I have held this post in draft for a really long time, hoping friends and fiends would never know about the ineptness, humiliation, blips and the frustration I underwent (and still go through) when I decided to learn flying. However, even at the cost of looking like a nincompoop to these crass friends, I would let this post go live, simply because of the dearth of information out there. Had I known about a few things before-hand, I might have done better, cheaper and certainly faster.
Everyone wants to fly but not everyone is supposed to fly or can fly. Period.
Before you go ahead and dive in, ask yourself:
- Flying requires tremendous amounts of discipline, not to mention undergoing severe trauma. Would you rather be drinking in a pub and hitting on someone else other than your head?
- Can you deliver 100% efficiency in times of severe stress, frustration, foreboding and dread?
- What is the reason you want to learn flying? Is it to look cool among your friends or you’re in love with the idea of the whole thing?
- You do realize you would be subjected to cruel jokes, guffaws and taunts by some much younger and smarter than you, a situation rife with demeaning and pride-gutting ego-busters. Do you?
- Flying requires consistent investment in time, energy and monies. Not much fun, studies too and they account for more hours on ground than in air.
If you still think flying is the thing for you, read on …
Who can fly?
Any US citizen, or an alien above the age of 17 can get a private pilot certificate. If you are a resident alien, you would need a TSA clearance before you can begin your training. This however, excludes the demo flight.
What kind of license /training / hours are we talking about?
In aviation terminology, certificates are granted for a particular class, type and category of an aircraft and combined with a medical certificate for that given profile grants one a license to fly (in that class, category, type etc). Different types of certificates are: Student Pilot, Sport Pilot, Recreational Pilot, Private Pilot, Commercial Pilot, Airline Transport Pilot (ATP), Certified Flight Instructor (CFI) etc.
Once you begin your training, you are called a “student pilot” – term used to raise guffaws around the flight clubs. A sport pilot is restricted to only the Light Sport aircraft; not very interesting in my opinion, a recreational pilot cannot take any passengers (neither can the sport pilot or the student pilot) so the only seemingly obvious first step is the private pilot certificate.
A private pilot certificate requires at least 40 hours of flight time that includes
- At least 20 hours of flight training from an authorized instructor and
- 10 hours of solo flight training in the areas of operation listed in FAR 61.107(b) (1).
Flight Training must include:
- 3 hours of cross-country flight training
- 3 hours of night flight training including
One cross-country flight of over 100 nautical miles total distance and 10 takeoffs and 10 landings to a full stop
- 3 hours of flight training on the control and maneuvering of an airplane solely by reference to instruments, including straight and level flight, constant airspeed climbs and descents, turns to a heading, recovery from unusual flight attitudes, radio communications, and the use of navigation systems/facilities and radar services appropriate to instrument flight;
- 3 hours of flight training in preparation for the practical test in the preceding 60 days.
- Solo Flight Training must include
5 hours of solo cross-country time including:
One solo cross-country flight of at least 150 nautical miles total distance, with full-stop landings at a minimum of three points, and one segment of the flight consisting of a straight-line distance of at least 50 nautical miles between the takeoff and landing locations
Three takeoffs and three landings to a full stop at an airport with an operating control tower.
In terms of requirements, as long as you can read, write and speak in English, are 17 years or above(16 to solo) and have a good medical history, you should be good to go.
Where do you learn to fly?
Typically, this question is also asked as “How do I choose a flight school?” If I were to stretch the facts a little, I think there are more flight schools than students, more conmen than the men, more boys than the girls. You do not choose a flight school. You choose an instructor who will do the unthinkable for you. Instead of fleecing your money, he would be the last man standing between you and certain death. He won’t even expect you to apologize even though you’d try to kill him, to the best of your ability, multiple times, over and over again. He’d be your life long teacher, not your pal. Choosing a flight school is easy. Find the instructor first, ask your friends, ask for feedback, references, meet him/her. If you think he fits the description, you choose the school where he goes. Not the other way around.
Choosing an instructor also involves getting a demo flight with him. You get a free hour or more of ground lesson, followed by an hour of flight in a trainer plane. Usually, you would pay about $100 for the plane and one hour of time with the instructor (in flight). Anything less or more, should cause a suspicion. Be aware however, the instructor should also spend enough time interviewing you, on why you want to fly etc. Not finding that interview is a red flag -- Long after you’re done with your training, the instructor is still responsible for you, you carry his seal of approval after all. You do a mistake, he gets the blame, no wait, the FAA goes after him. There is a good reason, he should be interested in taking good students and making sure they learn the right way. You should also know, you ‘re talking to a guy/lady who can permanently bar you from flying – ever in life (Yes, a CFI is that big a deal).
The CFIs (Certified flight instructors) also decide where you’re going to practice. Usually, it would be a general aviation airport nearby your/his place. Don’t think of a GA as a place where no jets fly; they’re just more of training and fun places where you don’t have long waits for checkin and baggage screening. Also, your CFI may, at his discretion decide to fly you, even at a commercial, busy airport; don’t be surprised.
How much does it cost?
It depends. The FAA minimum is 40 hours but very few people can do that. The US national average is about 70 hours. Generally speaking, the younger you are, the faster you learn. Students start out with the worry of doing it in shortest amount of time (targeting 40 hours) but as they progress, they wisely focus on getting it right, rather than within a certain time-limit. The realization that the only punishment available in the air is “certain death” doesn’t hit until a few lessons down the road.
A student pays for instructor’s time while the instructor is with him. And for the plane time (Hobbs) while the engine is running. A typical class is 1 hour of ground lesson followed by one hour of training in the plane. So, you’d pay for about 2 hours of instructor time plus (less than) an hour of Hobbs (plane with the engine running). Usually GA planes are charged in terms of Wet Hobbs – basically fuel is already included. A senior CFI would normally charge $50 -$75 in/around bay area per hour of his time. A Cessna 172N would cost about $70-$120 per hour. An important point to note, when you’re learning to fly, do so in the cheapest possible plane. All the trainer planes are the same except for a few bells and whistles. the aerodynamic principles are the same as they were a hundred years back. As a private pilot student, those digital gauges and complicated cockpits only slow you down, not help you in any way.
Some places also suggest taking ground lessons separately from another school since its cheaper. I don’t see how it would work cheaper since, you and the instructor would be on a totally different place, pace and lessons. The best way to learn a maneuver is to read it, discuss it and immediately go and practice it.
How can I minimize the cost required?
Most CFIs would say, everybody learns at a different pace so chill-out. That statement is true. However, if I had known a few things before-hand, I could have saved quite a few hours. Some things to watch out for:
Flight Simulators are bad.
When you start to learn how to fly that is. Flying is an acquired skill which needs eyes, ears and your butt; in that order. A flight simulator gives no real outside view, causes you to fixate/rely on the instruments, gives you very little feedback in terms of what you need to hear and gives no feedback on your butt which is necessary for coordination in a real flight. Learning wrong requires that you have to un-learn first, and this time, you’re paying money to get back on track where a beginner would have started (who did not fly Flight simulators). When you are working for your instrument rating, yeah a flight simulator might help but certainly not for VFR (Visual Flying Rules).
Now some people might argue that by buying really expensive multiple displays, flight rudder and joystick and by using real-world mapping software, they can get much more realism and fly for free, the truth is far from that. A joystick doesn’t change its mean position from where it is. A real stick does, depending on the throttle position, headwind and other conditions. A joystick rarely ever fights you back, a real plane can fight you really hard, you might even need to go to the gym to be able to hold that much pressure. In a real plane, your butt tells you when you’re sinking or climbing, in a simulator there is no such thing. the longer you stare inside the cockpit, the sooner you can sink/climb/deviate in a plane. The simulator rudder is nothing like the real thing either, sometimes, you need to press it so hard, you can literally work a sweat, a simulator rudder pedal gives in way too easily. Stay away from anything even remotely called simulator until its the right time.
Fly more often, without a break.
If you fly once a week (like I did in the beginning), not only is it going to take ages for you to get where you need to go but you’d forget much of what you learnt last week, much more of what you learnt previous week. You’d just be repeating your lessons again and again, not getting anywhere. Its a vicious circle; don’t do it. Start flying when you can do at least 4 lessons a week, consistently until you get your license. Don’t think you can allocate a few dollars every month and go as it comes. No, it has to be done as quickly as possible otherwise you’re going to need much more time to go over things you’ve forgotten. Most CFIs won’t proceed further until you’ve mastered one or two previous maneuvers/lessons and its like that for a reason. There’s no way around it.
Be ready for times of extreme frustration, foreboding and the dread – so much so that you might realize this whole thing to be no fun. You would seriously consider backing out. Another day, another morning and you would scorn at the thought, such is the lure of being up in the air.
Unlike anything else that you do, flying requires pin point precision and discipline. In my instructor words, “There is nothing like good enough. If its not right, fix it. Now.” As you progress in your instructions, you’d realize why it is so. There is no room for an error. If you did not do your studies, you’re not only not flying, you’re paying for the time that you did not even fly. Even if you’re flying, you’d have to repeat it again. The cost multiplies quickly, and the only way to keep it down is by adhering to something so simple – discipline. Studies are much more than you think they would be. And time management, multitasking was nothing until so far.
Did you know you and a friend of yours can share a ground class and save/share the cost of a ground lesson? Or, if two of you, one in the pilot seat and the other in the passenger seat can be in the plane at the same time – not only could you save on the taxi, engine run-up times but you can also learn things in a different perspective? Of course, a CFI has to allow you to do that and you must pass the Weight and Balance parameters? Learning to fly with a friend/spouse etc can be more advantageous than you think! Of course, there are certain disadvantages too. Not everybody learns at the same pace, nor can they always schedule time the same way.
Choose an airport wisely
I said a little while back choosing an instructor is the most important part of learning to fly. There is another one. Choosing the airport where you fly. If the airport is so busy that its always jammin’ in there, you’d be worried sick about the Air traffic Control gunning for you rather than be able to concentrate on flying. Even if there is no radio police there, when the ATC asks you to extend your downwind or upwind every time you’re trying to practice power off landings can be downright frustrating. Whenever there is heavy traffic, expect to spend more money too. You’re burning your Hobbs there, waiting for that lazy bum ahead of you in sequence to finish his run-up. Imagine a busy airport where there may be 5-10 or even more planes in line for takeoff? Or for parking? There’s a reason I chose Reid Hill View(RHV), not Palo Alto(PAX), not San Jose(SJC) or any other, even though it is farther than the SJC for me.
Some links for more information:
TSA’s Alien Flight School Program
AOPA’s Let’s go flying
Comments, questions, flames welcome.