Hello Future Aviator! So.. you want to learn how to fly an airplane? You are at the right place! Learning to fly an airplane is simultaneously one of the most rewarding and challenging things you will do in your life! Lucky for us, Pittsburgh is an amazing place to do this. Follow along to see some of the things you will need to do to get an FAA license. While there is not a single recipe to get your wings, this post focuses on some common questions you may have. If you feel your question is not answered please feel free to reach out to TFC or post a comment below!
Disclaimer: This guide only covers some basics and focuses on Part 61 Private Airplane Single-Engine Land (SEL) FAA license. There are other variations of licenses like Sports Pilot Licenses, Recreation Pilot Licenses, Glider Pilot Licenses, and many more. Depending on what you want to do, these might be more suited to your needs.
What are the steps?
A pilot's license typically has the following steps (parallels to a driving license):
Schedule an Introductory Flight!
There is no better start to your aviation journey than getting behind the wheel of an airplane and flying it! There are many ways to do this! Most flying schools will provide a "Discovery Flight" option. Consider this as your first lesson. You need no experience or any certification/clearance to do this. Another option is to find someone who already has a license and hitch a ride. TFC regularly schedules fly-outs to nearby airports. Hop on an airplane, ask questions, and fly the airplane a little.
Get your medical done!
One of the first things you should do is find an Aviation Medical Examiner (AME) who can provide you with a third-class medical certificate. A quick Google search should be good enough to find a local AME. Getting your medical out of the way first is a wise thing to do to avoid potential issues later. PS: prescription glasses don't disqualify you!
Find someone to teach you!
You will need an airplane and a certified flight instructor (CFI) to teach you. The choice will depend on your schedule, ability to travel, financial situation, and instructor/airplane availability. Another choice would be the kind of airport you want to learn at. Pittsburgh is blessed to have multiple GA airport options to choose from. Some popular ones are KAGC, KBVI, KPJC, KBTP, KLBE etc. Usually, the farther you go from the city, the cheaper it is. But travel and fuel will add to the cost of the training. To find a place to learn, there are three main choices each with its pros and cons. Option A: Flight Schools. This is by far the most straightforward option. Flight Schools often have multiple aircraft, multiple CFIs, are well-structured, and most can teach under both Part 61 and Part 141 (We have a separate blog post covering that!). But they can get expensive and most will not rent. So you have no access to aircraft after you get your license. Another issue is that given the large demand, you may be waitlisted at the popular ones. We also have a blog post covering some popular flight school options although this list is by n means comprehensive.
Option B: Flying Clubs. This is also another option in PGH. Flying clubs are usually non-profit organizations that own aircraft. They typically have fewer aircraft, fewer CFIs, and most can only teach under Part 61. On the plus side, they can be cheaper and you can typically access the same aircraft even after you get your license. Some examples are Condor Aero Club (KPJC), Draggin Tail Pilots (KPJC), Pittsburgh Flying Club (KLBE) etc. Option C: Find a plane or buy one! This is not a popular option but if you have the resources one option is to either find someone who owns an airplane (and is willing to let you use it!) or buy one outright. You can then find a CFI willing to teach you on that airplane!
Get started on your FTSP (only for non US Citizens)!
If you want the license to fly a plane you should know how to fly a plane! This is where you get behind the wheel and learn the necessary skills to maneuver an aircraft, talk on the radio, preflight an aircraft, and plan long cross-country flights. Depending on if you learning to fly under Part 61 or Part 141, FAA wants you to complete a set of requirements before it can issue the license. For Part 61, this means at least 40 hours of flight time which includes at least 20 hours of flight training from an authorized instructor and 10 hours of solo flight training. The full list of requirements is here.
Study and give your FAA Knowledge Test!
In order to be eligible for the license, you need to score at least 70% on the FAA knowledge test. Depending on your prior knowledge, this will mean studying from books and/or online courses to get the required proficiency. There are a lot of amazing online options to choose from. Every semester TFC also tries to provide a CMU StuCo that covers the material in this knowledge test. Please keep an eye out for emails with registration dates.
This is it! This is the day you join the hallowed list of aviators! Checkride is the final test that is administered by an FAA Designated Pilot Examiner. The checkride itself has two components: Oral and Practical. In the oral section, the DPE will ask you questions on the general operation of your aircraft. For the practical test, you will go flying with the DPE and perform certain maneuvers as prescribed in the Airman Certification Standards. After demonstrating a satisfactory performance, the DPE will issue you a temporary license. Congratulations! You are now a licensed pilot!
How long will it take? It depends on you! Learning to fly is a skill set. As such everyone has a learning curve influenced by their prior experiences. Someone who has some prior experience with general aviation (GA) either because of family/friends or someone who is just a "natural" will take a shorter time than someone who has never been in a GA aircraft before. While FAA has a requirement of 40 hrs for Part 61, the national average is 55-75 flight hours depending on who you ask. The length is also a function of how often you can go flying. Weather, maintenance, schedule, and finances can all contribute to how regularly you can fly. Aiming for at least 2 lessons a week, assuming each lesson is 1 hr of flight time, means you will need close to 8 months. But this figure can be greatly reduced or increased depending on you. One question we often get is "I am in my last semester at CMU, should I still start?". Our usual recommendation is yes. Even if you cannot finish the requirements, the flight hours and skill sets are transferable to wherever you will eventually move. No better time to start than now! How much will it cost? The typical cost of getting a PPL in Pittsburgh is around 8k-12k. A large part of this will go towards renting the plane (120$-185$ per hour) and compensating the CFI (40$-60$ per hour). This will also include one-time costs like buying the gear: Headsets, books, flight computers, online ground school, FTSP fees, AME fees, app subscriptions, checkride DPE fees etc. The good thing is you can pay-as-you-go so the costs are spread over your entire training. TFC also maintains some materials like headsets, books, subscriptions, etc to help with some of the upfront costs. What's next? Flight instructors often say "A license to fly is in fact a license to learn". As with all skills, learning never stops. Most PPL holders will go on to get more ratings like instrument flying (flying through clouds), multi-engine rating, high-performance, or complex rating. Being an aviator is more than a hobby, it's a way of life! Have questions? Post a comment!