How to make flight training more affordable

How to make flight training more affordable

There are a lot of misconceptions out there about how much flight training must cost.  But having gone through the process from zero to ATP within the last 15 years, I scratch my head when hearing figures cost figures of more than $70,000 to become an airline pilot, or $10,000+ just to get your private pilot certificate.  There are a lot of variables determining the cost of flight training, which I’ll break down here.  But the good news is that there are many techniques you can use to control costs in a significant way, making the cost far more affordable.

There are 3 basic expenses you’ll incur during flight training, in order of decreasing severity:

    • Aircraft rental expense
    • Flight/ground (CFI – certified flight instructor) instruction cost
  • Supplies + exams (FAA medical, written, and practical exams)

The first two are charged by the hour.  So clearly you’ll want to figure out how to minimize both the hourly rate, and the number of hours required.

Let’s say your goal is to become an airline pilot.  (You can skip anything beyond Private/Instrument in this list if you just want to fly for fun.)  The three big milestones to reach your goal are:

    • Obtain the following FAA certificates/ratings:
        • Private pilot certificate (~40 hrs minimum, though on average closer to 60 hrs)
        • Instrument rating (~50 hrs)
          • Note, there is the possibility of doing a combined private pilot/instrument rating training and checkride; consider this and whether it might help reduce some costs
        • Commercial pilot certificate (you need 250 hours of flight time which includes the time you spent during private/instrument; so at that point it’s more like 100-150 hrs additional)
          • After this point you can get PAID to fly, so you want to get this as quickly as possible.  Possible ways to get paid to fly: as a flight instructor [additional rating required] or some kind of introductory commercial pilot job like cargo, flying skydivers, aerial survey, etc.
        • Multi-engine rating (~5-10 hrs)
      • (Optional) Flight instructor certificate (not much flight training required, but significant ground study)
    • Obtain 1500 hours of total time
      • You obviously want to figure out how to get PAID to accrue these hours as quickly as possible!
  • Obtain at least 25 hours of multi-engine time (While in the past airlines have required much more multi-engine time, today it is possible to get hired at a regional airline with as low as 25 hours.)

These requirements are subject to change, of course, but they may become less restrictive in the coming years as the need for pilots is anticipated to grow.

Aircraft Expenses

Let’s start by talking about the airplane.  Here you  have two main options:

    1. Rent a plane from a flight school
  1. Buy a plane
      • Get a share in a flying club
      • Buy on your own
    • Partnership

Renting is the way that most people go.  However, there is a large range of aircraft rental rates.  You could rent an old Cessna 150 for your private for under $100 per hour, or you could spend $200+ per hour to rent a brand new “glass cockpit” Cirrus equipped with a parachute.

It’s super important (for optimizing cost) that you find a good deal on the plane, but you need to make sure the flight school is reputable and doesn’t skimp on maintenance costs because your life isn’t worth saving a few bucks.

Note that even if you fly a C150, you can still benefit from a lot of the same functionality as you would in a Technically Advanced Aircraft simply by using an iPad/tablet and an ADS-B receiver (there are instructions for making these online for quite cheap!)

Rental costs will also vary with the part of the country, so how flexible are you with your location?  (e.g., San Francisco area vs. podunk Texas)

Does the flight school charge by tach or hobbs time?  For example, at a flight club where I instructed, they charged by a clock in the airplane that estimates time based on the number of revolutions of the engine, as opposed to the actual time you would read off your watch (hobbs time).  This tach time method of calculating flight time saves you about 30% in costs, because when the engine is just idling on the ground, it’s spinning many fewer times, so you accumulate a lot less cost than if ground time were based on tach time.  You’ll usually only find this charging method at flight club type places (see below paragraph).

If you’re okay with taking on more risk, and more headaches, then you could buy a plane and potentially save even more money that way.  Running the numbers is complicated for this, but definitely do not skimp on doing your homework here.

You could find people to partner with and reduce the risk of large maintenance costs eating you alive.  Or even better would be to find a flight club where there are a bunch of people sharing those fixed expenses.

There are so many things to consider here, including inspections, where you’re keeping the plane (fees at the airport like tie downs or hangar), insurance, financing, finding a willing instructor to fly in your plane who is not associated with a flight school/club, the time required to travel around the country (potentially) to find the right plane, costs to get a pre-buy inspection, etc.  But if you’re willing to take on some additional risk to keep costs low, please consider this option.

Airport & Flight School

The airport you fly at is also important.  Imagine if you did training out of a major international airport.  If you’re always 15th in line for takeoff and you have to run the engine for 30 minutes before you can even take off, you’re wasting a ton of money.  Even general aviation airports can have many delays due to the variety of traffic, compared to a small, rural airport.

Also consider, how long does it take to fly from the airport to the “practice area” (where you’ll go practice maneuvers)?  If you have to spend 0.4 hrs getting to the practice area and 0.4 hrs coming back to the airport, that is 0.8 hrs per flight of doing nothing other than straight and level flight – not particularly efficient.

There are part 141 and part 61 flight schools.  Those are different sets of FAA regulations under which a flight school can choose to operate.  You can find lots of info about this online, but the training at a part 141 school is generally more structured (in order to get its part 141 certification), and as such the minimum required flight time is less under part 141 (35 hrs vs. 40 hrs for part 61).  However, most people don’t finish that quickly anyway, so I wouldn’t let 141 vs. 61 play a big role despite what the school may tell you.  The flight instructor him/herself is a much more important factor.

Avoid having long gaps in between lessons.  If you do this, you’re going to have to repeat stuff.  Consider that every tenth of an hour (6 mins, roughly a flight in the traffic pattern) is costing you between $15-20 with an instructor on board.

To this end, ideally you can find a flight school/instructor who will do an accelerated program with you.  For example, flying every day, or multiple times per day.  (Obviously your work or school schedule is going to play a factor in what you can do here, but you can still accomplish a lot on the side if you have a flexible instructor and flight school.)  You’ll find schools like ATP that will do this, but they are often overpriced.  Ideally find an instructor who has experience with accelerated training and is willing to work with you.  You’ll also find many accelerated instrument rating programs which are useful for working professionals who want to knock out their rating in a week.

Consider the weather in the area you’ll be flying.  Doing private pilot training around the Seattle area during the winter can be tough sometimes, given the lack of daylight and bad weather.  This may be a significant hindrance if you’re trying to keep the pace up.

When evaluating a flight school, try to find out how easy or difficult it is to book a plane.  Ask to see their schedule from some prior months – don’t trust their word that “you can book a plane no problem.”  A lot of flight schools around Seattle during the summer can be really difficult for renting aircraft, because everyone is trying to rent a plane at the same time, when the weather is good.  It’s doable, but you really have to plan ahead.

Flight Instructor

Find an excellent flight instructor, one who is efficient with the your time and will plan the content of the lessons ahead of time so you can come prepared.  Super important.  There are a lot of instructors who only want to accrue flight time for their dream airline pilot job, as opposed to best serving the customer, so it’s to their advantage to waste time with your in the air.  Don’t let them do this. 

Of course, you also want an instructor who will challenge you and hold you to high standards, to help you become the safest pilot possible.  Just make sure that you’re on-board with the CFI’s philosophy for how these higher standards might impact your training time.  While in theory it might sound good to have an instructor who will train you to better than commercial-level standards for each private pilot maneuver, if this is going to increase your training time/costs by 15%, is it worth it?  So there is a balanced to be considered.  Think about this, and discuss with your potential instructor candidates.

Get references from past students.

Make sure the flight instructor will have good enough availability to support your desired training schedule from the beginning.

CFI hourly rates will vary in different parts of the country, and with the type of flight school/club.   In the Seattle area right now, the going rate for flight schools is $60-70/hr.  However, at the flight club where I taught, $45-50/hr is more likely.

Be clear about how the instructor will calculate their billable time.  Having been a professional CFI, I do think that CFIs should get paid for the time they spend teaching you (e.g., if you’re spending time debriefing a lesson on the ground, yes they should be charging you for that, since their time is valuable), not just the time when the engine is running in the plane (which is how you pay for the aircraft rental).  But make sure you’re clear on how they’re going to do it, and if you don’t like what you hear, you can interview some other instructors.

Try out a few different instructors to see who you click with at the beginning.  But once you find a good one, try to stick with them because it can create inefficiency when you’re always flying with someone new.  If you do stalls with CFI Alice, but you’re trying to solo with CFI Bob, CFI Bob is going to need to see your stalls again to be sure he knows you can do them before he lets you go on your own.  So you would be doing things twice that way.  However, if you’re having trouble learning a particular maneuver, then don’t be afraid to fly with another instructor to see if they can teach it differently/better.  A good CFI should themselves suggest this very thing if it’s in your best interest; I’ve done this several times with my students.

Ground Training

If you’re self-motivated, do NOT pay a bunch of money for a ground school class, or to have a flight instructor sit down with you for $60 an hour to explain things you could have watched online or read yourself.  There is so much free info out there (e.g., YouTube) and cheap books that it’s really not necessary.  Most people can do this on your own.

Make sure your CFI is on board with that, however, to ensure that they’re not going to try force feeding you info (and correspondingly charging you).  The only general aviation ground instruction I ever took from a CFI, aside from briefings/debriefings, was practicing checkride oral exams.  There’s absolutely nothing wrong with in-person ground instruction or classes, and for some people it these options might be how they learn best, but these are notes about ruthlessly maximizing affordability. 🙂

To get any of the certificates/ratings I listed in the intro, you have to take written, oral, and practical (flying) exams.  You can do the written exams whenever you want.  I’d highly recommend getting the exam done and out of the way before  you start the flying.  That way you’ll have a baseline knowledge of what’s going on.  This will give the CFI more confidence that you have the knowledge you need.  Again, to prep for these exams, there are tons of cheap books (e.g., Gleim books) and free resources.  This is something you can start working towards today.

Also something you can do today – download a flight simulator (FlightGear = free; or for more refined paid options, consider X Plane or Microsoft flight simulator), buy a $20 joystick, and start playing around.  For now, it will just get you familiar with the instruments, but once you’re in the thick of the actual flight training, you can use this to practice normal/emergency procedures, navigation, etc.  Use of a flight sim will be doubly important for instrument training.

One caution – student pilots who use flight simulators heavily tend to focus too much on the instruments instead of outside the window.  Until you reach instrument training, more than 75% of your focus needs to be outside.  So be aware of this, and try to focus outside when using the simulator as well.  

Preparation Techniques

Prepare thoroughly for each lesson.  Study the maneuvers in detail.  Know the standards to which you’ll be tested during your checkrides, and hold yourself to do even better than these standards.

Super important:  “Chair fly” the maneuvers.   This means that you’ll sit down in a chair, close your eyes, and mentally go through each step to perform a particular maneuver.  That way when you’re in the plane, it’s just a matter of getting the feel of manipulating the controls to do what your brain already procedurally “knows” what to do.  This is especially useful for emergency procedures.  You can even get a poster of the cockpit, or just go sit in the airplane when it’s not being used (for free of course), to work on your muscle memory and make sure you have “memory items” memorized.

Learn how to communicate with ATC ahead of time.  Listen to LiveATC.net as much as possible the time, ideally for the airport you will fly from.  If you end up getting a home flight simulator, use VATSIM (free) or PilotEdge (paid) to connect to virtual air traffic controllers who will give you practice with communication in a quite a realistic way.

Ask if you can ride backseat during other students’ lessons to learn from their mistakes.

Get immersed in aviation.  Read pilot web forums and websites like Ask A Flight Instructor to learn from others’ questions and experiences.

When you get to your instrument rating, consider using an aviation training device (aka simulator) for completing some of the simulated instrument flight hours.  These can be way cheaper than flying in the actual plane.

Consider mentally re-flying your flights after you get home, thinking through things you noticed, questions you had, etc.  Even better would be to write these things down in some kind of journal.  This is especially true for solo flights.

To help with this, you could use a GoPro or similar camera to record your lessons.  You can get a cable to be able to record all the intercom / ATC audio.  Even if you don’t do video (to save on the expense of a GoPro), you could record the audio with a cable like this, and replay it on the drive home from the airport to remember all the little things your CFI said.  Of course, make sure the CFI is okay with you recording his lesson.

Use www.cloudahoy.com to record your maneuvers using phone.  They have a free version.  This hasn’t been a super high priority for me, but it can be interesting and useful to see how a maneuver actually went according to the data.

How to pay

See if you qualify for any scholarships.  This guy put together a whole book on different aviation scholarships, though you can likely find plenty of them on your own too.

I won’t tell you whether or not to use financing for your flight training.  It’s something I’m personally glad that I avoided (even though it  made the training go more slowly), but it’s something to think carefully about, especially if there’s you’re not totally sure you want to go “all the way” into an airline pilot career that might be able to eventually pay off the debts.

Do NOT put down a bunch of money with a flight school all at once.  It might make sense in ~$1000 increments if they give you discounts for that, but there are so many sad stories of flight schools going out of business suddenly (I worked at one of these schools) after students put down $20,000 on training, and all that money got lost forever.  In my case, the owner of the school fled to Canada and actually used a credit card I had on file to charge some personal charter flights.  Flight schools are a very difficult business to run.  Some are not very reputable.  Many others are run by well-meaning people who do not have good business or customer service skills.

If you go the flight school/FBO route, you could consider working for them part-time in some capacity such as a fueler.  They may be able to give you discounts on the aircraft rental.

Miscellaneous ideas

Before you start flying, get your aviation medical exam done.  You don’t want to spend a bunch of money, only to find out you have a disqualifying condition.  Do a first class medical exam if the whole point of doing your flight training is to become an airline pilot, since that’s the exam you need to fly for an airline.

After you get your private pilot certificate, and you’re building time for your instrument and commercial, take advantage of the rules which allow you to fly with another rated pilot, where you both log (roughly) the same amount of flight time for a given flight, but you split the cost.  There are a lot of legal gotchas here, so read up on this when you get to that point.  But this can make a big difference…factor of 2 over a set of 100-150 hours.  Learn about the term “safety pilot” and how you can act as one for someone and get to log the time, even though you’re not “flying” the airplane.

Make friends with people who have planes or who fly.  They may want you to go flying with them and they may give you opportunities to take the controls and log flight time.  Get involved with groups on Facebook like Flights Above the Pacific Northwest (see if there is a similar one for your area).

This probably goes without saying, but don’t fail your checkrides.  Hold yourself (and have a CFI who will hold you) to a high standard.  You don’t want failures on your record when you’re applying for airline jobs if you can avoid it.  And the fees for practical exams are very high, possibly $500+ for the examiner to spend a few hours quizzing you and then flying with you for 1.5 hrs.  You don’t want to have to pay that twice.

Civil Air Patrol (CAP) may be a way to get some extra hours, but there will be significant overhead involved (meetings and non-flying activities).

Multi-engine rating flight time can be a relatively large expense given that the hourly rate is so high ($300+/hr).  Consider doing an accelerated program (I did mine here and walked out with a commercial multi-engine rating after only 6-7 hours), then try to find ways to split multi engine flight time with someone.

Getting to your first solo is not something to be rushed, at all…but…consider that the more of your private pilot flight hours you can do solo (without CFI), the lower your total flight instructor costs will be.  If you’re just working on perfecting your steep turns, you already know the criteria and what things you need to work on, there may not be much value in having a CFI ride along for your practice session.  This can be done solo. 

Also note that there is flexibility in how you meet the 40 hour total minimum for your private pilot certificate.  For example,

  1. 10 hours of solo + 30 hours of dual = 40 hours total; or
  2. 15 hours of solo + 25 hours of dual = 40 hours total (at a lower cost due to less flight instructor time)

That having been said, it would be quite unlikely to need less than 30 hours of flight instruction, but take note that in theory it is possible.

Find things in the training footprint that can be combined.  For example, when you’re building time for your instrument rating, you need flight instruction, simulated instrument time, and cross country time.  Try to do all 3 at the same time.

Try to maximize your cross country time.  This will become more meaningful as you look into the detailed requirements for getting your instrument/commercial.  The gist is that for those ratings, a cross country when you’re landing somewhere > 50 miles away from where you departed. So if you have the option to land somewhere 49.9 vs. 50.1 miles away, do the latter.  You’ll thank yourself later.

Pilot Supplies

Be smart about your supplies.  If you go on a website like www.sportys.com you could spend thousands on things you’ll never use.  Sometimes you’ll find people on pilot forums selling all their old flight training stuff at very low cost.  Here are the basics I tell my students to get:

    • charts
        • a lot of people are using iPads now with Foreflight; do you have an iPad?  If not there are cheaper alternatives such as getting a Android tablet and using free software like FlightPlan.com, but know that currently Foreflight (for iPad) is the most popular software
      • regardless, you could always go old fashioned and use simple paper charts.  There is no requirement to have an EFB (electronic flight bag)
    • headset
      • There is a huge cost range here, from $150-$1000+.  A solid starter headset is a David Clark 13.4.  Find a used one, which should cost around $150 or so.  Look on pilot discussion forms like jetcareers.com, pilotsofamerica.com, etc., to find pilots who are selling theirs for cheap, and they’re not out to gouge other pilots.  There are airline pilots who still use their David Clark headsets because they’re so solid.  I personally opted to purchase a headset with active noise reduction (ANR) once I was into my commercial training, because it does make a significant difference in comfort.  However, it’s not necessary from the beginning if you’re trying to save money.
    • a kneeboard, flashlight, plotter, a conventional E6B – all this is pretty cheap, less than $30 probably.  You can consider getting an electronic E6B to help with written exams.
    • flight bag (there’s nothing wrong with just using a cheap backpack; don’t be fooled into thinking that you need 25 different compartments for each accessory)
  • used books (perhaps $100-150)

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