Darren Smith, Flight Instructor
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written by:  20 hour Student Pilot, obtained Private Pilot, 1997

If you've made the decision to learn how to fly, your next consideration should be how/where to get training.  The following is a set of tips derived from my research into flight training... and definitely from a student's perspective.  I'm not some salesperson trying to shove some $10,000 curriculum down your throat... these are my experiences in my quest.

Learning to fly was easier than I thought... you can do this.

Step One:  Determine How You're Going to Get Ground School Training

Method One
Your local airport will most likely have "ground school" training.  My particular ground school was offered at an airport close to work.  Every Tuesday night after work, I went over to the airport to spend three hours learning the finer points of aviation.  My instructor followed a syllabus and used materials provided by Jeppesen.  So I purchased the course and these materials after some research into what flight schools use.  Even though my school was not FAA regulated (Part141), they used the material that a Part 141 school uses (good sign, eh?).   I bought the Jeppesen Basic 141 training kit, about $200/USD.  You don't necessarily need to take a class at the college, but for me, it was a matter of having a schedule, a routine, and some discipline.  Some do well with self study materials.  The point is to cover the information required in Federal Aviation Regulations (FAR) 61.105.

Traditional ground school will consist of:  

-    Intro to Flight & aerodynamics
-    Instrumentation (knobs, dials, gauges)
-    Engines
-    Airport Operations (airspace, radios)
-    Aeromedical factors
-    Weather (& more weather & more weather)
-    Weather (again) services
-    Airplane performance & weight/balance
-    Navigation, Charts, Pubs, Computers
-    Navigation systems (very helpful)
-    Cross-Country flight planning (maps)
-    FAA Exam Review
To find the schools in your area, call "FBOs" listed in an airport directory.  A good on-line directory is available at AirNav.  They've also got links for weather, Fuel, Flight Training, Video Tapes, & Pilot Supplies.  They even have comments about airport businesses so you can get a feel for the character of the place.

Method Two
There are many other sources for flight training.  A second method may be for you if you're self motivated, disciplined and can focus.  Other "individual" sources of training include self study CDroms offered by Cessna (the folks that make the plane) as well as CDs and Video tapes from King Schools.  My airport offered free "rental" of the King & Jeppesen videos as part of the enrollment in ground school.  I found this is quite common and a great idea if you are visually stimulated (as I am).  If a traditional ground school class is not the thing for you, the Cessna and King materials can take you through everything you need.  You could potentially buy the self study materials and move right on to step two (below).

Method Three
A third method of ground instruction is directly from your Certificated Flight Instructor, at his hourly rate.  That can be expensive. Whoa.

It might also be useful to join an organization to help you obtain resources, such as AOPA.  They have a free kit to entice you to start flying... give 'em a ring.

Step Two:  During your fundamentals training (ground school), you'll want to start flying.

When to start?  I started after week one of ground school and by week three of ground school had 5 hours in the air and experience in three different aircraft.

How does one find an instructor?  In my area, there are probably 10 little airports.  Many with aircraft rentals, flying clubs, and most importantly... schools with instructors (aka FAA Certificated Flight Instructors).  A good on-line directory is available at AirNav.   Call each one of these and ask about a discovery flight -- usually around $40-50.  You'll want not only to review the airport & facilities, find out if they use the materials you've purchased (step one above) and can work with you using those materials.  You're looking specifically for a Certificated Flight Instructor who you will feel compatible with, not for more ground school, but the in the air, flying-around kind of training.  Other tips and a searchable database can be found at http://www.aopa.org/learntofly/findcfi/

Watch out for:

  • People who are just looking to build time and don't really care about you.  Find evidence during your contact with each instructor that they care about the pupil, their profession, and student progress/achievement.
  • What are the instructor's goals.  Do they want to be an airline pilot?  (You'll find this is quite common.)  You'll want to know if this person is currently and actively looking for an airline job and may disappear on you mid-training.  Remember, their motive is an airline career.  They only had to do the CFI route to build time to achieve their goals.  Teaching wasn't their first choice. Is that the kind of instructor you want? 
  • Make sure you're not dealing with a nutso that couldn't cut it in the military, socially unstable, etc.  A big red light is if they should criticize you during your "discovery" flight.... after all, you're not an accomplished pilot, yet.  The CFI that I decided to go with was extremely positive in their attitude towards teaching, flying, and student progress.  Was sincere and honest with me about what was possible.
  • Find out how long it takes for most of their students to finish?  Minimum is usually 20 hours of instruction, but can run as high as 50-60 hours (at $40-$55/hour - American dollars - not pesos).  You don't want someone that strings you along.  The CFI that I decided to go with was also extremely detail oriented.  Each session has a goal and was tied with the Jeppesen syllabus.  Progress is measurable, quantified.  I like that.
  • Don't take the quick route to get your private pilot certificate.  This stuff is important and people die when mistakes are made.  People are always focusing on the minimums to get the job done.  You don't want to be "just good enough," you want to have a solid understanding of safe practices.  Watch out for CFIs that dump too much on you in one lesson.  A structured learning experience that builds on previous success is a far better learning technique than the shotgun approach.  It may be frustrating to go slower, but the skill retention is higher which means your overall costs are lower.  And you're safer in the long run.
  • Make sure the CFI isn't going to waste time (at $30-$45/hour) extensively reviewing materials you learned in ground school.  Unfortunately some do... they need the cash.  You pay.
  • Communication style... can you understand this person while you're in the air?  Are the instructions clear?  Everyone thinks & reacts differently, don't be afraid to move onto the next CFI if you have any reservations.  Be picky.
  • Other Tips:
  • This stuff is expensive, don't waste your time or the instructor's by not keeping up with your ground school material.  Don't fly if you are not prepared for a lesson.  You will get the most bang for your bucks by being prepared. Even the best instruction cannot fully compensate for lack of preparation.
  • Stick with the aircraft you start with.  If you plan to "go all the way," then be sure your training aircraft is IFR qualified so you can use it for your instrument training.  I spent a lot of time flying different aircraft (152/172/172RG/182/Warrior/Archer/Arrow) which means re-learning checklists and procedures in each aircraft.  This increases your total training costs.  To keep your costs lowest, stick with the same aircraft throughout your Private and Instrument, and Commercial ratings.  By doing so, you'll become "the master of the aircraft" which is a necessary skill level for the commercial pilot certificate.   One exception:  during your commercial, you'll get some advanced training in a complex aircraft.
  • Make sure you know why the heck you want to learn how to fly.  This is not the place for "get over your fear of flying" therapy -- if you don't listen to what I am saying here, flight training is going to make you never want to come out of your house again.  There's some minimal personal risk to flying.  If you don't believe me, check out the NTSB aviation accident database.  Use this to review accidents in C150/152/172 planes to learn what went wrong.  I'm a firm believer in always examining your motivations for doing stuff... mine was to add some excitement to my life.  What's yours?
  • Determine how fast you want to get your pilot certification.  Flying once per week will give you one in 6 months.  For me, I am looking to get it asap... flying several times a week will be required.  The longer the time between lessons, the more the student forgets resulting in more time spent reviewing past lessons.  I don't want to go too fast that I might miss something important, or build the right skills to keep me safe.
  • If you're going to do this, make sure you have the commitment (including finances) to make it happen.  I've got a friend who never got to his solo flight (usually after 20-30 hours of CFI-led instruction) because of finances.  That was well over 5 years ago, and he has never gotten back into it.  I wish he would, its sad not to see others reach their goals, just think how it will feel if you don't make it.  See step three.  Once you start, don't stop. The aviation learning curve is steep enough to merit consistent attention until you achieve your goal.
  • Find out more about discovery flights: http://www.aopa.org/learntofly/startfly/stdnt.html
  • Information to obtain when you take all these "discovery flights"
  • Instructor qualifications, known as ratings, the more the better.  Examples:  CFI, CFII, MEI, ATP, etc. blah blah
  • Total time instructor has, for single engine, and multi engine.  If they have more than 200-400 hours of multi-engine time, they are likely interviewing with airlines.  And if they aren't, why not?  The instructor I decided on had approximately 1700 hours, approximately 400 hours was multi-engine time, so he's actively pursuing an airline job.  He disappeared mid-point through my training, right after my solo cross country.  I had to start over with another instructor, who spent several lessons reviewing my skills.
  • Cost of instruction, per hour.  Any chance of doing a deal on the side?  My CFI told me I could approach him for instruction on the side which would save me about $10/hour.  Be careful, he most likely wont be covered by insurance, nor will you if you fall out of the sky.  If you screw something up, and live, there could always be a lawsuit.  I might do a private deal with my CFI because I happen to be very cost conscious.  Turns out most CFI's do not carry personal liability insurance.  Does your instructor carry his own insurance in addition to the FBO he teaches from?
  • Types of aircraft available to rent
  • Cost of each aircraft, rental fee per hour
  • See if you can look at their master schedule to determine how busy they are.  Will your schedule and theirs sync up?  You're too busy is a really bad excuse.
  • Talk with other students (hang out for a while) to see who their instructor is, what their experiences are.  Most everyone I have EVER talked to loves to talk about their flight experiences.
  • Step Three:  What it costs

    This is a possible budget for obtaining your private pilot certification.  This is not bare minimum, its what I spent.

    Ground School
    Ground School Books
    Chocolate to overcome classroom boredom
    Headset, good quality, not the best, not the worst
    Discovery flights at various local airports
    Medical Certificate (see step #4 - below)
    Pilot Operating Handbook (for the aircraft you train in)
    FAA Written Test $80-90
    6 at 200
    4 at 200
    Aircraft Rental time, depending on type of aircraft rented. 5,000
    Instructor time (depends on your needs)

    $6,885 $8,700
    Be sure what you know what you are doing.  The good thing is if your on a six month time frame, the costs are much more reasonable than those of us who are on a two month time frame (like me).  Once you get started, never stop.  And keep in mind, once you get your certificate, you'll want to fly at least two times a month, at least.  Give yourself about $200/month in monthly aircraft rental to stay current (at minimum).  You could spend much more, and some will (like me).

    Step Four:  Medical Certificate

    You need a medical clearance before you solo.  Get it during your initial flight training.  Check the FAA website for medical doctors qualified to provide medical exams for pilots.  You want a Third-Class Medical Certificate.  If you're under 16, wait.  You can't solo until you're 16 anyway.  If you can't speak English, go learn.**    You've got to be able to speak, read, and understand the English language.

    ** Usted debe ser fluente en inglés conseguir un certificado modelo.  Tome una clase inglesa.
    ** Vous devez être facile en anglais pour obtenir un certificat pilote. Prenez une classe anglaise.

    Step Five:  Flying Lessons

    Typical flying lesson:
    1.  Preflight weather check
    2.  Preflight briefing (maneuvers to be worked on this session).
    3.  Preflight inspection of aircraft.
    4.  Preflight checklists, taxi, and run-up.
    5.  In-flight review of previous material
    6.  In-flight activities as planned.
    7.  Post flight briefing (evaluation, logbook endorsement)

    Other Tips:

    • Try to have at least one lesson per week... keeps stuff fresh in your head.
    • Try to get 10-15 hours in each of the various airplanes.  Get some variety - not too much that you're reviewing the same lessons over and over.
    • Be wary of excessive ground instruction if you've already taken a ground class.
    Next >>


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