The Path To The Sky

Our step-by-step guide to becoming a pilot.

Carlo Stanga illustration
The sky calls out to you—how do you answer that message?Carlo Stanga

Every pilot takes a unique path in learning to fly, based on circumstances, location, access—and just plain luck, in certain cases. You’ll make a positive approach, though, because you’ve identified a resource in Flying that lays out the path for you by considering where you’re starting, where you’d like to go and these key steps along the way.

1. Know What Kind of Pilot You Want To Be

In order to map out the best route, you need to know your destination. For many of you, the answer seems clear: You want to pursue aviation as a career, whether civilian or military, or you want to fly your own airplane to use for business, travel or fun. While those options might appear at first to be a dichotomous choice, they really prompt further questions.

If your choice is to become a professional pilot, you may have an idea that being an airline pilot is your go-to career. However, the aviation profession offers far more variety than just the airlines. Choosing to look into business or corporate aviation makes your path distinctly different—perhaps not at first, but certainly after you’ve achieved your initial pilot certificates and ratings. There are many other professions open as well, including medevac (flying either airplanes or helicopters), charter flying in remote locales (requiring specialized skills) and flight instruction.

Perhaps you want to fly for your own pursuits; that decision leads to more questions. Do you want to learn to fly for fun and fly locally with friends? Do you want to buy your own airplane and learn to fly in it, if possible? Do you want to use your certificate to travel, maybe to locations that require you to land on water or snow? All of these options—and more—are possible, and having that answer ready when you’re starting the next step will help both you and your training organization or instructor understand how to guide you best.

2. Find the Best Flight School

The flight training organization you choose for your aviation education is so important, we have devoted an entire article (“How to Choose the Right Flight School”) in this issue to helping you decide. The bottom line? Your choice of school depends a lot upon the goals you have set in the first step, your location—whether you’re willing to relocate to train—and how you’ll fund your lessons.

You can use our outline to help you ask the right questions as you search online or through other resources to find the right match.

3. Plan Your Schedule Well

Not only does learning to fly take money—and the desire—it also takes time. Even a sport pilot certificate, the shortest path to the sky, involves a commitment of time and energy you must ensure you’re ready to make before embarking upon the mission.

Perhaps you’ve set a challenging goal before, such as training for a marathon, planning a charity event or completing a certification course at work. 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 race, is not something you can cram in at the last minute. The most successful pilots-to-be “train” 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 dedicate the time.

If you’re planning to become a professional pilot, you’ll need to commit 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 a college degree.

4. Work With a Good Instructor

Your instructor is likely to be the most important person you’ll work with during your flight training. We cover this topic in detail as well (“Finding a Great Instructor”), including what to do if you have an instructor who isn’t working for you.

5. Take the Knowledge Test

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 proctors these on paper. Many schools ask you to take your first exam either before you begin flying or soon afterwards. We also talk about the merits of this in (“This Is Only a Test”), so you can prepare yourself for this important step—and be able to leverage the education you gain while studying.

Carlo Stanga illustration
The purpose behind the solo flight remains evergreen: to instill you with the confidence in your own piloting skill so you can move forward in your training and toward completing your pilot certificate.Carlo Stanga

6. Strive For Your First Solo

The rite of passage that new pilots, and seasoned professionals, remember most about learning to fly has to be the first solo flight. The solo flight is one that you take without the instructor in the airplane; instead, that person has supervised your training and signs you off to fly a short segment on your own. The purpose behind the solo flight remains evergreen: to instill you with the confidence in your own piloting skill so you can move forward in training and toward 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 proven 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.

7. Check In With a Mentor

While your instructor has a lot to offer in terms of guidance, there comes a time in nearly every pilot’s path when he or she needs support from someone else. For this, you should seek out a mentor, a pilot who has gone before you 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.

8. Build 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.

9. Prepare For the Check Ride

If you’ve completed a well-planned course of training—with lessons following a syllabus that uses the FAA’s Airman Certification Standards as its foundation—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 you will perform well and demonstrate the knowledge, skills and risk-management techniques you’ve learned through your training.

10. Fly Into 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 you enjoyed the structure of the training course and needed those to-dos to get you 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). If you identify an airplane in which you’d like to check out—for example, gaining a tailwheel endorsement or a seaplane rating—you can put that goal in front of you to work toward. We look at a number of options out there and help you make a plan in “After the Check Ride." After all, the idea is to keep flying!

This story appeared in the Learn to Fly Special Issue of Flying Magazine