What Does It Cost To Earn a Private Pilot Certificate?

There are many variables when it comes to what a client can control and what they can’t.

Many introductory flights are given as graduation, or Mother’s or Father’s Day gifts—and often the recipients of these first flights will turn into flight students. [Credit: iStock

June is a big month for flight schools. Many introductory flights are given as graduation, or Mother’s or Father's Day gifts—and often the recipients of these first flights will turn into flight students. If you are the receiver of one of these presents, expect a post-flight pitch for flight training.

Often the first question asked is, “How much does it cost to get a private pilot certificate?” The short answer is, “It varies.” 

According to the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, the price tag for a private pilot certificate can run from $6,000 to $20,000. There are several variables that can impact the cost, the first being geography. If you are in a high-rent part of the world, expect the price of flight training to be higher than that found in a more rural area.

Some of the variables that go into determining the cost are somewhat controllable by the client and instructor—others are not. It's important to make the distinction.

What the Client Can’t Control

Aircraft Availability

Note the size and diversity of the fleet. Some FBOs and schools use specific aircraft for private pilot training and others, usually with more advanced avionics that are the designated instrument trainers. They may also have complex and high-performance aircraft. Be wary if the school representative tries to put you in one of these more advanced aircraft right off the bat, as that can easily deteriorate into a too-much-airplane, not-enough-pilot situation for the learner. 

The ratio of aircraft in the training fleet to learners/renters is critical. You do not want to be in a situation where there are three airplanes and 40 people vying for them, especially when the school’s policy prioritizes certain learners over others. 

For example, learners that are part of an airline development program or paying with funds from Veterans Affairs may be more frequently scheduled than the learner paying out of pocket. If you are suddenly pulled off the schedule with no notice or explanation—such as an airplane going in for maintenance or someone needing it for a check ride—it's likely due to this preferential scheduling.

Maintenance

Find out who performs the maintenance for the aircraft. If there is only one part-time mechanic serving a fleet of three or more plus outside aircraft, you might think twice, as this can drag out even routine work and make the aircraft unavailable.

Cost of the Airplane You Will Train In

When flight schools create their marketing materials for training advertising an all-in cost, they may calculate it using the most inexpensive aircraft in their fleet—for example, a Cessna 152, which rents for $145 an hour, as opposed to the Cessna 172, which rents for $163 an hour.

The applicant reading the school website sees they will need at least 40 hours of time in the air to qualify for the certificate. Crunching the numbers, the applicant comes up with $5,800 for aircraft rental alone.

Then the applicant visits the flight school. The staff, taking note of the applicant’s size, suggests they train in the Cessna 172, driving the aircraft cost up to $6,520. You can't blame some people for thinking they are being upsold. I have witnessed this a few times. Onewalk-in customer accused the school of false advertising, although the small print on the website and paper brochures included a notation that the numbers were based on the smaller airplane. Trying to mollify the would-be customer, the school owner handed the CFI on walk-in duty the keys to both the 172 and the 152, saying "Go see if he fits in the 152." The CFI could see that the customer, because of his long legs, was not going to fit in the airplane. Not by a long shot—he was over 6-foot tall and (ahem) sturdy. That didn't stop the customer from trying, however. Despite the CFI's warnings not to do so, the customer, trying to fit in the cockpit, used his legs to try to push the seat back farther than the metal stops on the seatrails. He pushed so hard it snapped the metal catch on the back of the seat.

Savvy flight schools also advise the learner that the 40-hour figure is the Part 61 minimum time required to qualify for certification and, according to the FAA, the national average is approximately 75 hours. The flight schools that consistently have learners finishing sooner—say at 55 to 60 hours—will be sure to tell you that.

The bottom line is that the more time in the aircraft, the greater the expense. This also happens when you stretch out the lessons, perhaps only flying once a week. It's not like learning to play a musical instrument where once-a-week lessons are followed by practice at home. Flying less than twice a week means you will spend more time (and money) relearning things rather than absorbing new things. To optimize progress and retention, try to fly at least three times a week.

Weather

The better the weather, the more VFR-flyable days and the faster you can complete your training. If there are certain times of year when VFR flying slows down quite a bit, plan your training around it, if possible. For example, in some parts of the world, winter is a great time to fly because winters, although cold, often feature clear days. In other parts of the world, winter days are known for low visibility because of fog and rain. Summer can also present challenges. In some parts of the world, by noon it can be too hot for the airplanes to get off the ground, so summer flying is limited to early morning and late evening.

What the Client Can Control

Ground School

While flying is the more fun part for most people, ground school is the backbone of your aviation education. Find one that works with your learning style and schedule and put in the effort to learn the material to the level of application and correlation—not just to pass the knowledge test. You don't want to be the learner who doesn't grasp the relationship between angle of attack, airspeed, and stalls and tries to stretch a glide by pulling back on the yoke or stick. If you opt to do an online, self-paced ground school, commit to a specific time for study. For example, set aside a few hours each day. This could be an hour in the evening and 30 minutes during your lunch hour at work. Make notes as you study—if there is something that perplexes you, ask your CFI about it. The good ones will be able to apply a flight lesson to help you grasp the concepts eluding you.

The Right CFI

If you are a driven learner, you should find an equally driven instructor—one with a proven track record for getting the learners through the training in an expedient manner. This is the CFI who uses the airman certification standards from day one, along with a syllabus,  insists on pre- and postflight briefings, and may assign homework. This CFI will keep you apprised of your performance. Remember that despite the CFI's excellent credentials, if you have a personality or learning style conflict, it is in your best interest to make a change as soon as possible.

Be sure the CFI has time for you in their schedule. It can be discouraging when you feel like you can learn from the CFI you did the intro flight with, but they don't have room on their schedule. Rather than wait for them to have an opening, ask the FBO to put you on their standby list and ask for a recommendation for another instructor with a similar teaching style.

Club Specials

Some flight schools offer a discount if the learner puts X-number of dollars down and keeps a positive balance. Before you commit you may want to try renting from the FBO for a time, and if it works out and the instructor is a good fit, then join the club. Be sure to find out if there is a refund policy and get it in writing.

Applicant Attitude

You may have wanted to be a pilot since you were a child, but unless you have the time and resources to take lessons, can follow directions, and have the self-discipline to study, certification won't happen. Learning to fly may be a bit of a culture shock for some, as it is like no other form of education and there are no participation trophies. You either learn the material and the skills or you don't.

Meg Godlewski has been an aviation journalist for more than 24 years and a CFI for more than 20 years. If she is not flying or teaching aviation, she is writing about it. Meg is a founding member of the Pilot Proficiency Center at EAA AirVenture and excels at the application of simulation technology to flatten the learning curve. Follow Meg on Twitter @2Lewski.

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