Your License to Fly

Your training will go more smoothly if you plan for it. iStock/ShotsStudio

Just as any goal worth pursuing takes honest effort to accomplish, so does learning to fly. The effort takes the shape of time and money invested—of which we all have only limited amounts. In order to properly budget both, so you can achieve the goal of flight, you need an understanding of what to expect. While many prospective pilots focus on the expenses involved in flight training, it’s just as important to be realistic about the time investment, whether you’re taking your own road under Part 61 to fly recreationally or following a structured program to an airline transport pilot certificate. Having worked in both Part 61 and Part 141 training programs, in the United States and in Europe, I can attest that very few people complete a course in the minimum time and cost quoted when they first begin training. Most of the time, this comes as the result of the natural optimism we all face when starting a big project—and knowing the minimums are just that, minimums, helps temper our projections and ­better plan to see the course through.

A handful of factors contribute to the increased amount of time to complete a given course, some of which are under your control and some fall to the organization with which you fly. This is why we stress preparation and planning before you embark on your quest. Your own preparation includes setting aside the time and mental energy each day or week to train, along with the funds to see you through, and ensuring you do the homework involved with studying for both the exams and your lessons.

Research into the flight school or instructor with whom you fly also helps mitigate problems in ­completing your course on time. As part of your interview with an ­aviation-training organization, ask to review completion times for students—particularly if you’re working with an ATO that proposes to finish your program in a prescribed amount of time, such as 15 or 18 months. I’ve found that, after analysis, some ATOs promising these targets actually have average completion times of 22, 24 or even 36 months. While part of the responsibility inevitably falls upon the student (read: You must study and show up prepared for your lessons), beware of a school that blames its longer completion times solely on its cadets. You can dig deeper to find the real reasons: generally poor weather, lack of a structured maintenance program, insufficient training aircraft or the wrong mix of instructors are just a few contributing factors. These same items hold true when assessing a smaller school as well, though there tend to be fewer “guarantees” made when learning under Part 61 because of its flexibility.

How About Sport Pilot?

One option to help you control time and cost is to pursue a sport pilot certificate because it requires less total time than a private certificate. In the United States, light-sport aircraft fall into a couple different categories. Most come under the airplane-land designation, though there are a handful of seaplanes that also fit into the category. Within the airplane category, airplanes are either factory-built, under a special airworthiness certification and designated as S-LSA, or they're home- or amateur-built and fall under the E-SLA designation. Examples include the Vashon Ranger R7, Flight Design CT series and the Tecnam P2002.

We talk about the sport-pilot path in more detail in “Is a Sport Pilot Certificate Right for You?” but generally, you’ll take one-half to two-thirds of the time and money you’d invest in a full private pilot certificate.

Finding the Funds

Securing the funds to make your flying dreams happen takes planning and strategic thinking. There are a range of solutions for finding sources of financing, planning for your expected expenditures, and applying for ­scholarships that will help you on your way.

The first question to answer: What level of flying do you wish to achieve? For those seeking to fly recreationally, or for their own business, a sport or private pilot certificate will be enough, and the cost will vary from about $5,000 to $15,000, depending on which ­certificate you choose, where you live, and how long you take to ­complete the training. After your initial training, you may wish to add an instrument rating (to fly in varying weather ­conditions) or a multiengine rating (to fly a more complex airplane). These will cost an additional $5,000 to $12,000—again, ­depending on which you choose.

For those who wish to fly professionally, you will need at least a commercial pilot certificate, with the ­appropriate ratings such as instrument or multiengine and, possibly, an ATP. The costs listed above add up to an investment of between $50,000 and $120,000—varying widely by the program, where you train geographically, and any extra time you take to reach your goal. If you wish to secure an aviation degree, you can add anywhere from $25,000 to $250,000 to those totals—ranging from a two-year community-college program to a top-tier aeronautical university.

For most people, the amount you’ll spend on training takes planning. For your initial pilot certificate, you may be able to save up the amount prior to beginning your training, or plan to spend a certain amount each month from your household budget. You may also be able to arrange a ­personal or home-equity loan through your bank, if you have that collateral. The bottom line is to understand how you will cover the cost before you begin so a lack of funds doesn’t interrupt your training.

For a longer training program, you may need to arrange for financing, either through a bank loan or a provider that specializes in educational loans. There are a handful of resources that offer loans especially for aviation training, such as Pilot Finance or the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. If you’re a US military veteran, you may also qualify for funding through the Veterans Administration, under the ­latest version of the Post-9/11 GI Bill.

The amount you plan to spend to earn the certificates you need to become an airline pilot may seem daunting, but there are sources of funding through scholarships for which you may qualify. If you or your parents belong to any fraternal or community organizations, they may have scholarships that can be used for education, which would apply to a college or university aviation program.

You can also check with the local chapters of aviation organizations, such as the EAA, the Ninety-Nines, Women in Aviation, and state or local aviation clubs. These organizations offer cash toward a specific certificate or rating, or a general stipend to cover your training, and can total thousands of dollars to help offset your costs.

Your ATO may also offer scholarships through its alumni or ­community outreach, such as a mentorship ­program or collaboration with a local charitable organization. A ­general list is provided on ­scholarships.com if you search for “aviation scholarships.”

The planning and preparation to ensure you have the time and funds to complete your training will also help you in another way: As a pilot, planning and preparation are paramount to safe and competent flying.


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

Based in Maryland, Julie is an editor, aviation educator, and author. She holds an airline transport pilot certificate with Douglas DC-3 and CE510 (Citation Mustang) type ratings. She's a CFI/CFII since 1993, specializing in advanced aircraft and flight instructor development. Follow Julie on Twitter @julieinthesky.
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