You may be one of many people with a passion for flying who think that learning to fly is unachievable. But before you hang up your dream, you need to explore all your options. The number of ways to learn is limited, and for most people, it requires some financial resources. But there are other ways to get to the finish line, some of which don’t require a fat pocketbook and some of which, if you’re lucky and good, might even pay for your training.
The option you choose ultimately affects how long your training takes, the kinds of skills you come away with and, consequently, the kinds of cockpits you’ll find yourself in. If your goal is to fly recreationally and you have a full-time job, your training will need flexibility, while those who are looking for a career in aviation may be better off training at a school with more structure. Your schedule and your future flying goals and missions will determine the route you take.
I spoke with five people who shared their experiences with basic flight training. While they were all ultimately happy with the end result, the experiences were vastly different.
The Blue Angel
The most restrictive, structured and thorough flight training a pilot can get is through the military. To fly in the military you must first have a college education and sign up for officer training through a service academy such as the U.S. Naval or Air Force academy, an ROTC (Reserve Officer’s Training Corps) program or OCS (Officer Candidate School). Physical testing and grades determine whether you qualify for flight school and pilot training, but there is no way to know for sure until you sign up as an officer.
There is no fee for your flight training. Instead you get paid to train. But you pay with your time by signing up for several years of service. You can get eliminated from the program, but there are opportunities for remedial training, should you lag behind. Another big difference between military and civilian flying is that there is no such thing as different licenses. You either “have your wings” or you don’t.
Lt. Rob Kurrle is a Navy pilot flying the F-18 Hornet as Blue Angel number four. Though he had some flight experience prior to beginning his naval training, his basic training program was the same as that of any student entering military training. The training began with six weeks of ground school, which included mostly aircraft components, weather, aerodynamics and other basic flying-related topics. Since Rob trained in the Navy and future missions would include over-water flights, his ground school also included survival training in a pool, where he had to tread water with heavy equipment and learn how to exit a helicopter fuselage that was flipped upside down under water.
For Rob, the six-week initial ground training was followed by nearly another month of additional ground training to learn the systems of his trainer, the T-34C Turbo-Mentor — a complex single-engine turboprop airplane that cruises at around 180 knots. The ground school was intermixed with simulator training, which included engine failures and other emergencies.
“The goal for the first flight is that the student can handle any failure in the airplane,” Rob says.