If you're like millions of Americans, at some point in your life, perhaps when you were stuck in traffic and saw an airplane buzz overhead, you've thought, "I wonder what it takes to be a pilot?" Wonder no more. Here are the answers to frequently asked questions about learning to fly. Before long, you'll be buzzing over the traffic and smiling to yourself. You'll be a pilot.

How long does learning to fly take?
Learning to fly is not difficult, but it does requires study and practice. Federal Aviation Regulation Part 61 itemizes the things you must learn and requires a minimum of 40 hours of training (20 with an instructor and 20 solo) to earn a private pilot certificate with an average of about 55 hours. How long it will take you depends on how often you fly. If you do anything every day, you'll learn it quicker than doing it once or twice a week because you won't have to "relearn" what your "forgot" between lessons.

How long does a lesson last?
While most lessons are based on a 1-hour flight, they may take 2 hours from start to finish because there's more to it than flying. There are pre- and post-flight discussions, where you and your certificated flight instructor (CFI) talk about what you're going to do, how you did, what you did well, what needs work, and what you'll do on your next lesson.

Will I get airsick?
Maybe. If you do, it will most likely come early in training, when you're getting used to the new sensations of flying. The important thing is to not worry about it. In most cases, if you are affected, it will quickly pass as you get comfortable. Let your instructor know how you feel, look out the window, and open an air vent. If the feeling persists, discuss the use of anti-motion sickness drugs with an aviation medical examiner. They can help you over the rough spots, but you should only take them when flying with your instructor.

How safe is it?
General aviation is as safe as any other mode of travel, if not safer. You don't need a parachute because airplanes do not fall out of the sky, even if the engine stops. An aircraft without an engine, even if it's supposed to have one, is a glider. If an engine quits, for example, the most common cause is because the pilot ran out of gas. In other words, flying is as safe as you make it. How to fly safely, and to deal with the rare emergencies that are beyond the pilot's influence, will be covered in your training.

What kinds of licenses are there?
Pilots earn certificates, not licenses. Student certificates are good for 24 month; all the rest do not expire (but you need a current medical certificate, which does expire, to use your pilot certificate). Students work toward either a recreational or private certificate. While the training for both is the same, the recreational certificate is designed for fun flying close to home during the day only. In other words, rec pilots don't need or get training private pilots must have for flying at night, cross-country, and at airports requiring communication with air traffic control. Recreational pilots can earn a private certificate when they get training in these areas.

Once you earn a private certificate, you can move up the ladder, if you so desire, to a commercial certificate, which enables you to fly for hire. A flight instructor certificate enables you to teach others to fly, and an airline transport pilot certificate is needed to captain an airliner. You can add a number of ratings to these certificates that let you fly airplanes, seaplanes, gliders, helicopters, and balloons, airplanes with more than one engine, and on instruments in bad weather.

Which certificate should I get?
It depends on why you want to fly. The recreational certificate is a good choice if you plan on spending most of your time around your home airport. If you plan on flying cross-country for pleasure or business, or plan on earning advanced certificates or ratings, the private certificate may be the right choice. But this doesn't mean you can't earn a recreation certificate, and then get the additional training for a private certificate at a later date.

Can I carry passengers?
Student pilots cannot carry passengers when flying solo. Friends or family may ride along on dual lessons (when your instructor is in the plane) however, and it's a good idea to discuss this with your CFI in advance. Recreational pilots may only carry one passenger at a time; private pilots may carry as many passengers as the airplane will legally hold. While recreational and private pilots may share the expenses of a flight, they may not charge people for flying them someplace. Pilots must have a commercial certificate and fly for an air taxi operation to get paid for transporting people.

Where can I fly?
Because CFIs must endorse (approve) their flights, students can basically fly anywhere their instructors say they can. Recreational pilots are limited to 50 miles from the airport at which they received training and they cannot fly to or from airports that require talking to an air traffic controller. There are more than 12,000 airports in the United States, and only around 800 have control towers. Private pilots can basically fly anywhere they want, so long as they follow the applicable regulations, such as calling the control tower to request a landing clearance.

What about a medical exam?
Your student pilot certificate is also your medical certificate. This dual-purpose piece of paper is good for 24 months, and you get it from an aviation medical examiner (AME), an FAA-approved doctor. There are approximately 6,000 AMEs in the United States, and your instructor or flight school can connect you with one. You will need your student/medical certificate before you can fly an airplane solo, but it's often a good idea to get it before you start training, especially if you think you may have a medical condition that may delay its issuance.

The exam is not rigorous. It begins by filling out an FAA application/medical history form. Don't omit information when completing this form. Just like your mother, the FAA doesn't look kindly on people who lie, deceive, or don't tell the whole truth -- especially when it comes to a conviction for driving under the influence. Medically, your vision must be at least 20/50 without glasses or contacts, or at least 20/30 with them, and you must be able to see red and green. You shouldn't have a nose or throat condition that would be aggravated by flying, you must have proper balance, and you must be able to hear a whispered voice from 3 feet. You can't have any mental/neurological problems, such as psychosis, alcoholism, epilepsy, any unexplained loss of consciousness, any serious medical condition such as heart attack or chronic heart disease, diabetes mellitus, or any other debilitating illness.

If you do have a problem, it's not the end of your flying career. Depending on the problem, your medical certificate will be deferred until further testing is done. Your AME will be able to help you in such cases, and if you and your AME can prove to the FAA that your condition will not make you unsafe to pilot an airplane, there's a good chance you'll get your medical. If you have a condition that automatically disqualifies you, such as chronic alcoholism, history of heart disease, or loss of consciousness, you can still petition the FAA for special issuance of your medical.

How do I pick an instructor?
You and your instructor will be spending a lot of time together in a small classroom, so chose a CFI that matches your personality. Different people learn differently, and different instructors teach differently, and when student and CFI differences clash, your training will probably not go well. If you can't understand a prospective CFI's answers to your questions, and the CFI can't reword answers so you do understand, you will likely have similar problems in training. If the two of you can communicate clearly, take an introductory flight lesson to see how you get along in the airplane. In the end, only time will validate your CFI selection. But if your CFI isn't working out, don't be afraid to change.

What's ground school?
Flight training is divided into two parts, ground school and flight training. Ground school teaches you the principles, procedures, and regulations you will put into practice in an airplane -- how a wing generates lift, how to navigate from one airport to another, and in kind of weather you can fly. Before you can earn a pilot certificate, you must pass a computerized FAA knowledge test (with a score of at least 70 percent) on this information. You have several ground school options. You can attend a scheduled classroom course that may be held at a flight school, independent ground school, high school, or community college. There are also intense, weekend-long ground schools. Or you can take a home-study course, which is composed of videotapes and may include computerized test preparation software. Regardless of the option you chose, you'll need an instructor's endorsement to take the knowledge test. Contact RFC for information on upcoming ground school classes.

When will I actually begin flying?
You'll be flying on your first lesson, with your CFI's help, of course. With each lesson, your CFI will be helping less, until you won't need any help at all. When you reach this point, you will make your first solo flight, an important milestone in every pilot's training. After you solo, you and your CFI will work on such things as flying cross-country. And when you're ready, you'll make several solo cross-country flights. When you have demonstrated your ability to consistently demonstrate all of the FAA-required skills, your instructor will recommend you for the FAA checkride.

What's the checkride like?
The FAA checkride is broken down into two parts, an oral quiz, where the examiner will ask about things you learned in ground school, and the flight test, where you will demonstrate your ability to perform the skills you have learned in an aircraft. Don't be intimidated. The examiner isn't out to fail you. He or she just wants to ensure, just as your instructor did, that you are a safe pilot.

What kinds of airplanes can I fly?
There is no regulation saying you have to learn in a particular airplane, but most likely you will learn to fly in a two- or four-seat airplane with one engine and fixed landing gear. It may have a high wing or a low wing, but where the wing is really doesn't matter so long as there is a wing on each side, and they are both either high or low. How fast the airplane goes really isn't important either. You're learning to fly, not going someplace. How far you can fly is important during cross-country training, and the airplane's range is determined by how much gas it carries divided by the amount of gas the engine burns times the airplane's speed. Most training airplanes carry 2 to 4 hours of gas and fly at around 100 mph.

You can also learn to fly in higher performance airplanes that have retractable landing gear and seat four-to-six people. They carry 4-to-6 hours of gas and fly at 140 mph to 200 mph. You can save the go-fast airplanes as a personal present to yourself after you earn your pilot certificate. Many trainers have just a few communication and navigation radios and all the essential instruments. High performance airplanes generally have all the latest radios including GPS satellite navigation, advanced instruments, and autopilots. Trainers generally do not have autopilots because you're the one learning to fly -- the autopilot already knows how.

How do I get from one airport to another? Learning how to navigate from one airport to another will be part of your training, and you'll put into practice on flights with and without your instructor. You'll first learn pilotage, where you look out the window and compare the landmarks you see on the ground to an aviation sectional chart, and dead reckoning, which is used in conjunction with pilotage. Short for deduced reckoning, dead reckoning is flying a compass heading that has been corrected for such things as the wind for a certain time at a certain speed.

There are several forms of radio navigation, and you'll at least learn how to navigate with VORs, very high frequency omnibearing radio ranges. Located across the nation, VORs transmit radio beams or "radials" for each point on the compass that are selected and indicated on a cockpit dial. Certain radials connect one VOR to another and create "highways" in the sky.

If your trainer is equipped with the required receivers, you'll learn how to navigate with an automatic direction finder (ADF), which has a needle that always points to the selected station, Loran-C, which uses a nationwide web of radio beams that precisely indicate where you are and an internal computer that will lead you to where you want to go. Then there is the global position system, which is similar to Loran, except it uses satellites rather than ground-based radio stations.

Do I need special insurance?
No. RFC carries insurance for all of its members.

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