar rates as well, so in the end it all comes down to personal preference.
There are lots of instructors, and once you are satisfied you have chosen a good one (via recommendations, asking around at the flying club, taking a few discovery flights), try out the different choices of planes your club has to offer. In the end, you will probably get checked-out in all of them sooner or later (probably after you complete your training).
I want to be a professional pilot.
There is a lot to say about choosing flying as a career path, from potential fields (passenger, cargo, charter, fractional), to classification of companies (regional, national, major, freight, and so on). There is also alot to say about the miserable salary you'd get as a first officer for your first years, the minimums you need to get hired, and the possibility of furlough. I don't have first hand knowledge, even though I've spent countless hours reading others' accounts on forums. Probably, the best thing for you is to research on sites like airlinepilotcentral.com, willflyforfood.cc, and jetcareers.com
Are there forums where I will get good answers if I have questions?
Yes, there is a lot of good information out there. Just check the forums on the sites I mention in the paragraph above. That should be a good starting point to give you an idea about the salary, upgrade times, and general state of the industry. These sites are also quite helpful when it comes to answering GA questions.
Are there iPhone, iPad, and Android flight apps?
The advent of smartphones and tables brings something to the world of flying as well. Many dedicated apps come to these GPS enabled devices, adding to the overall situational awareness of the pilot. I've tried several of them and these are the ones I found to be most helpful:
The fun side of flying.
I can't define why I enjoy flying as much. It may be the great views from above, the challenge the machine presents you, the adrenaline and freedom of being your own master up there (well, aside from the FAA). Every person has his or her own reasons. But once you have the certificate in your pocket, you'll find there are lots of places you want to visit. You may not have the self-confidence just yet, so feel free to take a pilot friend with you along for the ride. However, you will learn by trying, and you don't realize how much you can accomplish until you have tried. I started by taking my office mates on short trips right after I received my certificate. A few months later I ended up taking a flight well over 2000 nautical miles long, to Baja Sur Mexico. I was the sole pilot (with two passengers) on what proved to be an exhausting three days of flight, logging about 24 hours for the trip. I had the chance to pet whales in Laguna San Ignatio, to land on crushed sea shells runway strips, and generally have a good time while honing my flying skills. This is part of a trip Sundance Flying Club organizes each spring.
Flying presents a great deal of challenges, requires serious commitment and study, and is not the least expensive of pastimes. However, the rewards are great. It opens up a whole world of possibilities. All I can say is to go down to the local flight club, and ask for a discovery flight. You won't regret it.