Saturday, January 12, 2008

How Difficult Is It To Learn To Fly? How Much Does It Cost?

I have been asked those questions, countless times, by my non-flying friends. There are no simple answers and, as always, your results may vary.

I have always felt that anyone who can drive a standard transmission automobile is far ahead on the learning curve when obtaining your pilot license. In a standard transmission you are using your left hand to steer (American drivers) and shifting with your right hand. Your left foot operates the clutch and right foot deals with brake and throttle. Lots going on, but most people who drive a standard shift don't really think about all that is going on. Flying isn't really too different.

In an airplane, your left hand is typically flying the airplane and your right hand is dealing with the throttle. Your feet handle steering and braking on the ground and the rudder in the air. Yes, you heard steer with your feet on the ground.

On my very first lesson, Jerry (my instructor), let me taxi the plane out for takeoff. I knew that I was supposed to steer with my feet and at the first turn, I casually threw the control yoke to the right and freaked as the plane continued straight ahead forward. Old habits die hard. I pushed my toes down hard and the plane screeched to a halt. Oh, have to mention that unlike a car, a plane has 2 sets of brakes. There is a separate brake on each pedal that are operated by pushing at the top of the pedal with your toes (toe brakes). The left brake controls the left wheel and the right brake controls the right wheel. Being able to lock one wheel allows an airplane to pirouette around a single wheel.

The easiest part of flying is...well, flying. A plane is designed to fly. Hit the throttle and keep the plane in the center of the runway and it will basically fly itself off.

The hardest thing for me to learn was the landing. You are trying to do exactly opposite of what the plane was designed to do. Making a good landing seems to be the bane of both low time and high time pilots. The logical thing to do if coming in too high for a landing is to push the control yoke forward. Go out to your local airport and watch as pilots come in high and then shove the controls forward to dive at the runway.

Now, watch and see how far down the runway those pilots are when they finally touch down. What happened? They never learned that the control yoke is for speed control and the throttle is for altitude. When a pilot pushes forward on the control yoke, the speed increases, the air going over the wings speeds up, increasing lift and they have to burn off that excess speed and lift to touch down. The trick to a good landing is to have your speed set well before landing. Then, use the throttle to increase or decrease the rank of descent. I learned that and soloed after less than 9 hours (15 hours is typical).

Speaking of hours brings us to the topic of cost. Remember HOURS = COST = HOURS. So...we can't do much to control the cost of rental and instruction. Those are fixed costs. The only way to save money is to control the hours.

The FAA mandates in FAR 61.109 that a minimum of 40 hours of flight is required to obtain your pilot license. Of that, 20 hours has to be with and instructor. Typically, your instructor will cost as much, or more per hour than the plane you are renting. Now the typical pilot completes about 71 hours before obtaining his/her license. Given that the standard, going rate for 20 hours of dual and 20 hours of solo runs about $4,462.83, you can see how additional hours would greatly increase the cost of learning to fly.

Here is what I did. I walked into my local FBO and plopped a couple of thousand dollars and told them to, “let me know when it runs out.” I took my first lesson on January 2nd. I soloed on January 9th. Again, with slightly less than 9 hours.

Think about when you were learning to drive a car. If you only drove for an hour or so, every month or so, how much would you retain between lessons? Not too much. By shoving all of your training into the first month, the retention rate goes way up, your skills develop quickly and you take less time to solo. Remember HOURS = COST = HOURS.

Once you have soloed, you are flying alone and paying less than half of what you were paying with the extra body on board.

The day I went for my check ride (July 9th) to get my license, I had exactly 20 hours of solo and only 19.4 hours of dual. I had to taxi Jerry, verrrry slowly, down to the run-up area and wait for that last .6 hours to click off the Hobbs. My check ride was smooth and was a real blast. The FAA examiner said, “I'm impressed!” and that was it.

So, the question is up to much does it cost to learn to fly? $4,462.83 or $6,350.83? If you do it right, it can be affordable, fun and easy.

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