by Michael Church
President, Sunrise Aviation

The following is a brief presentation of what you may expect when you start training for a Private Certificate (they're not called "licenses" by the FAA). The goal is not to present all the information you will actually receive, but to give you an overview of the time and money (average) you will spend and the stages you can expect to pass through.


To start with, your flight instruction will concentrate on teaching you the theory and mechanics essential to basic flight. You will learn how to control an aircraft at a variety of speeds, how to takeoff and land, and how to deal with other traffic encountered during those activities. If you are based at an airport with a "control tower," you will also spend a significant amount of time learning and practicing radio communication skills. All the flights up to this point will be "dual," that is, in the company of a flight instructor.

At the end of the first stage you will have the skills and knowledge necessary to make solo flights to and from a local "practice area." At most schools, completion will be signaled by successful passage of a short check flight given by a senior flight instructor. You can expect to spend between ten and twenty hours in flight instruction reaching this plateau.

Next come navigation skills--here, equal amounts of ground and flight instruction are needed to make you a reasonable candidate for "away" trips. You will learn chart reading, time and distance calculations, techniques of electronic navigation, and--perhaps most important--the skills to relocate yourself after becoming lost in the air. During this stage, you will make several solo flights in the local area, and your instructor will continue to sharpen your basic flight and runway skills. At the conclusion, again marked by a short check flight at the better schools, you will have gained more than 90% of the knowledge and ability needed to pass the Private Check Ride itself. Time spent in this second stage varies from ten to fifteen hours of flight instruction.

The third stage of training consists primarily of your solo cross country flights, including one of at least 300 miles in length. You will also gain some dual night flight experience and receive specific instruction designed to prepare you for your flight test.


By the end of the program, the regulations require you to have a minimum of 40 hours in flight. This is a fairly adventurous completion goal, as the national average for receiving a Private Certificate is well over 70 hours. Regardless which of these totals comes closest to matching your own experience, you can expect the time to divide up this way: 10 hours solo and the remainder dual. In my experience, completing in 50 hours is the equivalent of getting "A"s in a full year of college--a very respectable achievement.


Before each flight lesson, your instructor should spend detailed time discussing and explaining lesson content and what you should expect. This time is critical to rapid progress, as you will find that an aircraft in flight makes a very poor classroom. Students who skimp in this area in the interest of "getting up in the air" will find their progress slow and frustrating. You can expect to wind up with about 20 hours of this type of instruction in a typical flight training program.

NOTE: this "ground instruction" should not be confused with the "ground schools" discussed as the next topic.


While taking your flight instruction, it is highly recommended you attend a Ground School--a series of lectures by an experienced flight instructor designed to present all the theoretical knowledge necessary for safe flight (and passage of the FAA "knowledge test"). These lectures are not mandatory, but are usually the best way to acquire the information. The typical course of ground school lectures is between 40 and 60 hours in length; you can often find such a course offered at Community Colleges.

Alternatives to Ground School include one-on-one instruction (very expensive), video courses, self-study (there are literally thousands of texts), and "cram courses," courses designed primarily to get you through the knowledge test.


All of this is going to cost between four and five thousand dollars. Obviously, the exact amount is going to vary, both with the total time you spend in training and with the fees charged by the instructor you select. Despite the appeal, it's a serious mistake to shop flight schools exclusively by price--the good ones charge more because they provide better service, and it's a fair generality to say that the less money you are charged, the older the aircraft and the younger the instructor you are likely to get-- probably not the mix you're looking for.

Safety and competence are the obvious goals in flight instruction, and a couple of hundred dollars saved during initial training often turns out to be false economy: if you can't learn the basics thoroughly, you may well end up abandoning the entire enterprise (it's your life at risk, after all), thus throwing away everything spent up to that point.


It is highly recommended you pursue your initial flight instruction energetically--a minimum of two flights a week is a good starting goal, and more bring even better results. If you are successful at keeping this schedule, it is reasonable to expect completion in 4-6 months. Stretched out over a longer period, the instruction loses some efficiency, with corresponding increases in the total ground and flight time required.


At the conclusion of your training, having logged the necessary hours, learned the needed data and passed the knowledge test, you will be ready for your Check Ride. Given by a pilot designated by the FAA to perform such tests, the experience consists of an oral exam lasting about two hours, and a flight, perhaps slightly shorter. The charge for the entire thing is usually $250--one last fee to be paid before you get to say you're finished.

And what have you earned? The right to fly light aircraft and carry your friends and family around. Initially, you will be limited to aircraft similar in size and complexity to those you learned in, but as your experience grows, you may find yourself lusting after bigger and faster machines--all available after suitable check-out training. You will also be limited to flight in visual conditions--a restriction that often leads pilots to an Instrument Rating as their next stage of training. Perhaps we'll have more on that subject in this space later on.

 This article is first in a series of informational articles for the new student or anyone interested in becoming a pilot. Look for a new article the first of each month. If you have an idea for an article, or a topic you would like more information on, please inform max05 (at)

June 1, 1998