If you could fly anything, what would it be? Maybe your long-term goal requires a few intermediate steps along the way. But knowing the type of aircraft you want to pilot starts you off on the right track and can save you time and money along the way.
Want to know your options? Check these out.
Learning to fly a single-engine piston-powered airplane starts your journey in aviation in a place from which you can take any next step that you wish—or lead you to a lifetime of flying satisfaction on its own. Your basic licensing path takes you to the private pilot certificate, and most people complete this training in a single-engine airplane for reasons of cost, simplicity and availability. In most cases, learning to fly will take several hours a week for a few months, depending on how often you can fly and how much time you have to devote to studying.
You’re likely to be introduced to one of several popular models of single-engine airplanes—though an awesome variety exist in the US. Common training aircraft include the Cessna 152 or 172, Piper PA-28 models (Warrior, Archer, Arrow or 100i), Diamond DA20 or DA40, Cirrus SR20, Socata TB-10 or TB-20, or Tecnam P2010. You’ll find new aircraft offered for training (often for a premium price), or those airplanes that have been training new pilots for decades and have withstood the test of time (often for a relative bargain).
Tailwheel and STOL Aircraft
Do you follow the STOL contests with the desire to someday compete among the best with your own STOL skills? Or do your dreams have you flying into the backcountry, finding secluded places to camp and explore? You may want to check out getting your initial pilot certificate using a tailwheel, or conventional gear, airplane.
Single-engine airplanes such as the Piper J-3 Cub, Aeronca Champ, Citabria Decathlon or Luscombe 8 series can be great trainers—if you find an experienced instructor. With this background, you can progress to a Cessna 170 or 180, Super Cub, or Maule that’s perfectly suited for rough strips and restricted-area fields. Learning to fly in a tailwheel airplane will follow the same syllabus as that for a standard private pilot certificate—with more time spent on ground-handling, taxi, takeoff and landing techniques. For this reason, it’s possible that achieving a certificate may take a few more hours and/or cost a bit more than if you’re taking instruction in a nosewheel-equipped airplane, but if your goal is to fly these types of airplanes, you might as well start forming good habits during your initial training.
Learning to fly light-sport aircraft—and those falling within the class called ultralights or microlights in Europe—opens up an affordable and innovative world of flying. Finding the right kind of airplane and flight training provider for you can make the difference in ensuring your enjoyment of the pursuit.
In the United States, light-sport aircraft fall into a couple of different categories. Most come under the airplane-land designation, though there are a handful of seaplanes that also fit into the category. Within the airplane category, airplanes are either factory-built under a special airworthiness certification and designated as S-LSA, or they’re home- or amateur-built and fall under the E-LSA designation. Examples include the Vashon Ranger R7, Flight Design’s CT and F2 series, Tecnam P2002, and the first electric S-LSA to reach the market, the Pipistrel Velis Electro.
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Flight training in light-sport aircraft in the US can be delivered by an instructor with either a light-sport-instructor certificate or a standard flight instructor certificate with the appropriate class ratings (land or sea). Some flight schools offer LSAs such as the Cessna Skycatcher on their flight lines alongside traditional (heavier, larger) aircraft, and some specialize in light-sport training.
You can fly light-sport aircraft without a medical certificate, but you must possess a valid and current US driver’s license and comply with any restrictions on that (such as wearing corrective lenses). You’ll need a student pilot certificate, which you can obtain from a designated pilot examiner or your local FAA FSDO.
Learning to fly a jet paves the way to your career and makes it possible for you to fly faster, more-capable aircraft on personal or business missions. While very few people initially learn to fly in jet aircraft—even military pilots typically begin in single-engine piston or turboprop airplanes—with today’s light jets that can be flown by one pilot solo, the transition to turbine equipment has never been easier.
If you wish to pursue a career in aviation, you will want to decide if you would prefer to fly transport-category aircraft for the airlines or for a private owner, business or even a sports team. If your passion is for military aviation, there are specific ways to achieve that goal as well, depending on the service you wish to pin on your wings.
But perhaps you’re a business owner or successful person who has the opportunity and means to plan for your own jet aircraft—either just for you and your family, for your business, or both. The course you will set will have some similarities to that of a professional jet pilot, but you will probably benefit from a certain style of training provider. You’ll start off in a single-engine piston airplane, such as a Cirrus SR20, and then transition to faster and more-powerful aircraft—normally a piston-powered twin such as a Piper Seminole or DA42 Twinstar—before making the move to your first jet, such as the Cirrus Vision Jet, Cessna Citation M2, Embraer Phenom 100 or HondaJet.
Learning to fly a rotorcraft or helicopter opens up flying into places that other aircraft just can’t reach. If your goal is to become a professional helicopter pilot, you can fly for rescue and emergency medical services or executive transport, among many options, and these pilots always seem to be in demand.
The rotorcraft category of aircraft includes helicopters, as well as autogyros and gyrodynes. You’re most likely to begin training in a light, single-engine piston-powered helicopter—such as the Schweizer 300CB or Robinson R22—for the same reasons that a person learns to fly fixed-wing aircraft in a single-engine airplane: cost, availability and simplicity.
You’ll start by pursuing a private pilot certificate with the rotorcraft-category rating and then progress to obtain a commercial pilot certificate in order to perform work for hire. You may also go for an instrument rating, which allows you to fly the helicopter in the clouds or low visibility, or a flight instructor certificate, which lets you train other pilots. In order to fly large turbine transport helicopters, you’ll need an airline transport pilot certificate.
Learning to fly gliders introduces you to flight without relying upon an engine—in general terms. A glider is typically shaped like an airplane but with wings that have a higher aspect ratio (meaning they’re longer and thinner) in order to maximize the glider’s advantage using lift. Glider categories sort into self-launch or motorgliders, aerotow, or winch-launch. Sources of lift for a glider include thermals, ridge lift and wave lift.
A person can solo a glider at a younger age—14 years old in the US—than is true for powered aircraft. Combined with the benefits of learning to fly using soaring techniques, and how well they apply to all kinds of flying, this makes glider flying an excellent way for a young person to start if they’re interested in learning to fly. The skills mastered in learning to soar also form a firm foundation for a prospective or current powered-aircraft pilot.
Glider pilots also compete internationally in various contests, divided by class and into aerobatic and distance-time regimes. The competitions and awards system provide incentive and motivation to increase a pilot’s skill level once the initial rating has been achieved.
Drones and UAS
Learning to fly drones and unmanned aerial systems or vehicles (UASs or UAVs) gives you the tools to range far afield from your current position. Amateur drone pilots capture perspectives on the world not possible from the ground, and professional operators flying UASs develop skills that apply to other aspects of aviation.
If you have purchased an off-the-shelf drone for your personal use, you still need to understand the basics of flying it safely and legally within the national airspace system and your local area. If you wish to pursue a professional UAS pilot certificate and plot a course toward a career utilizing these skills, you’ll need to determine the best way to achieve that. You’ll find access to several programs in the United States and internationally to get you started, including those from Flying contributors John and Martha King through King Schools, Sporty’s Pilot Shop, Aviation Supplies & Academics, and other sources, such as DartDrones and Pilot Institute.
This story appeared in the 2021 Learn to Fly Special Issue of Flying Magazine