Learning to fly is cheap. Becoming pilot in command is expensive.
My original title for this post was “Higher Education.” I often get questions from prospective students and occasionally, from their parents, about why they should train with us instead of going to a big-box, “zero-to-hero” pilot school or to an “institution of higher education” that offers flight training under FAR Part 141. Let me start by stating for a fact that the only thing we can’t do that a Part 141 school can do is receive payments from government sponsored student loan programs or the G.I. Bill – not because we don’t want to, but because the Federal government only allows payments to Part 141 schools that are “FAA approved,” as if flight schools that operate under Part 61 are not already abiding by strict FAA regulations, and their students are not subject to the same Airman Certification Standards as students who train under Part 141.
We are not a Part 141 school and have no intention of ever participating in this program. As the daughter of a U.S. Air Force veteran, who has many dear friends who are also veterans, I find it appalling that the Federal government imposes such unnecessarily strict rules on where veterans can use their hard earned benefits. If you served our country with honor, you should be able to use your benefits any way you damn well please. To add insult to injury, there is currently a bill in the U.S. House of Representatives that proposes to increase Federal loan limits to students who train at Part 141 flight schools, while expressly excluding “a flight education and training program certified under part 61 of title 14, Code of Federal Regulations, or any successor regulation.” It’s also supposed to make the pilot population “more diverse,” whatever that currently means, and as if most passengers really give a flying fig who is sitting up front in the cockpit. (I’m actually shocked the FAA still recognizes this word, what with the recent name change of “Notices To Airmen” to “Notices to Air Missions.”)
Anyway, for my original article on “Higher Education,” I had also gathered a bunch of screenshots from various other aviation schools’ websites showing six figure tuition estimates for four year degrees or “fast track” programs that promise to magic you from your current situation into the left seat of a jet in about 18 months. I also included screenshots showing how many of these “accredited schools” continue to this day to promote various idiotic health protocols including masking and experimental injections for staff and students.
But I don’t think many of the people who are dreaming of accumulating stacks of epaulets on their shoulders and piles of money into their bank accounts really care about that anymore. Many of them seem willing to put up with just about anything to get themselves or their child into an airliner as fast as possible because, you know, the news says there’s a pilot shortage and the person who claims to be Joe Biden has declared that “the pandemic is over” and life is all rainbows and sunshine now. As a bonus, many of these students think they can get free money from the government to pay for it all. Who can blame them?
With all of that said, we have worked with several very good, hard working, well intentioned pilots who simply could not afford to pay out of pocket for flight training, who were able to secure a government loan to train with a big box school. While there are private loans available for students who want to finance their training with us, we can’t compete with government loans or handouts. Everybody’s gotta do what they gotta do, I guess.
What most prospective pilots really need isn’t another lecture about the ineptitude and hypocrisy of the American so-called educational system or the evils of the Federal government. What they need is a reality check, and the cold hard truth about what it takes to be a confident, safe pilot. Unfortunately, it’s not what most people want to hear.
Truth #1: Learning To Fly Is Cheap, Becoming PIC Is Expensive
Learning how to fly an airplane like one of our single engine Cessnas isn’t that hard or expensive. I can teach almost anybody how to preflight the airplane, start the engine, call the tower, taxi to the runway, take off, climb, level off, and navigate to another airport using a GPS in about an hour or two. In another few hours, I can teach that same person how to land without killing themselves or doing too much damage to the airplane. That is, of course, assuming the weather is perfect (which it almost never is) and that everything goes according to plan (which it almost never does). And that’s where the expensive part starts.
It’s one thing to learn how to fly, but it’s quite another to learn how to serve as pilot in command (PIC) of an airplane. What does it mean to be PIC?
According to the FAA, the pilot in command is the person who “has final authority and responsibility for the operation and safety of the flight.” It simply is not possible for someone with no aviation experience to be qualified to act as PIC of even the simplest airplane after only a few hours of training, even if that training is delivered by the most experienced and talented flight instructor on the planet. It only takes one error in judgment, a momentary lapse of attention, or a mishandled mechanical malfunction to lead an inexperienced pilot down the path to disaster. The NTSB accident rolls are filled with accounts of inexperienced pilots who crashed their airplanes because they were not prepared to act as pilot in command.
This is precisely why we have incorporated our Advanced Qualification Program For General Aviation (AQP4GA) protocols into each of our flight training programs, including student pilots. Our AQP4GA protocols require student pilots to demonstrate competency in anticipating and handling various abnormal and emergency scenarios, including loss of thrust on takeoff. The Private Pilot Airman Certification Standards evaluates a pilot’s ability to perform maneuvers, but it does not provide the examiner with any meaningful mechanism to evaluate a pilot’s ability to land that Cessna 172 safely if, say, an exhaust valve sticks and the engine quits. That actually happened to me on one of my very first flights with a student as a newly minted CFI with about 400 hours in my logbook, and I’m here to talk about it because my mentors trained me using AQP protocols before I ever really knew what they were.
Remember: The airplane doesn’t care who is sitting in the left seat. If the engine decides to quit at low altitude, or if there’s a fire, or any other life threatening emergency, whoever is flying it has to land it and walk away. Gravity wins every time. See my previous post, Pilot-In-Command-Ness.
Truth #2: Most People Need More Than 40 Hours To Earn A Private Pilot Certificate
According to the FAA, the average total flight time for private pilot applicants is 75 hours, more than double the minimum requirement under Part 61 or Part 141. I did an audit of our student records over the last 5 years, and discovered that our students are completing their private pilot training with somewhere between 70-90 hours total time. But total time is not necessarily a reflection of their abilities. For example, today we had an exceptionally good student earn his private pilot certificate with just under 100 hours of total flight time. The examiner said “he’s the new standard” for excellence, which was quite a compliment both to the student and to our flight school. Why did he have so many hours? He took the time and the care to get really good at it, and he flew solo often to stay proficient. That cost him extra time and money, but look at the end result. He is an extremely safe and competent private pilot who now gets the privilege of taking his family and friends flying.
So, how much experience is required to earn a private pilot certificate? How many hours of flight training? How many hours of home study? Many people ask me this question and the best answer I can give is this: When you are ready to accept full responsibility for the safe outcome of the flight, you are ready to be PIC. That means just you and the airplane, with no instructor telling you what to do, reminding you to use your checklist, helping you communicate with other pilots or ATC, or grabbing the controls to save your ass from a hard landing or a botched go around.
How many hours will that take? How much will that cost? Here’s the part that most people don’t want to hear: It depends almost entirely on you, the student. When I first started flight training in August 2001, at the age of 29, I had been in and around small airplanes since I was a young girl. I already knew how to talk on the radio and check the weather. I felt comfortable flying and thought I would breeze through my training. This was in suburban Washington, D.C., and a few weeks after my first lesson, 9/11 happened and flying came to a screeching halt. Instead of learning to enjoy my new hobby, I was stressed out all the time worrying about busting the newly restricted airspace. I became a nervous pilot. There were often long and costly delays getting airborne due to the new flight restrictions. When I wasn’t stressed out in the airplane, I was stressed out about my then failing marriage. I was working full-time during the week and flying on the weekends. I paid for every hour of my flight training out of my own pocket. By the time all was said and done, it took me nearly eight months and about 35 hours to solo, and a total of about 18 months and 110 hours to earn my private pilot certificate in a Cessna 152 on February 6, 2003. I was in a flying club at the time, and was paying about $70/hour for the airplane plus about $30/hour for my instructor, so I estimate that I spent a total of about $12,000 to earn my private pilot certificate. If I was a customer at my own flight school today, flying a Cessna 150 or 152, I would have spent about $20,000.
I was, in retrospect, a fairly typical flight student even by today’s standards. Twenty years later, as a flight instructor and flight school owner with more than 5,800 flight hours in my log book, I can honestly say that I truly empathize with many of my students today. Most of our students are earning their private pilot certificates in about 70 hours, which is on par with the national average. But considering that Craig Airport is the second busiest Class D airport in the state, with more than 500 flight operations every day, I’d say our students are doing pretty well, all things considered. Now we also have the Mayport TFR to deal with. In many ways, it’s starting to feel like the D.C. SFRA.
It was busy, complicated airspace and you had to be on your game, and Jacksonville is similar in many ways now. My students in the D.C. area had to be extremely competent with navigation and ATC communications before we could let them make their first solo. It was almost unheard of to solo a student with much less than 20 hours of flight time there, and the same is true for our students here at Craig today for many of the same reasons.
With all of that said, students need to really own their training. Many students today seem reluctant or unable to take responsibility for their own progress. I think some of that is due to our failed educational system and the culture of entitlement in which many of them were raised. They blame the traffic, they blame the weather, and a million other things when really they are in control of their program.
It amazes me how few students take me up on my repeated offers to email me questions they encounter in their home study. When I was a student pilot, I was constantly emailing questions to my CFI, Rob, when I was training, and to this day I am thankful for his kindness in responding. Now, as the owner of a flight school, I try to pay it forward and go the extra mile for our customers. About once a month I’ll offer a free seminar on a popular topic, but rarely do more than a few people show up. Last Saturday I only had one show up. I’m always encouraging students to come to the hangar and just spend time sitting in the airplane like I did when I was training, but I rarely see anyone doing this. Why not? Are they too busy? Do they not see the value? It reminds me of the old adage, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.
A flight instructor’s job is complex, with many overlapping responsibilities. Much like physical therapists or personal trainers, we work in close physical contact with our students and get to know them personally. My job requires me to be clean, neat, professional, kind, and respectful. I must possess a high level of technical knowledge and the ability to articulate this knowledge clearly and effectively to my students. I also must possess a high level of technical skill and the ability to maintain control of the airplane while allowing you, the student, to make mistakes. We often joke that a flight instructor’s job is to “save lives on short final.”
It IS my job to:
- Demonstrate how various maneuvers, skills and techniques are performed, and to verbally coach you while you practice them in the airplane. I am here to show you through my example how the airplane should be flown and to share with you the resources you will need to learn to be the master of it.
- Provide you with a safe, professional and pleasant environment in which you can develop the confidence to act as pilot in command.
- Make sure you are making sound decisions and performing to certain standards.
- Evaluate whether you are capable of not killing yourself or anyone else up there.
- Be kind, respectful and patient while you learn.
- Give you an honest, unbiased, professional assessment of your abilities.
It IS NOT my job to:
- Remind you to take notes.
- Remind you to show up on time to your lesson.
- Inflate your ego by telling you that you’re doing great when you are not.
It IS YOUR job to:
- Come to the airport mentally and physically ready to learn.
- Do your homework.
- Take responsibility for your progress.
- Take responsibility for your decisions.
- Take responsibility for your actions and behavior.
- Admit your mistakes, learn from them, and move forward.
- Motivate yourself to be the best pilot you can be.
You cannot expect to learn how to fly through osmosis. Showing up is not good enough. There are no participation awards in flying. Gravity wins every time and you have to respect that.
One of my dearest friends and most respected aviation mentors, Bob, who has since retired as an FAA designated pilot examiner, once told me something he often had to tell applicants who came to him with urgent deadlines. He would remind them that “poor planning on your part does not create an emergency on my part.” It’s so true. Deadline training never, ever works. I don’t care if your child has been accepted at a “prestigious aviation university” and wants to get his private pilot certificate this summer. I cannot guarantee that anyone will complete training or earn a certificate in any amount of time, because there are so many unknowns and factors out of my control including:
- The student’s general cognitive ability.
- The student’s general aptitude for hand-eye coordination.
- The student’s obligations outside of flight school, including work and family.
- The student’s personal life.
- The student’s financial situation and ability to pay for lessons.
- The student’s ability to self motivate and complete assignments at home.
- The weather.
- The volume of traffic at Craig Airport, which seems to be increasing exponentially.
- The availability of an FAA Designated Pilot Examiner to conduct the practical test at the end of the training program.
The last one is often overlooked. We do not endorse students to schedule a practical test with a DPE until their training is completed and we are confident they are able to pass. However, due to the high volume of flight training right now and a shortage of qualified examiners, students often have to wait several weeks or more to actually take the test after receiving our endorsement. That means they must spend more time and money flying and studying and staying proficient in the gap.
Dana and I have been teaching people how to fly for more than 20 years. We always tell new students that they need three things to succeed in this endeavor: time, desire and money. We can’t provide any of these things, and if they can’t provide all three, they are guaranteed to fail.
People need to view flying as a lifestyle, not as a means to an end. Just like boating or golfing, flying requires a certain level of commitment to get and stay good at it. But unlike many other sports or recreational activities, there is a severe price to pay for “cheaping out” on flight training. How much is your life worth?
Truth #3: Students who train at a Part 141 school do not necessarily earn their certificates and ratings in less time, spend less money, or get higher quality training than students who train at a Part 61 school.
In today’s world, where “misinformation” is the hot buzzword, it might not surprise you to learn that some flight schools are guilty of spreading misinformation, and spreading it on thick, when communicating the alleged benefits of training at a Part 141 flight school versus training at a Part 61 flight school. Some of these flight schools sell themselves as being superior to Part 61 programs because, they say, Part 141 schools are structured and organized due to strict FAA oversight, whereas flight schools that operate under Part 61 are unstructured and unorganized due to a lack of FAA oversight.
This is patently false. The quality of any flight school’s work product – the pilots it produces – is determined by how well the school is managed and run, and by the quality of training they provide, not by the FAA rules under which they operate. According to the 141 rules (Subpart C), a “training course outline and curriculum” must be approved by the FAA. FAR 141.55 outlines the requirements for the contents of an approved training course. There is no similar requirement under Part 61, however FAR 61.105 states that an applicant for a private pilot certificate “must receive and log ground training from an authorized instructor or complete a home-study course” on all of the same aeronautical knowledge areas that are required under Part 141, Appendix B. Furthermore, FAR 141.67 states that “tests given by a pilot school that holds examining authority must be approved by the Administrator and be at least equal in scope, depth, and difficulty to the comparable knowledge and practical tests prescribed by the Administrator under part 61 of this chapter.” In short, students who train under Part 141 are supposed to be evaluated exactly the same as students who train under Part 61. FAA pilot certificates do not specify whether the holder trained under Part 61 or 141.
At Holladay Aviation, we train under Part 61 and use a very structured, detailed syllabus that goes above and beyond what the FAA requires under Part 61 or 141. Our Advanced Qualification Program For General Aviation Handbook describes our approach to flight training and flight safety, based on our extensive research and decades of experience.
While it is theoretically possible for a Part 141 student to earn a private pilot certificate in 35 hours instead of 40 hours, the reality is that many students who train under Part 141 are not ready for a stage check or end of course evaluation (the 141 substitute for a FAA practical test) when they have completed the minimum training requirements. I recently prepared a spreadsheet comparing the minimum requirements and estimated costs to earn a commercial pilot certificate with us under Part 61, and how much it would cost if we offered the same training following Part 141 rules, assuming we charged the same hourly rate for flight and ground instruction. In this scenario, it would cost about $14,000 less to earn the commercial certificate under Part 141.
But here’s the reality check, and it’s a big one. You can’t do much with just a commercial pilot certificate, and any wannabe airline pilot knows that you have to pay your dues as CFI to earn the 1,000-plus hours you’ll need to qualify for an airline job. But under Part 141, you can’t even start working on your CFI until you have your commercial ticket in hand, and after that, you have to log an additional 40 hours of instruction before you can qualify for the CFI practical test. There goes the $14,000 you saved getting your commercial under Part 141!