How to Get a Pilot’s License - A Step-by-Step Guide (with FAQs)
You always hear people saying they know someone with “a private pilot license.” The FAA refers to the document as a private pilot certificate. Regardless of the label used, here is a high-level view of the steps required:
- Select and begin studying a Private Pilot training course or Sport Pilot training course to acquire the in-depth base of knowledge you will need to be a good student pilot and pass the FAA Knowledge Test and Practical Test (testing requirements are different for Private Pilots and Sport Pilots)
- Research and choose a flight school or Certified Flight Instructor (CFI) – See the following FAQs for help in how to make that choice
- Take your medical exam (private pilot only; not necessary for sport pilot)
- Apply for your Student Pilot Certificate
- Work with your CFI to create a training schedule based on your budget and available time that will enable you to reach your goals
To learn more details about these steps, please review the following Question & Answer section.
This is one of the most often asked questions. But asking how much it costs to become a private pilot is almost like asking the old question “how long is a piece of rope?” According to the AOPA the average cost to become a private pilot is $9,900.
The FAA requires a minimum of 40 hours of flight time to become a private pilot, although most pilots typically require about 50 or 60 hours to complete the training. Airplane rental can run between $90 and $160 per hour, including fuel, depending on the aircraft type and age. New airplanes with modern computerized instrumentation cost more to rent. You will pay another $40 to $80 an hour for your instructor’s time.
The Sport Pilot license (certificate) is a lower cost alternative to the private pilot. The FAA requires a minimum of 20 hours of training to become a Sport Pilot and most students can successfully complete the training in as little as 30 hours. The Light Sport Aircraft (LSA) are less expensive to operate, keeping training costs to the minimum.
Ground school and course materials can add several hundred dollars or more to the cost of training (although many of the materials students pay for in ground schools or training kits are actually available free from the FAA or websites like ours). The MySkyForce App is a comprehensive cost effective solution providing all of the content you need in one convenient source.
To become a private pilot, at some point prior to getting your Student Pilot Certificate (needed to solo), you will need to go to a doctor for a checkup. The rules for pilot medicals have recently changed, but a trip to a doctor is still required. Pilots can choose to go to an FAA approved doctor who will issue what is known as a Third-Class Medical Certificate. Pilots now also have the option of visiting their own doctor who can complete an FAA approved form. If you choose to go to your own doctor (i.e. a doctor who is not an FAA Approved Examiner) you will also need to complete an online medical course offered free through the Airplane Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA).
Sport pilots do not need to worry about scheduling a trip to the doctor’s office as a driver’s license is all that is required to demonstrate the sport pilot health standards have been met.
The term private pilot license is used all of the time, but in fact the FAA officially refers to the document as a private pilot certificate. How a license and certificate differ is really not important to the average pilot, but most pilots prefer to use the term certificate rather than license. Although we use the term private pilot license on this website, we do this only because that is what visitors to our website new to aviation expect. In the MySkyForce course, to be consistent with the terminology used by the FAA and flight instructors, the term certificate is always used.
A private pilot certificate allows you to operate an airplane and carry passengers. You can fly for fun, business, charity or other purposes as long as you are not being paid to operate the airplane. Passengers may equally share the actual operating expenses of the flight with you, but cannot share in anything other than the direct expenses of the flight (typically fuel and landing fees) or give you any kind of payment for conducting the flight.
The sport pilot license (certificate) was introduced over a decade ago as a lower cost alternative to the private pilot certificate. Holding a sport pilot certificate allows you to operate light sport aircraft, which are generally smaller, easier to fly and less expensive to operate than the aircraft available to private pilots. (The light sport aircraft is not limited to just training sport pilots; it can also be the trainer airplane for earning the private pilot certificate.)
The sport pilot can only carry one passenger and is prohibited from operating at night. In addition to these restrictions, light sport aircraft have a speed restriction of 120 knots. None of these restrictions apply to private pilots.
Perhaps the biggest advantage the sport pilot license offers is the fact that a medical certificate is not required. A valid driver’s license takes the place of the medical certificate, saving the sport pilot a trip to an FAA approved doctor every few years.
As you work towards a private pilot license (certificate) or sport pilot license (certificate) you will be required to log solo time. To legally operate an airplane solo you will need to have in your possession a valid FAA issued student pilot certificate and logbook containing endorsements from your instructor that confirm you have received the required training to fly solo.
The application process for the student pilot certificate is relatively simple. You and your instructor will complete some online forms on the FAA Integrated Airman Certification and Rating Application (IACRA) website, and in a few weeks your student pilot certificate will arrive by mail.
There are two: The FAA Knowledge Test and the FAA Practical Test.
The knowledge test is often referred to as the written test. It is a 60-question multiple choice exam for private pilots (40 questions for sport pilots). Many pilots prefer to take the knowledge test before they begin their flight training to get it out of the way. This is a good strategy. Even if you do not take the test right away, having that knowledge before starting flight lessons, will help you get full benefit from your time with your instructor.
The FAA practical test is the big one. Although sometimes referred to as the flight test or check ride, it starts with a question and answer session on the ground. When the examiner is satisfied you really do have the required knowledge, the test will move to the flight portion so you can demonstrate your proficiency at the controls of the airplane. If all goes well, the practical test will conclude with the FAA examiner issuing you a private or sport pilot certificate!
The in-depth content provide by MySkyForce will give you superior preparation for both the oral and flying parts of the practical test as well as a thorough understanding of the information you will be tested on in your knowledge test.
Well, that depends on your goal. Many students will try to get by with some test-prep cram product that allows them to memorize questions from past FAA tests. They remember them long enough to recite the answers on the test even though they may not understand much of what they were tested on. Some companies that sell test prep even guarantee you will pass with their memorization prep. So if your goal is to pass an FAA test and you enjoy memorizing, this is the way to go.
If your goal is to become a competent pilot, confident in your flying skills, it is better to prepare with a quality in-depth Private or Sport Pilot training course that covers the material the FAA will test you on. Once you really understand the material you can use a test prep product to become familiar with the way the FAA asks the questions. (MySkyForce provides you with a free test prep product containing over 350 FAA Knowledge Test Questions used by the FAA on the Useful Items page of our website.) Someday when you are in the cockpit alone and things aren’t going according to plan, you will rely on your real knowledge, not some answer you memorized for a test, but never really understood.
Flight training expenses fall into two categories and there are opportunities for you to save considerable money in both areas.
The cost of the time you spend in the cockpit with an instructor adds up quickly. You want to get the greatest value you can from that time. Build your knowledge foundation and be thoroughly informed before you fly, so you won’t waste time in the air learning what you could have mastered on the ground at a fraction of the cost. Everyone agrees getting well prepared before you fly will keep costs down.
You can save money on the ground portion of your training too. Typical cost for ground school materials and training (on-line courses, videos, textbooks, classes etc.) can range from $500 to $1000. You can save hundreds of dollars at this initial part of your training by being an informed consumer. What do you really need? What are you really getting? Is everything you need included in the course you buy, or will you have to buy additional books or materials to get it all? Principles of flight, weather, airspace, navigation, etc., should all be in the course you buy. They should not be separate courses or additional books you must purchase. If you see a photo on a website of many courses or books for private pilots or sport pilots, it probably means you will eventually need to buy them all to get your private or sport pilot certificate. Consider it a red flag. Get one high quality, in-depth course up front that covers it all and save money.
Proximity to the school is important, but the acceptable drive time to the airport is a personal decision. For some a 30-minute round trip may be the limit and someone else may be willing to drive two hours each way to get their private pilot license (certificate). You need to first determine how much time you are willing to drive, and then make a list of all the flight schools or independent flight instructors within this time window.
The next step is to visit the schools/instructors. It’s easy to compare equipment costs. What is the cost of aircraft rental, is fuel included in the rate, are taxes included and are there any special fees (such as a landing fee or overnight fee on a cross country flight)?
To determine flight instruction costs, ask about the instructor fees and if the rate varies by the certified flight instructor (CFI). Also, determine if the CFI time includes flight briefings/debriefings or is this an extra cost? (The briefings are important so don’t try to save money by omitting them; just clarify how it is charged so you can accurately compare schools.)
Although cost is important, ultimately the most important element to consider is your comfort level with the school/CFI. Ask about the learning steps. Will there be a schedule in place for flights and stage checks to monitor your progress?
Some schools will give you a demo flight to get a feel for their planes and comfort level with an instructor. If you have taken a learn to fly course before visiting the airports, you will be able to make a more informed decision.
They come with a long list of things you get. The question is, how many of those things have value to you? And how many of them are actually available free from other sources?
The thing you really need is the training course itself – that is what you should be paying for. Determine the contents of the kit that you actually need and the cost to acquire these items yourself. Kits often contain the FAR/AIM, Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge, the Airplane Flying Handbook and other publications available free from the FAA (or from websites like ours). They may also offer test prep or other inducements (again, free on many websites). Some include plotters or E-6Bs, but are they the sturdy kind that will hold up in the cockpit or are they inexpensive give-away versions? The kits usually come with a bag to carry it all in.
This is a shameless plug, we know. But MySkyForce doesn’t need a carry bag to lug all those books around (and learning to fly is fun; it should not require carrying a 15-pound bag everywhere you go). With MySkyForce it’s all on your easy-to-carry mobile device. The cost calculation is pretty easy too. MySkyForce is $89.99. A quality metal E-6B flight computer will cost around $30.00 and a plotter costs about $8.00.
There is one more “ground” expense – a headset. So, take the money you save by buying MySkyForce and apply it to the purchase of a quality headset. Do your research here and also check with other pilots, as there is a big difference in headset price and quality.