This article is here to teach you how to become a pilot and give you a more complete understanding of how long it will take, your eligibility, and the cost.
People reach out to us nearly every day asking how do I become a pilot?
So whether you’re looking to become an airline captain one day or you simply want to fulfill your dream of earning your pilots certificate this guide will help you get started.
First and foremost you need to decide what type of pilot you’d like to be. Training varies based on the type of aircraft you plan on flying as well as the types of certificates you may need.
If you’re pursuing your pilot’s certificate purely for recreational purposes you may only need to obtain your private pilot certificate and instrument rating.
If you plan on flying commercially, you’ll have to work your way through a few more certificates and ratings. There is also special licensing for gyroplanes, helicopters, gliders, balloons, and airships.
In this article, we’ll focus on the steps to becoming a pilot flying fixed-wing aircraft.
How Long Does it Take to Become a Pilot?
The steps to become a pilot will only take you 3-5 weeks if you’re training on a full-time basis which isn’t an option at every pilot school.
If you’re training part-time, it will take you 5-6 months. The more frequently you have a flight lesson the faster you will progress through your training.
But the amount of time it takes to become a pilot will vary from person to person.
Steps to Becoming a Pilot
In my experience, these are the exact steps you’ll need to follow to become a pilot.
- First, obtain a 1st, 2nd, or 3rd class medical certificate.
- Then select a flight school to do your training.
- Then begin working with a flight instructor to learn the basics of flying.
- At the same time, you should start studying for the FAA private pilot written exam.
- When ready, take the written exam.
- Then complete all of your flight training and get signed off by your flight instructor to take your checkride.
- Lastly, pass the FAA checkride and you are officially a private pilot.
How to Pick a Flight School
Choosing a flight school can be a challenging task. If you’re going to stay in your local area, you’re limited to the few flight schools close by.
If this is what you’ll be doing, consider visiting the flight school and talking with the chief or assistant chief instructor to learn more about the school and what it offers.
There is also a lot of aviation Facebook groups for different areas across the U.S. You may want to join one in your area and ask people for recommendations.
Part 141 and Part 61 are two different regulations under which flight instruction can be completed. Any flight instructor can train under Part 61, whether or not they are associated with a flight school.
The requirements to earn your pilot’s certificate are the same regardless of which training you fall under.
Part 141 schools, however, must have each part of their curriculum approved by the FAA and they are subject to audits.
Ultimately, look for a school you feel comfortable with and which is willing to work with you on your timeline.
Take A Discovery Flight with a Pilot School
Learning how to be a pilot is a significant endeavor that can have serious costs. Before you settle on a pilot school it’s important to vet them by going on a discovery flight.
This is a basic introductory flight where a certified flight instructor will talk with you about the basics of the plane and then take you up for a short flight.
In many cases, once you’re up in the air, they’ll let you take the controls for a few minutes to see what it’s like to fly.
If you’ve never flown in a small airplane this will be a new experience and will help you decide fairly quickly if it’s something you want to pursue (spoiler, you’ll probably fall in love).
During your discovery flight, make sure you ask plenty of questions to fully explore if this is something you want to pursue.
What Qualifications Do You Need to Become a Pilot?
When learning how to become a pilot, it’s important to know what all of the requirements are to obtain your private pilot certificate.
The medical requirements are perhaps the first hurdle every pilot must pass.
While technically you don’t need the medical clearance until you’re going to fly solo, it’s best to get it done before you begin flight training so you know whether or not there are any health issues that will disqualify you altogether.
Please note, however, that these aren’t automatic disqualifications. In many cases, if the issue is adequately controlled you may still obtain a medical clearance but there may be specific limitations.
The exam must be performed by an FAA-authorized aviation medical examiner.
There are approximately 6,000 of them across the country so it shouldn’t be too challenging to find one in your area.
There are three different classes of medical certificates.
- First Class is for airline transport pilots
- Second Class is for commercial pilots
- Third Class is for private pilots
FAA Student Pilot Certificate
Another document you’ll need to obtain before your first solo flight is your student pilot certificate.
Obtaining your student pilot certificate is often the first step to become a pilot.
You don’t need this to start your flight training so once you begin, your flight school will help you with this.
The Private Pilot Knowledge Test
The first official test you’ll need to pass is your knowledge test. Your flight instructor will help you prepare for this written test but you’ll also need to do a fair amount of studying on your own time.
You can also take an online ground school to help you prepare for the knowledge and practical tests.
If you fail the test for any reason you’ll be able to find out what areas you need to work on so you may focus on those areas before you retake the exam.
If you pass, you’ll still be able to find out what areas you didn’t perform as well in so you can go back and review those things with your instructor.
The Private Pilot Practical Exam
The practical exam is your big final test before you obtain your private pilot certificate. This is an oral exam on the ground with an FAA-certified examiner along with some time in the air testing your skills and abilities.
You’ll present the examiner with a variety of documents before the exam begins to show you’ve completed all of the necessary training.
During this exam, the examiner will ask questions about aerodynamics, engine components, charts, maps, etc.
After you finish the ground portion of the exam you’ll preflight your airplane and take off. You’ll demonstrate different maneuvers and show the examiner you know how to respond in the event of different emergencies.
If you satisfy all of the examiner’s questions you’ll pass the test and officially become a private pilot.
As you progress through various ratings, they all work in a similar manner. You work with a flight instructor to achieve different requirements.
Once you’ve completed those to a satisfactory level, your flight instructor will sign you off and you’ll take the test with an FAA examiner.
Types of Pilot Certificates, Ratings and Endorsements
There are a number of ratings and endorsements one can pursue depending on your ultimate goals as a pilot. We’ll briefly touch on each one to give you a preview of what each will allow you to do.
Types of Pilot Certificates
Sport Pilot Certificate
You can carry one passenger with you on these flights. A sport certificate restricts you to specific types of planes.
This certificate is ideal if you just want to fly occasionally for fun but aren’t looking to go on long trips or fly as a commercial pilot. It has the lowest minimum required flight time at 20 hours.
Very few people use a sport pilot certificate to become a pilot and instead work on the private pilot certificate.
Private Pilot Certificate
This is where you’ll learn the aeronautic basics and how to fly a plane.
With a private pilot certificate, you can fly according to visual flight rules (VFR) meaning you can’t fly in the clouds. Once you have a private pilot certificate you can pursue all of the ratings below.
Commercial Pilot Certificate
However, if you are doing part 141 training that could be less.
Certified Flight Instructor Certificate
In order to reach the minimums required to become an airline pilot, many pilots work as flight instructors.
Depending on where you work this can be a great way to rapidly build hours towards your 1,500-hour minimum.
Ratings are an add-on to your certificate and can allow you to fly in clouds and expand the types of airplanes you are able to fly.
This means you’ll now be able to fly in the clouds or in poor visibility conditions. It’s quite common for most recreational pilots to pursue an instrument rating once they’ve obtained their private certificate.
An instrument rating requires 20 additional hours of training with an instructor.
If you’re pursuing a career as a pilot this is something you’ll definitely need to obtain.
If you plan on flying a seaplane or floatplane this is a mandatory rating. The only prerequisite for the rating is your private pilot certificate.
It actually doesn’t require many hours of training so this can be added on fairly quickly.
A helicopter rating can be added on after you’ve obtained your private pilot certificate.
While it does require a fair amount of time and training, it is slightly faster than just earning a helicopter pilot certificate as an initial rating since you’ve already gained some knowledge on air traffic and many of the FAA regulations regarding air traffic and safety, for example.
Certified Flight Instructor – Instrument
Once you have your CFI certificate the next step will be to get your CFII.
To earn a CFII you’ll also need to have an instrument rating for your private pilot certificate.
To obtain this rating a CFI must pass the instrument flight instructor knowledge test and the practical exam with an FAA examiner.
You’ll also need at least 15 hours of pilot in command time in the plane you’ll be testing in.
To earn your MEI you’ll need time spent on-ground training to ensure you know how to teach pilots pursuing the multi-engine rating.
You’ll also spend time flying in the right seat with an instructor practicing your in-flight teaching abilities.
You must have a commercial pilot certificate and you’ll need to pass a Practical test with an approved FAA Designated Pilot Examiner or an FAA Inspector.
An endorsement is another way to expand the types of airplanes you can fly.
It is essentially a sign-off showing that you’ve received the training to fly airplanes with specific features. Most of these can be completed quickly.
During training, you’ll learn how to properly handle the plane through those differences.
It typically only takes a few hours of training to get this down but there is a minimum of 5 hours.
A complex airplane is one that has retractable landing gear, movable flaps, or a controllable-pitch propeller.
With a complex endorsement, you’ll be prepared to fly any planes with these attributes. These planes require a different set of procedures when flying which you’ll learn as you work with a certified flight instructor.
A high-performance airplane is simply one that has over 200 horsepower.
Most airplanes in which pilots receive their initial training will have less than this, but if you plan on working as a commercial pilot you’ll likely need this endorsement as well.
High Altitude Endorsement
Another endorsement you’ll likely need if you plan on working as an airline pilot is a high altitude endorsement, which prepares you for flying with oxygen and pressurization systems.
You’ll learn the basics of wearing oxygen while flying, oxygen systems used in most aircraft, rapid decompression procedures, and other issues connected to flying at a high altitude.
How Much Does it Cost to Become a Pilot?
The cost to become a pilot in the US can be significant.
With prices varying across the U.S., we’ll give you our best approximate cost estimates.
Most instructor fees will vary from $50 per hour up to $90+ depending on what type of plane you using for your initial training. For our estimates, we’ll assume an instructor average of about $75 per hour.
Assuming you are completing your initial training in a newer Cessna 172, your average hourly rental rate is probably between $180 and $250 depending on its age and location.
For your private pilot certificate, you’ll want to plan on spending between $13,000 and $20,000.
Then for your instrument rating, you’ll probably need an additional $10,000 to $13,000 since it requires about the same number of hours to complete.
If you want to then get your commercial certificate, plan on spending between $3,000 and $5,000.
However, there is a big caveat here. To get your commercial certificate you’ll usually need 250 total hours.
If after completing your private and instrument training you have 100 hours of flight time, you’ll need to build up another 150 hours which can be a costly endeavor when you are renting a plane. And if you’re considering purchasing an airplane to build the hours, know that airplanes are a costly purchase.
Finally, to earn your multi-engine rating, budget between $4,000 and $6,000.
While learning to fly can be expensive, talk to just about any pilot and they’ll tell you how much they love it.
When to Start Pilot School
The decision of when to start flight training largely depends on your aviation goals. If your goal is the airlines, you’ll want to start as quickly as possible.
The sooner you get through your training the sooner you get to the airlines and start earning money as a pilot. And if this is your goal, be sure to choose an airline pilot school that has a proven track record of getting students to the airlines.
If your looking to become a pilot and join the general aviation community, how quickly you jump into training may not be as critical.
How to Be a Pilot: Conclusion
While I tried to answer your most common questions, you probably have many more. To get the answers you need, send us a message or even give us a call and we’ll take care of you.
Our team is filled with passionate pilots and aviation enthusiasts who love to bring new people into the family.
- About the Author
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Brian is an experienced digital marketer who joined Thrust Flight in 2022 as the Chief Marketing Officer. He discovered a passion for aviation at 10 when he went for his first flight in a Piper Cherokee and enjoys helping others discover a career path as a professional pilot. He is an experienced marketing consultant helping brands with a variety of marketing initiatives. Brian received a bachelor’s degree in Communications from Brigham Young University.