Become a Pilot! Getting Started.
Not sure where to start? We have spent hours researching and consolidating the approach for you. Click the tabs in the checklist to find out!
Learning to fly can be a daunting and expensive undertaking, but it doesn’t have to be that way! The editors at Student Pilot world have developed this free checklist to help you get started. This checklist has been designed to help students obtain their Private Pilot rating by arming them with unbiased and objective information. We aim to help students make good training decisions by avoiding the typical pitfalls and “gotcha’s” frequently encountered by eager students.
Video: Private Pilot Rating – Your top 5 decisions.
Note: the information contained in this checklist and on the site is not meant to be comprehensive or a substitute for official flight training by a qualified school and instructor. Consult your local flight school for certified flight instruction.
Pilot Certificates & Ratings
There are many interesting options to pursue concerning flight training. This site primarily focuses on the Private Pilot Certificate – Single Engine, Land. However, we have included information regarding the other ratings available. We plan a more in-depth treatment of those topics in the future – please stay tuned. Note: In aviation, your pilot privileges document is officially called a “certificate” not a “license” even though you will receive something that looks like your driver’s license when you become a newly minted pilot.
Private Pilot Certificate (PPL) – This is the most popular option for casual and professionals alike. It enables most pilots to do nearly 90% of the type of flying they want to do 90% of the time. You can fly day or night, in good weather (called VFR – visual flight rules), with passengers, from New York to California or anywhere else your airplane can take you. For professionals, it’s the first step on a long journey to the airline cockpit.
PPL Basic Requirements:
Health: Obtain a medical certificate (more on that in the next tab).
AGE: 16 years old to solo (fly by yourself), 17 to earn the certificate, fluency in the English language.
Training: Minimum 35 hours of actual flight training (Plan on 50 or more).
Tests: Pass a written exam and a check ride.
Check out the FAA’s website for more information regarding the requirements.
Video: Which pilot rating is best for you?
Sport Pilot Certificate: A relatively new and potentially lower cost rating for those who want a less burdensome flight training option however it comes with significant restrictions: you are limited to flying in Light-Sport Aircraft (LSA’s) only, can carry one passenger, no night flying, or flying into busiest controlled airspace (without an endorsement) and you cannot fly for business. On the plus side, no medical exam is required – if you have a valid license you are all set in terms of that. Click here to read more about the sport certificate on The Experimental Aircraft Association’s website.
Other Ratings and Endorsements for Private Pilots:
IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) – One of the most useful post-PPL ratings, it enables pilots to fly in instrument meteorological conditions (flying in the clouds). It turns the airplane into a truly useful mode of transportation and can serve to sharpen the skills of the pilot. One of the great dangers to a VFR-only pilot is inadvertently flying into the clouds. The results of which are usually catastrophic to pilot and plane alike. IFR pilots are far better equipped to deal with this potential emergency.
Multi-Engine, Complex, High, Performance, Tail Wheel: There are many other interesting and useful ratings and endorsements that one can achieve as a private pilot to learn more please visit the AOPA’s website.
The Aviation Medical
The first step in your flying journey is to complete the mandatory medical exam. Private pilot candidates normally satisfy this by completing a medical exam given by an Aviation Medical Examiner (AME).
The Third class certificate covers you for 60 months if you are under 40 years old and 24 months if you are 40 and up. Click here for other types of medical certificates.
Note: The AME may ask you extensive questions regarding your medical history any medication you are taking and. You are required to answer truthfully under penalty of law. There are several disqualifying conditions and medications please check the links here before making an appointment: Disqualifying Health Conditions | Disqualifying Medications. If any of this looks problematic, you may wish to check out the alternatives listed below.
Video: The Medical: Avoiding the “Gotcha’s”.
Third Class Medical Alternatives:
Sport Pilot certificate
Some pilots opt to pursue a Sport Pilot certificate instead of going the private pilot route. The Sport Pilot rating does not require a medical exam from an AME. A valid driver’s license satisfies this requirement. Click here for more on the Sport Pilot certificate or here for the FAA’s Sport Pilot page.
BasicMed is a relatively new option and it enables any state-licensed physician to complete a physical exam and fill out this questionnaire. The pilot then must take an online course like this one: https://basicmed.mayo.edu/ The main requirements are that you need to have held at least a third-class medical once before that was not revoked for a health issue. The main upsides to BasicMed are that it can be an easy way to satisfy the air medical requirement and it’s valid for 4 years regardless of age. The downside is that many physicians are not yet universally familiar with the program and might not know what to do for the exam and the paperwork. Also, there are some limitations to your flying privileges under BasicMed. Be sure to check with your doctor before making an appointment. Click here for the AOPA’s BasicMed guide.
Essential Student Pilot Equipment
Members-only Video: What equipment do you really need?
Your main and first aviation investment, outside of the cost of the training itself, will be in a flight headset. They range vastly in terms of price and quality. The main technological difference is whether or not they have ANC (Active Noise Cancellation) built into them or if they muffle noise via a non-electronic “passive system”. Here are the most popular aviation headsets listed from most expensive to least: Bose A20 Aviation Headset (1095.95), Lightspeed Zulu 3 ANR Headset ($850), David Clark Model H10-13.4 ($315), KORE AVIATION KA-1 ($169.99)
You will need something to carry your gear in. Flight bags come in all shapes and sizes however the editors recommend an easy top access type bag for the student pilot. Everything in the bag should be accessible through a top opening. These bag types solve the all too common “oops I left my flight plan safely zipped away in the bag” problem. Be sure to locate it in a place where you can safely reach it without having to get out of your seat. A simple inexpensive bag will do like the one below. Be sure to take only what you need for the flight.
Pen and Paper
Being organized is key to success in-cockpit training. Having the ability to write down the current weather info like an ATIS report and other important items will help you stay organized keeping you ahead of the airplane. It will make your training much less stressful.
Make sure you use a one-piece retractable pen so that you can operate with one hand. Make sure it has a clip like the one in the photo so you can clip it to your lapel or a pants pocket. Also, a good yoke clip like the one below is essential. Pair it with a small notebook with a hard-backed cover so you can write on it without having to hold the pad.
These may seem like small details but trust us you will understand how important these items are after your first lesson.
Some pilots prefer to use a kneeboard to organize their cockpits. The editors feel that the major disadvantage of this setup is the tendency to have to be “heads down” in this scenario whereas VFR-focused student pilots should be heads up and out the window as much as possible.
Sunglasses are another “must-have” for the student pilot. Not having them on a bright sunny day can be downright dangerous. Non-polarized sunglasses are recommended for pilots as polarized lenses may make LCD instrument screens difficult to see. However, in a pinch, any pair of sunglasses is better than none. Below represents both ends of the price spectrum: Rayban’s Aviator Classics ($154.00) and a pair from Lotson Classic Aviators ($19.99).
Click the photos below for more information:
Regardless of what you choose, be sure to have a cheap spare set of sunglasses that you leave in your bag at all times as a backup. Just make sure they fit reasonably well and are easy to take on and off since you will probably discover you need them after you are belted in and ready to go with your headset on and your flight instructor tapping his/her feet.
E6-B Flight “Computer”
Mainly used during your cross-country flight planning and E6-essentially a slide rule that enables students to compute things like wind correction angles, and ground speed, density altitude, and others. There are more modern alternatives, such as electronic calculators, apps, and free websites however plan on your instructor insisting that you use an old-fashioned E6-B during your primary flight training.
You will need a few other items including a logbook, flight planning forms, and a flashlight (with a red light) for your night flight. Please click the links above to learn more.
Learn to Fly Books & Courses
There are many quality online learn-to-fly books and materials available for free and paid. Click the links below to explore some popular options.
Members Only Video: Buyer Beware – Reviews with Pros & Con of the most popular training products.
Choosing a flight school is the most important decision students will make with regard to their flight training. The main question you want to ask yourself when visiting prospective schools is “Will this school really help me earn my wings?”. It sounds like it should be obvious but prospective students confirm that the school’s goals are the same as theirs – it may not always be the same. Make sure to do your research and do not necessarily pick a school based on proximity to your hometown. It is sometimes better to bypass a town or two to get high-quality flight training.
Members Only Video: Choosing the best flight school for you.
PART 141 VS PART 61
One of the first major decisions you will need to make is to choose between part 141 or part 61 training. In a nutshell, both methods will teach in accordance with the same FAA practical test standards however part 141 is more structured in that it closely follows a training syllabus. Part 61 is not as formal and lessons can be structured based on a variety of factors such as the student’s aptitude topics, scheduling, weather, etc. Not all schools offer part 141 therefore you should check with them before you pick a school if this is important to you.
Which should you choose?
The Part 141 vs part 61 discussion is the subject of perennial debate among aviators old and young. It might seem like the quickest path to earning your wings is the more structured approach (part 141) however this is not always the case. There are many factors that go into successful flight training that is not necessarily addressed within a structured environment. Please be sure to view the members-only video below for an interesting take on the topic. Regardless of what you choose, be sure for the sake of completeness to at least loosely following a syllabus like the one here from King Schools.
Members Only Video: PART 141 VS PART 61: which path is better for you?
When you start your flight training be sure to ask to see the school/FBO’s insurance ticket certificate. Additionally, you may be required to purchase your own insurance referred to as “renter’s insurance”. Even minor accidents can result in big financial losses in aviation so don’t skip out on this. Obtaining insurance for students is easy and fairly inexpensive. Please check out this article from the AOPA on renter’s insurance for more information.
Your flight school will provide primarily two types of instruction: “Ground” and Flight Training.
Ground Exam Prep: Students are required to pass a written exam as part of their flight training. Many schools offer formal ground instruction to help students pass the test, however, it’s not mandatory. You can take the FAA written exam (it’s actually online now) without having received any formal instruction. There are online courses mentioned in the previous “Books and Courses” tab to help. Some students choose to study for the exam on their own and take the written test before they start their flight training while others prefer the structured learning experience. This decision is up to you and depends on your learning style.
Ground Portion of Flight Training: Regardless of how students prepare for the exam, they will have some ground prep involved in flight training. This mainly consists of briefings before the training flights, explanation of how to read weather reports and file flight plans, etc. Be diligent with this as schools sometimes overcharge for this type of instruction- common flight training “Gotcha” Students should carefully review the fees on the day they take the lesson and dispute any inappropriate charges.
Members Only Video: Get the most while paying the least for your flight training.
Flying: Finally you are getting in the airplane and having some fun! You will need a minimum of 35 hours in the cockpit which includes at least 20 hours with flight instruction and 10 hours solo which includes a solo cross country of 150 nautical miles. These are the minimums and rest assured almost no one ever completes the training in this time frame. Don’t be surprised if it takes twice as many hours to complete your training regardless of whatever promises the school is making. Flight training is mainly about teaching you to conduct flight maneuvers with a relative degree of safety and competency. No CFI (Certified flight instructor) is going to sign you off unless he/she is convinced you to know your stuff – regardless of the hours in your logbook.
Members Only Video: Picking the Best Instructor(s).
Your Flight Instructor: The most important part of this part of the training is your instructor called a CFI (Certified Flight Instructor). You should carefully interview this person before hiring him/her to train you. Does he/she have a can-do positive attitude, and will they get you to your objective of being a pilot? One big red flag is when most of the CFI’s stories revolve around “how incompetent” other pilots and students are. You are looking for people who believe in others and have the skills and expertise to help people go from no flying experience to competent and safe pilots in a relatively short period of time. Stick to 1 or 2 preferred CFI’s especially in the beginning. You will need that continuity to make the most of the training. Avoid the big flight school “Gotcha” where they pair students with different instructors on nearly every lesson. They may say that it’s to give students a better experience however it is usually driven more by the school’s staffing availability vs the student’s welfare.
Welcome to the place where you will spend the next 50-70 hours. Choosing the right trainer aircraft is important. Often it will be a big factor when you choose your school where you decide to do your training. We discuss some of the main things to consider below.
Stick to the Basics
Your trainer airplane will likely be made for you by the school you choose. Most flight schools have a well-worn fleet of basic aircraft that is easy to fly. If you have any say in the matter be sure to stick to a basic forgiving design. Avoid complex aircraft (those with a constant speed propeller and retractable landing gear), taildraggers bush-type airplanes, and high-performance aircraft which may be a lot to handle in the beginning.
High Wing vs Low Wing
Which is better for training has been the subject of debate as long as people have been flying and in reality both types of aircraft are perfectly adequate for student training however some high wing planes offer a couple of advantages for students. The main advantage is they be a little easier because high wing airplanes like Cessna Skyhawks tend to float less when you are close to the ground making thema bit easier to land. Also the fuel tanks are overhead in the wings and as such they are gravity fed which means you will not have to worry much about switching fuel pumps on and off. Your training will cover the differences in much greater detail but its worth thinking about during the training decision making process.
Glass vs Steam
The most significant technological development in general aviation has been the advancement of avionics. Within the last 20 years, general aviation avionics have gone from mostly WWII era mechanical mechanisms (referred to as “steam gagues ” or simply “analog”) to fully digital displays (referred to as “glass”). Today, you can airliner-level sophistication in the cockpit of a small general aviation plane. Which should you learn on? (assuming you have a choice) It depends on your post training goals. If your dream is to become an airline pilot then a glass panel is the way to go. If your planning on flying for personal travel then it probably doesn’t matter. You may wish to stick to the steam gauges and then learn the digital systems later as you are not going to get tested on it. In any case for the first 15-20 hours it truly doesn’t matter what you use as most of your training will be centered on getting to feel the aircraft and looking out the window anyway.
Click the names to read more about the leading general aviation avionics manufacturers: Garmin, Avidyne, and Dynon
New vs Old
Technology has fundamentally changed how most pilots plan flights. Most pilots today use one of several comprehensive apps and/or their PCs to plan & file their flight and check the weather. The technology and data at your fingertips are truly amazing.
Comprehensive Planning: Pre-flight, Weather Filing, In-flight Navigation, and Weather
Below are the popular all-in-one providers: Foreflight and Garmin Pilot work on a subscription model while FlyQ is free to download however there are in-app purchases. All come with a linked web-based PC functionality. Garmin’s app has the ability to communicate with newer Garmin avionics in the cockpit. Most offer free trials for new subscribers.
Click on the images below to learn more:
Traditional Flight Planning
Your instructor, at least at the beginning of your training, is probably going to require you to promptly close that nifty app and learn how to do flight planning manually. Below are some resources that you will like to use to plan your flights.
Members Only Video – How to best use apps during your training.
Note: Paper Charts Expire be sure to check the dates.
Phone-Based Weather Briefing and Flight Filing: 1-800-WXBRIEF
Free Online Charts and Flight Planning (Worldwide): Skyvector
Bonus Free Mobile App (3d Modeling of Wind – Great for Pattern Work Prep): MeteoEarth
FAA Approved Aviation Devices (ATD)
There are two types of simulators: FAA-Approved Aviation Devices (ATD) and home simulators. The FAA-approved devices are expensive and as such you are likely only to encounter them at your school. You call to do a small portion of your required training in these types of sims. They range from devices that look like tabletop PC’s all the way up to enclosed full-motion simulators. Redbird is a popular manufacturer of full-motion devices. An example of a non-motion option is Gliem Aviation’s affordable solution.
Home flight simulators have come a long way since they were introduced 30 years ago. While they have always had some value in the training environment, it was not until recently that has begun to be an indispensable tool. While time spent on these devices does not count towards your flight training hours, the use of flight simulators, especially in conjunction with VR (virtual reality) has the potential to significantly cut your time and costs to earn your pilot’s license. Why? Because you get to practice! It may sound simple but many people overlook the value of practicing planned maneuvers ahead of time. And since you are sitting in your living room you can practice them over and over until you get them right.
Members Video: How to use flight simulators to supercharge your real flight lessons.
The two leading simulators are Microsoft Flight Simulator and X-Plane 11. Both offer exceptionally realistic flight experiences you as a student can use for training purposes however both have tradeoffs as discussed below. Both require a powerful modern PC with a high-end dedicated GPU to have a satisfactory experience for the user.
After a long absence, Microsoft got back in the sim business in a big way with Microsoft Flight Simulator. It boasts the latest graphics, stunning photo-realistic scenery based on satellite imagery, highly detailed cockpits, and hand-crafted major airports. According to Microsoft, the flight model has been updated so that airplanes behave in the sim more like they would in real life in conditions such as turbulence and others. The downside is it’s very new and as of early 2021, not all instruments on all the planes are functioning correctly. Also, good VR performance does require a powerful PC and some “settings jiu-jitsu” to maximize the experience. Be sure to check the specs first. It is scheduled for release on the Xbox which would bring the equipment costs down significantly especially if performance on the Xbox is comparable to a high-end PC.
X-Plane 11 By Laminar Research is another full-function simulator that has been around for a while and also supports VR. It was just recently updated to optimize it for modern PCs. All of the instruments in the cockpit work properly and there is a universe of terrific add-ons to really bump up your experience. Some users claim the graphics are not as immersive and the flight model not as accurate as of the MSFS. X-Plane offers a free demo. Click here to check it out.
In addition to a PC, You will need some additional equipment:
Currently, the most popular sim yoke is the Honey Comb Alpha. It’s a nice nexus of realism vs cost however it is popular and often sold out. You may have to hunt around a bit to get one. It comes with switches that are mapped to the sim cockpit for added realism. You will still need a throttle which they make as a separate accessory called the Bravo Throttle Quadrant however this product may be more than what a beginning student may need. It is often sold out as well.
A much less expensive alternative is a joystick-type device. The advantage is that many of these contain most of what is needed to use a sim for flight training support all in one device. Make sure it’s ambidextrous (you can use it in either hand) or left-handed as most gaming joysticks are right-handed while most training aircraft are flown with the pilot’s left hand. Also, be sure the joystick has a slider in front that can be used as throttle and up and down rocker-type buttons for flaps. A good example is the left-handed Thrustmaster TCA Sidestick.
Trim Wheel, Rudder Pedals, Throttle, and flaps
Much of the “stick and rudder” skills you will learn in the cockpit will require almost constant manipulation of the trim wheel and rudder pedals, especially during crosswind landings. The trim wheels are pretty simple and standard like this one from Flight Velocity’s Trim Wheel. In the case of rudder pedals, be sure to get one with an adjustable tension wheel like the rudder pedals pictured below from Logitech otherwise you will not be able to calibrate the pedals to match your real in-cockpit experience. If your flight stick or yoke does not have a throttle mechanism then you will need one like this Logitech Flight Throttle Quadrant. Just like the flight stick make sure it’s ambidextrous so that you can match its relative position to that of your trainer aircraft. There’s no need to buy a flap mechanism as most of the devices mentioned above especially the throttle have rocker-style buttons that you can easily assign to control your flaps.
Virtual Reality Headsets
VR headsets, when paired with a sim give students, the ultimate and unprecedented ability to practice the maneuvers they will learn in their flight lessons. The two most popular VR headsets for flight simulators are the Oculus Rift S and HP’s Reverb G2.
The Oculus Rift S is a second-generation VR headset and the most popular VR device for flight simmers. while the resolution is not as good as HP’s reverb G2 device, it is detailed enough to easily read the cockpit gauges which makes it a fine choice for home flight simulation. It’s available everywhere at a great price. Be sure to get the Rift S (the one that physically connects to your computer via the display port cable)
The latest VR set from HP, the Reverb G2, boasts an astonishing 2160 x 2160 resolution and is arguably the most capable on the market. However,r it is not widely available as of early 2021 and earlier users have indicated that you need a pc with super high-end specs to have a satisfactory VR experience in the home flight sim environment. It’s also almost twice as expensive as the Oculus Rifts. HP ma becomes widely adopted in the home sim environment however at the moment, it’s too early to tell.
alchohol – dont mix also consider hung over – wasting your money
do the pre flight at if your life depends on it – because it does!
search the ntsb for your airport make and model of the plane you are flying to get a sense of what types of accidents have already occurred
check the weather
Ultimately you are in charge of wehteher or not youre going up dont let them pressure you