So you want to be a pilot

Who This Is For

I’m pretty public for my love of general aviation and flying. I consider the time and money spent getting my pilot’s license to be one of the best investments of my life. Given this, I get asked for advice quite often on beginning flight training so I thought I would write this up to create a more public resource.

First Steps

Once you take the plunge, the first step is to book a discovery flight at a local flight school. This will be a roughly 1-2 hour flight which will cost about $1-200. Your instructor, aka Certified Flight Instructor, aka CFI will show you the basics of flying a small aircraft and give you a sense of what is involved.

Try to separate the personality of your CFI from the majesty of soaring through the sky in a glorified aluminum can with a fan attached to the front. The point of the discovery flight isn’t to find an instructor your like, its to get a sense of what general aviation is like.

On the one hand, its a truly magical expireince. Even just walking the tarmac of the airport instead of viewing from being the glass windows in a typical commercial airport can be moving. You’ll get to see your city from a perspective that few will experience. You’ll manuever a vehicle through 3-dimensional space. You’ll experience a comaraderie and professionalism on the radios that is unmatched in civilian life.

On the other hand, its loud, expensive, and uncomfortable. Given the physics of aviation, cockpits are cramped. If you’re large, come to terms with lots of shoulder to shoulder contact with your CFI. Many of the trainer aircraft you’ll experience will be old. While airworthiness won’t be an issue, many of the creature comforts will be utterly absent in these old planes. It gets better, and as you graduate to newer, higher performance aircraft many of these issues disappear.

So, take it all in. Only once you’ve experiened the discovery flight is it worth asking yourself if you want to invest the time (roughly 100-300 hours of your time all in) and money (likely $20,000 in the Bay Area). But, note that these are not up front costs and can be spread out significantly.

Finding a CFI (Instructor)

The way I chose my CFI was that I went with the first guy to pick up the phone at the flight school nearest to me. Don’t do this.

Find a Flight School

Step one to finding an instructor is finding a flight school. There are two sets of regulations for flight schools - Part 61 and Part 141. They both require instruction to the same degree of competency but operate somewhate differently. Can google for more details, but the short summary is that Part 61 gives the school far more autonomy and for training as a hobby, as opposed to career, is probably the better option.

Most flight schools will have links to view their fleet or rental aircraft. You can sometimes save money with older aircraft. Howver, to be honest, there will be so much downtime for maintenance, it may not be worth it. The easiest way to compare prices is to take a common model, like the Cessna 172SP (a recent version of the workhorse 172) and compare rates. Just make sure that you aren’t comparing dry rates (excluding fuel, roughly $75 / hr) and wet rates (fuel is included).

Once you’ve price compared, ask around. Reddit’s r/flying is a great resource. Can also look on google or yelp.

Find a CFI

Once you find the right school, dont just go with the first CFI you meet. Tell him or her that you want to take lessons with a few of their CFIs in the beginning just to get a sense who your personality is more compatible with. This can save you a lot of frustration going forward.

Also, make sure to calify with your CFI when the “clock is ticking”. Some will only charge while you’re in the plane where as others will charge you from the minute you start walking to the plane or discussing the flight in the beginning. Niether is “right” or “wrong” or “unethical” just make sure you understand this up front.

If it doens’t work out, remember you can always switch.

What kind of plane to rent.

Honestly, this matters less than you think. The short answer is that as long as you have a good school and CFI the type of plane does not make a huge difference.

Having said that, there are some general guidelines. Ideally, you want a type where your school has as many planes of that type on the line as possible. This is simple scheduling and logistics. Trainer planes go in for maintenance quite a bit. The deeper the inventory of planes you can choose from the better.

The sweet spot, all else being equal, would be to find a relatively recent Cessna 172SP with steam guages (see below). Its much easier to get in and out of than the Piper Cherokees with ther single door. Moreover, its one of the most popular aircraft models ever so you’re more likely to find them than any other type.

Diamond DA-40s and Cirrus SR-20s are sleeker, newer, faster, and just look way cooler. They are also overkill for initial training and unnecessarily add to the expense of training. Also, they are more complex and difficult to fly and that added complexity is that last thing you want in initial training.

Glass or Steam Guages

For initial training, use steam guages. Transitioning from steam to glass is far easier than the other way around. The added expense of newer, glass cockpit planes is just unnecessary for initial training.

Getting the Most out of Lessons

coming soon

Written Exam

Unfortuantely, the FAA written exams are mostly an issue of memorization and feel quite disconnected from the knowledge you will actually use as a pilot. The tests are 60 randonmly chosen questions out of a test bank of 300 published questions.

Sheppard Air has in effect “hacked” the FAA public question database and gives pneumonics for answering every question you may get. This will save huge amounts of time on studying and lead to impressive results.

They have an iPad app with a uniquely terrible UX which seems to have been designed decades before Apple released the first iPad. It is far from pretty but it works.

First Solo

This can be a terrifying experience. Just remember, your CFI believes in your ability once they endorse you for this and so should do.

“Remember your training and you will make it back alive.” - Lt. Jean Rasczak

Practical Exam

Remember that you are the Pilot In Command. Your examiner will attempt to task saturate you with questions to see how your perform under pressure. A simple: “One minute, I need to ___ and then will answer this” goes a long way.

Also, if you are on final to land and you dont have a nice, stabilized approach: go around, go around, go around.

more coming soon

Instrument Rating (IR)

The 3 hours of simulated instrument time you did for your VFR PPL does not prepare you for flying in Instrument Meteorological conditions (IMC). You cannot beat the weather scud rudding. You are not ready for IMC. Do not try it.

Enjor your VFR privileges for a few months, take a break from training. Then absolutely get your instrument rating. There’s nothing quite like breaking out of the clouds and flying just above an overcast layer seeing nothing but sun and blue sky above or coming down to mininums and seeing the lights of the runway magically appear in front of you after zero visibilty excatly where the invisible highway in the sky said they would be.

Steam or Glass

Unless you have a very specifc reason to do your instrument rating on steam gauges, its probably better to do glass. The planes are newer and less likely to be squawked for maintenance. More importantly, the situational awareness that glass panels give you is incomparable to steam. While you’ll need transition training if you ever want to fly a steam guage airplance in IMC, that is becoming a pretty rare event. Furthermore, you’ll be able to make progress much more quickly while flying with a significantly improved safety margin because of the added situation awareness.

Also, one of the most insidious risks in instrument flying is partial panel where you need to handle flying in white-out instrument conditions with some or all of your guages malfunctioning. There are two challenges here:

  1. Detecting an instrument failure
  2. Compensating for the failure using cross-checks, known power settings, and backup instruments.

A major difficulty with steam guages is that instruments fail gradually so it might be difficult to detect a failed instrument. This is basically impossible to simulate in training in the air, the best your CFII can do is put a post-it note over the instrument. This will help train you for the second point but not the first: detection. When glass panels you will get a big, bright ‘X’ over any failed instruments.

Tips for getting your IR

The name of the game for IR is staying ahead of the airplane. Before each training flight, ask you instructor what to expect on the flight. If you’re flying steam guage airplane, there will be a lot “TURN TIME TWIST THROTTLE TALK” associated with programming your VORs. In a glass cockpit plane this is vastly simplified. However, you will still need to develop an anticipiation of the next “steps” in your flight so that you execute quickly when the time arrives.

Delay vectors are your friend. In actual instrument flying, you will depart, cruise for 1-3 hours, then perform a single approach, usually with ATC giving you vectors straight into to the Initial Approach Fix (IAF) for that approach. In training, however, you’ll find yourself performing 2-6 approaches in a single training flight. This is a massively higher workload than you’ll face in the real world. You’ll be much more rushed running your AIRBAG checklist than in the real world. Its absolutely fine to ask your instructor or ATC (as required) for delay vectors to get configured.

Autopilot can be your best friend and worst enemy. Use autopilot generously but not exclusively. When you’re behind the airplane, the autopilot, if used correctly, can be hugely beneficial for catching up. But, remember, the autopilot is not autonomous. It does exactly what you command it to do, not what you expect it to do. This can be a very material difference. For example, the autopilot on many trainer aircraft only has a vertical speed mode for altitude changes. This is great for descents but if you set it for a 1000 fp/m climb and forget that above a certain altitude your airplane can’t maintain that rate of climb, the autopilot will keep pitching up until the plane stalls. Having the autopilot do something unexpected is pretty common and a great first instinct is to just hit that big red “A/P Disconnect”, put the plane where you want it, then reconfigure the autopilot. This is also why consitently setting your heading and altitude bugs correctly is a great habit, HDG mode on the autopilot is pretty predictable and can be a great fall back to a misconfigured autopilot.

Circling approaches are extremely difficult and should be treated with respect. Its common to skip over circling details when briefing an approach: “we’ll be on course 180, MDA is 550, 650 for circling.” Don’t do that. Brief it like it was an untowered field entry: “once we have the field in sight, we are going to circle east of the airport, which will mean sidestepping to the right for a right down wind entry, etc.” . Also, circling approaches can end up becoming very tight patterns. Stay wide and high while maintaining visual contact with the ground.


Mandatory watching and reading: