Getting There From Here: How To Earn Your Pilot Wings

By Gina M. West

Have you always been interested in flying? Have you ever promised yourself that one day you would be the person sitting at the controls of an aircraft? If so, now may be the time to start pursuing your dream. A strong economy, coupled with reports of an impending airline pilot shortage, is generating increased interest in flight training. Whether you want only a private pilot certificate or are thinking about a career in aviation, you could probably use some information about the route to certification.

Sharon Obremski sharpens her piloting skills using the simulator at Aims Flight Training Center. gettingthere1.gif

There are several ways to earn your wings, and you should ask some important questions before deciding which is best for you. Let’s investigate the options.

The process starts with deciding what your goals are. Do you want to fly strictly for your own enjoyment? Maybe you do a lot of business travel and are looking for a faster and more convenient way to get around. Are you interested in becoming a professional pilot? If so, can you devote yourself full-time to an aviation education? Does a college degree fit into your plans? Do you have the financial resources to complete all the requirements for flight training? Can you qualify for financial assistance? Once you answer these questions, you will have an idea of how to get started.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) assigns two sections of the Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs) to pilot training. Part 141 is for schools electing to operate under stringent guidelines for facilities, personnel (including Certified Flight Instructors), training curricula, aircraft and maintenance. These schools are subject to periodic auditing by the FAA and are held closely accountable for student performance outcomes. If your goals include a career in commercial aviation and you want to pursue your training on a full-time basis, this is a good way to go. Part 141 schools provide a structured learning environment that can help you move efficiently through the process of becoming a professional pilot.

Part 61 instruction, on the other hand, allows for more flexibility of lesson content and sequence of training. If you work full-time, have limited funds or are not in a hurry to complete your training program, this might be a good choice. Since there are no special inspection requirements for instructors, aircraft, curricula or facilities, many free-lance instructors and flying clubs operate under this section. The fact that training conducted under Part 61 is not audited does not imply that it is inferior to Part 141. It has more to do with your personal situation and goals. You can obtain quality training under either section, as long as you know what to look for and can effectively evaluate your instruction. Be aware that Part 141 schools can also do training under Part 61, so don’t rule them out if you find a good one in your area.

According to FARs, instruction for pilot certificates and ratings must comply with specified minimums for both ground and flight training. Let’s discuss ground training first. The FAA requires that you complete a course of study and pass a computerized knowledge exam covering subjects designated in the regulations.

The process starts with deciding what your goals are. You can accomplish this in several ways. If you want one-on-one instruction, you can hire a certified ground or flight instructor on an hourly basis. When you are ready to take the exam, you will need a written recommendation from the instructor stating that he or she has reviewed all the required topics with you and finds you competent to pass.

If you prefer to learn independently, you can take a home study course. There are a number of excellent programs available that include various combinations of textbooks, videos and computer-based study and testing aids. If you have access to a computer, you can purchase complete CD-ROM ground schools. These innovative courses provide you with video clips, search engines, quizzes and test preps that can help you to be fully prepared to take the FAA exam. If you have an Internet connection, you can also enroll in ground schools via the Internet.

By the way, you are probably aware that there are some very good software programs available for instrument simulation. These can help you to build proficiency in understanding and flying by reference to aircraft instruments, a skill you will need at some stage during your flight training. If you own a computer, you might want to consider making this a part of your educational investment. Be sure to do some investigation before you purchase, though, since quality varies widely with these products.

If you think that you learn better in a classroom setting, inquire at colleges and universities in your area.

Many schools offer aviation degree programs and you can attend ground school classes in a formal setting. They usually conduct evening ground schools several times a year, so check it out if you have a day job. Finally, there are weekend courses designed solely to prepare you to take the FAA exam. While these are generally effective for passing the test with at least the minimum grade, you will probably not fully understand or retain the material necessary for the rest of your training. This means many additional hours of study before you are ready for your oral and practical tests. To make the best choice for completing the ground-training requirement, analyze your own particular learning style and goals. If you have questions, talk to some instructors for guidance on the merits of each option.

The next step is to find a place to fly. Undoubtedly, you will pick up some information about flight instruction while you are researching ground schools, but be sure to investigate all the alternatives before making your decision. Start with your local airport. This is the place to ask about the availability of free-lance instructors. You can also find out if there is a fixed base operator (FBO) on the field. FBOs are geared toward pilot services and may offer either ground or flight instruction, or both. Some only rent aircraft but will be able to put you in touch with instructors. They also sell pilot supplies and may provide aircraft services, including maintenance and fueling.

During your visit to the airport, ask about flying clubs. If you are interested in flying primarily for pleasure, clubs are a good way to go. Aircraft rental rates are usually cheaper through clubs, but you might be required to buy a share in the organization, in addition to paying an entrance fee and monthly dues. Flying clubs might not be as likely to offer ground schools but will provide both aircraft and instructors.

While you are checking at your local colleges and universities for ground schools, find out if they offer flight training. Many community colleges have excellent pilot training programs, both for people seeking degrees in aviation-related fields and for those wanting only a certificate or rating. If you are on a career track, you can earn either an associates or bachelor’s degree while you get your flight training, a must if you are serious about wanting to fly for a major airline.

Most colleges and universities with aviation degree programs have simulators or flight training devices with classes designed to make you proficient in all aspects of instrument flight. These courses are particularly valuable since they can save you hundreds of dollars in aircraft costs. You can learn and refine your instrument skills in a trainer, stopping to discuss questions and problems as needed, before getting in the aircraft. In this way, you can maximize your flight training and shorten the time needed to prepare you for your flight test.

Before you make your final decision, be sure to do your homework. Visit the schools or clubs and request a tour. Ask to see the curriculum and syllabus that will be used for your training. Talk to the chief pilot, program director, instructors and some of the students. Inquire about the training and experience levels of the instructors. Find out about their pass/fail rate. Be sure to ask about the cost of computer and flight exams. Normally, there is an additional charge for these, beyond the cost of training, and you will need to include it in your financial planning.

Chat with the students to find out if they are happy with their training experience. If they are not, find out why. If you locate a free-lance instructor you like, ask for names of current or previous students and give them a call to find out how they feel about their instruction. Finally, don’t neglect to ask about aircraft maintenance. You don’t want to fly an airplane that is not receiving the very best in repair and maintenance. Request to see the training aircraft, since you can learn a lot by checking their condition and cleanliness.

By the time you have decided what kind of training you want and how you will obtain it, you will probably be pretty anxious to get started. Before you do, though, get your medical certificate. The FAA requires that you pass an examination, given by an Aviation Medical Examiner (AME), in order to fly alone. This means that before your instructor can approve you for solo flight, you must possess a medical certificate stating that you do not have a condition that could make it unsafe for you to fly. There are certain situations that might make you ineligible for a medical certificate, so it’s smart to get your exam before you start flying. That way, you will avoid an investment in time and money if you discover that you have a disqualifying condition.

As a student pilot, you will be required to have a third-class medical certificate. If you are considering a career in aviation, you will eventually need either a second or first-class certificate, depending on your goals. The requirements for these two certificates are more stringent than they are for third-class, since you will be engaged in commercial operations.

If you plan to make flying your livelihood, it would be wise to get a first-class medical right from the start. That way, you can be assured that your goals will not be interrupted down the road because you cannot meet the medical requirements. If you are not sure which class of certificate you need, talk to a flight instructor or an AME. You can get names of AMEs from instructors, flying clubs or flight schools.

Once you have made an informed decision about your goals and training, and have your medical certificate, you will be ready to get to work. You should know that exams are a big part of the certification process. Once you complete the ground training requirements, you will take the computer knowledge exam at an FAA-approved facility. At the completion of your flight training, you must pass a practical exam, which includes an oral and flight test, given to you by an individual designated by the FAA. If you get your instruction at a Part 141 school, you will be tested periodically throughout the training process. When you have completed all the requirements and passed the exams, you will be issued your pilot certificate. If you are on a career path, you will continue to add the certificates and ratings needed in order to reach your goals.

Now that you are acquainted with the steps that lead to a pilot certificate, why not sit down and evaluate your goals, resources and limitations? Start talking to everyone you can think of who might help you sort out information and make sound decisions about your future as a pilot. The next dec-ade will be witness to exciting growth and changes in the aviation industry and you could be a part of it. So, whether you want to earn a private pilot certificate or have your sight on a career in aviation, now is a good time to get started. l

Gina West is a professor in the Aviation Technology Degree Program at Aims Community College. She holds commercial, multi, CFI, CFII and MEI, plus ground instructor certificates.

Originally published in Woman Pilot•January/February 2000

About the Author

Chicago, Illinois

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