How I Learned to Fly

The FAA has issued me a private pilot certificate; at that moment, I became an official pilot.  The process of learning to fly was not a trivial one.  It took me almost a year from start to finish, and a good sum of money.  It’s my hope that by documenting the process and what I learned along the way, I can help others along.

First, some numbers:

  • Total calendar time: 10 months (I flew mostly on weekends.  If you are a weekend pilot, I don’t see how you could do it much faster than in 9 months.)
  • Total airplane flight hours: 64.  The Federal Aviation Regulations (FAR) say you need 40 hours.  I was probably ready for the checkride at about 55 hours.  The 9 other hours I spent were just for fun or for excessive practice at the end.  Younger people learn new things easier than older people, and a good rule of thumb is that the number of yours you need is twice your age.  I’m 30, and it took me about 60 hours.  I know another pilot who did it in 42, but he was in his early twenties when he did.
  • Total hours of ground instruction: 13 with an instructor (logged), plus at least 20-30 more of self study with King Schools and other sources.
  • Total solo hours: 13 (you need 10)
  • Total cost: about $9,000.  Where I learned, planes rented for $65 an hour including fuel, and the instruction was $40 an hour.  Of this, about $5,000 was plane rental, $3,000 was instructor time, and $1,000 was instructional courses and equipment.  If you own your own plane, you could shave off $2500 (you’d still need to buy gas).

First step: Choosing a school and instructor

There are two kinds of flight schools, technically labeled “Part 61” and “Part 141.”  These are basically designed for separate sorts of students, hobbyists and aspiring professionals, although I believe that either kind of pilot could learn to fly at either type of school.  I chose the Part 61 approach, the one designed for non-professional pilots.  Under this format, you choose an instructor, and then the instructor guides you from start to finish according to your schedule.  Under the Part 141 format, learning to fly is a full-time education, much like being in college.  Of course that approach gets you your wings faster, but quitting my job to learn a hobby wasn’t an option.

I chose Aero Maintenance, at Pearson Field in Vancouver, Washington, as my school, based both on proximity to home and the recommendation of a friend who had learned there.  The first step was to schedule an “intro” flight, which is a marketing gimmick for the school to get you hooked, but also an opportunity for the prospective student to get a cheap flight experience.  As a prospective student, use the intro flight as an opportunity to interview a prospective flight instructor (CFI).  Is this a person you can get along with?  Do you understand they way they explain things?  Do they let you make mistakes or want to take the flight controls from you at the first hint of error?  Is this a person you feel safe with?

I would recommend scheduling your intro flight at roughly the same time of week or day that you would want to continue your training.  I scheduled mine on a Saturday morning, so the CFI that took me for the flight was one who worked Saturdays.  It turned out that he was a full-time student during the week, and I worked full-time during the week, so our schedules were a good match.

It would not hurt to fly with a few CFIs in your first few hours of flying, and then proceed with your favorite.  Keep in mind that this is a person you’ll literally spend 40 hours with in a very cramped trainer plane, plus additional time on the ground for instruction.  If you don’t get along with this person or just don’t “click” with them, you’d be wise to switch to someone who works better for you.  I flew with two instructors for my first two flights, and picked the one I preferred.

Step Two: Buy some things

You’ll want to get your own headset before you start.  It will pay for itself and make for a much more pleasant flying experience than using a crappy rental headset every time.  I went with the David Clark H10-13.4, which I understand is the “standard” entry-level headset (or, get the newer H10-13.6, which is the same price new but has stereo sound).  Used ones go for about $150 and they last a lifetime.  Try to get one with the “gel” earseals rather than the foam ones.  You can also buy the gel earseals separately.

You’ll also want to make a plan for how to learn your ground instruction and buy the necessary books.  I went with King Schools for ground instruction.

Finally, get a logbook.  Eventually you might need a small bag to carry everything, but at first a backpack will suffice (later, I bought a Brightline Bag, which I love).

Step Three: Start Learning

Your educational objectives in private pilot training are twofold: first, to learn how to fly an airplane, and second, to learn all the knowledge required to fly it competently.  Any idiot can fly a plane, but to be a good “pilot” requires quite a bit of knowledge.   You will be working toward several milestones in the training process:

  • The “written exam,” which is actually conducted on a computer, but tests only your knowledge (expect this after a full curriculum of ground instruction)
  • Your “first solo” flight, the point at which you prove to your CFI that you can competently fly an airplane by yourself, safely (expect this after 15-20 hours flying time)
  • Your “solo cross-country” flights, of which two are required, to far-away places that you have never flown to before.  For mine, I flew from Vancouver, Washington to Independence, Oregon (first) and then to Eugene, Oregon, and Salem, Oregon (second).  (expect this after 30 hours flying time)
  • Your “checkride” with an FAA examiner.  This is the last step, passage of which grants you your certificate. (expect this no sooner than after 55 hours flying time)

Preparing for the Written Test

My school offered a ground school curriculum, but I wasn’t able to take advantage of it due to a work travel schedule that never leaves me in my hometown for the same evening every week.  I chose instead to purchase the King Schools DVDs to prepare for the written test.  Additionally, my instructor and I sat down for occasional “ground” sessions of two hours, each, mostly when the weather was too poor to fly.  The King Schools curriculum prepared me relatively well for the written exam.

The best resource for the written exam for me, however, was  This is a great resource of actual questions from past tests, and it is free.  Tell the site that you are a private pilot and to give you a test consisting of random questions from every subject.  Do these tests over and over.  At the end of each one, the site will tell you all the questions you missed and what the correct answer was.  I took about 8 of these tests, printed to PDF the results, and then compiled a “master test” consisting of all the questions I had missed.  Then I studied all those questions until I knew them all.  For the few that completely stumped me, I asked my CFI for help.  On the actual test, I scored a 95/100.

Preparing for the Practical Side

If you have a good instructor, as I did, your curriculum of learning the practical side of flying will take its own course.  You’ll spend more time on the things you are less comfortable with, and less time on those you intuitively master.

I can’t emphasize enough, however, how important it is to take control of your lesson plan.  I found it very helpful, after each lesson with the instructor, to write down a few notes and reactions, of things that I had done well and (more often) things I had not done well.  Reviewing these notes before the next lesson let me focus myself on, and remind my instructor of, those parts of my flying that needed work.

I would equally emphasize the importance of keeping mentally engaged in the “practice” of flying, even when you’re not at the flight school.  For me, this meant listening to aviation podcasts and reading aviation-related books and magazines during the week.  Some of my favorites:

  • “The Finer Points” podcast, by CFI Jason Miller.  In four-minute segments, he explains about two hundred discrete aviation topics.  Helpful both as a second way of explanation that your instructor might not have given you, and also to keep your head in the game. (free, also on iTunes)
  • “Stick and Rudder,” Wolfgang Langewiesche.  This is “the” classic book on flying.  I’d recommend reading it only after you’ve passed your written exam; it will make more sense to you then.  For me, this book helped me connect together some of the somewhat disjointed elements of the knowledge curriculum to help me truly understand the things that the knowledge test required me to memorize.  ($18)
  • “Flight Training” magazine.  Comes free if you sign up to be an AOPA member ($35 a year)
  • LiveATC.  Start listening to this around the time when your instruction takes you into towered airports.  This website streams live feeds from air traffic control frequencies all over the world.  You can probably pull up the live feed from your closest towered airport, approach/departure control frequency, ground control, or even ATC centers.  Start by listening to your local Tower frequency as you’re trying to make sense of towered airport operations.  Then as you approach your cross-country flights, start listening to approach/departure control frequencies or ATC center frequencies.  The site also has a forum of “interesting” recorded feeds, where you can listen to emergencies transpire, Air Force One flying into your airport, John Travolta asking for a departure clearance, etc.  (website is free; iphone app $3)
  • King Schools “Takeoff Course” DVDs.  Just get the ones in the areas that worry you.   If there is a subject on which you feel pretty confident, don’t buy the DVD.  But if one topic isn’t clicking, then this might help.  You can buy them from King Schools for $50 each; I got a bunch on eBay for $25 each.

Finally, study up between your lessons.  Make a habit of finding out after each lesson what the next lesson will be, and spend the time in between lessons reading about those things.  As I did this, I kept a list of questions that came to mind, and showed up to each lesson with several questions about the day’s topic before the lesson started.  Not only is this a more effective method of learning than showing up as a passive student, it’s also much cheaper than having an instructor tell it to you while the $40-an-hour clock is running.

Preparing for the Checkride

At the point your instructor signs you off for your checkride, you are all-but-officially a private pilot.  Otherwise, your CFI wouldn’t vouch for you.  So don’t be nervous, but do be prepared.  Your checkride itself will consist of an oral knowledge examination, and then a “practical skills” flight test.  I did these things to prepare for them:

For the practical test:

  • Get yourself a copy of the Practical Test Standards and make sure you know what they are (both the areas of knowledge you are expected to know, and the tolerances for error on the practical test.  For example, know that you can perform a steep turn and gain or lose up to 100 feet of altitude, roll out on a heading plus or minus 10 degrees, etc.)
  • Memorize the sequence of things you need to do for each maneuver.  I did this mostly to remember clearing turns, which I understand is the easiest way to fail a checkride.  For example, I memorized that turns around a point should be (1) started downwind, (2) at an altitude of 600 to 1000 feet AGL, and (3) should have a constant radius around the point.  Memorizing these things will show the examiner you are well prepared.
  • Have your CFI give you a “mock” checkride and make a list of all the ways you failed it.
  • Go out and practice, on your own, those maneuvers that you can’t perform within the PTS tolerances.
  • Find another CFI to give you another mock checkride and let you know what you need to practice.
  • Practice again until you are confident.
  • The most dreaded part of the checkride, for me, was the diversion to a new airport.  For this, you need to be adept at spotting small airports on the ground.  Before my checkride, I researched all the small airports in the local area and looked them up with the Google Maps satellite view.  I made flashcards of all the local airports to which the examiner might divert me, and memorized their one or two visually distinguishing characteristics (for example, Goheen airport is just south of a big car junkyard; Grove field is next to an oblong lake, etc.)  That way, when the examiner diverted me to Green Mountain airport, I knew to look for the green hangars.
  • Make sure that you do some flying the day before the exam, to get in the right mindset.  I practiced a few steep turns and stalls, then set out to navigate to a VOR and locate some hard-to-spot airports.
  • The King Schools Practical Test Course DVD was very helpful for me.  It’s basically a videotaped checkride.  I found the practical course DVD to be much more helpful for the checkride than I found the knowledge test DVDs for the knowledge test.

For the knowledge portion:

  • Have your CFI quiz you
  • Have another CFI quiz you.  I lucked out that one of the other CFIs at my school was an aspiring FAA examiner.
  • Watch the King Schools Practical Test DVD, knowledge portion.  Again, very helpful.
  • Read Parts 61 and 91 in the FAR, and the parts of the AIM where your knowledge is the weakest, in the FAR/AIM.   The knowledge part of the test is an open-book test, but you have to know where in the book to look to find the answer.  I flagged several sections in the AIM that contained a lot of content that it would be difficult to memorize — for example, the decoded list of all the weather codes you would find in a METAR.
  • Read the ASA’s “Private Oral Exam Guide.”  A good resource of questions that might come up in an oral knowledge exam, and comes with a handy checklist in the back of things to bring to the exam itself.

The Checkride

I found the checkride to be a refreshingly painless experience, after spending all the time I did preparing on my own and being quizzed by instructors.  I’m sure that every examiner is different, but mine was pretty low-key and easygoing.  She wasn’t trying to stump me, and the knowledge portion of the checkride was really more of a conversation about flying than it was an interrogation.  As for the flight test portion, it pretty much followed the PTS exactly.

Of course, you will be nervous.  But don’t get too nervous.  If you are well prepared, you will really think the checkride is easy.

* * *

That’s it!  I may update this from time to time as I think of more tips.  Leave a comment if you found this helpful.

2 thoughts on “How I Learned to Fly

  1. Thanks for this very clear summary of your experience. I am thinking about getting my ppl (at age 37) and this is very helpful. I just hope it would take my double my age number of hours to the check ride 🙂

  2. Pingback: Fear of Flying: Reflections on My First 100 Hours as a Pilot | Ryan Harvey

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