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  • Virginie Rollin

How do I Become a Pilot?

Are you daydreaming of soaring through the sky? Of seeing the world from a bird's perspective? How do you make this dream come true? I will give you some tips on how to become a private pilot here.

Plan, plan, plan

Before you jump in an airplane, have a plan in place. Becoming a pilot can be a long and costly process, and if you want to achieve your goal, planning is worth it.

First, have you ever been in a small plane before? How do you know whether you'll like it or not? Before you spend you life savings on flight lessons, take an introductory flight. Ask a friend with a plane to take you up. If that's not an option, most flight schools offer "discovery flights" where you can be a student for an hour with no commitment. This is also a good way to start looking for flight schools.

So you took that first flight, and you had butterflies in your stomach and you can't stop dreaming about going back? Then flying is for you and you need to plan your next step. Becoming a private pilot requires a minimum of 40 flight hours, but most people take between 70 and 80 hours before they are ready for their checkride. So you need to have a plan for the cost of those lessons, and for the time commitment.

Part 61 or part 141?

Part what now? When pilots talk about "parts", they are often referring to Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations, or 14 CFR, also called FAR for Federal Aviation Regulations. These are the rules every pilot, flight school, maintenance shop, airline, operator, ... has to follow. 14 CFR is divided into parts that deal with different areas of aviation. There are two ways you can become a private pilot: following Part 61, or through a Part 141 school.

What is the difference between the two, and how do you know which one is best for you? First, because they operate under different parts, they have different rules. Part 141 schools need to have an approved curriculum that all instructors have to follow, and they have strict rules to follow to stay compliant. This results in a very structured education, much like at a university. As a matter of fact, some universities are Part 141 flight schools. These schools tend to be better for students who want to go beyond the private pilot level and are aiming for a professional pilot career. They can also be more expensive and can require large upfront payments. If you are a foreign national who needs a visa to come study for your pilot license, you'll need to go through a Part 141 school that can sponsor you.

If you decide to train through Part 61, you can either find a flight school, or you can train with an individual instructor. If you have your own plane (wait, I can own a plane as a student pilot?!?), you can find a local instructor to train on your plane. Part 61 training gives you a lot more flexibility as you schedule your lessons on your own terms. Your instructor should still have a syllabus that they follow for your training, and when you are choosing your instructor, you should ask about it. If you are a foreign national, a part 61 flight school cannot sponsor you for a visa, but if you are already in the US, they can train you, provided you can pass a TSA background check (and yes, even if you hold a green card, you still need that background check).

How much does it cost?

The answer to that question can vary greatly. Depending on the flight school, location, how often you fly and how much time you need, it can cost anywhere between $5,000 and $15,000 to get your private pilot certificate. Flying often can reduce the cost of your training (I would recommend at least two lessons a week) because you retain more information between lessons.

There are different ways to pay for flight training, but whatever you choose, you should have your plan in place so finances don't slow you down. You can obviously use your personal savings, you can apply for a personal loan. There are some scholarships you can apply for as well, but for most of them you need to have a plan in case you don't get the scholarship or it doesn't cover everything.

What are the different steps of training?

You will have 3 tests you'll need to pass before you can become a private pilot. The written, the oral and the flight tests. The oral and flight tests are usually scheduled at the same time, but the written needs to be taken and passed before you can be recommended for the oral and flight tests.

To prepare for the written, you can attend ground school (Aiming Higher Academy can help you with that), purchase a self paced prep course, or study using book. Either way is fine, so choose what works best for you. The written test consists of 60 questions, and you'll have 2.5 hours to answer them and receive a minimum of 70% to pass. Your written test results will be valid for 24 calendar months after you pass, so you'll need to finish training within that timeframe.

You will prepare for the oral and flight tests with your flight instructor. Your first step will be to solo in the plane. Your instructor will have to make sure you can land the plane consistently, communicate with ATC, react properly in case of an emergency. This is a huge step and it may take time to get there, so keep training consistently. Once you solo, your instructor will start training you on cross-country flying, which will end with your long solo cross country. Your instructor will teach you throughout your training the maneuvers you need to demonstrate during your checkride (stalls, steep turns, slow flights, ground reference maneuvers). Once your instructor believes you are ready, they will recommend you for your oral and flight tests (they'll endorse you).

If you pass the test, you are done and you are a private pilot! You can take an airplane and go fly it (almost) whenever you want! If you don't pass the test, don't stress out. You can re-test after receiving some additional instruction from your instructor. You don't need to re-take any part of the test that you have already passed (like the oral for example). You may just have to demonstrate the short field landing that you botched because the wind was a bit stronger than usual.

How do I get started?

After you choose your flight school and/or instructor, line up your finances and make sure you have the time to fly regularly, you'll need to apply for a student pilot certificate. It is free, but you need to be at least 16 years old to apply. Your instructor should explain the procedure to you, which will require you create an account on IACRA and submit an application. You'll need to meet with your instructor so they can approve your application and print your temporary student pilot certificate.

Although you don't need your student pilot certificate or your medical certificate to start training, you'll need both before you solo. It is a good idea to get your 3rd class medical certificate early in training (or before starting) so that any potential issues can be worked out before you get too involved.

All that is left is to schedule your first flight lesson with your instructor and start flying!

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