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How to Become a Pilot

Many an RC airplane pilot has a desire to learn to fly full-size airplanes. This may be to simply experience private air travel, to fly a restored warplane, to volunteer for search and rescue, or perhaps to work for a commercial venture.

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If you'd like to know how to become a pilot, this page will give you some basic info about lessons, costs and resources to help you get going on your flight training.

1) Basic Requirements

In the U.S., the basic Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requirements for obtaining your pilot's license are these:

a) You need to be at least 17 years of age.
b) You must be able to speak the English language.
c) You must be able to pass a basic medical exam.
d) You must pass a written knowledge test.
e) You must pass a practical (flying) test.

Check with your country's governing aviation body for your specific requirements.

2) Is it Safe?

You probably heard word-of-mouth that flying is much safer than driving. General aviation (non-airliner and non-military) flying has about one-tenth as many accidents as automobiles, on a per-vehicle-mile basis, and the accident rate been dropping for the last 25 years.

There are many reasons for general aviation to be so safe. Training for a pilot's license is much more thorough than it is for a driver's license. Mandatory ground school and flight training, which include written and practical tests, help to develop a standard level of flying skill.

Periodic recurrent training helps to maintain and improve skills.

The most common safety-related question for prospective pilots is: What happens if the engine quits? The plane simply becomes a glider, and a typical trainer airplane can glide as far as 9 miles from an altitude of 6,000 feet above the ground. The pilot can still steer the aircraft (just cannot climb).

Part of your training will be how to react in such a situation, including searching for open fields or other good sites for the rare emergency landing.

Today's training aircraft are well-engineered and built to very exacting government standards. Part of your training will be how to check the aircraft before every flight. This is in addition to annual inspections by an FAA authorized inspector.

New technology (e.g. GPS) makes navigation safer than ever. Developments in radar for tracking weather patterns, as well as radio communications, have also contributed to the great safety record of general aviation.

3) Flight Training

Pilot training consists of both ground and flight training. On the syllabus will be rules and regulations, flight planning, how to navigate, use the radio, and understanding weather. To earn your license (certificate), you must pass the Federal Aviation Administration written exam, as well as the "easy" part -- the flying exam, or check-ride.

Ground school can take several forms. This could be regularly scheduled classes at the same location as your flight instruction. It could also be given through a local community college. There are also dedicated aviation schools and college aviation degree programs, either of which might be well-suited for someone looking to pursue a career as a pilot. Another option is home-study, using videotape / DVD / CD courses, which can be quite convenient for motivated part-time students.

Flight Schools are often found at your local airports. Other options include the dedicated flight schools or degree programs mentioned above. It is critical that before signing up, you visit the facilities. Talk to flight instructors, look at the condition of the airplanes, ask about maintenance procedures. Get a feel for their professionalism and whether or not you will be comfortable taking lessons at that school.

4) Costs

Another common question for soon-to-be pilots is: How much will it cost? That depends on where you are, how often you fly, and the type of license, among other things.

Expect to spend upwards of US$4,500 - $6,000 to obtain a private pilot's certificate.

This estimate is usually based on the required 40 hrs minimum of flight time, however the national average is more like 65 hrs of flight time.

The rental aircraft time is the biggest portion of the cost, being anywhere from $50 to $80 per hour.

The breakdown for minimum cost might look like:

$ 2300 20 hours dual instruction @ $115.00/hr
$ 1600 20 hours solo flight @ $80.00/hr
$ 280 8 hours ground instruction @ $35.00/hr
$ 70 Medical Examination
$ 50 Navigational Materials
$ 250 Pilot Headset
$ 60 Classroom Materials
$ 350 FAA flight exam (check-ride)

Note that if you fly 2-3 times a week instead of 2-3 times a month, you will require fewer hours total as material will stay fresh in your mind. Also, keep the weather in mind. It may make sense to start training in the springtime, as you're more likely to get uninterrupted stretches of good weather.

Another option is the sport pilot's license. This takes an average of 35 hours of flight time, so your cost could be significantly lower. Restrictions include not flying at night, and carrying no more than one passenger.

If the costs seem high, remind yourself that you're learning a life-changing skill, that very few people have. In the long run, the rewards could be enormous.

5) Resources

Here is a good resource to review if you would like to know more about how to become a pilot.

Also see the comprehensive site for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, which includes a learn to fly section.