Learning to Fly a Plane

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Learning to fly heavier-than-air powered craft is undoubtedly a prodigiously rewarding life experience. It affords a sense of absolute freedom, control in three dimensions, and the stunning cockpit vistas are otherworldly. There’s no other feeling quite like owning mastery over a complex machine, flying through the ever-changing panoply of weather and airspace, and setting the main landing gear down effortlessly at the destination airport. What’s more is the act of sharing the flying experience with others can be a source of great satisfaction.

Common questions surrounding the expansive subject typically concern certification requirements, flight schools, costs, and length of training. It’s easy to get lost in minutiae when discussing flight training due to its expansive nature. This editorial is intended to introduce some of the very basics to those who have not given training much thought.

Graham in the cockpit
Graham in the cockpit

The Introductory Flight


An introductory flight is a short flight with an instructor pilot, whereby prospective students can experience aircraft operations and ask questions about training. These flights consist of about ½ hour to 1 hour of flight time with an instructor in an airplane and, depending on your level of comfort, may be hands-on.

Many instructor pilots allow prospective students to manipulate the controls during the introductory flight, sans the complex operations of takeoff and landing. Fortunately, most aircraft have two separate sets of controls and the instructor is able to manipulate them, if necessary to correct minor errors in flight path. Have no fear! Instructors are highly trained professionals and will not allow an error to be made that would either cause a scare or put the aircraft in jeopardy.

How Much Does an Introductory Flight Cost?

In large metropolitan areas like Chicago or Philadelphia, it is commonplace for one or more flight schools to run promotions on the likes of Groupon or Travelzoo. If unfamiliar with either, both websites provide access to an array of deals for local products & services all over the country. Expect to spend anywhere from about $50-$250 on the introductory flight, with the rate mostly dependent on aircraft type and flight school location. As a caveat, many flight schools put an expiry date on the use of these coupons, so be mindful of the date if you decide to purchase from either website.

Final Approach to Chicago’s Midway Airport
Final Approach to Chicago’s Midway Airport

Flight School Locations

There are flight schools interspersed all over the United States. It is highly likely that almost everyone in the contiguous United States lives within an hour of an airport that contains a flight school. In large metropolitan areas, there is a high likelihood that a smorgasbord of flight schools exists to choose from. Unfortunately, flight training is sparse or cost-limited outside of the United States. This is the result of expensive insurance and fuel. Moreover, user fees are collected on each landing or use of navigational facilities. In fact, many trainee pilots travel to the United States to earn certifications. For example, Lufthansa Airlines sends their pilot cadets to Arizona for ab initio training.

Basic Medical Requirements

There are medical requirements for certification, which widely vary depending on the certificate pursued. Before receiving the Private Pilot certification, at least a FAA 3rd Class Medical is required. It is important to note that the Sport Pilot and Recreational Pilot can “self-certify” medical airworthiness. Self-certify means that, if the pilot has a valid driver's license, no medical exam is needed and the pilot makes the determination if medically fit to fly. This is not recommended. There exists a litany of latent adverse medical conditions that could affect flight safety.

The 3rd Class Medical is much like a standard physical examination covering, in part, health history, blood pressure, urinalysis, hearing, and vision. Although not required, it is highly advisable to get a medical certificate before training. There have been a number of student pilots who insisted on starting training without a medical certificate and, after spending a large sum on flight training, found that there was a medical condition that was disqualifying. Medical Certification is a somewhat complex legal thicket, as is most aspects of aviating. Learn more about FAA Medicals here.

Types of Certifications

There are 4 certifications that new pilots work towards, but this is by no means an exhaustive list of the obtainable licenses:

1. Student Pilot

This certificate requires no training to obtain. It is a certificate that, when endorsed by an instructor pilot, allows solo flight in aircraft before full certification is obtained. There will be restrictions on student pilot solo operations, which are determined by the Federal Aviation Administration and by the Flight Instructor performing the training.

2. Sport Pilot

An individual who is authorized to fly only Light-Sport Aircraft

3. Recreational Pilot

A certification that allows operation of aircraft of up to 180 horsepower and 4 seats, in daytime and for pleasure only.

4. Private Pilot

Allows the highest level of privilege and flexibility. There are no limits on the number of passengers you can carry, airspace traversed, and horsepower or aircraft class (class means single-engine, multi-engine, landplane, and/or seaplane). To fly more complex aircraft may require a trifle more training. Moreover, the private pilot is trained to a superlative degree compared to the aforementioned certificates. I highly recommend obtaining the PPL (Private Pilot License) over the others.

Off the Carolina Coast near Cape Hatteras
Off the Carolina Coast near Cape Hatteras

Choosing an Instructor

Flight Instructor matching is extremely important and you want to be sure that a candidate ultimately chosen is a good personality match. It is desirable to find someone who makes you feel safe and comfortable, has excellent communications skills, and who will foster a robust learning environment.

Some common considerations to contemplate when choosing an instructor are:

A Canadair Regional jet parked at Philadelphia International Airport
A Canadair Regional jet parked at Philadelphia International Airport

It may be worth it to fly the first few lessons with different instructors to discover the style of teaching most comfortable. This may cost extra, but it beats flying with an incompatible instructor and having to switch mid-training, which will end up costing more.

The flight-training environment can be stressful and it necessitates the instructor and student is on the same page. I firmly believe that personality matching is an important aspect of success and worth the time to mull over before the initiation of training.

Outside Resources & Final Thoughts

For more detailed information on pilot medicals and certification see the following links:

The Federal Aviation Administration has developed many training tools since its inception. Downloadable free copies of FAA pilot training books are provided in PDF format on FAA.gov. Below are links to some of the books that are needed to learn to fly (If the link gets broken, search the hyperlinked term in your browser to find the PDF):

Aviating is an elite and exclusive club, with pilots comprising approximately 0.0021% of the population of the United States. Pilot training is a worthwhile journey and a watershed event that will challenge both intellectually and spiritually. Although the training can be an end in itself, the fruits of training will afford a lifelong journey of discovery and new means by which to explore the world.

Blue Skies and Tailwinds

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Graham Hoff-Downing

I am the resident pilot at Backpacker Travel and I'm ready to give you all the inside tips to make your flight more pleasurable and informed. So take a seat, we will be taking off soon!

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2 comments on “Learning to Fly a Plane”

  1. I like how the article explains that by obtaining a private pilot license, there are no restrictions to the type of aircraft you can fly and how many passengers you can take. My husband is wanting to become a pilot and he is wanting to work for an airline to be able to fly all over the world. We will look into having him work to obtain a private pilot license so he can work for an airline.

  2. Great post Graham. Almost everything that one needs to know before joining a flight school for training or just for pleasure. I want to add something to it.
    It's always good to do a Google search before joining a flight school. An area based Google search will give a list of almost all schools in that area and then you can check out the reputation of all of them one by one as well as price differences. Find out the best and go ahead.

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