Pilot Training Principles Guide: All You Need To Know

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If you are reading this, you must be interested in pilot training principles.  If that is so, then it is highly likely that you are thinking of learning to fly a light aircraft.  So of course you want to know just what will be involved and you have decided to do some research.  This is a good decision!

Becoming a pilot is great fun, and learning to fly will open up a whole new world in the sky for you.  But the training is quite extensive, and not always easy.  It will cover a wide range of different topics, both theoretical and practical.  So you do need to know exactly what you are letting yourself in for when you start pilot training.  That being the case,  let us take a look at what is involved.

What Pilot Training Principles Aim To Do

The purpose of pilot training is to teach you to fly a plane, and also to make sure you know all about the different theoretical topics associated with flying.  The aim is ensure that once you have done all the training and passed the final exam, you will be able to pilot an aircraft safely.  You will also know enough about navigation, weather, radio use, and a number of other subjects, to ensure that you can cope with any situation you encounter whilst flying.

This is necessary since flying is not like driving a car.  You cannot stop in the sky when anything goes wrong.  You have to know enough to be able to cope with anything which could happen.  You need to at least be able to land safely.

Of course, you will not have learned everything about flying after a first training course.  Indeed, the Private Pilot’s License is often said to be a ‘license to learn’.  There is very much more involved in flying than can be taught in the limited number of hours needed to obtain this license.  But you will be able to fly safely and will have a good basis for building on what you know as you acquire more experience.

Of course, you might prefer to do some more advanced training after this for other licenses.   Let’s take a look at the main licenses you can study for.

Pilot License Breakdown – Different Licenses For Different Purposes 

So let’s now take a look at the different flying licenses and what you can do with each one when you have it.

Private Pilot’s License (PPL)

The Private Pilot’s License, generally known as the PPL, allows you to do recreational flying.  Once you have passed all the exams and have this license, you can hire a plane and fly where you want, subject of course to any airspace restrictions.  You can also take friends and relatives with you.  You can fly for fun and enjoyment.  And, if you want, you can fly yourself for business purposes, or even buy your own plane and fly it.

However, there are a number of things you are not allowed to do with a PPL.  First and foremost, you cannot fly for commercial gain.  This means you are not allowed to make money from your flying, and your passengers cannot pay you.  You cannot teach other people to fly.  And you cannot fly for the airlines or anything similar.  If you want to do anything like that, further training is required, in order to gain a Commercial Pilot’s License (CPL) or an Air Transport Pilot’s License (ATPL).  These will be described later in this article, so please read on.  But people who want to be professional pilots usually start off by getting a PPL anyway, so don’t worry if you aspire to do more.

It might sound from the above as though there isn’t that much you can with your PPL.  Well, nothing could be further from the truth.  You can fly all over the USA, or any other country for that matter.  Pilots have flown all round the world with only a PPL.  You can take your friends flying.  You can learn to fly different types of aircraft, such as gliders, helicopters, balloons, seaplanes, and so on.  You will require extra training for many of these, as you will if you want to learn to fly at night or fly in poor weather using instruments, as the airline pilots do.  But it is really not too difficult to do any of these.

So having a PPL really doesn’t limit the amount of flying you can do; it only prevents you from making a living out of it.

Commercial Pilot’s License (CPL)

A CPL is the first type of commercial license, and it enables you to receive monetary remuneration for flying. It requires many fewer flying hours than the ATPL and is therefore much cheaper to obtain. But is it the right license for you?  Read on and find out.

Many pilots assume that when they get a CPL they will immediately be able to get a flying job. They think that they will be able to do any kind of flying work that exists. So is this the case?

No, unfortunately, it is not. It is a sad fact of aviation life that most pilot jobs require an ATPL, or at least flying hours well into four figures. In fact, there are not really that many careers which you can do with only a CPL.

So is this license worth getting? Well, possibly. There are a number of jobs you can undertake with a CPL. These include tasks like crop dusting and other agricultural flying, pipeline patrol, banner towing, air charter, sightseeing and ferry flights, aerial photography, traffic watch, and other similar careers. That sounds like a lot, but the problem is that there are a lot of CPL holders chasing comparatively few jobs.

One important point is that a CPL is also the first step to obtaining a flight instructing qualification and becoming a Certified Flight Instructor or CFI.  This can be a very good career for many people.  But the CFI qualification is not easy, and you do need to like working with people as well as flying airplanes in order to be a good instructor.

Air Transport Pilot’s License (ATPL)

The ATPL is the top rung of the commercial flying ladder, and gaining this qualification does mean that the flying world is now open for you. You can not only become an airline pilot, you can fly cargo planes, and do almost any other flying job which you can find. And of course you can do any of the jobs mentioned in the CPL section of this article…and you will probably have a greater chance of getting them than those pilots who only hold a CPL.

Of course, most people who obtain an ATPL want to fly for the airlines. Being an airline pilot can be a very rewarding career, both financially and in terms of job satisfaction.

However, it is essential to know both the ups and downs of this profession. It is also important to know what you are looking for in your career, as this could significantly impact on the type of flying and the airline you may set out to work for.

Airline pilots are generally well paid.  But the remuneration can vary considerably from company to company, but generally speaking, low-cost carriers tend to pay less than the flag carriers, and as one might expect, the bigger the aircraft and the further you go, the greater the pay.

Most airlines will also offer excellent staff travel packages. The rosters are also generally good, offering more off days than your typical Monday to Friday 9-5 job, and better holiday allowances.

The downside to this is that you may find yourself seldom having a free weekend; little or no summer leave and bank holidays are just another normal working day. Whilst this may seem minor to some, particularly in your first job and first flush of enthusiasm, having to miss Christmas or a family member’s birthday celebration year after year can take its toll. Maintaining a normal social and family life can be a challenge as you may often find you have your time off when your friends are at work.

So what can you do if you have an ATPL but decide that airline flying is not for you? If this is the case, you might fancy working as a cargo pilot.  There is a myth in some places that cargo pilots always fly worn-out old airplanes in the middle of the night. While night flying is common in the freight flying world, there are actually many options in schedules, and also many different types of airplanes flying cargo. They range from the tired old piston airplanes of rumor, all the way up to advanced aircraft that are sometimes more technologically developed than their airline counterparts.

What You’ll Learn in Flight School

Now let’s take a look at what is involved in studying for these licenses, and what flight training involves.

Practical Flight Training Basics

Most people begin by taking a trial lesson, also known as an introductory flight or a discovery flight.  This is a first flying lesson with an instructor, to give you an idea of what flight training is all about.  The instructor will start off doing the flying, then demonstrate the flight controls to you.  At some point, if you are comfortable with it, he or she will let you take over and have a go at flying the plane yourself – but don’t worry; you will have dual controls so it will be quite safe!  You might even get to try a take-off or landing by yourself.

After this first lesson, the training is more structured.  You will spend several lessons learning how all the flight controls work, and you will practice using them.  You will learn to fly straight and level, turn, climb, descend, and fly in the ‘pattern’ around the airfield.  You will practice dealing with emergencies.   And then you will go out into the surrounding area and learn about navigation.  You will also find out about use of the aircraft radio, transponder, and other ‘avionics’ – the general term for electronics for aviators.

At some point, when your instructor thinks you are ready, you will fly solo, ie fly the plane by yourself.  For most people, that first solo is a high point of their flying life, and they remember it for ever.

After that, you will do more solo flying, interspersed with more advanced training with your instructor. You will probably visit a number of different airfields, and find out how to take off and land in different places.

And of course, there is also a great deal of theoretical knowledge which you will need to acquire.  So let’s now take a brief look at what that involves.

Theoretical Training

There are quite a number of topics that pilots need to know about in order to fly safely.  While some of this can be learned as you fly, much of it is taught during what is often termed ‘ground school’, and before you get your PPL you will have a number of ‘ground exams’.  The theoretical training for these includes knowledge of principles of flight, navigation, weather, radio use, aviation law, and human performance.  It is possible to study all these before you start to fly, but most people do it at the same time, interspersing their practical flying training with theoretical study.

It is quite possible to study for these exams on your own, at least in theory  However, many people would strongly advise against this, and suggest you do a structured course, either face to face with a ground school instructor, or online.   It is really up to you, but you might want to wait a bit and do some research before making a definite decision on this.

The Ground Exam

While in some countries there are several ground exams, in the US they are all rolled together at the end and included in one exam, which is considered as part of the final pilot test which you will take.  It can, however, be taken at a different time from the other parts of the test, either before or after.

The FAA final ground exam has 60 questions on all the subjects involved, with a two and a half hour time limit. The pass mark is 70%.

However, it is worth bearing in mind that you really need to acquire all of the information in the theoretical training syllabus in order to be a good pilot. You should therefore aim to do considerably better than just scrape through the exams with minimum marks.  It is really not just a question of passing the test; you do need to have a good grounding in the subjects involved.  After all, as a pilot, your life could depend on your theoretical knowledge. So bearing that in mind, do you really think that 70% is good enough?

The Final Pilot Exam

When you have finally done all your flight training and study, you will have a flight test with an examiner.  This will be in three parts – a theoretical test on the ground subjects, a test on your knowledge of your aircraft, and a practical flying test.  As explained above, you might already have done the ground exam, or you may have elected to do it at the same time as the other tests.

You should know that you are highly likely to pass your final pilot exam.  Your instructor will not have recommended that you take it until he or she was sure that you were good enough.  So try not to worry too much about it.  And once you have passed, you will be a fully qualified private pilot.  And as I said earlier, you will now have a license – albeit a license to learn!

That, briefly, is what flight training principles are all about.  But let’s now take a look at some of the questions you may have which haven’t already been answered…

How to Choose a Pilot Training Program

So how should you choose a pilot training program?  Where should you to find the best flying school and instructor?

Basically, it really doesn’t matter much where you learn to fly or how you do it.  But having said that, you need to realise that there are some differences between schools and instructors.  Firstly, you need to decide whether you simply want to learn to fly, or whether you want to combine your pilot training program with a degree course.  The latter is becoming more popular, particularly with those students who are planning a career in aviation.  While commercial pilots do not require degrees, there is no doubt that it is a significant advantage to have one.  So it might be worth looking for a school where you can do both, if you are planning on flying for a living.

However, if you simply want to get a PPL and fly for fun, going to the school nearest your home and learning over a period of time has a lot of advantages.  Other things being equal, it is sensible to learn to fly at a school which is not too far from where you live, as you don’t want to be too tired to fly after a long drive to the airfield.  Also, lessons can get cancelled at short notice due to poor weather or for some other reason, and you don’t want too many wasted long drives.

There are a few other factors you need to consider.  Costs vary of course, but it is not a good idea to base your final decision on price alone.   In aviation, as in many other fields, you tend to get what you pay for.

You might prefer to learn at a small airfield where there is less other traffic, or, conversely, you may like to learn at a large airport where you can mix it with airline traffic, known colloquially as the ‘big boys’.  This is simply down to personal preference.

However, the most important thing is that you feel comfortable in the atmosphere of the flying school you choose,  and that you get on well with your instructor.  With that in mind, it could be worth doing some research first by visit8ing and even taking a trial lesson at two or three different schools, and seeing which of them you prefer.

Some Recommendations For Great Pilot Training Programs

If you plan to learn to fly at a school close to your home, you really don’t need any recommendations, unless perhaps you can get some from locally based friends or relatives.  If not, do as advised above, and simply go visit the school for yourself and make up your own mind based on how you feel about them.

However, if you plan to combine flight training with a degree, and probably do a residential course, you may choose somewhere a long way from your home.  If this is your choice, it could be useful to have some recommendations.  The following list is by no means comprehensive, but the flight schools included in it all offer degrees in addition to pilot training programs, and they are very well thought of.  They could be a good place to start, and you could do well to choose any one of them…

Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Florida

Embry-Riddle is the largest, oldest, and most comprehensive aeronautical university in the USA. This school was founded in 1926 to provide high-quality education to future aeronautical professionals.

University of North Dakota

This university is one of the USA’s most respected pilot training colleges for the traditional four-year education system. It is widely considered the most technologically advanced campus complex globally and boasts of an excellent training fleet.

Purdue University, Indiana

The Wall Street Journal ranks Purdue University as one of the top five public universities in the United States. Its School of Aviation and Transportation Technology was developed in the mid-1950s.

Florida Institute of Technology

Their college of aeronautics offers students the opportunity to earn their degrees while simultaneously gaining hands-on experience on the flight line and in the simulator. You can even opt for elective courses like aerobatic flight and air taxi flight.

San Jose State University, California

In the College of Engineering’s Aviation and Technology Department, students who are seeking flight training with the goal of working as a professional pilot earn a bachelor’s degree in professional flight while simultaneously obtaining their pilot rating. Upon graduation, students will have received their private pilot certificate, instrument rating and commercial pilot certificate.

Utah Valley University

This university offers degrees for all areas of aviation. Their Bachelor of Science in Professional Pilot degree prepares students for employment with airlines and corporations. Graduates leave the program having earned at least a Commercial Pilot Certificate and can choose electives all the way up through Multi-Engine Instructor.  Previously earned FAA pilot certificates and ratings are given direct transfer credit, so even if you have already completed a portion of your flight training, you can apply this towards your degree.

Frequently Asked Questions

Question: Can anyone learn to fly?

Answer: The honest answer to this is that almost anyone can learn to fly.  As with passing a driving test, it is simply a case of learning the relevant skills, and most people can manage it.  But there is always the occasional person who simply cannot grasp it, just as a very few people cannot learn to drive a car.

Question: Is the training very difficult?

Answer: Flying is actually no more difficult than driving.  But it does take longer to learn, and you do need more theoretical knowledge.  This is to a large extent because in the air you are on your own.  If something goes wrong when you are driving, you can stop and call a garage or a friend.  When flying, you can’t do that.  So you have to be able to deal with most difficulties and emergencies by yourself, at least until you can get on to the ground.  But don’t worry too much about this; it is something almost all of us manage to do.

Question: How long will the course take?

Answer: In the US, the minimum number of flying hours required for the PPL is 40.  This varies slightly in other countries, but most are fairly similar.  But you really should note that few people manage to learn everything in the minimum number of hours.  It is said that the average number of hours required to gain a PPL is between 60 and 70, with some people taking hours into three figures.  This is not necessarily because they are slow learners.  There are a number of other possible reasons.  For example, bad weather may intervene during a flying course, meaning the student forgets certain things and needs to repeat them.  Or an individual may struggle with some aspect of the course, such as radio use, or navigation.  So it is difficult to estimate how long the course will actually take.

The answer is similar when it comes to how many weeks, months, or years your flying training will take.  Some people have a lesson or two a week, others learn to fly over a short period, doing an intensive course of a few weeks.  Generally, if you can learn over a short time period it requires fewer hours, as there is less time for forgetting.  But some people don’t learn well if flying that intensively.  So it is probably best not to worry too much about the time involved, but simply enjoy the flying training.  And it is often said that PPL training takes as long as it takes.

Question: How much will it all cost?

Answer: This is hard to answer, and some people would reply with “how long is a piece of string?”.  It depends so much on your location, the type of plane you are flying, the type of flight school, your instructor’s experience, and the rate at which you are able to learn.  However, some sources estimate that it will all cost in the region of $10,000.  If you are quoted a figure very much lower than this, be careful.  It may well be a genuine bargain.  But as already mentioned, in flight training, as in many other things in life, you do tend to get what you pay for.

Question: Are there any age limits?

Answer: There are no lower age limits on starting to learn to fly with an instructor.  But in the US you  cannot fly solo before the age of 16, and you need to be 17 years of age to actually obtain your private pilot license.  There is no upper age limit, and many people start learning to fly after retirement, sometimes in their 70s or 80s, when they have more time to spare.  So if you are worried that you may be too old, do remember this!

Question: Are there any medical requirements?

Answer: To become a private pilot you do need to be able to pass a medical examination administered by a doctor who is authorized by the FAA, or Federal Aviation Authority.  There are three classes of medical examination, but private pilots only need a class three exam.  The others are for professional pilots, so don’t worry about them at this point.  You will need to undertake these medical exams at various intervals after you have your PPL, the exact time between medicals depending on your age.

There are very few serious medical conditions that will preclude you from flying; examples are bipolar disorder and coronary heart disease. But most common conditions which people worry about, such as short sight, are not a problem. Of course, medical conditions do become more common as people get older.  So in the end it is often medical issues that prevent older people from flying, or at least flying solo.

Question: I was never very good at studying at school.  Will I still be able to get my PPL?

Answer: The answer to this is almost certainly that you will.  The grounds exams are really not that difficult, though they do involve a certain amount of application and studying.  If you really struggle with this sort of thing, you might find it better to do a structured ground school course, where you will have an instructor who can answer questions, rather than try to learn by self-study.  And you may find it quite difficult at first.  But to be honest, I have never yet met anyone who could not manage to pass the ground school subjects eventually if they applied themselves.

Question: Is becoming a pilot really worth all this time and expense?

Answer: Of course, people differ, but for most people, the answer to this is a resounding YES!  Flying is tremendous fun, and being able to pilot a plane will open up a whole new world for you.  Most people who learn to fly never give up unless they are short of money or are forced to for medical or family reasons.  So, to summarise, flying is not easy, but it is certainly worth all the difficulties involved.

So…What Should I Do Now?…

You now have all the basic information you need to start on the path of becoming a private pilot.  So why not go out and book a trial lesson, and make sure you enjoy it.

Then start with the program described above, maybe at one of the recommended schools, or perhaps one you have found for yourself close to home  Take it from there.  Then, once you know a bit more about pilot training, further steps will become clear.

If you do this, then chances are you will never regret it, and undertaking flight training will totally change your life!

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