QUESTIONS & ANSWERS
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
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
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
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.