Getting My Pilot's License

It has been two years since I earned my single-engine land pilot's license. It was far more difficult than I ever imagined it would be. It was also a great learning experience. I have a lot of pride in the fact that I was able to complete my flight training and get my license - as it is not easy. This article is a reflection on why I decided to get a pilot's license, how I went about getting it, and if it was worth the time and money. Speckled throughout will also be my own advice to anyone thinking about getting a pilot's license themselves.

My first flight as a licensed private pilot.

Why I Choose Flying

It was early 2015. I had just dropped out of college to work on my business full time. Life was going great ... but was getting a bit predictable. I decided I needed a new hobby. I considered learning a new musical instrument, or learning how to draw well. I even considered taking night classes to get my Commercial Drivers License). In the end though I choose to learn how to fly.

Why flying was for me:

  • It looked fun.
  • A pilot's license lasts forever. You can become an inactive pilot but very rarely do you lose your pilot status.
  • The steps to a pilot's license are clear and attainable. I always knew what I needed to be studying and working toward.
  • A very good way to meet people with money (never have I met more doctors and lawyers than at the local airport lounge.)
  • Saying “niner” instead of nine.
  • Great way to impress females.
  • In the event of a zombie apocalypse the ability to fly a plane seems like a highly marketable skill.

Why flying might not be for you:

  • Flying is an expensive hobby. It cost me around $7,500 to get my pilots license. Also, flying isn’t a hobby like photography where your largest expenses are fixed costs (camera lenses, guitars, et cetera). Even once you have your license you will still be paying $150+ an hour for plane rental fees.
  • You need to have the time to fly at least once a week. If you don't you will forget thing, which means that it will cost even more money in plane rental and instructor costs to relearn what you have forgotten.

Flight Training

There are a few different types of pilots lessons to choose from. I choose to get the private pilot's license which is the most common. There are many specific requirements needed to get the license but it boild down to these main points:

  • Minimum of 20 hours flight training with an instructor.
  • Minimum of 10 hours flight training solo.
  • Minimum of 40 hours flight training total.
  • Completion of different flying tasks (flying at night, flying a cross country flight, et cetera).
  • Completing all the tests listed in the next session.

Typically, your training will revolve around what your Certified Flight Instructor (CFI) thinks is best. Thus, it is very important to find an instructor you work well with. I've heard of people switching CFIs part way through their training but that is ill advised. Find the right CFI from the start. Do a google search for local airports and local flying clubs and search their websites for a list of CFIs.

You will also need a study plan for the written tests. There are many regulations and theoretical information that might not be very relevant to actually flying but you will need to know in order to pass the FAA knowledge test. See if your local airport or flight club has “flight school,” which is typically once a week classes that go over all the flight information necessary to pass the FAA tests. I did most of my studying via self-studying, simply by reading the FAA's Aeronautical Information Manual (read for free here). I also watched a lot of videos from YouTube. Anecdotally I've heard that King Schools, while expensive, has some very good flight videos.

Sunset at Muscatine Municipal Airport

Flight Tests

Third-Class Medical Exam

To be eligible to solo fly an airplane it is necessary to get a third-class medical. This through health checkup is performed by an Aviation Medical Examiner to make sure you are mentally and physically capable of flying a plane by myself. The process can be stressful, especially for older pilots or those with health issues, because you never know if you will pass or not, and if you don’t pass you are typically barred from flying solo.

Pre-solo Knowledge Test

The pre-solo test is a fairly easy written test that you have to take with your CFI to show you are prepared to fly a plane without an instructor. Contrary to what most think, you are allowed to fly solo before getting a pilots license. My first time flying solo was with only 14 hours of flight time.

FAA Knowledge Test

The knowledge test is a 60-question multiple choice test that must be completed at a designated FAA testing place. With 16+ years of schooling experience focused squarely on multiple choice testing the FAA knowledge test was very easy for me. However, a lot of the old farts who are trying to get their license have told me that this was the test they struggled with the most because they had been out of school for so long.

FAA Practical Test

The practical test is the final test you must pass before getting your pilot's license. It's also the most stressful. You will typically take this final test with anywhere from 40 - 100 flight hours (I took mine at around 48 hours). With that limited amount of time there is no way you will know everything about flying. Thus the test is not designed to test that you know everything about flying. Rather it is designed to show that you are trained well enough to be able to safely fly a plane with passengers.

This test is composed of two parts. An oral portion and a “checkride” portion. The oral portion is an informal Q & A where the FAA examiner asks a variety of questions that must be answered correctly. In the checkride portion you are actually flying the FAA examiner in the plane. The examiner will tell you what tasks to perform, but nothing else. The two-part test took me just over five hours. When it ended I parked the airplane and the examiner shook my hand and congratulated me on my new pilot status.

My private pilot's license.

Was It Worth It?

I received my pilot's license two years ago. It has been over 18 months since I flew a plane. This lack of flying comes down to two things:

  1. Lack of proficiency
  2. Money

Flying is not like riding a bike. You must stay proficient or you will forget important information. I cannot emphasize this enough. Two months after getting my license I traveled in Asia for three months. Once I returned to the US I quickly learned that I no longer had the proficiency to safely fly a plane. I would need to take a few hours of additional lessons with a flight instructor to get back in the groove of things. While I certainly could have taken additional lessons this leads me to the second topic.

General aviation is one of the more expensive hobbies around. Because of the Proficiency aspect you really must fly at least once or twice a month after getting your license to remain a safe pilot. This means that even after you fork over a lot of money to get your private pilot's license you will then need to spend $150 - $500 per month in plane rentals just to retain your knowledge.

Ultimately, I don't know that I will ever get back into flying. That isn't to say that getting my pilot's license wasn't worth it though. I think what it comes down to for most people is the expense. The average cost of a private pilot’s license is $9,900. For me, the self-improvement that I experienced and the external benefits (bragging rights, networking opportunities) made getting my license worth it. However, that may not be true for everyone. If you think you might be interested in flying, my advice is to look around at local flight clubs or municipal airports. Many flight schools offer a reduced price one hour introductory flight to see how if flying is for you.