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You might be curious about what it takes to learn how to fly. There are many options but we’ll look at flying lessons - learn how to fly a plane.
Whether it’s at your local airport, or the state university with an aviation program, there are many ways to learn to fly. As part of the process we’ll look at the private pilot, commercial pilot and airline transport pilot requirements and discuss how each can be achieved through part 61 or 141 programs.
I grew up at the local municipal airport. My dad was a flight instructor there, and I’ve always loved planes. I logged thousands of hours on flight simulators so by the time I was legal to fly, it was only natural that I started on my Private Pilot’s license. I soloed at 3 hours total time and I’ve never looked back. Now forgive me if I go on here. We’re talking about planes after all.
Licenses, certifications and ratings
As part of your flying lessons, you’ll advance through one or more of these stages. Each builds on the previous stage and naturally extends your skill set allowing you to take on more responsibility in the air and fly under more difficult conditions.
I’d like to follow the typical progression for someone interested in flying for the major airlines as a professional pilot. Your journey might stop somewhere along the road and that’s okay! After your single engine private pilot license and instrument rating, you should be able handle just about anything that comes your way. If you need to step up to multi engine at any point, you can add the ratings you need.
This stage of your flight training is initiated by endorsement from a local physician who is qualified to complete flight physicals. In this stage you are expected to learn the ropes and cannot solo without the proper endorsement from your flight instructor. You cannot carry passengers either.
The minimum to qualify for your private pilot license is: 40 hours total time, with at least 3 hours of cross country time, 3 hours of night flight, 3 hours of instrument training, 20 hours of training with an instructor and 10 hours of solo flight time. You’ll need to take a written exam and pass your FAA practical test. The practical test is an oral and flight exam which consists of several maneuvers and is often referred to as the checkride.
You’ll also need to complete a cross country trip of at least 150 nautical miles with a full stop landing at three points. One segment of the flight must have a straight line distance of more than 50 nautical miles.
As a private pilot you can carry passengers but cannot be compensated for the flight in any way. You’re also often certified in single engine, land based aircraft only and will have to get type or class certified if you’re interested in flying anything outside of this category.
The vast majority of pilots have a private pilot license.
This rating is the first real step in advancing your skillset. Where a private pilot license permits you to operate an aircraft under day and night time VFR conditions, the instrument rating makes your pilot license a serious asset in cross country flying. The further you fly, the more likely you are to encounter IFR conditions.
In order to qualify for an instrument rating you must hold a current private pilot certificate and have logged at least 50 hours of cross-country time as pilot in command. 10 or more of these hours must be in airplanes for an instrument-airplane rating.
You must also have completed at least 40 hours of instrument flight time in actual or simulated flight conditions in specific areas of operation. At least 15 hours must involve training from an authorized instructor.
At least one cross country flight must be completed of at least 250 nautical miles along ATC-directed routing or airways. Instrument approaches must be shot at each airport and these approaches must utilize different kinds of approaches.
The instrument rating is well worth the cost as it provides the foundation for IFR flight but also provides practical skills to help with your daily flying.
The commercial pilot certificate is the next natural step in flight training. With this certification you’re qualified to be compensated for flight time with passengers or cargo aboard. This certification provides the foundation for flight involving flight instruction, agricultural flights, banner towing and more.
What’s unique about this certification is that it takes pilots back to the airmanship intensive curriculum inherent to the private pilot license.
Minimum requirements to complete the commercial pilot is that you have 250 hours total time with 100 hours as pilot in command, 50 hours of cross country time, 20 hours of training and 10 hours of solo time.
The practical exam standards call for the pilot to learn advanced maneuvers, recovery from unusual attitudes and advanced emergency procedures. I’ve always associated the commercial pilot certification with becoming a certified flight instructor, but as mentioned, there are a variety of opportunities open to pilots with the certification.
As with the instrument rating, you will have to get checked out on multi-engine if you’re interested in being compensated for flights involving multi-engine aircraft.
Certified Flight Instructor
CFI for short. This endorsement is ubiquitous for future ATP’s as one of the best ways to build Pilot in Command time is to instruct. The CFI also has great airmanship standards that build further on what was learned during commercial pilot training.
I had pilot friends who would CFI as a day job and pick up banner towing work on the weekends.
The CFI is offered for each stage of training as well. If you’re like to instruct private pilot students only a CFI will suffice. If you’d like to teach instrument ratings, you’ll need to have your Certified Flight Instructor Instrument rating. You’ll also need to have the appropriate endorsements for multi engine instruction as well.
Airline Transport Pilot
The next logical step in your pilot training is the Airline Transport Pilot (ATP). The ATP is the terminal certification for many as it’s the minimum barrier of entry for flying for regional airlines.
The minimum requirements for your unrestricted ATP are: 1,500 hours including 500 hours of cross-country time, 100 hours of night flight, 75 hours of instrument time and 250 hours as pilot in command.
The minimum requirements for a restricted ATP depends on your background. If you flew for the military you can do it on 750 hours total time. If you’re learning through your college or university program and graduate with a four year aviation related degree you qualify for an ATP with 1,000 hours. A two year degree will allow you to complete your restricted ATP at 1,250 hours.
With the ATP, you’re the real deal and can work for the regionals as a first officer.
Other ratings and certifications
While the ATP is the terminal certification for flying, there are several ratings and certifications that may be earned on the way up the ladder.
A common one is the complex aircraft endorsement. A complex aircraft is a high performance one if it has: at least a 200 horsepower engine, a variable pitch prop, and/or retractable landing gear.
Another endorsement that may be earned is the tail-wheel endorsement. This requires instruction on the unique handling characteristics of tail-wheel aircraft.
The Sport pilot certificate is a light version of the private pilot license and may be used to operate light sport aircraft. These aircraft are lighter versions of the typical general aviation airframe but have greater performance than the ultralight class of aircraft. This certificate is only available in the United States and does not require a medical certificate to complete the license requirements.
The Local Airport
I learned at my local airport, and there are many pilots who got their start flying at the municipal airport. My home airport had a flying club that owned a rental fleet and had instructors on call to partner up with.
Let’s take a look at a few of the options for flight training at the local airport.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) stipulates the minimums for certified flight instruction. Any FAA approved flight instructor can train a student under part 61, whether they’re paired with an FAA-approved school or they’re an independent contractor. This might form the basis for the flight training experience at your local airport.
Part 61 tends to be flexible, customized and a little more expensive than Part 141 training. The biggest advantage here is the option to fly whenever it suits your schedule. Twice a week after work, twice a weekend. Whatever works. Just make sure the plane is available and that your instructor is ready to go.
Independent Flight Instruction
I see ads out for flight instructors who own and train out of their own airplane. This is a great option as you might be able to fly an airplane you otherwise wouldn’t have access to. Rental fleets typically have similar training aircraft and it’s difficult to break away from some of these planes as they’re ubiquitous and usually built in large quantities.
I’ve seen independent instructors teach out of everything from Mooney’s to Beechcraft Skippers and much more exotic aircraft. So it’s a great way to branch out.
The other benefit to independent flight instruction is that the partnership building component feels amplified. You fly in an aircraft that the instructor has owned for some time and is familiar with. I know a 172 is a 172 is a 172, but each plane has their own quirks. Especially after flying for 40 years+ in some cases. An instructor guiding you through the intimate knowledge of their plane helps you master the skills you’ll need at a quicker pace.
Independent flight instruction isn’t limited to those who own their planes either. I’ve had friends who freelance and will meet you at the airport of your choice, in a plane of your choice. Want to buy a plane to build time on? Do it and invite your independent instructor to join you. Is there a plane you like flying at the airport that’s not affiliated with a flight school? Rent it and invite your independent instructor to join you.
This is the route I took. I showed up at my airport and needed the all in one package because I didn’t have an airplane or an instructor to work with. Flying clubs are great for the social aspect as well. Mine would have brunches on the weekends. We’d sometimes meet up and fly a few planes from the fleet out to Catalina Island and back.
Flight club’s are fun.
They’re also great for training. There are a few ways I’ve seen these structured: The planes are brought in by independent owners and offered as part of the fleet, or the club owns the planes.
The great thing here is you have greater options on the airframes available. Mine had Cessna 172’s and a couple other training aircraft, but also had Cessna 182’s and a 182RG I could step into to get complex time and fly a bit faster. Once you start flight training, you build a relationship with the club and can take advantage of your pull their to step up to other, more advanced planes.
I mentioned the all in one package, and that’s what flying clubs are. You don’t need to research instructors and planes. You can show up day one, money in hand, and go fly. You can schedule time from there on and take care of your flight training needs in one place.
With both independent instruction and flying clubs you’ll probably be flying under part 61. Some flight clubs do have Part 141 operations though.
Where Part 61 tends to be flexible and customized, part 141 isn’t. Schools that adhere to part 141 are much structured, rigid and require less time to be licensed. There isn’t much room for additional curriculum under Part 141 and even if you have some experience already. You will go through the same curriculum as everyone else.
There’s a strict audit process which takes place to qualify for Part 141 and this decreases the amount of time to qualify for your private pilot’s license. Expect 35 hours minimum to reach your private pilot license, expect 190 hours minimum to reach your commercial pilot license.
Part 141 tends to work better for those you can commit full time and who are interested in pursuing a career in flying. It also works for those who want to complete an otherwise long duration of training in a short amount of time.
Where flying club’s are almost always part 61 facilities. Flight schools are almost always part 141. This is a great way to streamline your training as part 141 is full time and structured. This structure continues all the way up through your commercial license which allows you to complete your licenses in less time, with less overall time.
If you’re serious about flying as a career path, flight schools are the way to go.
Flight schools often start their trainees in cohorts so you’ll be learning beside others on the same schedule. This is fun for the social aspect, but also awesome because these are relationships you might build and carry through your professional career as a pilot.
If you’re serious about flying for a living, flight schools are also a great way to build time. Typical programs will include all the instruction and time building for your private pilot through multi engine ratings. Flight schools need instructors and are incentivized to hire you once you complete their program. This is great time building as you’re almost guaranteed students and don’t have to go out and market your flight instruction.
Part 141 schools have schedules that fit a variety of flying goals. Ranging from just your private pilot license to multiengine CFI. The combination of the full time schedule with concrete goals allows for pilots who are motivated to get through their training quickly and affordably.
Universities, Colleges and Academics
There are several programs now offered through regionally accredited institutions that combine aviation education material with flight training. I’ve had friends complete flight training this way and they’re now flying with major airlines.
The benefit of these programs really speak to those pilots looking to break into the professional field. Major airlines require a 4 year degree and combining the cost of this education with that of your flight training is a great way to take care of both requirements. Many of these schools are funded by university grants, which means the planes you have access to are often the best available anywhere.
What’s awesome is you can combine different aviation related degrees with your flight training. If you’re interested in the mechanical components of an aircraft, get an aviation technology degree. If you’re interested in the business aspects, look into an aviation business degree combination.
Some of these schools will offer flight training to the general public at a higher rate as well.
Local community colleges might have training programs as well. These function in a similar way to the university programs but might not be affiliated with a degree program.
What’s great about either of these programs is the ability to qualify for a restricted ATP with less than the 1,500 hours total time standard for the ATP certification.
Military training is another option for those considering flying as a career. Not only do you get to serve your country, but you walk away with sought after certifications and hirable qualifications. Military pilots are eligible for restricted ATP’s which allow them to waive the 1,500 hour minimum for getting hired by regional airlines. With 750 hours they can fly right seat as a first officer.
Many regional airlines offer programs to help rotary pilots transition as well. With less hours on fixed wing aircraft, pilots can work their way into the right seat as a restricted ATP. Helicopter pilots may now transition their hard earned time with less additional training to get up to speed.
We’ve talked a lot about the practical component of flight training. But along the way you’ll have to go through ground training as well. This will encompass topics that range from procedures to weather patterns.
During your private pilot license, expect to be tested on ground handling, pre-flight checklists, radio procedures, meteorology, the traffic pattern and flight dynamics. Everything covered is useful in the air and designed to help with your decision making and general knowledge. If the plane starts doing weird things, your practical knowledge combined with your ground training will provide a foundation for the safe operation of the aircraft.
During your instrument rating, expect to be tested on advanced weather topics, instrument procedures, instrument approaches and a variety of IFR procedures. Everything you need to supplement you practical experience. Under the guidelines you can fly in a simulator for some of your time. This is helpful for areas that tend to have good weather - think Southern California. It feels difficult to maintain proficiency when it’s always nice out.
For your commercial pilot certification, expect to study up on high performance maneuvers, unusual attitudes and general airmanship.
Ground training is usually billed as part of your flight training and comes in the form of self study and classroom interaction. Part 61 tends to be more lax on standards and your flight instructor will be your primary source of ground instruction. Part 141 could also have instructor time for ground training, but you might also be in a classroom environment depending on your school.
Either way, expect there to be a written exam at each stage of your journey through flying. I’ve supplemented everything I’ve down with relentless self study and it’s helped streamline my experience.
What’s important here...
...is that you understand each avenue to learn how to fly will get you there. As a military pilot you will earn instrument ratings and might even earn commercial ratings. You’ll also be type certified in the aircraft you’ll fly. As a part 61 student, you can work your way through licensing and certification to earn your CFI and build time up to the ATP requirements. As a part 141 student you’ll also get there.
You just have to want it, get out there and go fly!