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How does pilot certification work in the United States?

- The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulates pilot training and certification. For someone wanting to learn to fly powered airplanes (airplanes with engines), there are three options to get started.

  • Sport Pilot Certificate

  • Recreational Pilot Certificate

  • Private Pilot Certificate

The Sport Pilot Certificate allows someone to fly lightweight, limited performance airplanes for fun. It requires fewer training hours, but is very limiting in the number of airplanes that one can fly. Unfortunately, the FAA doesn't provide an "upgrade" path from Sport Pilot to Private Pilot, so we recommend avoiding this certificate.

The Recreational Pilot Certificate was created prior to the Sport Pilot Certificate, and has fewer restrictions than the Sport Pilot, but it too is not the best option for pursuing a pilot's certificate.

Most people, including all individuals wanting to pursue flying as a career, start with a Private Pilot Certificate. This is the most flexible of the initial training options, and opens the door to more complex and capable airplanes and additional certificates and ratings.

How do I get started?

- If you are a U.S. Citizen, all that's required to start your training is an interest in learning to fly, a government issued photo id, proof of U.S. Citizenship, and the financial means to pay for your training. If you are not a U.S. Citizen, you must first apply for permission to train with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). Once approval is granted, you proceed with training just like a U.S. Citizen.

How does flight training differ from most other forms of training and certification?

- Getting a private pilot certificate requires that you demonstrate adequate knowledge of the subject areas deemed important by the FAA by completing both a computer-based test and an oral examination with an individual approved by the FAA to conduct the test. Additionally, you must demonstrate acceptable performance on a practical test where you perform a predetermined set of flight maneuvers with an examiner. Simply completing the required number of hours or graduating from a training course does not guarantee a Private Pilot Certificate. You must demonstrate your knowledge and ability to an examiner face-to-face and in an airplane. Additionally, most flight training is conducted one-on-one with a flight instructor and is tailored to your schedule and availability.

What should I look for in a flight instructor / flight school?

- It's critical that you get along with your instructor. You need to connect with them and be able to open yourself up to their feedback and guidance. A good flight instructors isn't necessarily someone with 1,000's of hours of flight time, but rather someone who truly understands and can help you learn how to fly. You also want to make sure the airplanes you fly are mechanically maintained (not necessarily cosmetically maintained) and that there's sufficient availability of both instructor and airplane to support your training needs. An ugly airplane isn't necessarily an unsafe airplane. Flight schools operate with very slim margins, and good ones will invest their money into keeping the airplanes safe and mechanically sound but may choose to forego things like paint and interior upgrades.

How much is it going to cost and how long will it take?

- This is obviously an important consideration for anyone learning to fly. Unfortunately no one is able to predict exactly how many hours it will take you to complete your training. Since "complete" means "able to pass a computer-based test, a face-to-face review, and a practical (flying) test, merely getting through the material or flying the minimum number of hours does not earn you a certificate. Less than ideal weather, mechanical issues (airplanes are like boats and suffer frequent yet minor issues), scheduling conflicts, your basic aptitude, and your personal life can all negatively impact your progress and the total amount of time and money you invest in completing your training. Having a good instructor is an important factor in maximizing your investment, but the amount of time and focus you put towards your training when you're not at the airport is the single greatest influence on your progress. A close second is the frequency with which you fly. Most experienced instructors recommend flying 2-3 times per week to ensure you make consistent progress towards your goal. Less frequent trips to the airport will extend your training time, cost you more in total investment, and hamper your progress. Learning to fly is like growing a garden; after preparing the field and planting the seeds, it's important to consistently water the plants and pick the weeds.

- While it's impossible to predict exactly how much it will cost, a safe estimate for the average person is $10,000. That includes all the costs including flight training time, the medical exam, the written exam, the final (practical exam), and miscellaneous "stuff" like headsets, kneeboards, etc. Many do it for less and some invest more.

What's the best airplane in which to learn to fly?

- Basic trainers such as the Cessna 172 or the Piper Warrior / Archer are the best option for most people. They're reasonable comfortable, have predictable and benign handling characteristics, and are usually easy to locate in most cities. It's possible to learn is bigger, faster, more complex, and more unique airplanes, but the 172 and Warrior / Archer offer no surprises and are usually relatively cheap to operate. If your ultimate goal is to fly and own a Cirrus, then a Cirrus SR20 makes an excellent learning tool. It will take more hours to master a faster, more complex airplane, but there's no substitute for time in a specific make and model of airplane.

Can you describe a "typical" flight lesson?

- During private pilot training, a typical lesson will consume around 2 hours of clock time and will be booked on the schedule as 1:00-3:00. Arriving at the airport a few minutes before 1:00, you'll visit the restroom and grab a bottle of water in preparation for your lesson. You will meet with your instructor for 10-15 minutes to discuss the previous lesson, the weather and other considerations for the day's flight, and review the maneuvers you will perform in the airplane during the day's lesson. Once you and your instructor are confident you're prepared, you will proceed to the airplane to perform the pre-flight inspection (completed before EVERY flight for the rest of your flying career). Once you and your instructor are satisfied the airplane is ready for flight, you will proceed with your flying lesson. After returning to the airport, shutting down and securing the airplane, you will head inside to discuss the lesson including what went well and what needs improvement, and to develop a plan for the next lesson. You will be charged for the time spent with your instructor prior to, during, and following your flight. Usually this will be 15-30 minutes of ground instruction before and after and 1.2 - 1.4 hours of airplane rental and instruction time (flight training is billed in 10ths of an hour - 6 minute blocks).