Why do we want to fly?

For centuries, people have looked up to the sky and wanted to fly with the birds. Why is that? What is in us that beckons us to leave the safety of the ground to soar among the clouds? Is it the freedom one gets from "normal" day-to-day activities? Is it the ability to travel hundreds of miles without concern for traffic below making that weekend getaway that much easier? Maybe it’s the elation you feel to be able to leave the nest just like the first time you were allowed to take out the family car by yourself?

It could be any of these or a myriad of other reasons. 

One thing for sure is that there are many people with the dream; the emotional connection to the image of them flying. It’s in their heart and soul to be a pilot but it lies dormant just waiting to transition from merely a concept to reality.

This multi-part series of articles is aimed at you, the dreamer pilot, to tell you step by step, what you need to do to earn that pilot’s license.

  • Step 1: Decide What and How you Want to Fly
  • Step 2: Take an Introductory Training Flight Lesson
  • Step 3: Apply for a FAA Medical Certificate
  • Step 4: Apply for a FAA Student Pilot Certificate
  • Step 5: Research Pilot Schools & Find an Instructor
  • Step 6: Start Flight Training Lessons
  • Step 7: Pass the Private Pilot Knowledge Test
  • Step 8: Pass the Private Pilot Practical Exam (Checkride)
  • Step 9: Get Your License

Step 1: Decide What and How you Want to Fly

The first step in becoming a pilot is deciding what you want to pilot. You can choose among airplanes, gyroplanes, helicopters, gliders, balloons, or airships. Each of these, while sharing core fundamental knowledge, requires varying levels of training and certification. The FAA rules for getting a pilot's license (certificate) differ depending on the type of aircraft you fly so, for example, if you are only interested in flying ultralight vehicles, you don't need a pilot's license.

Once you have decided on what you want to fly you need to think about what type of flying you want to do. This is important, as it will define the type of pilot license you need to pursue. 

Private Pilot License

There are several different types of pilot licenses, from student pilot all the way up to airline transport pilot with each level requiring more training while simultaneously allowing more privileges.

  • Student Pilot – Learn to fly
  • Sport Pilot - Flying with minimal training and restrictions
  • Recreational Pilot - Similar to Sport Pilot with more privileges
  • Private Pilot - Fly many types of aircraft in all conditions with appropriate ratings
  • Commercial Pilot - Get paid to fly
  • Flight Instructor – Teach flight instruction
  • Airline Transport Pilot - Fly commercial airliners

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Do you want to only fly by yourself or carry passengers?
  • Are you OK with restrictions to not flying at night?
  • Do you want to be able to fly in the clouds?
  • Do you want to get paid to fly?

These are some of the many questions you need to answer. Just remember, that even if you choose to obtain a more restrictive license such as Sport or Recreational, you can continue to train and upgrade your license to Private Pilot. From Private Pilot you can continue to upgrade to Commercial, Flight Instructor, and Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) with more training.

The table below specifies the eligibility, training, experience, and testing requirements for Student Pilots, Recreational Pilots and Private Pilots and is provided to help you make the decision on which license to pursue.  As stated earlier, commercial pilots, flight instructors, and airline transport pilots all require additional training once you have the private pilot license.

Whichever path you choose, the basic requirements for all licenses are as follows (See FAR 61.103 for more information):

  • At least 17 years old
  • Be able to read, speak, write and understand English
  • Receive logbook endorsements from authorized instructor who verifies aeronautical knowledge and preparedness for the FAA knowledge test•Pass the required FAA knowledge test
  • Receive flight training and a logbook endorsement from an authorized instructor who conducted the required training.
  • Pass the required practical test on the areas of operation that apply
  • Comply with the appropriate sections that apply to the aircraft category and class rating sought
Requires FAA medical certificateMedical or U.S. driver's license and self-certificationYESYES
Aircraft size limitations1,320 lb max certificate gross weight, 2 seats max180 hp max, 4 seats maxUnlimited (certain aircraft will require specific "type" ratings)
Aircraft with retractable landing gearNONOYES
Carry more than 1 passengerNONOYES
Minimum flight training time required under FAR Part 6120 hours (average 30-35 hours)30 hours (average 45 hours)40 hours (average 60-70 hours)
Flight in Class B, C, or D airspaceOnly with additional flight instructionOnly with additional flight instructionYES
Night flightNOYES, no passengers and under CFI supervision to obtain additional certificates/ratingsYES
Flight outside United States airspaceNONOYES
Less than 3 miles visibilityNONOYES, in uncontrolled airspace
Charitable Sightseeing flightsNONOYES

In How to Become a Pilot, Step by Step: Part 2 we will discuss taking an introductory training flight lesson, and applying for your FAA Medical and Student Pilot Certificates.