Five Ways to Learn to Fly

A handful of lucky pilots share their stories of how they achieved their dream.

Five Ways to Learn to Fly
Five Ways to Learn to FlyFlying

__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.

Each flight has a specific syllabus that is followed strictly and includes not only different flight maneuvers but also oral testing of aerodynamics, systems, etc. The student is graded on a scale from one to five, with five being the highest, for each task in the training segment. At the end of the training, the student gets an accumulated grade, similar to a GPA in school.

In addition to basic flight training, there is also some spin training involved with the syllabus prior to the first solo flight. A week of basic instrument flight training is also conducted from the back of the Turbo-Mentor before beginning solo flight training. The entire rear cockpit is covered up so that there is no chance of seeing outside. Rob likens the experience to flying a simulator with the added element of vertigo. The instructor can also fail instruments in the rear cockpit for an extra challenge.

After completing the basic instrument flight training, the student goes back to the front seat to prepare for the solo flight. (The T-34C can be soloed only from the front.) Because of the added elements of instrument training and the high performance complexity of the airplane, most pilots have about 25 hours in the T-34C and about 10 to 15 simulator hours prior to soloing the airplane.

Once the solo flight is complete, the students start aerobatic training.

“We did the same maneuvers as we do in the Blue Angels — aileron rolls, barrel rolls, loops — only now they’re more dynamic,” Rob says.

After all that fun, it’s back to the classroom for more ground and simulator training, lessons on flying approaches, and arrival and departure procedures, followed by more practice in the covered back seat. The training concludes with a formation-flying syllabus, and eventually the students fly on each other in formation.

It took about two years for Rob to earn his wings, and he felt the thorough, rigorous and structured training provided an excellent base for his future flying as part of the Blue Angels team. At the end of his basic training, he had not only extensive formation and aerobatic training, but he also qualified to take an equivalency test to achieve his civilian commercial and instrument ratings.

The Demo Pilot
A number of colleges and universities around the country offer flight training as part of a degree program. Students receive credits toward a degree for ground courses and, in many cases, flight ratings.

Greg Oswald completed his primary flight training at the University of North Dakota (UND) in 1999. At that time, UND was using Piper Warriors with round-dial gauges, but they have since been replaced with G1000-equipped Cessna Skyhawks. Each rating at UND is completed in one semester. Greg felt very fortunate to have the same instructor — Steve Bossim — throughout his private pilot training and only one instructor for each subsequent rating. When Greg graduated from UND in 2003, he had completed his commercial and instrument single-engine and multiengine ratings as well as his single-engine CFI rating.

After completing all his ratings, Greg felt the private pilot course at UND was by far the most difficult. The ground school was a full semester five-credit course, conducted Monday through Friday, and, like any university class, included a lot of papers and research.

“It was a weed-out program,” Greg says. “It seems that they wanted to make sure you really wanted to [be a professional pilot] before spending a lot of money.”

The flight portion of the training was called Flight Lab, so it was set up similarly to any university lab course, with credits toward a degree. The goal was to fly three days per week, but the weather in North Dakota forces the school to be a little more flexible with its flight schedule.

“Sometimes we wouldn’t be able to fly for a week, so we’d fly five times in a week to catch up,” Greg says.

Greg felt that the highly structured university training was helpful for his professional aviation career. After completing the rest of his training, he instructed for a while before getting a job as a demo pilot for Eclipse and later flying the Challenger 300 and 605 for Bombardier. But when jetAVIVA, a company that focuses on aircraft sales, support and training specifically for owner-flown light jets, offered him a position, he couldn’t say no. He now works for jetAVIVA out of Santa Monica, California, doing sales, demo flights and customer support in the Phenom 100 and 300.

The Regional Jet Pilot
Several companies offer professional training specifically geared toward students who are planning careers as airline pilots. Just as in the military and at the accredited aviation universities, the training at these companies is highly structured and focused solely on producing competent pilots in the shortest possible amount of time. One such company is Airline Training Professionals, or ATP for short, which has multiple training facilities spread around the country. Several airlines have recognized the training at ATP as specific for their needs by offering reduced hiring minimums to students recommended by the school. For example, American Eagle Airlines will hire ATP graduates with as little as 500 hours instead of the usual 800 hours.

Ryan Thompson is a pilot who grew up in Bunbury, Australia, and had an initial goal of becoming a golf pro. His golf career was ultimately unsuccessful, and he found himself in his late 20s looking for a new profession. Two of his uncles, Grayden and Guy Thompson, are captains at Emirates Airlines, and they encouraged Ryan to pursue his other dream — to become a pilot. Ryan’s goal was to be hired by an airline as soon as possible. After some research, he chose ATP as his flight school, not only because of its fast-track program but also because the company offered a fixed cost for its training.

The private pilot training was conducted seven days a week, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., with one or two training flights and one or two ground lessons per day — a schedule Ryan describes as “very intense.”

“The level of training was fantastic. The instructors were always professional and on time, and there was a ton of airplanes available, so the only thing that could delay the training was the weather,” Ryan says.

After only 54 days and $8,995, Ryan had his private pilot’s certificate in his hand, and after six months of training he became a certified flight instructor.

Because the instructors are generally trained by ATP and are on their way to the airlines, instructor retention is low. Ryan had two instructors for his private pilot training, but he says: “It didn’t matter who my instructor was because all the instructors had the same procedures and standards for teaching.”

He also felt that having multiple instructors better prepared him for the CRM environment in the airlines.

Ryan was recently hired by ExpressJet and is going through the nearly two-month indoctrination and type-rating training to fly the ERJ-145 series airplanes as a first officer. Ryan likens the training to “drinking from a fire hose,” and he feels that his training at ATP prepared him well for the intense airline training.

The Professional
At almost every airport in America, you can find one or several private flight schools. The variations in cost and in number and types of airplanes available are almost as numerous as the airports the schools serve. Training at one of these facilities is a very flexible way to get a license since you schedule your lessons when it's convenient for you. But this type of training requires self-motivation, and when life gets in the way, the training can suffer immensely, as can the pocketbook.

Ben Lee found this out the hard way. With a lifelong passion for flying, he started flight training at Metro Flying School in Olive Branch, Mississippi, in 1989. He was just out of dental school and money was tight as he started to establish his new practice.

“My first instructor was 22-year-old Candra Clarke,” Ben says.

Their first flight was in a Cessna 150, which Ben found too cramped. So they switched to the school’s 172 Skyhawk. Candra got a job with the airlines and Ben started training with Roland Tubbs, who ended up completing most of Ben’s training.

Ben would fly about three times per week, building on his knowledge with each lesson. But when the money ran out, he was forced to take extended breaks, after which he would need to relearn a lot of concepts and regain the muscle memory for the takeoffs, landings and flight maneuvers required for the private pilot syllabus.

“I did more stalls than anyone else in the history of flying,” Ben says.

When his training was almost complete, Ben moved to Fayetteville, Arkansas, and he ended up taking six months off from flying.

When he was ready to get back into it, Ben went to a local flight school in Springdale. His first flight at the school was with its owner, who jumped into a Cessna 172 with Ben and flew out over Beaver Lake, where he proceeded to pull the mixture to shut down the engine. Ben chose not to train at the flight school. Instead, he bought a Cessna 172 and completed his training with Lance Creamer, a local freelance instructor with whom Ben was very happy.

Like many pilots who train at local flight schools, Ben completed the ground portion of the flight training through self-study using the King Schools home video course.

In the end, it took Ben about three years to complete his license and, while he didn’t keep close track of the amount of money he spent, he expects that it was somewhere between $15,000 and $20,000. He has owned several airplanes through the years, including a Cessna 340 and a Mooney Ovation. His favorite was a turbocharged 210 — one he deeply regrets selling. But he is now a happy owner of a Cessna 172 and a 206.

Since Ben also has a passion for passing on his knowledge, he recently completed his master's degree at the Embry-Riddle extended campus in Wichita, Kansas, where he teaches flight physiology and freshman biology when he's not doing his day job — practicing dentistry. He has achieved his single-engine and multi-engine commercial and instrument ratings and also hopes to earn his CFI certificate soon so that he can complete private pilot training with his wife, Audra, and his 16-year-old son, Brandon, and also teach his daughter, Claire, 12, to fly.

The Film Maker
A few fortunate people have a family member who is a CFI. While training with a family member is definitely cost-effective and can be a wonderful experience since the teacher is always available, it can have some drawbacks as well. Teaching and absorbing complex concepts can be challenging and frustrating, and some people may have less patience with someone they know intimately than someone they know only professionally.

For Scott Evans of Kincardine, Ontario, the training was a challenge. Scott remembers flying with his dad, Blake, as early as age 8. He dreamed of being a professional or military pilot, but his father, having seen friends go through hard times in the aviation world, discouraged him from pursuing an aviation career.

Scott was determined to at least get his private license, and since Transport Canada requires the completion of a qualified ground school program, Scott attended a class in 1978 and started flying soon after with a local instructor at a grass strip called Wingham. He flew only a few hours with him, and by the mid-’80s, his father had achieved his instructor rating and Scott started training with him.

Blake funded his first airplane purchase — a Cessna 150 — by doing aerial photography and going door-to-door selling enlargements of people’s homes. He instructed at a local flight school for a few years, and in 1997 he started Evans Aviation, which offers charter and sightseeing flights as well as flight training. The company operates a Cessna 172 and a 150.

Scott would help his dad with his ground schools, teaching some subjects while his father supervised.

“I was a gear-head and was mechanically inclined. I used to take motorcycles apart for fun. So I would teach the engine and airframe portions at the ground school my dad taught at the house,” Scott says.

With customers coming first, as far as using the airplane, Scott’s training lagged. Eventually he moved to Toronto to pursue his career in film and multimedia. It wasn’t until 2006, after he had moved back closer to his father and well over 20 years after he started his flight training, that Scott finally completed his dream of becoming a pilot, and he is very thankful to his father that he was able to reach his goal for free. He uses his flying skills in his aerial photography business.

While the learning experiences of these pilots were vastly different, in the end they all achieved their dream of learning to fly. No matter the performance of the airplanes they fly, they’ve joined the fortunate few who call themselves pilots.

There are a number of different ways to learn to fly. Which one you choose depends on who you are, where you live, how much time and money you have to invest and what your aviation goals are. Most often, the path taken toward that first certificate, and subsequent ones, winds up being exactly the right one.