Fly-er Ed: Get A Pilot’s License


Getting through TSA screening at the airport is enough to make anyone wish for his or her own pilot's license. But becoming a pilot seems a bit daunting, too. Here's what you need to know about licenses, instructors, flight-training schools and what all this is going to cost, in time and money.

The basics and beyond: First, a few basics. To become a pilot, you must be at least 16 years old to solo and at least 17 to receive a pilot's certificate. You'll also need an aviation medical certificate, which involves a head-to-toe examination of your general health, and you must be able to speak and understand English.

Next, you'll need to decide which type of certificate, or license, you want. The Federal Aviation Administration, which is responsible for issuing certificates, specifies six categories of pilots, from student to commercial, but the two that apply to you will be either a recreational or a private pilot's certificate.

A recreational pilot's certification is the easier of the two to achieve, since it requires fewer hours of training, 30 as opposed to 40 for a private pilot's certificate. However, this certification comes with restrictions. You can fly only within 50 miles of your home airport, for instance, and only in good weather (and no night-time flying). In addition, you can carry only one passenger, and you have to stay within 2,000 feet of the ground.

With a private pilot's certificate, you can fly anywhere in the United States -- and beyond if you comply with foreign regulations -- and carry an unlimited number of passengers, so you can save on costs by sharing operating expenses. In addition, you'll be able to fly to heights of 18,000 feet above sea level. If you're flying for business reasons, this is the certificate you want.

Flight schools: You can find a flight school in just about any area of the country. Start at the Flight School List, which bills itself as the largest aviation-school directory on the Internet. Schools are listed by state and city. A quick Google search or check of your local phone directory will also turn up flight schools in your area.

Many flight schools work in conjunction with national aircraft companies. For instance, Cessna, a division of Textron (Stock Quote: TXT), operates Cessna Pilot Center flight instruction programs at affiliated flight schools all over the country.

Instruction: The popularity of becoming a private pilot has waned a bit since 1990, with the number of private pilots dropping from about 299,000 to about 228,000 by 2007. Pilots also tend to be male (95%) and older (generally over 50). But many flight schools are trying to appeal to women and younger candidates, emphasizing the freedom and excitement of flying yourself.

When you're ready to take to the skies, you'll find a variety of programs, pricing and time frames available. Start with an introductory flight, called a Discovery Flight, which walks you through the entire process of flying, from the preflight inspection of the craft to the takeoff and landing, and gives you the chance to take over the controls yourself.

After that, you'll begin your instruction. Some programs, like the Cessna Pilot Center programs, use computer-based instruction in conjunction with flight instructors to provide basic instruction and fine-tune skills. During your training, you'll hit several milestones, such as your first solo flight. The 40 hours of instruction for a private pilot's certificate will include three hours of night flight, three hours of cross-country training (more than 50 nautical miles from your home base), 10 solo hours and one night cross-country flight of at least 100 nautical miles, all required before you achieve certification.

Typically, the instruction process takes four to six months to complete, but some schools, such as the Tailwheels Etc. flight-instruction school in Winter Haven, Florida, offer two-week private pilot certification programs.

Costs: Costs range generally from about $6,500 to $9,000, depending on the type of aircraft you fly as well as other factors. At Tailwheels Etc., for instance, private pilot packages range from $7,490, with flight time in a Cessna 150, to more than $11,000 for time in an upgraded Cessna 172SP Glass Panel aircraft.



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