So You Want to Be a Pilot?
There’s a relatively common joke in aviation … “How do you know if someone is a pilot? They’ll tell you.” As a private pilot, I can attest to the truth in this statement. Being a pilot is something I’m proud of, and for many, carries some romance.
When I was young, I was the kid who stopped whatever they were doing to watch the airplane fly overhead. Thankfully, my attention span developed as I grew older, but I still take a keen interest in whatever is crossing the sky above me when I’m out for a walk. The general fascination with the look of the plane cutting through the air or the sound of the engine is often the tip of the iceberg — there is so much more to the fascination with flying.
“What I love so much about flying is that it puts you in the present. You’re not thinking about paying your bills. You’re not thinking about what’s going on elsewhere. You’re elevated above all the problems on Earth. Right now. Right here. And you’re living there the whole time you’re flying,” Sean D. Tucker, a famous airshow pilot, once said.
After I stumbled across this quote, I reflected about how anytime I felt the desire to unplug from the pressures of work or the negativity in the news, flying has been there for me. It’s a hobby that requires me to be fully present to stay safe and helps me eliminate all other distractions. I think that is a feeling many people long for in our busy, connected, overstimulated society. Flying isn’t relaxing per se, but it’s a healthy stimulation that has many rewards. I’ve taken in some beautiful scenery from a few thousand feet above the ground and gone a few places I otherwise wouldn’t have gone if it wasn’t for an airplane.
Yes, flying can be hazardous, yet it’s remarkably rewarding and satisfying on a number of fronts. It can be enjoyed as a hobby, to enhance your productivity, or to add convenience and utility to your lifestyle. While thrilling, flying is an interest that requires time, ongoing commitment, attention to detail — and a substantial amount of money. A pilot requires a strength of heart in many areas.
While I can wax on about the joys of flying, as a financial advisor, I also help clients prepare for and manage the expenses so it can fit into their wealth plan. If you’re interested in learning to fly, here are some key questions to ask yourself.
Key financial considerations about learning to fly
- What type of flying do you want to do?
- The $100 hamburger
- Charitable missions
- Family trips/travel adventures
Flying absolutely allows a “higher” (can’t help the pun) level of freedom. No longer are you limited to restaurants within a few hours’ drive from home. You can go on a trip spanning several hundred miles on a whim. It could allow you to easily commute to different offices that would normally require the hassle and indignity of commercial flights. It can also help fulfill other passions — for example, I work with clients who enjoy helping communities that struggle with poverty or a natural disaster by flying in much needed supplies, transporting patients to hospitals and clinics to receive medical treatment, or inspiring the love of flying in future generations by volunteering to give kids their first airplane ride.
As you consider the commitment of earning that pilot’s license, think about how you would use this special skill — as a hobby, for business or more.
- What kind of aircraft interests you?
- Certificated vs. homebuilt aircraft (kit planes)
- Single engine
Once you’ve identified your ideal or typical flying profile, you’ll want to consider what aircraft fits the mission. Building hours in search of the best $100 hamburger and enjoying scenic cross-country flying can easily be accomplished in basic single-engine airplanes. However, maybe you’ve always had a keen interest in helicopters. Perhaps you have a place on a lake that you’d like to fly to and tie up your seaplane on the pier. Maybe covering more ground at a faster pace is necessary to enhance your business productivity, so a turboprop or jet is an intriguing option to explore.
Regardless of what aircraft interests you, knowing the best airplane for your mission is critical to understanding and committing to the proper level of flight training that will be required to ensure you remain safe and proficient. Perhaps you (and your instructor) will feel comfortable taking a Cessna 172 up the coast to an airport diner with fewer than 50 hours of flight training. Alternatively, if your goal is to take the turbocharged TBM 900 on a 2,000 mile, one-way business trip through uncertain weather conditions, that will require time and ongoing training to gain the required experience, ratings and proficiency. Obviously, the cost of 50 hours of training in a small single-engine airplane is very different from obtaining multiple ratings and building hours in a larger, more complex aircraft.
- Should you rent, join a flying club or buy an aircraft?
- Rent first
- Consider joining a club
- Buy an airplane
Flying is an expensive pursuit. When you’re just getting off the ground, I recommend renting planes. You’ll avoid all the ongoing costs such as storing, maintaining, fueling and insuring your craft. It almost goes without saying that you should research and work with a reputable operator so you’re confident that the planes are well-maintained and safe.
If you find yourself flying often, consider joining a club. Flying clubs often maintain one or more aircraft and limit their membership to ensure club members have reasonable access. You can research flying clubs and even find some in your area by checking out AOPA Foundation’s You Can Fly website. If you fly very often, particularly for business, then you might consider purchasing your own plane. But be sure to speak with a wealth manager first to be sure you understand how an aircraft purchase and the ongoing costs fit into your long-term planning.
- Costs associated with learning how to fly
- Study materials
- Do not skimp when it comes to safety
The FAA requires a minimum number of flight hours to earn a Private Pilot certificate. Depending on the type of flight school (Part 61 or Part 141), you could earn the rating in as little as 35 or 40 hours of training. However, most pilots take at least 65 or 70 hours. Training costs can vary greatly depending on the type of airplane you learn in, where the flight school is located, how quickly you become proficient, testing fees, medical exams, etc. In general, you should expect to spend at least $10,000 to earn your Private Pilot certificate, but the range can be somewhat wide.
If you’re looking to manage the cost of your training and become a safe and proficient pilot as efficiently as possible, I would recommend making sure you have the financial resources to cover the entire cost of your training before you start, then schedule regular lessons between one and three times per week. Be prepared when you arrive at the airplane by allowing time to study between lessons. Consistency is key in getting the most out of your training, regardless of your budget or the rating you may be pursuing.
After you earn your initial rating (whether it be Private, Recreational or Sport Pilot), you can learn more about all of the other available ratings and endorsements available to make your flying more productive, enjoyable and safe. You can learn to fly gliders, drones, seaplanes or lighter-than-air crafts like balloons. An instrument rating allows you to fly in a wider range of weather conditions. A commercial rating would allow you to earn compensation for putting your pilot skills to work. With a Certified Flight Instructor (CFI) rating, you could teach others how to fly. A tailwheel endorsement allows you to fly a conventional gear airplane … and so on.
Helpful resources to get you in the air
To see the joys of flying firsthand, I encourage you to watch “One Six Right,” which is a beautiful documentary about airplanes and aviators discussing their passion for flight. If you watch the film and get excited about giving piloting a try, then perhaps your next step is to head out to the local airport and schedule an introductory flight.
There are so many things you can do with a passion for flying. With all the different types of ratings, aircraft and evolving technology in aviation, how your personal journey with flying will evolve is truly up to you.
As you explore, here are some other resources to help you decide whether getting a pilot’s license is right for you and to enhance your aviation experience.
- Sporty’s Pilot Shop — This organization’s training videos are narrated by Rob Reider, a famous airshow announcer.
- Savvy Aviation — Tremendous resource for people who want to own an airplane and keep it properly maintained.
- Experimental Aircraft Association — Long-standing aviation organization in Oshkosh, Wisc., that advocates for general and experimental aviation and is home to the world’s largest airshow, AirVenture.
- Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association — Another amazing aviation association advocating for general aviation. I actually received a scholarship from AOPA to complete my primary flight training several years ago.
- Pilot Institute — Has a comprehensive list of ratings and endorsements.
- The Finer Points — A San Francisco Bay Area flight academy led by flight instructor, Jason Miller, who is extremely focused on safety and pilot proficiency. Check out his podcasts and videos.
I hope to see you at the airport! And as the old pilot saying goes, “Keep the blue side up.” You’ll learn what that means the first time you sit in the left seat.