How to Train for Your Private Pilot’s License

So you’ve decided to learn to fly, and you want to train for a Private Pilot’s License (PPL).  Perhaps it’s something you’ve always wanted to do, either as an exciting new hobby, or as a first step to a new career as a professional pilot.  Whichever it is, you’ve made a good decision.  You are likely to find it all immensely enjoyable, and it may well change your life.  It certainly did that for me, when I ended up as a professional pilot

First, however, you need to find out all that is required.  You’ll then need to decide how you are going to go about the training.  It’s not all that straightforward.  There are a lot of different possibilities, and many aspects of training to consider.  We will try to cover as many of them as possible in this How to Train for Your Private Pilot’s License guide, so please read on…

Bottom Line Up Front

Training for a Private Pilots’ License or PPL takes a minimum of 40 flying hours, but most people need much longer.  You can go to a flying school close to home and have lessons on a daily basis, or train on an intensive residential course further from where you live.  As well as the flying, you will need to do some fairly extensive ground school studying, and also pass a Class 3 medical examination. You will ‘go solo’, and start flying alone, part way through the course. Once you have completed all of the above you will do a final check ride with an examiner, and if you pass, you will finally have a Private Pilot’s License.  This will enable you to fly for fun and carry passengers, but not to earn your living from flying.  And there will still be much more you can learn, which is why a PPL is often called a license to learn.

Requirements For A Private Pilot’s License


There are not many legal requirements for a Private Pilot’s License, but there are a few.  They are as follows…

  • You need to be able to speak, read, and write English
  • You must be at least 17 years old, but there is no upper age limit.
  • You need to be able to pass a third class medical examination, but more about that later.

And that’s it!  But do note that these are the requirements in the US, and other countries differ a little, though not a great deal.

So now let’s take a look at what you need to do before you start the actual Private Pilot’s License flying course

What To Do Before You Start Your Private Pilot’s License Training

1. Decide How You Want To Train, ie Slowly Or On An Intensive Course

Most people learn to fly at a flying school close to their home, having perhaps one or two lessons a week.  This is probably the best way to do it for most people, as it is the most flexible, and you can fit it around your normal life, work, family etc.

However, you don’t have to do things this way.  There are a number of flying schools, often attached to universities, that arrange intensive courses, enabling you to do the whole course in the space of a few weeks.  Typically, you stay in the area and fly several times a week, sometimes more than once a day.  This suits some people, and if you are in a hurry to get your Private Pilot’s License, this may be the best way for you.  It is also recommended if you are looking at the PPL merely as a stepping stone to a Commercial Pilot’s License (CPL).  However, this way of learning doesn’t suit everyone; I hated it!

So think hard about this, and decide how you want to learn.  Then you’ll know what sort of flying school to look for, and in what area.

2. Get Your Class 3 Medical


Before you do too much preparation, it is a good idea to book and take your class 3 medical examination.  This is not too arduous for most people, and anyone of average health is likely to pass it with flying colours.  You don’t need to be super-fit, and spectacle wearing is fine.  But just occasionally the medical turns up some condition which precludes flying.  You really, really don’t want this to happen to you when you’ve already spent a lot of money on flying training.  So it’s far better to get your medical in advance.

For the medical, you’ll need to find an FAA (Federal Aviation Authority) authorized examiner.  There are a large number of these in the US, so simply hunt around locally, and you should be able to find one not too far from home.  They will be able to do your medical test for you.

3. Do Some Market Research

You now need to do some research to find the best flying school, either locally or further afield.  As with most things, it’s best if you can get a personal recommendation if you can.  But if this is impossible, try to find out as much as possible about all the schools you are considering.  It’s not really a good idea to just go to the one nearest to your home, with no prior knowledge.  It may be fine, but in flying training, as in many other walks of life, some places are better than others.  Similarly, don’t just choose the cheapest flying school.  In flying, again as in most fields, you tend to get what you pay for.

4. Book An Introductory Flight

flying lesson

The next thing to do is book an introductory flying lesson, sometimes called a trial lesson or demo flight.  All flying schools offer these, and doing one will give you the opportunity to see what you think of the school, the instructor, and flying in general.  This is especially important if you’ve not been in a light aircraft before.  You will probably love flying!  But it’s as well to check first.

5. Find a School And Instructor

Finally, pick the school where you want to do your Private Pilot’s License course, and if possible, decide what instructor you wish to teach you.  It is even possible to simply pay a freelance instructor to teach you wherever he or she wishes, but this could be complicated, and most people prefer to go to an actual bona fide flying school, and this is what I would recommend.  There are more details about how to choose a flying school here

You’re now ready to start!

Starting Your Course Important Points

The legal minimum number of flying hours for the Private Pilot’s License is 40.  However, very few people complete the course in this relatively small number of hours.  There are all sorts of reasons for this – as well as basic aptitude, you may be affected by weather, the rate at which you are learning, the type of aircraft you are learning on, and so on.

However, there are a few things you can do to get the most out of your flying training, and maybe even speed up the time it takes to get your Private Pilot’s License .  Let’s take a look at those now.

1. Read Up On Each Lesson Before You Do It

Flying Lessons

It’s really worth preparing in advance for each flying lesson.  To be honest, I was one of those students who just rolled up with no advance preparation, and I learned from experience that this was really not a great idea.  If you read over everything carefully, and try to imagine yourself doing the relevant flying exercises, this helps tremendously when it comes to the actual lesson.  So don’t just turn up and expect the instructor to arrange everything for you; make sure you are as well prepared as possible.

2. Turn Up On Time

Always turn up on time for your flying lessons.  You may find that you have to wait, if the instructor is running late, for example.  But if that is the case, use that time profitably by watching other students’ lessons, or reading ahead to later parts of the course.  It’s best to immerse yourself in the whole flying world if you can.  Trust me, none of this will be wasted.

3. Ask Questions If Don’t Understand Something


You will have a briefing before each lesson, going over the important points that you will be covering.  If there’s something you don’t understand, always ask for it to be clarified or repeated.  Don’t worry that you might appear stupid, or think that you’ll probably pick it up as you go along.  Make sure you understand everything as you go.

4. Early Lessons Are Very Important

These early lessons are extremely important, as they are the foundation for all your future flying.  When I was learning I ignored a lot of the above, desperate to get on and go solo, then do the rest of the course.  Believe me, that wasn’t a good idea.  There were a lot of aspects of flying I was quite hazy about for some time.  So learn from my experience!

5. Going Solo

Going solo is many students’ dream from the very start of flying training!  And don’t worry it will happen, often sooner than you expect.  At some stage in your training your instructor will get out of the aircraft and tell you to do some flying alone.  Sometimes this is done without any warning, partly so that the student doesn’t have too much time to get nervous.  Other instructors do things differently, and give the student a bit of advance notice that they may be going solo. Don’t be concerned about the technique your instructor uses.

People are sometimes surprised that this solo flying happens fairly early on in the flying course, sometimes after only a few hours of flying lessons.  They expect it to be a bit like driving, ie you do the whole course, pass the final exam, then get to fly by yourself.  But flying training is not like that.  Usually you will go solo when you can manipulate the controls, and take off and land safely. There will still be much more you need to learn, and  after that you will do some advanced exercises like navigation and advanced landing techniques with your instructor, plus practicing flying solo for longer and longer periods.

Don’t worry if it take you a long time to go solo.  As I said, some students do it in only a few hours, but others take much, much longer.  Again, there are all sorts of reasons for this.  Most importantly, the time taken to go solo has no effect on how good or bad a pilot you’ll be in the long term.  For the record, it took me ages to go solo, but I ended up getting a commercial pilot’s license and instructor’s rating, which must prove something!

Later Stages Of Training


After you go solo, you will still have to do quite a lot of further flight training.  You will learn to navigate, and fly to different airfields.  If you haven’t done so already, you will learn to use the aircraft radio, although you are likely to have done this to some extent before going solo.  And you will do a number of more advanced exercises, such as short field and crosswind landings, how to cope in emergencies, and how to do other complicated maneuvers. See this article for details of how to do crosswind landings.

For all of this, however difficult things may be, it is important to try to relax and enjoy yourself.  Flying can be quite stressful and at times it can even feel impossible.  I remember feeling as though I was never going to be able to learn to land a plane, and it did take me a long time.  I got there in the end of course.  But I would probably have done it a lot faster if I hadn’t been so tense and stressed out about the whole thing.

Ground School

As well as the flying training, you have to do a certain amount of written study, generally known as ground school.  This covers all the subjects related to flying training, such as navigation, meteorology, and radiotelephony.  When this is completed there is an FAA final test, with a pass mark of  70%.

Some people study and complete the ground school even before they do any flying training.  There are some advantages to doing this, as you can get it out of the way before you start on the actual flying.  But most people do it at the same time as the flying training, and this is fine too.  I prefer it, as much of the ground school makes more sense if you’ve done some actual flying first.

There are various ways of studying for the ground school exams.

  • The traditional way is to use a ground school instructor, but this is quite expensive.
  • It is theoretically possible to study alone, but this is not really recommended.  Apart from anything else, you will need to be examined by an instructor before you even take the final test, and this could work out nearly as expensive as using an instructor in the first place.
  •  Finally, there are some more recent online courses for ground school , and this is cheaper than using an instructor, but probably more effective than self-study.

Ultimately, it’s up to you how you do it.  But do make sure you complete the ground school in good time.  Sometimes people are held up from applying for their PPL because they haven’t completed and passed the grounds school test; don’t let this happen to you.

Your Final Check Ride


Once you have completed the flying training and the ground school, it is time for your final check ride with an FAA examiner.  You have to have a certain amount of specific flying time to be allowed to take the check ride, including the following

  • 40 hours of flight time
  • 10 hours of solo flying
  • three hours of cross country training
  • three hours of night flying,
  • one long cross country flight (over 100 nautical miles)
  • three hours of basic instrument training

There are a few other specific requirements too.  But don’t panic; it’s your instructor’s job to keep track of what you have done, and he won’t put you up for the final check ride until you have completed all the requirements.

The check ride also includes a theoretical portion as well as the actual flying, and the whole exam lasts several hours.  You may find it quite stressful, but don’t worry, most people pass.  Your instructor wouldn’t let you do it if you weren’t ready for it. And if you don’t pass, it really doesn’t matter; you can always do it again.  No one will ever ask you how many attempts it took to pass your PPL final check ride!

But hopefully, you will pass first time.  And if you do, you will now be a fully qualified private pilot!  You will be able to hire a light aircraft to fly for fun, or even buy your own.  You can take up passengers, and even go on a flying holiday.  A whole new world will be open to you

But sometimes it isn’t quite that easy.  So let’s look now at how things might go wrong, what you can do about it, and what not to do.

What Not To Do

1. Don’t Expect To Complete Your Private Pilot’s License in Minimum Hours

As I’ve already said, it is very rare to do the whole Private Pilot’s License course in 40 hours, the legal minimum.  There are just too many variables – weather, time off, needing more time on particular exercises, and so on.  It’s best to plan for this in advance, making sure you have the time and money for more hours if needed.  Remember, the national average is about 70 hours.

2. Don’t Fall Out With Your Instructor


You really need to get on well with your instructor.  Personality clashes in a small cockpit are simply not a good idea.  If you find that you don’t get on, change instructor.  Don’t blame yourself; simply accept the fact that these things happen, and find someone new.

3. Don’t Stick With a School If Really Isn’t Right For You

Similarly, if you really don’t like the flying school where you started, cut your losses and go elsewhere.  It is perfectly possible to do this; your flying records are your own, and you can take them with you.  There is no shame in changing schools if it really feels like the right thing to do.

4. Don’t Give Up If You’re Struggling With The Course

Flying training may be fun, but it can be difficult too.  Most of us find certain parts of the course really hard.  Some people are fine with the flying but struggle with the ground school, others find navigation difficult, and so on.  Flying training involves so many different skills, that you are unlikely to find all of them easy.  But please don’t give up just because you are finding things difficult.  Take a deep breath and keep going.  Trust me, you WILL be able to do it, and it will be worth it when you get your PPL.

5. Don’t Buy All Your Books And Flight Equipment At The Start Of Training


When you are doing your initial research, you will probably realize that you are going to need a lot of books and other flying equipment such as kneeboards, flight bags etc.  You may find a good deal, particularly if you buy a pack of flying paraphernalia that claims to be designed for the PPL student.

Not everyone agrees with me, but I would recommend not buying anything now, with the possible exception of a basic book or two on flying training.  Different people have different preferences, as do different flying schools.  It is better to wait and see what you actually need, or what your instructor recommends.  So I’d advise holding off for now.

Frequently Asked Questions – How to Train for Your Private Pilot’s License

Question: How hard is the Private Pilot’s License course?

Answer: As explained above, the course is not that easy, and many people struggle with it.  But it’s not all that difficult either.  Anyone of average intelligence and ability can get a Ppl if they turn their minds to it and are prepared to put in the effort.  Flying is not just for supermen and superwomen; we ordinary folk can do it too!

Question: How much will it all cost?

Answer: How long is a piece of string?  Flying school charges vary, and as explained, the time taken to complete the course will vary too.  However, it is said that the average student will need to spend $10,000 to get their Private Pilot’s License , to give a very rough ballpark figure.  So it’s not cheap, but it’s not horrendously expensive either.

Question: Will I enjoy all of the course?

Answer: Probably not.  I certainly didn’t.  Because flying training involves so many different skills, there will always be parts of it that an individual doesn’t like.  But hang in there; it will be worth it in the long run!

Question: What can I do with my Private Pilot’s License?

Answer: You can basically do any kind of flying so long as you do not charge for it or make any money out of it.  For that you will need a CPL.  So you can fly to other airports, go touring by air, and take friends and family flying.  So that should be enough to keep you going for a while.

And After The PPL…

As explained, after the Private Pilot’s License you can fly wherever you want, and the world is your oyster.  But a word of caution – do remember to make haste slowly.  Don’t try too many new things at the same time – for example, either take a friend flying, or fly to a new airfield, or go out in slightly challenging weather, but not all at the same time in the beginning.

In addition, there will be a lot you haven’t done, such as flying in mountains, taking several friends flying, and crossing large areas of water, for example.  There are more advanced courses for such things if you wish to do them.

In fact, you will never stop learning and gaining flying experience.  This is why a PPL is often referred to as A License To Learn.

Recommended Reads:

Latest posts by Helen Krasner (see all)

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top