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Ways and Costs to Get Started as a Pilot

Have you been on the sidelines of flight, soaking up all you can about aviation but a little hesitant about taking the plunge and becoming a pilot?

No need to put it off. People become pilots in a variety of ways, over different periods of time, spending a little or a lot. There's really no single route to becoming a pilot.

The first step is to determine what kind of pilot you want to be. Do you want to be a recreational pilot, a private pilot who can carry passengers, a pilot who can fly in good and bad weather, a pilot who can make a career of it and earn money, a glider pilot, a balloon pilot? The Federal Aviation Administration has different rules for different aeronautical activities. (If you are going to fly ultralight equipment you won't need a certificate.)

Whatever route you take, don't let the prospect of expenses and long study hours overwhelm you. All the training comes along in stages with you setting the pace by finances and study regimens. Some schools get financing for the entire course so a student can keep a regular schedule of training and pay off the bill over a period of time. A disadvantage here is that when you earn your pilot certificate, you still are in debt, which might reduce your ability to rent aircraft to fly. An ambitious student might be able to trade work'washing aircraft, office chores'for flight training. Look into one of the military services. Training is excellent and you get paid at the same time.

There are a few requirements that apply to all piloting except ultralight flying. You must be able to read, write, and understand the English language. To solo (fly without an instructor) you must be 16 years of age for powered aircraft; you must be 17 to receive a private pilot certificate. You must be able to pass a basic physical examination that centers mainly on eyes, heart, hearing, and balance. That exam will cost from about $65 to $125 depending on your locale and the examining physician.

You won't need any of this for your first lesson, but you probably will want to have your own logbook to record your training and flight time. Keeping a record of flight time to document training and recency of experience to meet operational requirements is required by federal regulations. A basic logbook will cost about $10.

Another inexpensive item you may need at the beginning is a computer to calculate wind direction corrections, air speed, fuel consumption, and similar flight problems. A simple E6-B computer will cost about $14; more elaborate computers can go up to about $80.

To protect your hearing you may want headphones and a microphone for intercom. Or, you can use cheap earplugs, or let your instructor or training center provide the communication equipment.

As you prepare for your written test, you will need various manuals and handbooks. You may take a 'ground school' course at the training center with a series of sessions in a classroom with an instructor, or you may prefer studying on your own at home. Complete training courses are available from a number of sources with prices ranging from about $250 up.

Next, select where you want to train. Shop around. There are FAA-approved schools and non-approved schools. A non-approved school can be just as good. The difference is that an approved school must meet prescribed standards with respect to equipment, facilities, personnel, and curriculum. Many excellent non-approved training centers meet or exceed the FAA standards, but do not want to go through the process of government approval. The only primary difference is that at an approved school, a student can meet the training requirement with 35 flight hours while at a non-approved school the student must have 40 hours. This makes little difference because many students require 60 to 75 hours of training.

Keep in mind that the school is in business to make money so it might suggest loading you up with things you don't immediately need, like headsets, flight bags, and additional hours of training. Visit several schools. (You can get a list of schools in your area from the FAA Flight Service District Office in your area at the FAA web site:, plus reference a list of schools at flightschools.htm.) Talk with the management; find out how other students have done (if they all need many hours, the school might be less efficient or trying to sell additional flight hours). What is the passing rate? Talk with other students and find out what their experiences are. Ask to see the airworthiness certificates for the training airplanes. Check the maintenance logs. Before you select a flight-training center, question several and compare. Once on your way to being a pilot continue to question. A good school will welcome this kind of examination because it indicates you want to be a safe, competent pilot.

The federal government has a wealth of information to help you get the kind of certificate you want. Much of it is free. Check the FAA web site or you can link to it from .

A final thought: when you talk about what you are doing, say you're working to obtain a pilot "certificate", not a license. The FAA does not issue licenses, a license grants permission whereas a certificate shows that one has fulfilled certain requirements.