So you want to be a pilot

Why We Fly

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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 training

Enjor your VFR privileges for a few months, take a break from training. Then absolutely get your instrument rating.

more coming soon


Mandatory watching and reading: