There are two different tracks to becoming a licensed pilot. Prospective pilots can choose between a sport pilot or private pilot license. The sport pilot license requires less flight time and therefore less money, than the private pilot. However, since sport pilots have less training, there are more restrictions on their ability to fly.
Pilot licensing requirements are set forth in Part 61 of the Federal Aviation Regulations. The sport pilot license requires that the applicant be 17 years old (although students can solo at 16) and hold a U.S. driver’s license without health restrictions. The pilot must earn a minimum of 20 hours of flight time, pass a written test, and a practical test in the airplane, more commonly referred to as a check ride. Sport pilots are restricted to flying light sport aircraft and may not carry more than one passenger. They are not allowed to fly into airports with a control tower, above 10,000 feet, at night, or in instrument meteorological conditions (IMC), more commonly referred to as clouds and fog.
Private pilots are required to log at least 40 hours of flight time and must also be at least 17 years old. They must also pass a written test and check ride. Private pilots are not restricted to light sport aircraft, banned from towered airports and night flying, or limited to one passenger. Private pilots are limited to visual meteorological conditions (VMC) unless they have earned an instrument rating. Neither private pilots nor sport pilots are allowed to be paid for flying. That requires a commercial pilot license.
There are two different routes to earning either license. Most student pilots attend schools operated under FAR Part 61. These schools are informal and are found at many small airports around the country. They allow students to learn at their own pace and allow the instructor to have more flexibility with the syllabus.
The alternative is a school operated under FAR Part 141. These schools are typically larger flight academies, although some local schools also have approval from the FAA to operate under FAR 141. FAR 141 schools are more regimented, but allow students to earn their license with a slightly lower minimum number of flight hours.
In reality, either type of school is sufficient for most students. The important thing is to find a good flight instructor (CFI) with whom the student feels comfortable. A good instructor should have a good safety record and a record of training students successfully as well as a good rapport with the student. Don’t be afraid to ask for references from previous students.
Students who are considering an aviation career may want to consider attending one of the large professional aviation academies for subsequent training, but initially a local school should be sufficient for most pilots. Earning the private pilot license locally will allow the student to decide whether an aviation career is for them and will also likely be cheaper than attending a full-time school. The typical progression for professional pilots after the private license is the instrument rating, and then the commercial license and the multi-engine rating. After years of experience and 1,500 hours comes the airline transport pilot license (ATP), which allows the holder to fly as an airline pilot or captain of a private jet.
A common question is how much it costs to learn to fly. The answer varies depending on location, the aircraft used, and the learning ability of the student. In this era of high gas prices, the current price of fuel is a major factor. Often this cost is included in the total cost of aircraft rental. A sample listing of aircraft rental rates can be seen on the website of Lanier Flight Center, an Atlanta area flight school. Rental rates range from $124 per hour for a two-seat Cessna 162 Skycatcher to $143 per hour for a Cessna 172 Skyhawk. The Cirrus SR20 is a newer aircraft with more power and electronic flight displays, often called a “glass cockpit.” Air Ventures at Atlanta’s DeKalb-Peachtree airport rents these aircraft for $240 per hour. Many flight schools offer discounts for purchases of block time, for example, buying ten hours at once rather than paying for one hour at a time.
In addition to aircraft rental rates, the student must also pay the instructor for dual flight time, tuition for ground school, and a written test. Private pilot students must also get a flight physical by an FAA-approved Aviation Medical Examiner. Sport pilot medical requirements are met if the student holds a valid driver’s license. Local prices may vary, but All ATPs, a national chain of flight schools, offers the complete private pilot license for $9,995 as a 60 day course.
There are many free or low cost resources available to prospective pilots. The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association offers a free trial subscription to “Flight Training”, a magazine focused on student pilots. AOPA also sponsors Project Pilot, a program in which current pilots mentor new flight students. Additionally, a free Apple app for AOPA members offers online weather, airport and flight planning information. The Experimental Aircraft Association’s Young Eagles program offers free discovery flights to youths aged 8-17. The EAA also offers aviation camps and scholarships. Similarly, the Civil Air Patrol offers solo scholarships to some of its young cadet members. Many flight schools offer discovery flights to prospective pilots at special introductory rates.
The first step in learning to fly is to go to go talk to an instructor. Take an introductory flight to find out if flying is for you. Stop dreaming and start flying.
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