How much does it cost to learn to fly?

This is the first question every prospective student pilot asks - how much does it cost to learn to fly?

My answer here deals with learning to fly a single-engine airplane.  If you're looking for gliders/sailplanes, check out the Soaring Society of America (SSA).  For helicopters or jets, unless money is no object, you may still want to start with fixed-wing single-engine training so that topics which are in common (airports, radios, navigation, etc) are done at the less expensive rate.  It's up to you, of course - but know what your alternatives are.  In any case, you can also find additional information at the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA)

Starting with a long story made short, if you live in an area like where I do, expect it to take as much as $11,000 - possibly less, possibly more.  That's at the time of this writing (June 2008).  Fuel costs have made that number go up from $10K recently.  Of course, that's just a guess, intended to help you figure out a ball-park estimate of your own resources.  There are things you can do to bring down your cost - I'll address those below.  But if you figure on that number, whether you've saved it up or plan to pay as you go, you should be ready to embark on your pursuit of the dream of a Private Pilot license.

I live in San Jose, California.  As America's 10th largest city and part of the San Jose/San Francisco/Oakland Bay Area, the airspace and airports here are busy.  That will increase your cost of learning to fly.  First, it takes longer to learn what you need for safe solo flight at busier airports.  And once you solo, it takes longer to get to a suitable "practice area" away from population to practice required maneuvers.  These add up to additional hours.  Wherever you learn, your flight instructor will get you through those stages of your training.

What are the requirements to become a Private Pilot? The Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs) are clear on the minimum requirements...

Here are some of the eligibility requirements from FAR 61.103:
  • You must be at least 17 years of age.
  • You must be able to read, speak, write and understand English.
Before your first solo flight, you'll need at least a 3rd class medical certificate.  Any doctor who is also an FAA Aviation Medical Examiner (AME) can perform the physical exam and issue the certificate.  The doctor will charge a fee.

You must pass a written test.  The FAA calls these knowledge exams.  Specifically, you'll have to pass the Private Pilot Airplane Single-engine Land Knowledge Test.  The testing center will charge a fee.

Your flight and ground instruction will cost money by the hour.  For ground instruction, the instructor's hourly rate applies.  For "dual" instruction time, when the instructor is in the plane with you, the plane's and instructor's hourly rates both apply.  For solo flight, the plane's hourly rate applies.  You only pay for the plane's time when the engine is on.

Minimum hours of instruction and aeronautical experience are set by FAR 61.109.  You'll need 20 hours of dual instruction, 10 hours of solo, and a minimum of 40 hours total time.  But in reality, all the other things you have to do and learn will make it more like 70-80 hours total time.  Expect the dual and solo time both to be above the minimums by the time you're done.

Note that the ground instruction time is an area where you have a chance to control your costs.  If you do the suggested studying on your own, your time is free to you, and saves you from additional time with the instructor.  My colleagues and I would all happily encourage you save your money that way if you can put in the time and effort to study - the more economical we can make this for you, the more future business we'll get from word of mouth and a good reputation.

After you complete your flight training, your flight instructor will sign you off to take the practical test, also known as the "check ride".  The examiner will charge a fee.

So what do these add up to?  (I'll estimate $110/hour plane and $50/hour instructor though both numbers can vary if you shop around.)
  • dual instruction (plane and instructor rates)  20 hours minimum, 40-50 hours typical = expect about $6000-8500
  • solo flight (plane rate) 10 hours minimum = expect about $1100-1500
  • ground instruction 30-60 hours (on the lower end if you do your homework and are serious about your learning, maybe much more if not) = $1500-3000
  • supplies (headset, maps, books, calculator, etc) = expect about $750
  • examiner fee for check ride = expect about $400
It does depend a lot on how quickly you learn some things.  Your instructor will have a plan how to teach you each step at a time, the way many people have learned before you.  And you'll probably learn more about yourself as some things you'll learn faster and other things slower than you expected.  It happens to all of us.

Unfortunately, as fuel prices have been going up, so have the hourly rate on airplanes. And if that continues, you know what to expect.  This estimate (as of June 2008) is intended to be updated when there are significant changes - but you have enough information here to compute the changes yourself.  And hopefully you can see where you can save yourself some money too.

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