Holding a private pilot license (PPL) in the United States allows you to fly passengers on a single engine airplane in good weather conditions. The license grants you a whole lot of fun and freedom. Imaging hopping into your small plane and landing in LA with way less traffic and time, instead of driving 24 hours from Chicago to LA. In a major catastrophe like in the movie 2012, you may even fly your family to a safe location to be rescued.
However, getting the private pilot license is a multi-step and multi-month journey. Getting a PPL is an even more arduous process for non US citizens and even green card holders due to the 9/11 attacks. Nevertheless, with some perseverance and discipline, you can join the ranks of 664,565 active certified private pilots in the US as of 2019. That’s just 0.2% of the US population!
In summary, you need to fulfill the following requirements to get a Private Pilot License:
I. Be at least 17 years of age.
II. Read, speak, write and understand the English language.
III. Hold a U.S. student pilot certificate, sports pilot certificate, or recreational pilot certificate.
IV. Receive Transportation Security Administration (TSA) approval before beginning flight training. (Only for non US citizens, including green card holders)
V. Receive flight training and a logbook endorsement from an authorized instructor.
VI. Meet the aeronautical experience requirements for the aircraft rating sought.
VII. Pass a written knowledge examination.
VIII. Hold at least a third-class medical certificate.
VX. Pass a practical test for the aircraft rating sought.See 14 CFR 61.103 for more details.
Those requirements may seem daunting at first when you read it. But if you divide and conquer them, they are manageable. In retrospect, I wished someone could tell me where to start so that I could minimize the time and cost to get the PPL. Hence, I am making the process easier for you by breaking it down into 7 detailed steps in order of expediency:
1. Hire a flight school and instructor.
There are officially two ways to train for the practical test also known as the check ride. You could go to a part 61 or a part 141 flight school. Choosing which school to go ultimately depends on your budget, schedule and learning style. If you are not a US citizen, inform the potential schools and ask if they can accommodate you.
Make sure to schedule discovery flights with a few Certified Flight Instructors (CFIs) at the school and evaluate them. Such flights often cost $99 for less than an hour of flight time but they save you more money and time down the road. CFIs are often underpaid, overworked, and working to collect flight hours for meeting the requirements of a higher license. Therefore, some CFIs have been known to extend training hours to “milk” you for billable flight hours.
Discuss your expectations with various CFIs before settling on one. Once you have settled on a CFI, you are always recommended to stay with the same CFI. This is because your CFI has to sign off on your log book at various stages. Basically, your CFI will vouch several times for your having the aeronautical experience required. Changing your CFI in the middle of your training is disruptive and costly. This is because the new CFI needs to personally verify all your aeronautical knowledge and flying skills. You also need to get used to the quirks of your new CFI’s teaching methodology, which may contradict from the previous CFI’s.
In a part 61 flight school, which I attended, training is dependent on your schedule and less formal. You book the time of your CFI based on your schedule and financial resources. Some people take a year to finish flight training due to budget limits and CFI availability. Some like me take 2 months to do so. In part 61 schools, you pretty much study for the written knowledge examination on your own.
At a part 141 school, training is more formal. Students have to attend ground lessons for the written knowledge examination. They are also required to pass stage checks to test their mastery of aeronautical knowledge and skills at different stages. As a result of the more formal training, part 141 students have a slightly less stringent requirements for the license. For example, part 141 students only need 35 hours of flight time to qualify for the practice test. Part 61 students need at least 40 hours. Nevertheless, the national average for getting the license is close to 60 flight hours. So the difference in requirements is really negligible. Part 141 schools often cost more but suit students who need external motivation or a structured curriculum.
There is also an unorthodox way which is hiring a CFI who owns a plane to teach you. Often this is the cheapest but rarest way. Most CFIs are unwilling to put their own planes at risk if they even own one, and flight schools do not permit external CFIs to use their planes for teaching.
2. Obtain TSA approval (for non US citizens)
If you are a US citizen, you may skip to the next step. Ever since the 9/11 attacks, all foreigners or aliens, including green card holders, who wish to receive flight training in the United States must undergo background screening by the TSA through the Alien Flight Student Program (AFSP). The screen process begins at afsp.gov. But before registering, you need a flight school or flight instructor that is registered with AFSP. So make sure when choosing a flight school, you inform the school that you are a foreigner who needs them to support your AFSP training request. Ask the school if they have experience with foreigners previously. Having a supportive school and CFI is important or you will be stuck in the process for months.
You first register on AFSP.gov by creating an account and then a training request. Your chosen flight school or instructor then needs to approve it. Afterwards, you visit a facility nearby to submit your fingerprints. After this, you wait for weeks or months for approval, which is dependent on when you apply and whether the AFSP is understaffed. My approval process took 3 long months due to the shortage of staff at the AFSP which was advertised on their website. Oddly, this process is not sped up for me even though I had received TSA clearance for the Global Entry Program.
Once your training is approved, TSA/AFSP sends you just an email to confirm the good news. Upon receiving the approval email, you have 365 days to complete training or redo the whole screening process. The entire process is understandably necessary but tedious. As how one CFI at my school puts it, “it’s a fine on foreigners who follow the rules. If you had given me a fake birth certificate, I wouldn’t have known and we could start training right away.”
You should start this process as soon as possible, as you cannot begin any flight training (other than the discovery flights) without approval from TSA. Nevertheless, you can perform the subsequent steps while waiting for approval.
3. Get a Medical Certificate
In order to make sure that you are healthy enough to carry passengers and not have a heart attack mid air for example, the FAA requires you to undergo a medical examination with one of their designated doctors also called Aviation Medical Examiners (AMEs). If you pass the examination, you will be issued a medical certificate on the same day. To obtain a medical certificate, go to MedXPress to complete the initial portion of the application. Then schedule an appointment with an AME in your area.
There are three kinds of medical certificates:
1. Third Class Medical Certificate: necessary for the Private Pilot License. In the US, this certificate expires 60 calendars months for someone under the age of 40 as of the time of examination, or 24 calendar months for someone over 40.
2. Second Class Medicate Certificate: necessary for the Commercial Pilot License. In the US, it expires after 12 calendar months regardless of the pilot’s age.
3. First Class Medicate Certificate: necessary for the Airline Transport Pilot License. In the US, it expires after 12 months for a pilot under 40, or 6 months for pilots over 40.
I got the First Class Medical Certificate, as the cost of getting it is the same as that for getting the Third Class Medical Certificate. Despite the aforementioned expiration date, the certificate is still valid for exercising the privileges of the PPL for 60 months, for reasons you will learn in your preparation for the written knowledge exam.
The difference between the examinations are that the First Class Medical examination includes more health tests than the Second’s and Third’s. I recommend you to take the most stringent examination as you can, so that in the case you want to pursue a more advanced license you know you have the health for it. Having a valid medical certificate is necessary for flying solo which means training alone in the plane without your instructor.
4. Get a Student Pilot License
A student pilot license is needed for you to fly solo and take the final check ride. You should apply for it early because it can take up to 3 weeks to be mailed to you. There are no special requirements or need to pass any test before applying for and getting the student pilot license.
To get the student pilot license, you must complete an application through the Integrated Airman Certification and Rating Application (IACRA) website or by paper using FAA form 8710-1. Then submit the application to a Flight Standards District Office (FSDO), an FAA-designated pilot examiner, an airman certification representative associated with a part 141 flight school, or a certificated flight instructor. The FAA recommends submission through IACRA as it’s the fastest way.
The authorized person will process your application and submit the required documents to the Airmen Certification Branch for review. The student pilot certificate will be mailed to the address provided by you on the application.
5. Ace the written knowledge examination
The written knowledge examination covers a plethora of topics for flying a plane, including weather, aerodynamics, and aeronautical charts. Studying can take a few weeks or months depending on how much effort you put into it. Having a flight instructor teach you all the tested topics can be tedious and costly. Most PPL students just study on their own with the widely available online study guides and books on the market. I personally recommend you use King School.
Once you are close to finishing your studies, you should book a date for the exam as soon as possible. Often, your local flight school might also be the location where you take the written exam. You can book for an exam here. Your instructor needs to sign off that you have the sufficient knowledge for the exam before you can take it. Some online study guides such as those from King School provide such authorization.
To pass, you need score a minimum of 70% on 60 questions to pass. I received a 96%. Passing is not hard as long as you study. But do not aim to pass, aim for a score as high as possible. A high score likely means your final check ride examiner will ask you less questions on the oral part. Moreover, you do not need to spend much billable hours with your instructor, who is required to go through topics that cover questions you answered incorrectly.
6. Clock the required flight hours
|Type of Flight||Time Required|
|Total Flight Time ||40 hours|
|Cross-Country Flight Time|
– one cross country flight over 100 nautical miles total distance
– 10 takeoffs and 10 landings to a full stop with each landing involving a flight in the traffic pattern at an airport
|Night Flight Time||3 hours|
|Instrument Training||3 hours|
|Training with CFI in preparation for the check ride within 2 months from the month of the test||3 hours|
|Solo Flight Time|
– 5 hours of solo cross-country time
– 1 solo cross country flight of 150 nautical miles total distance with full stop landings at three points and one segment of flight consisting of a straight line distance of more than 50 nautical miles between the takeoff and landing locations
– 3 solo takeoffs and 3 solo landings to a full stop , with each landing involving a flight in the traffic pattern at an airport with an operating control tower.
According to federal regulations, you must meet the aforementioned aeronautical flight experience requirements to earn a private pilot license. At a minimum, PPL candidates qualified for the practical test will have logged 40 hours of flight time that includes 20 hours of flight training from an authorized instructor as well as 10 hours of solo flight. However, most people require about 50-60 hours to receive the PPL.
Some of the required flight hours can overlap so plan your training wisely. For example, you can count the time flying at night using instruments towards the requirements for Night Flight Time and Instrument Training Time. Your instructor just needs to sign off on the time entries in your pilot log book.
Your instructor also must sign off on your pilot log book to let you solo. Most instructors will do so after they deemed that you have mastered take offs and landings. Many PPL students including myself face a “plateau” after doing one too many take offs and landings. This is normal and when you reached that plateau or learning fatigue, you are close to the required mastery of landings. I did over 200 take offs and landings before being signed off to fly solo.
7. Prepare for and pass the check ride
Your instructor needs to sign off on your PPL application in order for you to take the check ride. This is to certify that you meet the time requirements and have the necessary skills of flying a plane. Skills such as power on/off stalls while maintaining altitude are tested almost always during the check ride.
Once you are close to sign off, you should reach out to Designated Pilot Examiners (DPEs) near you. You can find them through a search on the FAA’s website here. To schedule, just call a few DPEs and ask about their availability. But also ask them how much they charge and whether they allow open book reference for the oral part.
The FAA do not have resources to hire employees across the country to go on check rides. So the FAA appoints DPEs who are experienced pilots to examine your skills and pass/fail you on the check ride. Be prepared to pay them $500-700 for their time. My DPE happened to be a Vietnam war pilot who refueled in Singapore during the war. He was based out of Oshkosh in Wisconsin, where the largest air show is held annually.
The check ride has both oral and practical components. Before starting the oral part, the DPE will verify your paperwork and ensure that you have your driver’s license, student pilot license, PPL completed application which your instructor has to sign off on, medical certificate, and the required flight hours on your log book.
The oral part will involve the instructor asking you any questions on topics covered by the written examination and more, including the flight worthiness of the plane you brought for the check ride. The key is testing that you know the risks of flying your plane and you know how to manage those risks.
The practical part involves testing you on various flight standards and maneuvers that you should already mastered. Your DPE may not test all standards and maneuvers. But prepare for the check ride as though all standards will be tested. The comprehensive list of standards is found here.
If you are in the process of getting the PPL or have just received the PPL, please share your experience or questions in the comments below.