Student pilots have lots of options today when choosing resources and materials to supplement their aviation education. For quite some time, we’ve recommended the Sporty’s suite of online courses because we found them to be the best overall in terms of presentation and value. However, we felt we owed it to our customers to conduct an extremely detailed audit of the Learn To Fly online course. Here is our review. Please note that we viewed the entire course, but only made notes or comments where we found the material to differ substantially from our own syllabus and instructional practices.

Volume 1: Your First Few Hours

Video 1: Intro / The Flight

The narrator says that it’s possible to earn your pilot certificate in as little as two weeks. This is extremely unrealistic in our experience. Most working adults are able to earn a private pilot certificate in about 6-12 months if they train once or twice a week. It is important for students to maintain a healthy work-life balance which includes their flight training program. Besides, learning to fly is supposed to be fun and if you push yourself too hard, it starts to feel like work.

Video 2: When Should You Fly?

During your training, your instructors will help you learn to make confident, safe decisions regarding weather. The video states that “in the early stages of your training, brisk winds may be a good reason for postponing a lesson.” We wish the narrator would have expanded on this statement, because this is not always the case. At Holladay Aviation, we fly as long as the weather conditions will allow for the lesson to be both safe and productive. Making this determination involves evaluating not just the weather conditions but where the student is on the syllabus and what his or her level of comfort and proficiency is at that time. For example, if the surface winds are gusting over 20 knots, it might not be a good time to introduce takeoffs and landings. However, it might be an excellent day for ground reference maneuvers, simulated instrument flight, or slow flight and stalls. If the student is already proficient at normal takeoffs and landings but needs work on crosswind takeoffs and landings, it might be a great day to show the student how to handle stronger winds and gain confidence. Instead of canceling or postponing the lesson, we will modify the lesson plan to make the most productive use of our time together given the weather conditions we are presented with.

Please refer to the Cancellation Policy on our website.

Video 6: Introduction To The Cockpit, and Video 7: Cockpit Variations

As you progress through the Sporty’s course, please remember that the lessons primarily reference a fuel injected Cessna 172. Some variations you will notice in our fleet include:

  • The VFR airplanes (currently N60254, N3370V and N152SJ) each use engine driven vacuum pumps to power gyroscopic flight instruments, whereas the IFR airplanes (currently N65842, N99725 and N739ZW) each feature electrically driven flight instruments (Garmin G5).
  • Our aircraft do not have fuel flow or EGT gauges.
  • N60254, the oldest aircraft in the fleet, uses fuses and circuit breakers. Its master switch is not split into an ALT and BAT function as in the other aircraft. It also has an airspeed indicator (and POH) calibrated in statute MPH vs. knots.
  • The Cessna 150s and 152s have a fuel shutoff valve on the floor with an ON or OFF position, whereas the Cessna 172s have a fuel selector valve with Left, Right and OFF positions. The Cessna 172s do not have a separate fuel shutoff valve as indicated in the videos.

Video 10: Propeller, Fuel and Electrical System

Fuel injection systems are discussed here. Our entire fleet is carbureted. 

The video refers to an aircraft with a 24V battery with a 28V/60amp alternator. Our Cessna 152s and 172s use this system design. However, the Cessna 150s use a 12V battery with a 14V/60amp alternator.

Video 13: Preflight

When you first approach the airplane for your preflight, make sure everything looks as it should if it were shut down and secured correctly: master switch and ignition off, mixture idle cutoff, flaps up, etc. If you find something amiss, you should ask yourself: Did the previous pilot begin the preflight and discover a problem that caused him or her to cancel the flight? Did the previous pilot shut down the aircraft incorrectly? This would warrant a phone call to us to get more information before continuing.

Video 17: Taxi, Run-up, Traffic Pattern

The narrator states, “Once you’re in the runup area, position the airplane so it’s pointed into the wind.” This is not always necessary or prudent based on the flow of traffic into and out of the runup area. The door should be closed but windows can remain open during runup (especially when it’s hot outside). 

“The electrical system is checked by placing an additional load on the system, like turning on a landing light.” We accomplish this same goal by starting on the BAT and then turning on the ALT. The Cessna 172P Information manual does not recommend either procedure; it simply states to start the engine with the master switch on, and then during the runup, to “check” the ammeter but it does not state how one should do that.

Video 19: Takeoff

“As the airplane accelerates to takeoff speed, ease back on the control wheel just enough to let the airplane fly itself off the runway.” You will often hear us refer to this as the “baby wheelie.” Rather than looking for some “rotation speed” before “rotating” (the Cessna 172P Information Manual recommends “lifting the nose wheel” at 55 knots indicated airspeed) consider going onto the runway with the yoke already slightly back and continuing to maintain that back pressure until the airplane lifts off without much effort. 

I was surprised that they did not mention a pre-takeoff emergency brief: engine failure on the takeoff roll, immediately after takeoff.

Volume 2: Practicing Landings

Video 2: Taxi Tips

The narrator recommends using the parking brake when stopped. We do not typically do this because students tend to rely on the parking brake and get lazy holding the actual brakes. Plus, improper manipulation of the brake handle can result in damage to the line, or inadvertent brake application during takeoff and landing. We recommend simply holding the brake pedals firmly.

According to our mechanic: “People are more than welcome to use the parking brake. Depress the brake pedals, and while holding pull the lever out then turn it right. The only downside is someone forgetting the parking brake is engaged and attempting to move/takeoff with it on. While it seems pretty obvious to not do that I’ve seen it happen a lot.”

The narrator makes a brief mention of emergency procedures. “Finally, think ahead to the takeoff and flight anticipating what could go wrong and what your first reactions may be. Discuss your objectives with your instructor and begin mentally rehearsing them.”

Video 3: Engines

None of our aircraft have multi-probe EGT gauges to assist with leaning. So, the “old school” way to achieve approximately 50 degrees rich of peak EGT in cruise is to lean until the engine RPM begins to decrease, then enrichen it a few turns until it returns to the original RPM setting selected. This is referenced at approximately 4:00 in the video. Spark plug fouling is also addressed. 

Video 9: Stalls

The narrator recommends making “two, 90-degree clearing turns” before initiating a stall and recovery. The FAA does not specify how a clearing turn is to be performed. However, this article makes a good point for making your first clearing turn 90 degrees to the left: “Overtaking aircraft that are behind you are supposed to pass on your right side. If you blindly enter a turn to the right, you may cut off an airplane trying to pass on that side.” 

Regarding the power on stall: The video makes a distinction between a stall that occurs right after liftoff and a stall that occurs during the climbout. The Private Pilot ACS states:

  • Establish the takeoff, departure, or cruise configuration, as specified by the evaluator, and maintain coordinated flight throughout the maneuver. 
  • Set power (as assigned by the evaluator) to no less than 65 percent power. 
  • Transition smoothly from the takeoff or departure attitude to the pitch attitude that will induce a stall. 

In our experience, examiners simply ask for a “power on stall” without making any distinction between “takeoff” or “departure” configuration.

“Accelerated stalls” are not listed in the ACS as a required maneuver, however it is important to understand this concept. 

Video 11: Normal Landings

The narrator begins this video by stating that when approaching a non-towered airport, you should, approximately 10 miles out, “announce your plan to land, and request an airport advisory.” FAA AC 90-66B, Non-Towered Airport Flight Operations, states: ‘Pilots are reminded that the use of the phrase, “ANY TRAFFIC IN THE AREA, PLEASE ADVISE,’ is not a recognized self-announce position and/or intention phrase and should not be used under any condition. Any traffic that is present at the time of your self-announcement that is capable of radio communications should reply without being prompted to do so.”

AC 90-66B:

However, later on in Video 14, Nontowered Airport Communications, the narrator cautions against using the phrase “Any traffic in the area please advise.” We think what the narrator may have originally intended to say in Video 11 was to suggest that pilots try calling the UNICOM frequency at an airport, if available, for an advisory, not CTAF. Regardless, remember that radio communications are NOT REQUIRED at nontowered airports and there may be other aircraft in the area that are either not equipped with radios, or whose pilots are simply not making radio calls. As me and Dana like to say, the only thing you know for sure about chatter on CTAF is that the other people are transmitting on the same frequency!

The narrator also addresses non-towered airport traffic pattern entry procedures. Again, let’s refer to AC 90-66B. The narrator suggests that when approaching the airport from the opposite side of the field from the intended traffic pattern that one should enter 45 degrees to the upwind leg. In this situation, the AC recommends crossing midfield at pattern altitude to join the downwind. The AC does not specifically recommend the 45-to-the-upwind entry as noted in the video, but does state “The pilot may use discretion to choose an alternate type of entry, especially when intending to cross over midfield, based upon the traffic and communication at the time of arrival.” 

When discussing the after landing checklist, the narrator states that the mixture should be leaned for taxi “if the field altitude is high enough.” We recommend leaning for taxi even here at sea level. According to our mechanic: “Leaning during taxi is definitely recommended. It reduces plug fouling pretty significantly. The only downside is there’s a very small chance that someone takes off with the mixture leaned, but if they follow the run up checklist that shouldn’t happen.”

Our mechanic has recommended that we adopt the Sporty’s recommended practice of doing an ignition check before shutdown, to give an early indication of a potential bad runup during the next flight. He suggests doing the check at approximately 1000 RPM right before pulling the mixture to idle cutoff for shutdown.

Finally, at the very end of the video, the narrator suggests turning the fuel selector in a Cessna 172 to the Left or Right position “to prevent cross-feeding.” The Cessna 172P POH is moot on the subject. According to our mechanic: “In my opinion, cross feeding isn’t much of a factor for us as we typically have the tanks always full. Also if there is room for the tanks to cross-feed all it will do is level the tanks off to an equal amount then stop. I wouldn’t be too concerned with moving the selector after shutdown.”

Video 15: Wake Turbulence

The video doesn’t mention helicopters, which can present a hazard at CRG. Please see AC 90-23G: Aircraft Wake Turbulence:

“Pilots should avoid taxiing or flying within a distance of three rotor diameters of a helicopter hovering or in a slow hover taxi, as the downwash can contain high wind speeds. However, in forward flight, this energy is transformed into a pair of strong, high-speed, trailing vortices similar to wing-tip vortices of larger fixed-wing aircraft. Pilots should avoid helicopter vortices since helicopter forward flight airspeeds are often very low, which generate strong wake turbulence.”

Volume 3: Your First Solo

Video 5: Emergencies

“The impossible turn” back to the runway after takeoff is not so impossible with proper training. Our instructor team has demonstrated that a turn back to the airport can safely be accomplished at 500’ AGL in any of our Cessna aircraft. But accomplishing this maneuver safely and successfully requires decisive action and positive control of pitch and bank inputs to avoid a stall-spin scenario. We have a video on our YouTube channel that illustrates this.

Setup for emergency landing pattern: The video recommends establishing on the downwind leg to the landing site at pattern altitude. We recommend getting to the departure end of the runway at 1500’ and then joining the downwind. In either case, consider your emergency landing site as a runway and do your best to fly what appears to be a normal traffic pattern. We have a video on our YouTube channel that illustrates this.

The narrator says “forced landings should not be practiced solo.” We think running through the scenario solo is safe and a good idea as long as you commit to going around (aborting the simulation) no lower than 1000’ AGL. You should feel comfortable practicing “simulated engine outs” or approaches at idle power in the traffic pattern at an airport.

Video 9: Thunderstorms and Flight Service Stations

When calling 800-WX-BRIEF to reach a FAA Flight Service specialist (otherwise known as a briefer), the telephone menu prompts are a bit different than indicated in the video due to a recent change. When you call you will hear:

Welcome to Leidos Flight Service

If you have an in-flight emergency, press 9.

(It will attempt to look up your account by your cell number.)

Press 1 or say Briefer.

Say the state you are calling from.

If you have multiple accounts associated with your phone number, and need to delete the ones you are not using to bypass the menu system, call the Leidos national support center hotline at 877-377-3721.

The video also mentions TIBS, which is no longer offered by Flight Service.

The video only makes very brief mention of ForeFlight. This is what most of us use now! However, subsequent videos include more screenshots and discussion of ForeFlight.

Video 11: Weather Radar, METAR and TAF

This video is much longer than it needs to be. Too much time is spent discussing antiquated weather products, such as black and white weather depiction charts. Recall that much of this construct dates back to before the internet, ADS-B and ForeFlight. For example, the “rain began and ended” information in a METAR is useless old news if you are looking at animated radar on your phone. Pilots are not expected to know how to convert hectopascals to millibars to determine sea level pressure! The narrator’s description of weather radar is very insightful, though. (The narrator in this video is a meteorologist.)

Video 12: Graphical Forecast for Aviation

The GFA is a product available on NOAA’s Aviation Weather Center website. It is great information, however, the information contained in the GFA is also included in every standard briefing you receive from or ForeFlight. Remember that a briefing includes NOTAMs as well as weather reports and forecasts. The narrator (meteorologist) goes into way too much detail here for a student pilot. 

Another thing I’m realizing I don’t like about the Sporty’s course is that information about weather products and briefings is spread out throughout the course, rather than being taught in a dedicated module.

And then, very out of context, in the next video the original narrator starts talking about the pitot static system…

Video 14: Closer Look: Pilot’s Operating Handbook

The Cessna aircraft in the Holladay Aviation fleet were all manufactured before 1985, with the oldest aircraft, N60254, entering service in 1969. If you look at the 1969 Cessna 150 Owners Manual, it does not have an Emergency Procedures section. However, the 1974 Cessna 150 Owner’s Manual does include an Emergency Procedures section. Did pilots not have emergencies in 1969? Certainly they did, it’s just that the documentation for aircraft has evolved and improved over the years, as both aircraft manufacturers and pilots learn from experience and document best practices.

Video 15: Introduction to Glass Cockpits

As mentioned earlier, we have Garmin G5 electronic flight instruments installed in our Cessna 172s and will soon have them installed in the other aircraft as well. What’s important for you to understand from this particular video is that the data displayed on any “glass cockpit” instrument is derived from a combination of mechanical and electronic components. The mechanical components include the airplane’s pitot-static and electrical systems; the electronic components include the air data computer and magnetometer. 

Video 21: Federal Aviation Regulations

This video spends a great deal of time discussing collision avoidance, which is a good thing. We wanted to add a few local tips to help you avoid collisions:

  • Here in Jacksonville, we operate in a marine environment that is also home to many species of small and medium sized birds, including gulls, hawks and eagles. You may have noticed that sandpipers tend to sit on the taxiway and runway centerlines (it’s cooler on the reflective paint than on the pavement), then quickly disperse as you approach. However, when you are flying, larger birds often are less reluctant to get out of your way, requiring you to take evasive action. Any bird’s natural instinct is to tuck and dive away if it senses an imminent in-flight collision, so the best thing you can do is to climb and turn away from the bird or group of birds. 
  • If you sense an imminent collision with another aircraft, act like a bird and dive to get away. Remember that our small airplanes with their relatively small engines don’t climb very aggressively, but you can lose altitude quickly by reducing power to idle and pitching down slightly. 
  • Be aware of your surroundings and avoid loitering over the final approach course to nearby airports when you are out in the practice area. IFR aircraft inbound to Craig typically approach on a 10-mile final to runway 32, which extends out over Jacksonville Beach at or below 2,000 feet. If the winds are favoring landing to the west, use caution when operating at or below 3,000 feet over Butler Blvd/Rt 202 as heavy jets may be descending to land at the Naval Air Station. Similarly, if you are practicing in the area between Craig and Fernandina Beach, be on the lookout for jets descending on a wide base to final for Runway 26 at Jacksonville International.
  • Use ADS-B traffic as a tool to enhance your visual scan for other aircraft, but remember that a flock of pelicans, or an aircraft without a transponder, won’t show up on ADS-B.

Video 24: Air Facts: Fit for Flight

The video alluded to, but failed to mention directly, the FAA’s guidance on fitness for flight. We’ve posted a copy of the PAVE checklist on the Resources page of our website. 

Our aircraft checklists also begin with a challenge to the pilot to consider his or her fitness for flight using the IMSAFE mnemonic: Am I affected by Illness, Medication, Stress, Alcohol, Fatigue or have I not Eaten anything recently. 

Volume 4: Your Dual Cross Countries

Video 3: Publications and Charts

Be sure you know how to download, view and use all of these FAA publications within ForeFlight. WAC charts are no longer published by the FAA.

Video 5: Flight Planning and Computations

This video shows how to use a plotter on a paper sectional. If you are using ForeFlight, check out our blog post on how to plan a VFR cross country electronically.

Remember that you do not need to apply compass deviation values to your heading if you are flying in an aircraft equipped with a Garmin G5, and using it for heading information. The compass deviation only applies if you are actually using the compass for heading information.

The video does a good job of showing you how to use the sectional to identify visual checkpoints along your route of flight.

Video 6: Cross Country Flight Planning with iPad

This video shows you how to create aircraft performance profiles in ForeFlight, plot waypoints, and generate a navigation log. Please see our blog post for additional tips and information.

The narrator suggests disabling own ship position in ForeFlight. We do not recommend this. We believe students can and should develop a thorough understanding of and respect for using GPS technology during primary training.

Video 8: VOR Navigation

If you are flying N60254, N3370V or N152SJ, these aircraft do not have VOR receivers installed, so you will not be able to practice VOR navigation. However if you are flying any of the other aircraft, you will be able to use VOR.

The Private Pilot ACS requires applicants to demonstrate the ability to select and track an electronic or radio based navigation course. If you don’t have VOR available, you may use the GPS course deviation indicator (CDI) function to meet this requirement.

The FAA Private Pilot Airman Knowledge Test includes questions on VOR navigation, so even if you don’t get to see it in action during a flight, you must understand the concepts to answer these questions correctly.

Video 9: GPS

Our fleet features Garmin GPS products. You may also be using GPS features on your iPad or iPhone. Please remember that Garmin has an extensive video and PDF library on their website for all of their products. Also, don’t be shy about asking your instructor for guidance on how to use the particular GPS unit in your airplane. Like the video says, don’t try to figure it out on your own while flying! Do your homework on the ground.

Video 10: Glass Cockpits

The indications on the G1000 are nearly identical to those found on our Garmin G5s. 

Those of you flying N99725 need to understand the function of the GFC500 autopilot.

Video 15: Closer Look: Tablets in the Cockpit

Again, we disagree with Sporty’s that students should learn cross country navigation using paper charts. There is absolutely no reason why students can’t learn proper planning and navigation principles using electronic charts. 

Video 16: Your Dual Cross Countries

We don’t typically file VFR search and rescue flight plans, though students must know the limitations of this service, and how to use this service if they choose. ATC flight following makes much more sense and provides pilots with immediate assistance in the event of an emergency. I’m a bit disappointed that this is not mentioned at all in this video, but it is in the next video.

Video 17: VFR Flight Following

The narrator states that “Flight following is an optional service in Class E airspace provided by ATC to VFR aircraft on a workload permitting basis.” Flight following is available to pilots in any airspace where there is radar coverage, not just class E.

Here in the Jacksonville area, pilots can also request local ATC services using the keyword “JFA” which means “just flying around.” Ex: Jax Approach, Skyhawk 65842, 10 south of Craig, JFA at or below 3000. They will give you a squawk code and call out traffic to you on a workload permitting basis.

Volume 6: Your Private Pilot Test

So much to cover here, but remember these key things:

  • Your instructor would not have endorsed you to take the check ride if he or she did not feel you were ready. You can do it! Approach the test with a positive attitude.
  • It’s normal to be a little nervous about the check ride. In fact, the most common reason why people fail on the first attempt is because they were nervous and made an uncharacteristic mistake.
  • Think of the check ride as a job interview. You are applying for the job of private pilot. Show up prepared and on time, and do your job.
  • You do NOT need to be the smartest person in the room, or the best pilot on the planet to pass the private pilot check ride. You just need to have common sense and be safe. Don’t over complicate your answers or second guess your decisions. The examiner’s #1 objective is to determine whether you are capable of safely acting as pilot in command with passengers onboard. You’ve already flown solo for 10 hours and proven that you can safely act as pilot in command by yourself. The only extra perk you get at the end of this check ride is the ability to take passengers, and to not have to ask your instructor for permission to fly at night or on a cross country.