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What It Takes

According to the FAA, at least…

A lot of friends have been asking me about the particulars of flight training, i.e. when/how does one get their license, how much/often do you have to fly, what do you have to do, so I figured it would be easiest to outline the requirements of the Private Pilot Certificate here on the blog. It is officially the Private Pilot Certificate, not License, but most pilots still abbreviate it PPL. Don’t ask me why.

First, a disclaimer. I’m a student pilot and am still learning. Some of the information here may be summarized, shortened, or just plain incorrect. If you need 100% accurate info on ALL of the requirements of the Private Pilot Certificate, ask your flight instructor and read the Federal Aviation Regulations.

Minimum Flight Hours Required: 40

This one actually shocks most of my friends who have heard it. They all think it sounds extremely low. Keep in mind that the national average (in the U.S) to receiving your certificate is 75 hours. Not too many people get it done in 40, and there are plenty of 100+ hour student pilots out there. The hours recorded in my logbook are based on the time on the Hobbs meter in the airplane, which measures the time the engine is actually running. I like to show up a bit early (if the airplane is free before my rental time starts) to do my preflight inspection and set up the cockpit, so that when my instructor arrives we can hop in, start up, and go, not wasting any time on the ground.

However, within the 40 hour minimum requirement, there a number of sub-requirements. Let’s go over a few of those.

Dual/Solo Time
Of the 40 hours, there is some leeway as to how much time is with an instructor and how much is solo practice. But, at least 20 hours of the 40 have to be with an instructor, and at least 10 hours have to be competed solo, with no one else in the airplane. So you can’t do all solo or all dual, but you have the freedom (in consultation with your instructor) to do 30 dual/10 solo or 20 dual/20 solo, etc.

Why Solo?
Well, because you won’t always be flying with an instructor. Your first solo flight is an enormous milestone for most student pilots, signaling an instructor’s faith in both your airplane control and your mastery of airport operations.
Simulated Instrument Flying
3 hours of flight solely by reference to instruments. A private pilot certificate does not allow you to fly in conditions requiring instrument flight (bad weather, clouds, fog, etc.), but this requirement gives you an introduction to basic instrument maneuvers. Essentially, the FAA wants you to be able to fly yourself out of a bad weather in case you accidentally fly into it. A large percentage of general aviation accidents can be attributed to this very situation, which is called VFR-into-IMC – Visual Flight Rules into Instrument Meteorological Conditions. This training is completed in good weather by wearing a goofy thing called a hood, or goofy things called foggles, both of which obstruct your view outside the airplane, but allow you to see the instruments inside the airplane.
Dual Cross-Country Flights (with an instructor)
3 hours of cross-country flight time. A cross-country flight is defined here as a flight during which you navigate (using various techniques) to, and land at, an airport at least 50 miles away. So this flight essentially serves as practice for navigation, communications with Air Traffic Control, and airport operations.
1 cross country flight AT NIGHT of a total distance over 100 miles. Keep the lights on the bottom and the dark area on the top, and you’ll be OK.

Night Flying
3 hours of night flight training with an instructor, to include: a) the night cross-country mentioned above, b) 10 takeoffs and landings.

Solo Cross-Country Flights
5 hours of SOLO cross-country flying, which includes:
1 SOLO cross-country of at least 150 miles total distance with full-stop landings at 3 points along the route, with one segment being at least 50 miles long.

Controlled Field Operations
3 takeoffs and landings (full-stop) at an airport with an operating control tower. Many students do their training at airports that do not have a control tower. This requirement forces them to get some practice working with tower and ground controllers in some of the busier airspaces. Since I fly out of a Class D airport with a tower and ground controller, and fly to Class C airports on the regular, this one will be easy-peasy. One of the (very few) advantages to being a student pilot in the NYC area!

There are all sorts of details and caveats and you-may-not-unless-you-have-alreadys within all of the above requirements, which I won’t detail. If federal regulations are your thing, everything is laid out in the Federal Aviation Regulations (FAR), also known as 14 CFR §61.109. The real key here is, at every step of your training, you may not proceed until your instructor thinks you are ready. The instructor has to endorse your logbook before solo flight, solo cross-country flight, flight into Class B airspace, the knowledge test, and the practical test. Their name and instructor number is on the endorsement, and they do not take that responsibility lightly.

Written Test
Ah, the dreaded knowledge exam. It is exactly what it sounds like, an epic multiple-choice test covering all of the aspects of aviation. Aerodynamics, weather, regulations, airspace, navigation; it is all in there. You can prepare however you want, be it through a formal ground school, a commercial home study course, or by reading the recommended FAA texts. I went the cheapskate route and I’m studying the FAA texts, which are PDFs available for free download. I worked my way through the (enormous) Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge, taking what I hope are sufficient notes, all while bouncing back and forth to the Airplane Flying Handbook, the FARs, and the Aeronautical Information Manual. It’s more dry than one of the commercial courses, but it’s working, I think. Now to schedule that test…

Practical Exam
The final step before you become a private pilot and thus the coolest and most popular person around, is the practical exam, also known as the checkride. At the conclusion of your training, i.e. when your instructor says that you are ready (be that at 40 hours or 400), you schedule a testing date with an FAA Designated Pilot Examiner or Inspector. The examiner will test both your knowledge and skills, asking you questions before and during the flight. You will have to perform a series of maneuvers that prove you can handle the airplane in all regimes of flight and that you are prepared for any emergency that may arise. The examiner even gets to be cheeky and simulate some of those emergencies at any time during your test. You’ll also have to prove you can navigate the airplane through all classes of airspace and airport environments, and that you know how to change your plans on the fly in case of worsening weather or some sort of malfunction.

How Far Along Am I?
Well, farther along than this blog is. I’m catching up with the posts, I promise. But as of this blog post, I have 11.7 hours in my logbook. You can see my progress in all of the other requirements by clicking the “Progress” button at the top of the page! I have not soloed yet, but I think I am close *crossed fingers*. I haven’t yet flown at night, or solely by reference to instruments. We’ve been mostly working on maneuvers, airplane control, and airport/airspace operations. I fly regularly out of a Class D airport (come to think of it, I should do a post on the different classes of airspace, and what pilots encounter in the NYC area), and have flown to a Class C airport (Islip, NY -KISP) and another Class D (Bridgeport, CT – KBDR), but none of those flights counted as cross-countries as the airports aren’t far enough away.  We flew to those airports to practice landings because they are a bit quieter than Republic (KFRG), and so I could learn Class C operations. I’m still working toward learning everything I need to know for the written test. I just need to organize my notes a bit, and start cramming and taking practice tests.

Hope that helped clear things up!


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