Saturday, June 18, 2005

So you want to be a pilot?

Do you always request a window seat when you fly? Ever had that “flying” dream and wish you didn’t wake up? Maybe you should become a pilot. Many people think that pilots are a special breed of person. That’s true, sort of… Most pilots begin start out as a person of average skill and ability. Electing to follow their dream, and gaining a skill that very few people on the world have, is what sets them apart. It’s not hard to become a pilot. Most people can do it. If you want to learn about becoming a pilot, you’re in the right place!

Before we get started, we need to get one thing out of the way – nothing on this web site is intended as flight instruction. Once you start learning how to fly, you will work with a Flight Instructor (and possibly with specialized multimedia learning products) to learn your new skill.

When you first start learning about becoming a pilot, you usually end up with more new questions than answers. I want to share the wisdom I have gathered along the way, to make your journey easier.

Some of the questions I want to help you answer are:
- Is flying expensive?
- How can I find a great Flight Instructor
- What is the training program like?
- What kind of training aids should I buy?
- What kind of equipment do I need?
- What if I’m lot learning from my instructor?
- What are the best resources for pilots?
- Help! What are all these acronyms I keep hearing?

Most people wait for life to happen to them. Take control of your dreams, and learn to fly…!
Is flying expensive?

Flying isn’t cheap. Anyone who tries to convince you otherwise is either pulling your leg, or is richer than you and I together. That being said, most people who really want to fly can find a way without breaking the bank. Sometimes that means spreading training over a longer period of time, joining a flight club, looking for friends to fly with, or flying for charities.

When you begin flight training, you will need to decide where to learn to fly. The two big categories are flight schools and independent instructors. A school is almost always more expensive because they have overhead to pay for. Schools offer some advantages over individual instructors. For example, if you are not learning well with one instructor, you can easily switch to a different one with less interruption of your training (the school should be keeping a record of your progress, including strengths and weaknesses, and the two instructors should coordinate the handover).

If you learn from a school, you will usually need to use their airplanes – you generally can’t shop around (though some will train you in your personal airplane, if you have one, for an extra fee). If you select an independent instructor, on the other hand, you will have to provide the airplane. The options (if you don’t own your own) are to rent from a company or join a flight club. By the way, a company that rents out airplanes is called an FBO (eff-bee-oh) in pilot speak, which is short for Fixed Base Operator. Joining a flight club will usually prove less expensive. Flight clubs are generally organized as non-profit organizations that rent out aircraft that belong to certain members. They usually have minimal staff, thus keeping costs down. Aircraft reservations are often done over the Internet. When you join a club, you usually pay monthly or annual dues. Be sure and factor that into the total cost, but if you fly enough (which you usually do when getting your license), you will usually come out ahead with a club.

If you elect for a school, they will throw two terms at you: Part 61 or Part 141. They are talking about the fact that there are actually two ways to become certified as a pilot. The “Parts” refer to parts of the Federal Aviation Regulations that cover flight training. Part 61 instruction has a higher number of minimum hours before you can get your license, but does offer more flexibility. Part 141 specifies a fairly rigid curriculum – essentially requiring that skills be taught in a certain order. If something prevents you from working on what you are “supposed” to be working on (like bad weather), you can’t always “skip ahead” to something else. In exchange for following that detailed program, the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) allows the student to take their test with fewer hours flown. But, there is a gotcha! The vast majority of pilots are not ready to take their test right at the minimum number of hours. There is no “one size fits all” answer to which Part to study under. You will need to look at your individual circumstances. Remember, if you use an individual instructor, you will have to go Part 61.

Once you have your private pilot’s license, there are several ways to make enjoying it less expensive. One way is to fly with friends. Many pilots enjoy finding another pilot to fly with. If you hang out a bit at the airport, chances are great that you will find another pilot you enjoy flying with. You can also take friends and family out on flying adventures and ask them to share in the cost. Remember, though, as a private pilot you must pay an equal share of the cost or more.

Once you get at least 200 hours of Pilot In Command time, you can volunteer to fly for charitable organizations such as Angel Flight ( You are donating both your time and the cost of the flight (often shared with a second pilot), but the cost is generally tax deductible.

If you want to give back to the community and fly with some great pilots, you may wish to consider joining Civil Air Patrol. There, you can get some flight time at a reduced cost or even for free (paid for by the Air Force or other agencies). However, there really is no such thing as a free lunch. In order to get that flight time, you will need to spend a good deal of time on the ground helping with various CAP missions such as guiding cadets, working in aerospace education, planning training missions, or one of many other areas. CAP can be a very rewarding experience.
Selecting an Instructor

Whether you are selecting a school or an independent instructor, do some research before you choose. Ask other pilots what kind of reputation the school or instructor has. Sit down and interview them. Some questions to ask are:
- How many students have you recommended for a checkride? How many passed on the first time.
(At least 80% should have passed on the first attempt)
- Do you have plans to leave for the airlines soon?
(Most flight instructors are building flight time so that they can be hired on by the airlines).
- How do you structure training?
(Look for an instructor who has a plan. If he or she says “well we’ll do a little ground and go out flying” … run for the hills and look for someone who can tell you how he teaches).

Be sure and speak with several flight instructors before you get started. Select the one you feel most comfortable with, and go on a discovery flight. On this first flight, the instructor should let you work the controls most of the time, while explaining some of the basics. The instructor should seem calm, confident and friendly. If he does not communicate well in the cockpit, does not explain things, and doesn’t seem like someone you want to spend a lot of time with in the close quarters in the cockpit – move on. There are plenty of fine instructors out there.

Once you select your flight instructor, continue to evaluate how well things are going. If you feel that you are not learning from your instructor, discuss the problem with him. Let him know what problems you see, and let him know you want to try and work through them in the next two flights. If things still don’t get better, don’t be afraid to change instructors. Sometimes, even an outstanding instructor won’t be an outstanding instructor for you because the two of you just fail to connect.

Finally, it can be a great idea to occasionally fly with a different instructor. Everyone has a slightly different way to teach, and their own insights. If you learn from a school, you will periodically fly with one of the most senior instructors to make sure you have learned everything you need to at various stages in the program. These flights are called stage checks.

Remember, your flight instructor is there to teach you how to fly. He should be focused on that, and always on top of your progress. There are many outstanding flight instructors out there. Take the time to find one, but don’t be afraid to change horses if you need to.
What is the training program like?

To get your license, there are two tests you have to pass: a written exam, and a practical flight test with an FAA examiner. The practical test actually has two parts. First, the examiner will spend a few hours asking you about topics like Federal Aviation Regulations, flight planning, good judgment, etc. If that goes well, you will go flying with him or her.

There are many ways to get ready for the written test. No matter which format you choose, this learning is called ground school.

Many people do ground school in a classroom. Flight schools offer classroom sessions, as do some community colleges.

Another option is to work 1-on-1 with your flight instructor. This is the most expensive option, but allows for excellent individual attention. Some schools require this format, and it is required for Part 141 instruction.

Finally, you can learn using a home study course. By far the most common way to do this is to purchase VHS/DVD or PC-based home study courses from industry leaders such as King Schools or Sporty’s. Alternatively, your Flight Instructor can design a home study course for you.

You can also combine these methods. For example, you can do most of your studying with a home study program, and then spend 1-on-1 time with your Flight Instructor to review the topics that are more difficult for you.
What kind of training aids should I buy?

No matter what training method you select, you will likely want to pick up a good book or two. One of the best, easiest-to-understand books on the market is Rod Machado’s Private Pilot. It is full of good illustrations, interesting anecdotes, but most of all simply well-written explanations of topics you need to know about.

Another outstanding book is Jeppesen Private Pilot Manual. It has more of a textbook format than Rod Machado’s book, but is very well done.

Believe it or not, the Federal Aviation Administration puts out some outstanding publications. Better yet, they are available to download for free from the FAA website. Printed copies can also be purchased at a very reasonable price from pilot shops. To start with, check out the Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge and Airplane Flying Handbook. Be sure and download all 7 parts.

Finally, there are a few other items you will need to get:

This is a single publication that contains both the Federal Aviation Regulations (or at least the parts you need) and the Aeronautical Information Manual (describes many things you need to know about operating an aircraft in the United States). This book is published every year. Be absolutely sure you have the one for the current year when you show up to your checkride!

Airport Facility Directory. Contains information about airports. A new edition is published every 56 days.

Sectional chart for your local area
Sectional maps are like highway maps, except for the sky. They show where airports are; depicts cities, mountains, rivers, etc.; and tells you what rules apply to the portion of air you are flying through. Published every 56 days. You need to have a current chart to fly.

E6-B Flight Computer
Remember those nerds from the 1960’s that used to walk around with a slide rule (and knew how to use it!)? Guess what? As an aspiring pilot, you will learn how to use a slide rule, too! The E6-B uses moveable wheels to do all kinds of calculations, from wind calculations to figuring out how much fuel you need for a flight, or how long it will take you to get where you’re going.

A plotter is just a fancy name for a ruler, with the scale set to match the charts you use in aviation.

When you first start flying, your instructor or school can loan you a headset. However, sooner or later, you’ll want to get your own. Decent headsets can be had for around $100. Fancier models use special electronics to cancel out the engine noise, and can cost upwards of $400.

A kneeboard is like a little clipboard that you strap on to your knee. You use it to organize the information you need at hand during your flight, such as a flight plan, charts and information about the airport you are flying to.