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Updated on January 9, 2016
Pitts Special S-2B  is the world's leading high performance aerobatic Biplane performing at a local airport festival.
Pitts Special S-2B is the world's leading high performance aerobatic Biplane performing at a local airport festival. | Source

A flying start


YOU'VE FOUND a flying school to suit your needs, sorted out your finances and bought some of the necessary equipment and theory courses. You're now fully prepared, and looking forward to getting your hands on the controls. Although you can commence your flying training without your medical certificate or even your student licence, you need to have them before you go solo and if you organise them early on, you can concentrate solely on getting airborne.

A number of stages of training make up the flying component of your PPL course. In the first you'll learn the basic principles of aircraft control and flight management You'll also gain familiarity with piloting tasks such as pre- and post­flight responsibilities, ground handling and taxi, in-flight radio communications and dozens of other aspects of being a pilot. At the end of your initial training your competency at the controls will be assessed in a flight test called the General Flying Proficiency Test. The GFPT will ensure you have the necessary skills to fly solo in the designated training area for the aerodrome where you completed your training. You'll also be able to carry passengers within this defined area after you pass the flight test.

You'll spend around 30 hours at the controls practicing a basic range of manoeuvres including takeoff, climb, straight and level flight, turns, in-flight climb and descent, descent for landing and the landing itself. The absolute minimum number of flying hours to complete this stage of the training is 25.7. Realistically, you should allow a few more hours to hone your skills and address any aspects of the training which need some additional attention.

The flying hours you build up in this initial phase of your training are all about the practical application of aerodynamics. You'll develop a comprehensive understanding of how the aircraft's control surfaces work including ailerons, rudder and elevators. You'll look at the effect of different power settings on the aircraft in flight You'll also examine the relationship between your actions at the controls and the reactions of the aircraft.

Early on in your training you'll spend some of your flying time in the designated training area for your aerodrome and a significant number of hours flying circuits. A circuit is a rectangular flight pattern around the designated runway and incorporates the essential elements of aircraft control in flight.

You'll fly continuous circuits during each session using the 'touch and go' technique. After landing, retracting the flaps and re-trimming you apply full power, reach your target airspeed, and become airborne to do it all again. A one hour lesson is time enough for around six circuits with a little taxi time at either end. Circuit training provides intensive experience in the range of tasks the pilot performs in normal flight. Each circuit includes a takeoff, a climb component, some straight and level flight, descent, and approach and landing.

There are other tasks that will become routine whilst flying each circuit. You'll make precise radio calls, and use care and judgement in flying an accurate circuit pattern. You'll also become familiar with the use of throttle and flap to slow the aircraft and establish the correct descent angle for approach and landing.

Circuits are designed to consolidate your flying skills, teach you how to manage the workload in the air and improve your confidence, judgement and decision-making as a pilot in command. At first you'll find there's barely enough time in each circuit to perform the necessary tasks. Fly the aircraft, maintain height, heading and airspeed, make your radio calls, look out for other aircraft, do your pre-landing checks, confirm your position, slow the aircraft and set up your approach - there's a lot to do in a few short minutes. However the more circuits you do, the easier it gets. And before long, it begins to come naturally.

Learn to fly a Cessna 172

GFPT - typical syllabus of training

Dual (hours)
Solo (hours)
Effects of controls
Straight & level
Climbing & descendng
Medium level turning
First solo
Second solo
Third solo
Emergency landings
Advanced turning
Area solo check
Solo forced landings
Crosswind circuits
Advanced circuits
Basic instrument flight
Precautionary search
Solo practice
Pre GFPT check flight
GFPT flight test
P-51 Mustang ready to fly at airshow
P-51 Mustang ready to fly at airshow | Source

The other benefit of flying circuits is that you'll get plenty of opportunities to practise your takeoffs and landings. For most pilots mastering the landing is one of the biggest challenges and requires good co-ordination, height judgement and confidence to get it right. Variables such as weather conditions, turbulence, runway surface (tar, gravel or grass), the weight of the aircraft and any obstacles on your approach path will each play a part in determining how you fly your approach and touchdown. The skill is to be able to work with all these factors and others, to make your landings as accurate and smooth as possible.

After a dozen or so hours of flight training (that magic number varies considerably) under the watchful eye of your instructor you'll be set loose in the circuit area to fly your first solo, an experience which will give plenty of perspective to the highs and lows of your earlier training.

Out in the training area there are plenty of other aspects of flying to learn and master. In particular the gentle art of straight and level flight takes some hours of practice. Similarly, turning, climbing and descending all require some solid time at the controls before they become second nature. Most likely you'll be introduced to each control individually, following your instructor lightly on the pedals and control yoke to feel how the aircraft handles through a range of basic manoeuvres.

Instructor teaching flight theory to student at pilot school.
Instructor teaching flight theory to student at pilot school.

As a few hours go by you'll be doing more and more of the flying by yourself. Eventually your instructor will take the controls only to demonstrate some new aspects of aircraft handling or to assist when things get beyond you.

Along the way you'll also learn how to scan the panel correctly and you'll develop the ability to make sense of the vast array of information presented in the engine and flight instruments, as well as some of the radio and navigation equipment. What seems like a daunting task in taking in all the information before you soon becomes a matter of course, and the rule about spending 90 percent of your time looking outside, and only 10 percent inside, seems realistic.

In most circumstances your skills in the basic manoeuvres will develop pretty quickly. That skill development in the early stages of training will focus on building your confidence and competence in controlling the aircraft, your accuracy in holding altitude, attitude and airspeed and your exercise of judgement as a budding pilot in command.

After you've flown solo in the circuit and you've shown yourself to be competent in flying the aircraft in the training area, you'll set off on your first area solo, navigating yourself around the countryside beyond the confines of the aerodrome. This event is another serious milestone in your training. It's your first solo flight away from the gaze of instructors and controllers. It requires you to exercise skill and judgement beyond your past experiences and the only person who can seriously scrutinise your performance is you.

Once you can basically work the aircraft's controls in a manner that enables you to stay aloft, you'll be introduced to some aspects of flight which will move you up a notch or two in terms of challenge and skills required. There is a range of more extreme manoeuvres and flying conditions, usually unforeseen, which you need to experience and tackle in the course of learning to fly.

Low cloud, strong winds, poor visibility, the threat of mid-air collision and mechanical problems with your aircraft can all present real problems for you as a pilot. A significant part of your training will address these issues and time at the controls is what it's all about.

An essential skill if forced landings. Your instructor will simulate engine failure by retarding the throttle to idle to mark the beginning of each attempt. Your tasks from that point will include checking all possible causes of the engine failure, then selecting a suitable landing area, setting up the aircraft in a glide configuration, broadcasting a mayday call, briefing your passenger (your instructor), and judging your height and distance from your touchdown point to execute a safe landing. At around 500 feet above ground level your instructor will apply power and ask you to establish the aircraft on a climb and let you know if your performance would have resulted in a successful forced landing.

Similarly, avoiding a mid-air collision may require some extreme measures and the instructor will give you experience in steep turns with this in mind. You'll wheel the aircraft over into a 60 degree angle of bank, pulling close to 2G, to practice the appropriate actions required for collision avoidance. The feeling is intense as the weight of gravity, multiplied by two, almost pushes you down through your seat. Control of the aircraft under these circumstances is the real challenge and when you get it right you'll be rewarded with a great sense of achievement

Crosswind landings are also a vital element of your training. You will probably be fairly confident in your landing technique before you experience crosswinds. This is advantageous as the correct technique you'll be applying to crosswind landings is a serious challenge and takes some practice. As with many aspects of flying, getting it right is a big achievement and you'll walk away from your lessons on a high that will linger for a week.

Other scenarios which can catch you out as a pilot include a loss of airspeed to a point where the aircraft no longer flies (also known as stalling), flying into cloud, the onset of darkness, getting lost en route, failure of the flap system and encountering the need to land immediately, under full control, should you be concerned about any aspect of the safety of your aircraft or passenger.

These scenarios are addressed in varying detail in your early flight training and in pre and post flight briefings. By the time you've finished this part of your training and complete the GFPT- you should be able to handle any tricky situation with a clear head and a calm approach.

Students studying for pilot exams.
Students studying for pilot exams.

One foot on the ground!


ASIDE from the fact that you need to pass your theory exams before being granted a licence, an understanding of the theoretical principles of flight and other related subjects will greatly enhance the development of your pilot skills and abilities

The theory component of your training is designed to complement the flying at each stage, from GFPT through to PPL Commercial and beyond. There's a theory exam for each of these stages of licence and the focus of each exam reflects what you are learning in the air. During the ab initio stage of your flight training you'll sit the Basic Aeronautical Knowledge (BAK) exam, then the Private Pilot's Licence (PPL) to compliment your navigation training and the Commercial Pilot's Licence (CPL) exam if you're going all the way.

Although your theory studies on the surface may seem lacklustre in comparison to the flying, in reality they present a similar level of challenge and reward. Some of the theoretical concepts involved in aviation are complex and need careful study to ensure you understand them, and can interpret them practically in scenarios such as in-flight manoeuvres, engine management and also the management of weather-related problems.

The syllabus and associated exams are set by CASA, which has a comprehensive Internet site that provides detailed syllabus information along with an extensive list of practice exam questions which you can access at your leisure.

One of the major keys to your success in your theory studies lies in identifying what kind of student you are. Sometimes you'll need to choose between two or more valid approaches to the same challenge. There's an enormous range of resources available to you that provide all the theoretical information you need, and there's also a variety of study formats to choose from, from text books and videos to interactive CDs and classroom courses, as well as interaction with your fellow-trainees.

Airline pilot trainees learning CPL
Airline pilot trainees learning CPL

Which of these you opt for needs careful consideration and investigation as there's a fair cost involved in acquiring the course materials and information in any of the available formats. It would prove to be very disappointing if you spent good money on a stack of videos, only to find that this format is not one that suits you and your study habits.

Whichever format you choose you'll probably find there are many questions you'll want to ask and clarifications you'll need on some of the more complex principles. For this reason it may be important to factor in some classroom studies. The classroom setting is one we're all familiar with and provides opportunities to connect with other students with whom you can share the frustration of grappling with difficult concepts and the joy of coming to grips with them.

There's another question as to when, relative to your progress with your flight training, you should study your theory subjects in earnest and attack the exams. But there'll be plenty of advice forthcoming from instructors, other students and friends about how best to approach it.

Something to consider here though, is that if you leave your theory studies to the last minute, it's likely that panic will drive you without the necessary time you need to let it really sink in. Likewise if you try to cram your studies in early in the piece you may lack the practical experience you gain in your flying, which can help you in explaining and demonstrating some theoretical concepts. The point here is that if you run your studies as close as possible in parallel with your flying, each component will reinforce the other.

Your study of aviation theory is time well spent, and it's important to make the most of it. It's a source of great camaraderie between students and gives much substance to the whole experience of your flight training. It also reinforces a serious and conscientious attitude to your flying. More than any of this however there's a great sense of satisfaction and accomplishment when you receive notification from CASA that you've passed your exam and recall the complexity of the concepts you've learned.

Fun to fly Cirrus SR22

Piper tomahawk on training flight
Piper tomahawk on training flight

Your first test


WIREE categories of skills are examined in all flight tests. These are ground or pre-light preparation, flight and aircraft handling, and that mysterious element called airmanship, which some are born smith, while others acquire with experience.

The General Flying Progress Test GFPT) is the first flight test you encounter, followed by the Private Pilot's Licence (PPL) test and then the Commercial Pilots Licence (CPL) test should you take your training to that stage.

The GFPT takes around ninety minutes and is very much focused on aircraft handling. This reflects the emphasis of the flight training in the lead-up to the test. While your examiner want you to demonstrate your skills in some basic ground work, such as knowledge of aircraft performance and an understanding of your privileges and • limitations under the GFPT licence, the object of the test is to confirm your skills km all phases of flight.

You'll be asked to demonstrate a range ef manoeuvres encountered in normal flight and in various emergency situations such as engine failure and inadvertent flight into cloud. You'll spend some of the time in the circuit, and some in the training area.

Airmanship is something you'll have been unconsciously developing as you progress. You'll be observed in your ability to adopt a serious attitude as a pilot, maintaining alertness to your flying environment, operating the aircraft in a safe and efficient manner, and being prompt and accurate in your decisiqn making.

When you reach the PPL flight test, you'll revisit many of the aspects of flight covered in the GFPT However the flying environment will be different, as will the main purpose of the test. At this stage it's assumed that you're competent in handling the aircraft and that your basic ground work has become routine.

The focus this time is broader, taking in all aspects of the GFPT and extending the coverage of skills assessment. The test is around two and a half hours long and you'll fly a cross-country route determined by your examiner. Under the examiner's microscope will be your skills in flight planning and navigation, your knowledge of procedures at other aerodromes and your application of correct procedures should you become lost.

Demonstrating your airmanship in this flight test will require you to apply your good flying attitude to the additional tasks involved in flight planning, navigation, consideration of weather influences and operation in and out of other aerodromes.

In the lead up to each test there are a couple of very important points to remember. Firstly, you won't be booked in for your test before your instructor is sure that you are ready. This means that by the time you take off on your flight test, you'll be naturally confident and comfortable in your flying and you'll be able to handle all of the manoeuvres and procedures you've learned with relative ease. Secondly, rather than 'pushing the envelope' in any way, these flight tests will be confined to what you already know and have demonstrated to your instructor many times before.

With this kind of perspective you might think your flight tests as confirmation of the skills you have acquired and this approach will make for a positive attitude to each event.

Air navigation rules and training
Air navigation rules and training

Finding your way


THE AB INITIO STAGE is all about learning how to get the aircraft airborne, keep it there, and get it back on the ground in one piece. The next stage is about navigating the aircraft safely and efficiently.

Next, through a series of flights known as navigation exercises ("navexes") you'll learn how to unchain yourself from the training area, gaining the necessary skills and experience to navigate beyond the horizon. After you pass your theory exam and flight test, you will gain your private pilot's licence (PPL).You'll then be able to act as pilot in command, fly aircraft that are more advanced than the basic trainers you're used to, and carry passengers on any flight other than further training flights. You may even share the costs of your flying with your passenger. To undertake navexes you'll need to acquireFo some specific equipment. Your instructor will provide you with a list of necessary items but you'll find they include essentials like a circular slide rule, an, aeronautical scale rule and a protractor to name but a few. You'll also need appropriate charts, and documents such as the En route Supplement Australia (ERSA), which provides information you'll need including details on every4licensed aerodrome in Australia. A pilot's handbook for the aircraft you're flying is also essential, containing data and information such as fuel burn rate, relevant airspeeds, and weight and balance data you'll need for cross-country flights.

It's equally important not to go overboard with equipment. A handheld GPS, portable transceiver, electronic flight computer and the like, may come in handy at some time down the track but at this stage they're a needless expense and you'll find little use for them. Your instructor will require you to familiarise yourself with the basics of navigation and the whiz-wheel, protractor, scale rule, some maps and good ol' pen and paper are what you'll be using to put flight plans together.

Each navex takes two and a half to three hours. You'll need to fly around twenty hours dual and five solo in total and these will be built up over eight or nine flights. Some flights will require you to take up a direct track from your aerodrome to another and home again. Others will involve flying a number of legs via 'way-points' which are identifiable landmarks such as aerodromes, towns, rivers and mountains. You'll have to identify each way-point to confirm your position.

"You'll need to fly around twenty hours dual and five hours solo over nine flights."

You'll soon be able to calculate the time interval for each leg of the flight anc know when you'll be arriving at your next waypoint. As your training progresses you'll feel increasingly confident with the array of tasks, leaving you more able to enjoy the view and the flying.

The single factor most affecting your flight planning is the weather. Wind, cloud, rain and other influences will all determine how you plan your flight and which route you take. Not only do you have to account for the weather conditions at departure and destination aerodromes; you also need to study weather forecasts for the areas along your track and at possible diversion aerodromes.

As you'll be flying according to the 'visual flight rules' (VFR), you'll need to keep continuous visual contact with the ground. In terms of flight planning this means you will need to assess the forecast to ensure you can fly with safe ground clearance and always clear of cloud.

Along the way you're bound to find some of your navex flights cancelled or changed due to weather. It's most important to make well-informed decisions in your flight planning. The instructor will continuously assess your capacity to analyse factors influencing the flight. It sometimes takes a strong will, when you're all prepared to go flying, to make the decision not to. Nevertheless you'll be congratulated for exercising sound judgement and cancelling a flight if you determine the conditions are unsafe for any reason.

Practice weather diversions are also a necessary part of your training. You'll need to do some rough calculations and estimations in flight, assess the prevailing wind, and accordingly calculate and fly a new heading. Then you need to confirm your position by cross referencing ground features with features on the chart. The instructor will take you through the diversion procedures to ensure you can handle such events with safety and accuracy.

Fuel management needs particular attention as it can be easily overlooked among all the other tasks. Fuel systems differ between aircraft and it's important to familiarise yourself with each aircraft thoroughly, becoming familiar with its fuel system and how to manage it.

You also need practice monitoring flight time and fuel burn. Many a seasoned pilot has come to grief by letting the tanks run dry. Your flight plan has a basic fuel log which requires regular assessments of how much fuel will be required for the flight. However it's a good habit to get into, to develop your own fuel log which allows you to calculate how long you've been in the air, how many litres of fuel you have left in the tanks and, on this basis, how much flight time you have remaining. You don't need to prepare this for the first navex, but discuss it with the instructor and try it out as you progress. If you can become disciplined in maintaining a fuel log you'll be a long way to ensuring that you never run out of fuel.

Most schools, in your training you to PPL level, will give you varied experience in different categories of controlled and uncontrolled airspace and different types of aerodromes. Good map reading and interpretation are critical here, along with an understanding of procedures in-flight and at the aerodromes you plan to visit. Initially you may find it easier to write simple notes, even down to the wording of radio calls, which you can follow step by step in flight until you become more familiar with how to do it all.

Howard 500 is an executive transport aircraft fly over at an airshow.
Howard 500 is an executive transport aircraft fly over at an airshow. | Source

Typical Private pilot license training syllabus - Average hours

Dual (hours)
Solo (hours)
Navex 1
Navex 2
Navex 3
(0.4 IF)
Navex 4
Solo 2.0
Navex 5
(0.3 IF)
Navex 6
Navex 7
Navex 8
(0.3 IF)
Navex 9
PP(A) flight test

How aircraft GPS works

Beginner's flight instrument navigation

After eight or nine flights you'll be feeling very comfortable with handling the aircraft and with all the tasks involved in navigation. You'll have flown to many different destinations, both under instruction and solo. You'll also be thinking like a pilot and your actions in preflight preparation, flight planning and in the cockpit, will reflect everything you've learned during the whole training course. Getting to this stage and passing your exams and flight tests is a big achievement and will give you a great sense of accomplishment. The reward for all the hard work? Your student days are over - On our next flight you're the pilot in command!



A new dimension
Discovering the pleasures of flying.

What's it all about
Why do people learn to fly, and what are their training options?

Licence categories
Tailoring your flying qualifications to your needs and preferences.

Training in the GA environment
The traditional training path in a general aviation school.


RA's simple and its fun
Recreational aviation has come of age, and is an increasingly popular option.

Full-time airline pilot training
If you're seeking an airline flying career, this is the way to go.

New technologies and training philosophies
Training as a team member from Day One.

Choosing your flying school
Tricks and traps n how to evaluate a training facility.


Different by design
The design features that make aeroplanes different.

Trying your hand
What happens on your first flight.


The training aircraft fleet
Some of the more popular training aircraft in the current fleet.

The walk-around
A guide to the main components of a modern light aircraft.

At the controls
Everything on the instrument panel' is important to enjoyable and safe flight.

The 21st Century instrument panel
New technologies bring easier flying and navigation.

Airports and circuits
A guide to the typical airfield and the sky above it.


A flying start
What you'll lear and how you'll learn it.

One foot on the ground
Learning all you need to know about aircraft, systems, engines, navigation, weather, flight planning and the rules.

Your first test
The first of a series of tests that will culminate in licence issue.

Finding your way
Learning to navigate visually is a skill you'll need to acquire.


Career options
Many and varied options that may become your career or part of it.

An airline flying career
A satisfying and challenging but rewarding career choice.

The helicopter alternative
Rotary wing training and careers

Flying the forces
The armed forces provide excellent training, an amazingly diverse fleet, and real adventure.

CASA approved flying schools
A directory of all Australian schools available to the general public.

RA-Aus approved flying schools
A directory of recreational schools.


Flying gear
A guide to essential and optional flying equipment.

Aviation terms and acronyms
Guiding you through the maze of experssions you'll encounter.

Back to the stone age
You never stop learning. A now-accomplished pilot flies us through some early and character-building experiences.


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