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So You Want To Learn How To Fly
Do you stand or lie on the ground outside staring up at the sky? Do you look up every time you hear an airplane pass overhead? Do you find places to go via an airline? Do you like to hang around airports and watch the goings-on? Not too many years ago that was me. I grew up in the late 60's and early 70's during the heyday of the space program, and for years I dreamed of going into outer space. When I realized that becoming an astronaut was something that wasn't going to happen to me, I set my sights a bit lower and decided I wanted to learn to fly.
When i was a kid, there was a fair number of small grass strip airports in our area. One of those had a small metal "terminal" building with a snack bar and a hobby shop. Because of my interest in the space program, I was a model rocketeer, and one day when I was about 17 I stopped in at the airport to buy some supplies for my rockets. Hanging on the wall was a sign I had never noticed before that read: Learn To Fly--$300.
I bought my rocket supplies and headed for home. When I got there, I found my mother in her usual spot--the kitchen. I came in, placed my bag of rocket supplies on the table and announced "There's a sign at the airport that says you can learn to fly for $300." Now, this was in the mid-1970's and $300 was a fair amount of money. Add to that the fact that my father had passed away a few years beforehand, so we were living on Social Security survivors' benefits, and that my mother's feet, for her entire lifetime, never left the ground. She looked at me and said, deadpan, "Where are you going to get your $300?"
Dreams deferred are better than dreams denied, so although I didn't get the chance to fly as a seventeen year old, the opportunity would arise again when I was in my forties. This time the total cost would be around $7500, and my hope to become an airline pilot had long ago vanished, but I learned how to fly! I am going to share with you some things you need to know about taking flight training--how to find an instructor, what you will be expected to do, what your lessons will be like, etc. It's not easy, but I did it, and a lot of other people do it all the time, so you can, too!
First Steps to Flying
So you have decided that this is for you, and you're ready to take off into the wild blue yonder. Before you rush to your local flight school and announce "I want to learn to fly!" you have to make a couple of decisions. The first decision is "What kind of certificate do I want to go for?" (Pilot's licenses are technically called "certificates.") There are three kinds of primary certificates you can pursue: Light Sport Pilot, Recreational Pilot, and Private Pilot. Which you choose to work on depends at least partly on your goals. Interested in going up occasionally with your wife/husband/girlfriend/boyfriend and sightseeing, or traveling to a nearby airport to get lunch? Light Sport or Recreational Pilot may be for you. Do you like the thought of loading up the family and taking your own airplane on a 200 mile trip to your favorite vacation locale? Then private pilot could be what you want. Here are each of the certificates explained in a little greater detail.
The Sport Pilot certificate was created by the FAA in 2004. Holders of this certificate have to be in good medical condition and can either obtain an FAA medical or "self certify" that they are in good health. The FAA says that you need either a medical or a valid driver's license, so if you're healthy enough for a driver's license you are probably healthy enough to pursue this certficate. Sport Pilot is the most restrictive of the entry level certificates, but it is also the quickest and easiest to obtain. Sport pilots are restricted to flying aircraft that are no heavier than 1,320 pounds (1,430 pounds for seaplanes), have no more than two seats including the pilot, a single engine, and a maximum cruise speed of no more than 120 knots. This certificate allows you to fly in daylight hours only, below 10,000 feet in altitude (or 2,000 feet above the ground if you are at a high elevation airport), and you have to be able to see the ground, so no flying above a cloud layer. There are other requirements, but these are the main ones. You can also count your sport pilot training hours towards obtaining other certificates.
Recreational Pilot is somewhat less restrictive than sport pilot in terms of the aircraft you can fly, but just as restrictive in other ways. You can fly larger, heavier aircraft, but you can still only take one passenger at a time, and you can't fly any aircraft that is certificated for more than four passengers. Other restrictions of this certificate are similar to those for the sport pilot certificate. Also, for this certificate you must hold an FAA medical certificate (due to the privilege of being able to fly larger, heavier aircraft). This certificate has largely been replaced by the sport pilot certificate.
Private Pilot has the fewest restrictions and the most privileges, but it is also the most costly of the three to obtain, and requires the most time. For private pilots, the restrictions concerning passengers are removed, you can fly at night, altitude restrictions are removed (well, there is still one, but it's not important here), and you are not restricted in how far you can fly from your home base. You can also fly slightly larger airplanes, as the recreational pilot restriction of flying a four or fewer seat aircraft is removed.
That is just a thumbnail of the restrictions and privileges of each of the three certificates. There are additional rules and limitations, but those are not important to most people as they are trying to decide which certificate is right for them.
Once you decide the right certificate to pursue, the next step is to find a flight instructor. We'll cover that topic in the next article.