The Strategy of Learning to Fly

There's a lot to it.

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Andrew Rich

Today, the beginning pilot has many paths to choose from when learning to fly. There's the Light Sport activity, which gets you going in a basic airplane. Then there is the recreational route which expands horizons a bit. Finally there's the tried and true private certificate that expands piloting privileges by a lot. If initial cost is a big factor, the best start is at the Light Sport level. However, history has shown that pilots like to move upward and onward, and most people who get one of the lesser certificates will likely eventually earn a private with probably an instrument rating. Because light-sport airplanes and certificates are new and untried, and because the recreational certificate has attracted little following over the years, we'll concentrate on the private which is, and will continue to be, the first certificate earned by the vast majority of pilots.

If a person wants to be an airline pilot, the colleges, universities and flight academies offer a path to that form of flying. Present yourself and a proper amount of money, and if you have the ability they will make the transformation to the type of pilot that the airlines like to hire. Here, we are mainly going to address the person who wants to learn to fly at the local airport and wants to be able to use an airplane for personal or business reasons. I say "mainly" because some of the initial steps are valid for pilots who want to learn to fly for any reason.

There are many potential first steps. You can talk to pilots, you can visit a flight school or you can take an introductory first lesson. But I think the absolute best first step is to purchase an interactive video course for the private certificate. Here, for two or three hundred bucks, you can find out all about what you are going to have to learn to earn that certificate.

The reason the course is the best first step is that a lot of people start out to learn to fly and then decide there is just more there than they want to learn. That might result in one of two things. Buy a boat, or go for the Light Sport version of learning to fly. It is simpler and if you go that route you can always upgrade.

Another first step is to get a third class medical certificate and student permit. These come together and you have to have this before you can make a solo flight. For a person with airline pilot aspirations, the medical would be a first class. Few people fail either class medical but some do and, if you have some health flaw that would be disqualifying, best learn about it before investing too much.

Anyway, for well under $500 a person can learn a lot about flying and his adaptability to it. Also, by going through the interactive video course a person can learn a lot of the questions to ask before jumping into flight training. Passing the private written (called a knowledge test-the flight test is a practical test) before the first flight lesson is never a bad idea.

I'll warn you about one feature of the knowledge test. The FAA is glacial when it comes to including the new technology equipment in the test. We are going to talk about that in a minute, and you might wonder why I suggest the primary use of new tech equipment when learning to fly if the FAA virtually ignores it in the test. I have been flying for well over a half a century and, to be honest, I have yet to make sense of many things the government does in relation to our activity.

The next part of the strategy is to make an assessment of time and money. How much time can you devote to learning to fly? Do you have the bucks to fly when you have time?

Observers often marvel at the limited amount of flight time that military pilots have when they launch into the wild blue yonder in an airplane that is many times more complex and that has much higher performance than general aviation airplanes. Two things relate to this. Military pilots are subjected to a rigorous screening process. And, their training is continuous for a long period of time.

The main screening for general aviation pilots is money. If a person has the money, they eventually get the pilot certificate. This is where some self-discipline comes in, and doing that video course and taking the written might allow for some introspection. If you absorb the information quickly and naturally, you might be self-screened as adaptable. If it is a grind, there are nice boats and fast cars out there.

If a person can do it, the best way to get into flying with a firm foundation is to fly a lot of hours in a relatively short period of time. A pilot who has flown 1,000 hours evenly over 20 years will not develop the same good instincts and skills as a pilot who has flown 500 hours in one year. The latter pilot will keep those good instincts even if his flying settles back to 50 hours a year. Flying is not like riding a bike, where you just one day go "aha, I have it" and pedal on for the rest of your life. It is more complex than that and a period of deep immersion helps a lot.

The most common goal for a non-airline pilot is to learn to use an airplane for purposeful personal or business transportation. One word about this before going on. Many people learn to fly and then realize that they don't really have enough requirement for going places to make it worthwhile. It's fine if a person just wants to ride around in an airplane, but if that's all you do, it is hard to maintain interest in the activity. So before you start learning to fly, give a lot of thought to how you might use this new skill.

Using the airplane for transportation means you want to plan for a private certificate with an instrument rating from the very start. The instrument rating doesn't mean you can fly in all weather conditions, but it does enable a lot of flights that would not be possible under visual flight rules. And, if an airplane is to be operated under instrument flight rules, that business about flying a lot of hours in a relatively short period of time becomes even more important.

A next step is to decide on what kind of airplane you want to learn in. Glass cockpits, where all flight, navigational and system information is presented on screens, are relatively new to general aviation, but they are now included on all new airplanes. If the purpose is learning to use an airplane for transportation, I would say, without a doubt, it is far better to learn with the latest in equipment. It might cost a little more but, hey, Princeton costs more than Western Carolina.

The flight instructor you choose is important, too. Many people are surprised when they visit a flight school and find that all the instructors are young. In truth, few pilots make a career out of being a flight instructor because there is not much money to be made there. I was charged $45 per hour for a flight instructor earlier this year. I was charged $94 per hour to get my GM car worked on earlier this year. That tells a story. Your young instructor is building flying time and experience and probably has resumes out with various airlines or other entities that operate turbine-powered airplanes.

For the most part, these young instructors are very good. They are, though, guided by the management of the flight school and there is some pretty backward management out there.

The best way to find out about this is to have a nice visit with any instructor you consider. Take him to lunch and find out what sort of person he is. How do you get along? Learning to fly is a quite personal thing and if there is any barrier between instructor and student, it doesn't work well. No way to know this for sure after a short time together, but if there seems to be good chemistry, it'll be more likely to work well.

Also find out how well the newest technology is integrated into learning to fly. Most training airplanes have both a GPS and an autopilot. Are these things integrated into private pilot flight training? If they are not, the school might be one of those that is living in the good old days. It has been my experience that young flight instructors do a great job with the newer technology stuff if they are allowed to do so. Certainly if you are going to put the effort into learning to fly, you want to learn how to use everything and how to do it all.

We write about pilots as if all are males, which most are. Females, though, make excellent pilots and flight instructors. Even if you are a sexist pig, you might find that a female instructor has better teaching skills and more patience than a male.

Finally, for many people learning to fly is one of the richer experiences out there. It can be fun and it can be rewarding. Challenging, too. If, along the way, you find it to be none of the above, walk, don't fly, away.