May 24th, 2009

planet

frequently asked questions about my flying lessons

I thought I'd post a nice little summary of what learning to fly is all about, since I a lot of the same questions when both talking to people about it and writing about it. If you've got questions, post them here and I'll add them to the list! But there's a lot people are curious about when it comes to learning to fly, and I'm right there with you. So I'm going to do my best. Not everything here has been carefully researched, so take it with some grains of salt.

First let me say that the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) has some great resources about learning to fly, if you're terribly curious, go browse their website starting with the FAQ: http://www.aopa.org/letsgoflying/faqs.html

What are you trying to get?
I am working on my private pilot's license. This will allow me to fly in the United States, as long as the weather is clear enough that I can stay out of clouds and see where I'm going. I will be able to take passengers and have them to split the costs of the flight with me, but I will not be allowed to charge people for trips. More information:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Private_Pilot_License
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pilot_certification_in_the_United_States

How long will it take?
I'm flying about once a week, I'm guessing it'll take a year. I've heard about people who slam it out in six weeks but they are crazy. I believe the minimum required hours is 35, but most people admit that 60-80 is a better estimate.

What did you have to do to get started?
Pass a medical, show a birth certificate, find an instructor. The medical is to make sure you're not blind or on drugs, at low risk to have a heart attack or epileptic seizure in flight, etc. My school had a short list of instructors who were willing to take on brand-new students, I just called around until I found one.

What's a typical flying lesson like?
I usually reserve the airplane for two hours. My instructor and I meet up, check weather, fill out some paperwork and preflight the airplane... this takes about 20-30 minutes. Then we take off and fly to a practice area to work on menuevers. I'm "pre-solo" right now, meaning that I'm working up to the point where I can fly by myself. Solo happens sometime around 20-40 hours depending on how well I take to all this. After solo we'll continue working together, plus I can fly on my own to practice if I want. Anyway - I always sit left seat (pilot) and my instructor sits right seat and has his own set of controls, so sometimes he demonstrates things, sometimes assists, sometimes just watches and talks me through stuff.

What do you do when you're not flying?
Ground school. This time around, I'm watching videos at home on my own time, the videos are from King Schools (http://www.kingschools.com/). Ground school is all about how airplanes work, regulations, safety tips, etc. My instructor and I review the ground lessons briefly, and the flight course is based on King's syllabus and recommendations.

What are you flying?
A 172 Skyhawk: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cessna_172 It has four seats, but can only hold four people if they're on the small side. I think useful load is 830 pounds, and we usually carry 200-300 lbs of fuel (we'd need at least 150lbs to fly for even an hour). We travel at speeds up to 120 knots or so... which sort of converts to 140 mph at sea level and changes meaning with altitude. 50 knots is considered "slow flight" so I have to be able to think at least that fast.

How much are you paying?
Short answer: AOPA says a whole private pilot certificate costs $5000-$9000.

Long answer: I pay as I go so I'll have to get to the end to tell you my grand total. But I can tell you that I've put down a $250 refundable deposit, bought a $60 headset off ebay, and paid $70 or so for my medical examination fee. From there, I just schedule lessons. Each one costs me $100-$130. I schedule the plane for two hours and fly for about an hour and a half. Quick math: If I do that once a week for a year that'd cost me $7000. About 30% of each lesson's costs are for the instructor, the rest is for the airplane (includes fuel), so eventually when I'm practicing by myself towards the end it'll get cheaper. Now, I'm going through a school that's subsidized by my company, so I'm not sure what a normal lesson costs if you just went directly to a private school. I'll also be receiving about $3000 in bonuses (some when I solo, some when I complete my cert) from my employer. They're not paying for the whole thing but they're helping which I think is very nice. And really that's part of why I'm doing this... I'll never find a better deal.

What do you have to pass to get done?
There's a written test and a flying test. The flight will be with an FAA-authorized checkride pilot. After that I'll have to stay current, but that's a whole other FAQ. I'll also have to pass some progress checks before I solo, which I think is more of a process put in place by my school. They want to make sure I didn't have some lazy instructor who's about to let me out alone before it's safe.

Is it safe?
Short answer: of course!
Long answer: first, AOPA does a great job addressing this: http://www.aopa.org/learntofly/startfly/safe.html Now I work on airplanes, and know that the airplanes themselves are safe because we do pages and pages of analysis. Plus we have a long preflight checklist just to make sure... it'd be like if you took 20-30 minutes every time you drove your car to inspect the fuel, check oil, and make sure the steering column was bolted in correctly. That said, most accidents are caused by pilot error... flying in bad weather, getting lost and running out of fuel, pushing weight limitations etc. So I will not do those things.

Incidentally, I have a lot of pilot friends and have heard of a dozen or so accidents. But none involved fatalities (yet). I think the most common misconception is that if something bad happens in an airplane, you're always going to kill everyone in it. Not so. But even hurting the airplane is a huge deal that gets you in a lot of trouble, so we maintain a healthy respect for what we're doing and a lot of caution.

Why are you doing this?
Well, it's good for my job. I'm an avionics engineer, and having a pilot's perspective will be helpful when making design decisions. I'm also doing it because it's something new, I like learning, it's a good deal and it sounded like fun. I'm not trying to go switch careers and be a professional pilot. It will be nice for travel though... up to twice as fast as driving and a lot more fun. And doing my own 30-minute preflight check is nothing compared to two hour airport security lines.

So that's it. I obviously don't know everything, because I'm early in my training (just finished lesson 5, and have less than 7 hours in my logbook). But I'm getting there.

And now I can open the floor for questions.