Private pilot training for a license can be tailor-made to one’s own schedule and lifestyle and has multiple options for fulfillment of its training requirements.
So…you can’t take it anymore. It has become too difficult to resist your urge to fly. You’ve tried counseling. You’ve tried the patch. And nothing, but nothing can snuff out the burning ember inside of you that screams, “IWANNABECOMEAPILOT!”
Welcome to our club. We’ve all been there. The hardest part of getting your private pilot’s license is making the decision to go for it. There’s really nothing difficult about its requirements; after all, the minimum age for a private license is 16 years old so how difficult can it be?
To win your private pilot’s license, you will be required to pass a written test, meet hourly experience and competency requirements and pass a check-ride in an airplane with an examiner. This may sound like a lot but it’s not because, as the saying goes: “by the inch, life’s a cinch.” If you break each component down into mini-tasks you will find them quite doable.
Let’s attack the written examination first. In the early 1990s, the FAA moved away from administering free pilot written examinations and transferred this task to private companies. Today the only way to take the written exam (“knowledge test” in FAA parlance) is to visit a ground or flight training school that provides this service for a fee.
Preparing for the private pilot written examination is very do-able on your own. In fact, many applicants for a private license studied by themselves from books that were easily obtained. The material contained in the private pilot examination is relatively simple and straight-forward. To actually sit for the exam, the only thing you’ll need is a written endorsement by a certified ground or flight instructor stating that you have accomplished ground training (or a home study/on-line course) and the instructor believes you to be ready. If you do the prep work on your own you generally can obtain such an endorsement simply by presenting your study materials to the instructor to review. The instructor will ordinarily ask you some questions to see if you have a grasp on the subject matter. Sometimes the instructor will require you to complete a sample test and, if you pass, you’ll be signed off to take the FAA’s knowledge test. As in any endeavor, the more prep work you are willing to do on your own, the more money will be left in your pocket.
If you have actually begun your private pilot training, your instructor is likely aware of the depth of your knowledge and may just sign you off for taking the written without any formal prerequisites.
Of course, there is always the option of weekend cram courses with a price tag anywhere from $50 to $200. Though they are usually successful at helping you pass the FAA’s knowledge test, there simply is not enough time during these short courses to present thorough explanations or go back over material you do not understand. You will learn questions and answers but you will still probably end up later spending the same amount of time with your nose in the books actually improving your understanding of the material prior to your check-ride.
Another important thing to consider is that passing the private pilot written examination is good for only 2 years. If you decide to take the written exam and cannot see yourself completing the flight training requirements within 2 years, you will have to re-take the written test prior to your check-ride! Ugh! There are instances that have occurred where people wanted to get their private license but could not actually begin their private pilot training for some time so they attended a weekend course, “just to get the written out of the way.” Then many months elapsed before they started training and by the time they were ready for their check-ride their written expired.
Worse yet, this writer knows of one such instance in which a private pilot applicant passed his written early but delays interfered with his training. Even so he was ready for his check-ride on the last day of the 24th calendar month.1 But Murphy’s Law entered the picture and on the day of his check-ride the weather turned awful and the check-ride was canceled. Even if he was able to take the check-ride the next day, his written examination was no good any longer so he had to prep for the examination all over again. This time delay, in turn, permitted his flying skills to erode prior to the re-scheduled check-ride. He successfully passed the re-scheduled check-ride but it required more dual instruction to keep his skills sharp which, of course, made for additional expense.
But what about the flyin’ part of your private license? What options are available?
Most applicants prefer using a formal flight school and these come under several categories. Some flight schools operate under FAR Part 61 and their operations are generally more business-like in “brick-and-mortar” facilities. Another option is the flight school that operates under FAR Part 141. These regulations permit a certain amount of “relief” from time requirements needed to obtain a private license. For instance, in an FAA Part 141 flight school, you need only 35 hours to take your check-ride whereas 40 hours is required at a flight school operating under Part 61. This is often a big selling point by FAR 141 schools. However, AOPA reports that the national average for people getting a private license falls between 50 to 60 hours and they additionally concede that other sources say it’s closer to 70 hours. Indeed, people have been able to obtain their private license in 35 hours but one should be cautious relying on this as an absolute expectation.
You’ll probably complete your first solo somewhere between 10 and 15 hours; some do it in less time, some do it in more. The hours you’ve trained prior to solo ARE NOT necessarily a reflection on what you can anticipate for completion of the course or whether you have the makings of a good pilot or not. The solo is a watershed moment in every pilot’s life and there are many factors that enter into the equation for this moment but many of these factors will diminish as you gain experience.
Some universities and colleges offer private pilot training and sometimes they are FAR Part 61 programs and sometimes they are Part 141 programs. You should expect the same high standards regardless of where you train or which path you plan to follow. Because a university has an enormous overhead, quite often the smaller flight schools will be considerably less expensive.
The most advantageous way to choose your private pilot training is to visit the school and talk to the instructors. Are they experienced? Ask them how many check-ride sign-offs they’ve done and how many students passed on their first attempt? Weekends are always busy flight training schedules so ask them to see the last few weeks’ schedules. Are they booked solid? Are you going to be frustrated because there are no airplanes or instructors available? How does your personal schedule fit into their operating hours and availability of aircraft and instructors? Talk to other students and ask their experiences. Talk to the mechanics. Are they happy working for this operator? Does their shop seem well-equipped?
Finally, there is a personal consideration that is quite subjective: the instructor. Instructors should present themselves professionally and neatly. They should exhibit patience and attentiveness. If while visiting a potential flight school and talking to some of the instructors you find one that is particularly abrasive, schedule your lessons with another. Or after you begin flight training you discover the instructor is obnoxious, foul-mouthed and seems to have never bathed, request your training with another instructor. The cockpit of an airplane is cramped and it is important for you to keep all of your attention focused on learning. If you are filled with dread or discomfort, you can’t, and you should find a different instructor.
It cannot be stressed enough that the more prep you do, the quicker you’ll complete your private pilot training. Keep reading and re-reading all of your private pilot study materials so that all the new concepts become as familiar as wearing a pair of comfortable old shoes. And that will allow you to land your airplane…and your private license smoothly.
1 Federal Aviation Regulations Part 61 (§61.35)