We get asked all the time, “how much does it cost to become a pilot?” And well, while we’d love to give you an exact number, the reality is the total cost is affected by a variety of factors.
Most pilots are familiar with the old saying, “An airplane is a hole on the tarmac that you throw money into.” It’s true for airplane owners, who receive frequent invoices from their favorite mechanic. But it’s also valid for student pilots, who are paying for both an expensive airplane and a professional flight instructor.
For private flying, you might just want a sport or private pilot license. If you are looking to make a career out of it, you need to start with the private certificate and work your way through the instrument rating and commercial license.
All flight training follows a similar structure. Flight schools provide applicants with a rough estimate of their total costs, but every student’s final number will differ. Along the way, students pay for the following costs.
Cost of Flight Training Supplies
Every course will require new textbooks, charts, and supplies. When you first start, you’ll need to buy some pilot gear, but that should last you for many years to come. This includes items like a headset, kneeboard, flight computer, pilot bag, and fuel tester.
Aircraft rates are billed per hour to the nearest tenth. Depending on the school, they may be billed wet, an all-inclusive number including fuel, or dry, where the student will pay for the fuel they use. Aircraft time is billed based on the Hobbs time recorded from the aircraft, which begins and ends when the engine operates.
The price you pay will vary depending on the type of plane.
Larger, more complex planes cost more to operate and are therefore more expensive. Smaller planes provide a better value since they can be rented for less money.
Flight Instructor Time
Flight instruction time is billed hourly, as well. You will pay for instruction time while you are in the aircraft receiving training, as well as for any ground instruction you receive before and after the flight. You will also occasionally pay for ground-only instruction to help you prepare for exams or check rides.
When you take a written exam, you have to pay a fee to the FAA testing center. The fee is usually around $100, but it varies by location and type of exam.
FAA Practical Exam
If you do your check ride with a designated pilot examiner (DPE), they will charge for their time. Costs vary considerably depending on the type of checkride and your region. Generally, they are between $500 and $800.
Before You Start
Before you start training, there are a few things that you can get out of the way.
If you are not a US citizen, you will need to apply for approval to begin flight training from the Transportation Security Administration.
This process will involve getting fingerprinted and having a thorough background check completed. The total cost of the process costs about $230.
You’ll need to apply for approval before you can start flying (sport pilot or private pilot), before you begin an instrument rating, and before you start your multiengine rating. US citizens only need to present documentation to their flight instructor before their first flight.
You should also consider getting your FAA medical exam out of the way. The exam is performed by an AME, or aviation medical examiner. It usually costs around $100.
It’s not a bad idea to go ahead and get the more stringent grade of certificate, a first-class medical, especially if you want to fly for a career. That way, if any medical issues come up, they won’t be a surprise later on. If you are only completing your private license, you only need a third-class medical.
Ground School Cost
Ground school usually describes the bookwork and aeronautical knowledge you need to accumulate to pass the FAA’s written exam. There are two ways student pilots can go about accomplishing their ground school–they can take a course specifically aimed at passing the exam, or they can make an independent study program with the help of a flight instructor.
Taking a prepared course is often the best way to get the private pilot ground school component out of the way. Truth be told, there is plenty of aeronautical knowledge left to cover after you’ve passed the written exam. The FAA practical exam for your license will also require preparation, and your time with a flight instructor one-on-one is best saved for that purpose.
With so many varying options, the cost of ground school can vary considerably. If you are paying your flight instructor for personalized training, your cost could be significantly more than the cost of a class–it will just depend on how much independent study you do.
It’s worth noting that you’ll be taking written exams throughout your pilot career, and the preparation for them never really changes. Written exams are required for all licenses (commercial, ATP, flight instructor) and additional ratings (instrument, rotorcraft, etc.). For most of these ratings, some type of ground school is available such as instrument pilot ground school.
The total cost for most ground schools is around $400, plus the FAA written exam fee, which varies between $90 and $200.
Student Pilot Cost
The student pilot license is issued by the FAA or one of their designated pilot examiners (DPEs). Once you have demonstrated that you can safely solo the aircraft, your flight instructor will give you their endorsement, which shows that you have the knowledge and proficiency to fly alone under some circumstances.
The actual student pilot license is free, but all of the training that goes into getting it is not. You’ll get the student pilot license on your way to getting either a sport pilot or private pilot license, so the real cost is included in those numbers.
Sport Pilot License Cost
The cost of a pilot certificate is related to how many hours it takes you to complete it. Flight training is always performed to proficiency, so the cost varies dramatically from one student to another. It’s all one-on-one training, performed in the cockpit and the classroom. All of that time is billed per hour.
The FAA sets the minimum requirements that students must meet before they can take the FAA practical exam. These are spelled out in the Airman Certification Standards (ACRs), which state precisely how well maneuvers and tasks must be performed to pass. Your flight instructor’s goal is to train you well enough that you can do those tasks safely and proficiently. How much practice it takes to get you to that point depends on how much you study and your aptitude for flying an airplane.
The total sport pilot license cost, including the minimum 20 hours of flight training, is estimated at around $7,000.
Private Pilot License Cost
The difference between the sport pilot and private pilot training programs isn’t as significant as you might think. The private pilot license includes more time learning about the national airspace system, flying at night, and flying cross-countries to other airports.
These are privileges that are more limited under the sport pilot rules, whereas a private pilot is allowed to fly nearly anywhere in the country.
The private pilot course consists of three different phases of training. During the pre-solo phase, you learn what you need to fly the plane safely. That training culminates in your first flight alone around the traffic pattern.
You then move into the cross-country phase of training to learn more about navigation and moving between airports. The last part of the course is practical exam preparation, where you bring all of these skills together and master them. It culminates in your checkride, a two-part practical exam. You’ll have an oral question and answer session, followed by a flight test in the plane.
Like sport pilot candidates, students who begin with the private pilot course can spend radically different amounts of time and money getting the license.
The Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs) say that the minimum time you can get a private pilot certificate is 35 hours under Part 141 training or 40 hours under Part 61 (Learn the difference between Part 141 and Part 61). But the national average is closer to 70 hours, indicating that most pilots will take substantially longer than the regulatory minimums.
The minimum private pilot license cost, including 35 hours of flight training, is around $12,000.
Instrument Rating Cost
The instrument rating course follows the same general schedule that the private pilot did.
You need to complete a written exam, and many pilots choose to attend a formal ground school to prepare for it. You must complete at least 35 to 40 hours of training, broken into a few phases. In the end, like the private pilot license, you must pass a practical exam that consists of an oral knowledge test and practical flying skills checkride.
One benefit of the instrument rating is that you can accomplish quite a lot of the training in a flight simulator. Modern simulators are full motion, with cockpits that mimic the equipment you take flying in the real world. Time spent flying simulators is excellent for a lot of reasons. Not only does it save you money, but it also creates an environment where your flight instructor can hit “pause” for a moment to explain things thoroughly. And of course, you can train for dangerous scenarios more realistically in a simulator than you can in the plane.
The instrument rating’s estimated total cost, including 21 hours in the G1000-equipped Cessna 172SP and 14 hours of dual in the RedBird full-motion simulator, is around $12,000.
Commercial Pilot Cost
Two types of pilots look to upgrade their licenses to the commercial level.
One set of pilots is going to school to become professionals, and they need to get the required hours to get there. They follow a curriculum, which will need to include another 120 hours of flight time, including 55 of dual instruction and 65 hours of solo time. These pilots enroll in a FAR Part 141 program to get it done quickly.
Other pilots may have had their private certificates for a while and been using them. Maybe they own an airplane, or they rent and fly regularly. These pilots can get their commercial pilot license under FAR Part 61 when they get 250 hours of total time in their logbook. When they have around 200 hours, they should talk to a flight instructor and make a plan.
How much does it cost to become a pilot with a commercial license?
The two types of pilots make it harder to say. With so many hours in question, a lot of money can be saved using the smallest, least expensive planes available.
If pilots are doing independent flying, they might not be interested in the commercial license’s overall cost. All it will take is about ten hours of preparation for the exam. They may just need to know how many hours they’ll need to finish it up under Part 61.
No matter how you begin building your hours for the commercial pilot exam, everyone ends it at the same place–in the cockpit of a complex aircraft. Your initial commercial license test must be in a complex airplane.
A complex plane is one with retractable landing gear, an adjustable-pitch propeller, and flaps. You must have about ten hours in such an aircraft, so these are usually the ten hours right before your checkride.
The estimated total commercial pilot license cost is about $24,000. The exact makeup of the sorts of training flights you need to accomplish to fulfill the regulations vary considerably, so make sure you work closely with a flight instructor when you get to this point.
Multiengine Rating Cost
A multiengine rating can be added to any grade of pilot certificate–private, commercial, or ATP. Most pilots opt to get it with their initial commercial license or as an add-on after that.
The rating is one of the fastest, easiest, and most fun you can get. Flying a twin is exhilarating after you’ve been flying in a single. The climb rate, higher altitudes, and all-around better performance will bring a smile to your face.
The course includes roughly ten hours of dual instruction in a multiengine airplane. Only about five hours of ground instruction is needed to bring you up to speed on the new airplane’s systems and some multiengine aerodynamics.
The estimated total cost of the multiengine rating, with ten hours in the Beechcraft Duchess, is about $5,000.
Flight Instructor Cost
The flight instructor course is one that mostly revolves around ground training. There are no new maneuvers or airplane systems to learn, but you will be expected to know the material you have learned well enough to teach it to someone else.
There are two written exams required for the CFI course. The Fundamentals of Instruction (FOI) is an exam about basic teaching techniques, introductory learner psychology, communication, and how to structure lessons and a curriculum. The Flight Instructor-Airplane exam looks a lot like the commercial pilot aeronautical knowledge exam.
Everything else about the flight instructor course is about setting you up to teach. You learn how to fly from the right seat of the cockpit, and you must know the maneuvers well enough to perform them while explaining them.
The total flight time required is usually around ten hours. You may have to do spin training if you are getting the single-engine airplane rating.
Every CFI will tell you that flying is the easiest part of the flight instructor course. Oral exams for this license are usually very thorough. You will be asked to prepare an entire ground lesson and teach it to the examiner, and you will need to show a commercial pilot-level of knowledge for all areas that you are asked to perform.
There are different ratings on the flight instructor certificate. If you intend to keep teaching, the flight instructor-instrument rating is worthwhile. The course and prep are similar in cost and time as the initial CFI, but there will be less groundwork prep since you will not have to retake the FOI.
The estimated total cost of a CFI training course is around $4,000.
Airline Transport Pilot Cost
To qualify to become an airline transport pilot (ATP), you must have accrued 1,500 hours of total flying time. Few people pay for all of that time; the ATP is usually a license that working professionals get after they’re already well into their careers.
Remember, there are lots of jobs in the aviation world that only require a commercial pilot license.
You only need an ATP to work for an airline. Many copilot jobs, banner towing, sightseeing flights, survey flying, or flight instruction all only need a commercial. Most pilots build their time up to 1,500 hours by working other jobs, and then they get the ATP as the next step in their careers.
The actual cost of getting the ATP isn’t that great because the flight training is pretty simple.
Any pilot who has built up 1,500 flying hours is likely to be reasonably experienced. Most ATP applicants need less than 20 hours of flight training to get themselves ready for the checkride. Pilots who do not do a lot of instrument flying may need a little more time since the ATP is heavily an instrument-flying checkride.
The written exam is another matter. The ATP written is difficult, but most pilots find success with independent study programs and the occasional check-in with their flight instructors.