Once you have determined what kind of pilot you want to be, you can follow our step-by-step path toward achieving your aviation goals. No matter what type of flying you choose, the basics stay pretty much the same. As you move through these steps, however, keep in mind that your experience is the most important gauge to monitor in order to ensure your success—what works for one of your peers, or even a mentor, may not be the best option for you. So, trust your gut when it comes to forging your way into the skies.
Find the Right Flight School
The flight-training organization you choose for your aviation education is so important, we place it first in the lineup to help ensure your success. Your choice of school depends a lot upon the goals you have set, as well as your location—whether you’re willing to relocate to attend flight school—and the way you plan to fund your lessons.
Here are questions to answer as you search online or through other resources to find the right match:
1. Does the facility appear clean, well-maintained and welcoming? You want to spend your time at a place that reflects pride and positivity in its daily operations.
2. Do the aircraft appear well-maintained and tidy? Ask what kind of maintenance program the aircraft follow, whether they are maintained in-house or by a local provider. Either is fine, but there should be no hesitation in the answer.
3. Do the flight instructors follow a standard syllabus, or are they free to conduct their own training regime? Too strict of a program may be stifling to some people, but there should be a certain amount of oversight, even in a small operation.
4. Does the flight school or training organization ask you for cash up front or a large deposit (more than 10 to 20 percent) to begin your training? Any more than this amount raises a red flag as to the organization’s financial practices and may hint at cash-flow problems down the road.
5. Does the general demeanor of the place reflect positive attitudes on the part of the staff and students or clients? One person’s complaints may be unique, but hearing negative comments from multiple sources doesn’t bode well for a good training experience.
Plan a Reasonable Schedule
Not only does learning to fly take money, it also takes time. Even a sport pilot certificate, the shortest path to the sky, involves a commitment of time and energy that you want to ensure you’re ready to make before embarking upon the mission.
Perhaps you’ve set a challenging goal before, such as completing an advanced degree, launching a business or training for a charity race. Each of these requires a certain amount of time each week, even each day, devoted to the exercise or study needed to get to the goal. Learning to fly, like training for a marathon, is not something you can cram in at the last minute. The most successful pilots-to-be set aside time every day for an hour or two—or at least three times per week for a bit longer. If you’re not ready to commit to at least this amount—let’s say 10 to 15 hours each week—consider waiting until you can commit to the process.
If you’re planning to become a professional pilot, you’ll need to dedicate at least some time every day toward the goal—or better yet, set aside up to three years in which you pursue the dream full time, as you would any vocational certification program.
Collaborate with a Good Instructor
Your instructor is highly likely to be the most important person you’ll interact with during your flight training. Here are a few points to consider when you’re looking for the right person, or when you’ve been assigned one by the training organization with which you’ve enrolled.
1. Interview a few instructors before you settle on one.
2. Look at the instructor’s use of learning tools, such as a syllabus, flight simulation and good briefings.
3. Expect an instructor to be willing to train on your schedule to a reasonable extent.
4. Treat your instructor as a professional in terms of their time—and yours.
5. Be open to an instructor outside of your demographic.
Pass the Knowledge Exam
Maybe you’ve heard—or maybe this is the first time you’ve been advised—that you’ll need to pass at least one knowledge exam and one practical test in order to secure your first pilot certificate, whether it’s to become a sport or private pilot.
The knowledge exam is often called the “written test,” though chances are strong you’ll take it online unless your part of the world still delivers these on paper. Many training organizations ask you to take your first exam either before you begin flying or soon after you start. We share with you the merits of this in “Navigating the ACS” (the FAA’s airman certification standards), so you can prepare yourself for this important step as well as the check ride—and leverage the education you gain while studying.
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Fly Toward Your First Solo
Your first solo flight is the primary rite of passage that new pilots and seasoned professionals remember most about learning to fly. A solo can be any flight you take without the instructor in the airplane; that person has supervised your training and has signed you off to fly a short segment on your own. The purpose behind the solo flight? To instill you with the confidence in your own piloting skills so you can move forward in training and completing your pilot certificate.
In order to fly solo for the first time, you will need to have completed all of the knowledge subjects called for in the regulations, passed a written test on these areas, and logged time in all of the aeronautical experience exercises required. You’ll have proved that you know how to land—obviously—but also that you can deal with basic malfunctions and abnormal situations.
When your instructor steps out of the airplane and you take off alone for the first time, it’s a feeling you will never forget.
Spend Time with a Mentor
While your instructor has a lot to offer you in terms of guidance, there comes a time in nearly every pilot’s experience when they need support from someone else. For this, you should seek out a mentor, a pilot who has already been flying for a while and can both commiserate with you and answer questions you want a second opinion on.
Your mentor can also be someone in the company you wish to work for, who can assist you in choosing the right methods of training and goals to achieve along the way—and prepare you a bit for life as a professional pilot.
Build upon Your Skills
After you’ve soloed, you’ll grow your experience by taking on new maneuvers and flying to destinations beyond the traffic pattern. For many pilots, the first cross-country flights—or those to another airport at least 50 miles away (in general)—represent the best visualization yet of why they’re learning to fly: to travel to an exciting locale, fly people to a new airport, or see the world from above.
You’ll also learn how to fly the airplane in more-challenging conditions, such as into airports with unpaved or short runways, crosswinds, and through a wider range of emergency situations. Each of these areas prepares you for life as a skilled, safe, competent pilot.
Prep for the Check Ride
If you’ve completed a well-planned course of training—with lessons following a syllabus that uses the ACS as its foundation—in theory, you should be well-prepared for the practical test, which pilots call a “check ride.”
If only it were that straightforward—it should be. But because you are a human with a wide range of past experiences and differing ways that you learn best, your check ride preparation needs to address not only the subject matter at hand but also how you ready your physical and mental state. To do this ensures that you will perform well and demonstrate the knowledge, skills and risk-management techniques you’ve learned through your training.
Create Your Next Goal
Once you have your certificate, you may have a long list of trips you want to take and folks you’d love to introduce to flying. Or maybe you hit the wall, and you find that you had enjoyed the structure of the training course—or even needed that series of to-dos to get you out to the airport and away from competing demands.
The best way to make sure you keep flying after the check ride is to set your next goal. It doesn’t have to be another certificate or rating (though you may choose to jump right into instrument training, for example). If you identify an airplane you’d like to fly next—such as gaining a tailwheel endorsement, seaplane rating, high-performance signoff or new aircraft type as we outline in “What If?”—you can work toward that next challenge.
This story appeared in the 2021 Learn to Fly Special Issue of Flying Magazine