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No matter what your ultimate goal in aviation is - be it recreational flying or a more advanced training program - you must start by getting a private pilot's license.

Once you have earned a private license, you can work toward other certificates: a commercial certificate allows you to be paid for your flying, a flight instructor certificate enables you to teach others, and an airline transport certificate permits you to fly an airliner. You can also add various ratings that allow you pilot multi-engine airplanes, navigate using instruments in bad weather, and fly different aircraft like seaplanes, gliders, helicopters, and balloons. But before you even think about doing that fun stuff, you gotta get your basic private license.

Here are some of the most commonly questions asked about pilot training and certification:

How can I find a flight school?

There are more than 3,000 flight schools nationwide, including the ATP flight school, so chances are there's one at your local airport.

private pilot requirementsHow and where can I get a student pilot certificate?

An aviation medical examiner (AME) typically gives you a student pilot certificate to fill out as part of the third class medical exam. Your flight instructor will likely refer you to a local AME, or you can find an examiner online using AOPA's database of AMEs, searchable by city and state. A student pilot certificate is valid for 24 calendar months, and a third class medical could be valid for up to 60 months, depending on your age at the time of your AME visit. If your student pilot certificate expires first, you can get a new one from a designated pilot examiner (DPE) or your local flight standards district office (FSDO).

For how long is a student pilot certificate valid?

A student pilot certificate is valid for 24 calendar months.

What are the vision, hearing, and general medical health requirements that must be met in order to be a pilot?

Your vision must be at least 20/40 for near and distant vision with or without corrective lenses, and you must be able to perceive those colors necessary for the safe pilot performance. For general health and medical-related questions, refer to AOPA's medical subject reports Web page prior to visiting your AME.

What Are The Private Pilot Requirements?

You must be 17 years old and be able to read, write, and speak English fluently.  You'll need a minimum of 40 hours of flight training, though the average time in the U.S. is around 60-70 hours. If you fly less than once a week, it may take longer. Conversely, if you fly twice a week, it will probably take fewer total hours to get your license.  This training must include a minimum of:

20 hours of dual instruction including:

  • 3 hours of cross-country to airports more than 50 miles away
  • 3 hours of instruments
  • 3 hours of night including a 100 nautical mile round trip and 10 night takeoffs and landings
  • 3 hours of  instruction within 60 days prior to your practical test

10 hours of solo flight including:

  • 5 hours of cross-country  including a 150 nautical mile round trip
  • 3 takeoffs and landing at an airfield with a control tower
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You must pass the private pilot knowledge test with a score of 70% or better. The test is 60 multiple choice questions from the FAA's databank of about 700 questions .  You can prepare for it in many ways, including home study with books or DVD courses or with a classroom ground school taught at a local college or flying school.

The final step is the practical flight test with an FAA-designated examiner. Nationwide, the pass rate is about 90% for students on their first try! The exam contents is defined by the FAA's Practical Test Standard (PTS), and it includes both an oral exam and a flight test. You can view an online version of the PTS , but it's long so you'll want to buy a copy rather than try to print it out. 

What are the requirements for FAA certificate / certification?

For FAA certification, you need the following:

  • Be at least 16 years of age for a student pilot license and
    17 for a full pilot's license.
  • Have a current FAA third-class medical certificate.
  • Log at least 40 hours of flight.
  • Have at least 20 hours of flight with an instructor.
  • Have at least 10 hours of solo flight.
  • Pass the FAA Private Pilot Airmen Knowledge written test.
  • Pass the FAA Private Pilot flight exam.

How much does it cost to learn to fly and get a pilot certificate?

There are a lot of variables that affect the cost of learning to fly, including the frequency of flight lessons, weather conditions, the kind of aircraft in which you are training and its availability for scheduling, and individual aptitude. A rough estimate would range between $5,000 and $9,000, depending on the certificate being sought.

How long does it take to learn to fly and get a pilot certificate?

The same variables that affect the cost of learning to fly will affect the time it takes to earn your certificate. The FAA has established the minimum number of flight hours needed to obtain a certificate.

faa training atp flightUnder Part 61 of the federal aviation regulations, the minimums are 20 hours for a sport pilot certificate, 30 hours for a recreational certificate, and 40 hours for a private pilot certificate. Some schools operate under an alternate regulation, Part 141, which provides more FAA oversight, more rigid schedules, and more paperwork. The added requirements allow them to reduce the minimum hours of private pilot training to 35 hours.

However, many schools believe that a true average flight training time for a private pilot is between 50 and 60 hours, whether the school operates under Part 61 or Part 141. Others believe that 68 to 70 hours is the more likely average. These flight hours can be spread over a time span of several months to a year or more.

What if I want to become a Helicopter Pilot?

If you are thinking about getting your helicopter license, there are a few things you may want to know first. Most people who decide to get their helicopter license break down into one of two categories. Someone who holds no pilot rating at all, or someone who holds some sort of fixed wing rating. Of course, there is the occasional balloon pilot, or other exotic, but these are quite rare.

helicopter aviationPeople who currently do not posses any type of pilot certificate

If you hold no rating at all, you will need to take 20 hours of instruction and log 20 hours of solo practice. Generally, however, it will take you closer to 45 hours of dual instruction before you are ready for your checkride, giving you closer to 65 hours total time in helicopters, if you are an average student.

Before you can take your checkride, you must pass a written exam. These days that pretty much means going to a computerised testing center. The test is multiple choice, there are study guides available that give you the answers, and passing grade is a 70. Piece of cake.

Assuming you pass your written test, and your flight instructor thinks you are ready for the checkride, you will be signed off to take a combination oral and flight test with either an FAA examiner, or more likely a Designated Examiner who is a person who does not work for the FAA, but has been designated as having enough experience to judge whether you make the grade or not.

The length of the exams are pretty much up to the examiner. Supposedly you will only be tested on subjects called out in the "Practical Test Standards" (which you should get a copy of) but in reality most examiners use that as a bare minimum and will ask you plenty of questions that are not in the PTS. One to two hours of oral exam and an hour of flying is pretty typical for the designated examiner we send most of our student pilots to.

People who currently hold an airplane certificate

First of all, as you read the regulations you should realize that you are not a "student pilot". You are not even a "student pilot in helicopters". You are a private or commercial or ATP pilot working on adding a category and class to your certificate. Thus any regulation that talks about student pilots does not apply to you . Some people want to interpret that they apply to you, but they don't.

helicopter pilot licenseAn example would be cross country flight. As a non-student pilot, you have to receive 3 hours of flight instruction in cross country flight before you can take the checkride. However, you do not have to be "signed off" for cross country flight the way a student pilot does. Once you have been signed off for solo flight in a category and class, you can do just about anything except carry passengers. You could technically fly cross country before receiving your 3 hours of dual cross country. I know it sounds weird, but you are a rated pilot and the FAA will let you get away with a lot that a student pilot cannot.

In general, you should plan on spending 40 hours of dual and 15 hours of solo to get your helicopter add-on. Probably 98% of our add-on students do it plus-or-minus 5 hours from that figure.

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What are the differences between a Part 61 and a Part 141 flight school?

Part 141 schools have more FAA oversight, more rigid schedules, and more paperwork. For the added requirements, they are allowed to reduce the minimum required hours of private pilot training to 35 hours, rather than the 40-hour minimum required when training at a Part 61 flight school. The Part 61 school, on the other hand, is able to be more flexible with training schedules and has the ability to tailor the curriculum to meet individual students' training needs. Either school must train you to pass the very same practical test.

Is there a source of loans, scholarships, or other financial resources that can help support my flight training?

AOPA offers Flight Training Funds , which can be used for initial or recurrent flight training at either a Part 61 or a Part 141 school, or for training with an independent CFI. You can use the account to pay for aircraft rental, instructor fees, books and supplies, or anything else that would make your flight training successful.

How old do I have to be before I can start taking flying lessons?

You don't have to be a particular age before you can begin to take flying lessons. That said, however, you do have to be at least 16 years old before you can solo an airplane (14 years old for operation of a balloon or glider), and 17 before you can be issued a pilot certificate. Therefore, it may not be particularly efficient from the standpoint of cost and flight hours to begin lessons too early.

faa certification atp school trainingHow old is too old to begin flying lessons?

Say “student pilot,” and most people think of a youngster chasing a dream. In reality, today's fledgling is likely a middle-aged adult who's not only chasing, but actually fulfilling, a lifelong ambition to be a pilot. The average student pilot today is in his 30s, and the typical average active pilot is a decade older. In addition, more than 25 percent of all U.S. pilots with current medical certificates are in their 50s. And some pilots learn to fly after they retire.

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Bruce Hogan
Bruce 'Flybook' Hogan,
Certified Flight Instructor, Educator, Flying Enthusiast

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