Part 61 of the U.S. federal aviation requirements establishes the minimum numbers of flight hours you need to earn each of three types of pilot certificates. Sport pilots, who earn the most restricted certification, need a minimum total of 20 hours of training under Part 61. Among other limitations, their credentials limit them to small two-seater aircraft with no retractable landing gear. They can’t carry more than one passenger, fly at night or in less than 3 miles’ visibility, or operate sightseeing trips for charity or community service. Recreational pilots earn a mid-level credential with more operational freedom than sport pilots enjoy. They need a minimum of 30 hours of training, and can operate four-seater aircraft or take supervised flights at night to earn other qualifications.
Private pilots earn the broadest of the three credentials and must take a minimum of 40 hours of training. None of the restrictions that apply to recreational and sport pilots apply to the private pilot certification. Flight schools that abide by Part 141 of the FAA regulations may be able to can reduce the minimum training time to achieve certification because they follow strict regulations that govern their curricula. In reality, however, the minimum training requirements may not reflect your training needs to achieve mastery. In some cases, student pilots wind up doubling the minimums before they reach full competence.
According to the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, you may be able to obtain a sport pilot’s certificate for as little as $3,000 as of 2014, but a realistic rough estimate would put the cost between $5,000 and $9,000. Your actual training costs will depend on how often you take lessons, the craft in which you train, the ability you demonstrate to progress, and even the weather. If you choose to attend a nationally accredited flight school or gain your certification through a college degree program, your costs may increase commensurately.
If you decide to buy your own aircraft, you’ll need to consider your purchase budget, the types of trips you plan to take, any limitations imposed by the class of certificate you’ve earned, the type of hangar space you can use, and the amount of money you can spend on upkeep, repairs, fuel and other consumables. The best plane manufacturer for you should be the one that produces the plane you want to fly and can handle competently in the air.
Part of the process of learning to fly looks similar to the on-the-road portion of a driver’s education course. You must gain an understanding both of how to operate aircraft controls and of the results of the actions you take in the cockpit. Additionally, ground school adds another layer to your mastery, either through scheduled classes led by an instructor or through a self-paced training course that you follow on your computer or through recorded lectures. Ground school helps you learn when you can fly safely, and guides your ability to make smart decisions about where and when not to fly.
If you’ve done the training and built the mastery necessary to become a qualified pilot, the tests should offer a challenge you can meet. If you’ve taken the minimum number of course hours but you’re not ready for the certification exam, continue your training until you feel certain of your competence and preparedness.