- This discussion focuses on a new pilot obtaining the Sport Pilot (SP) PPC-Land (PPL) certificate.
- A Private Pilot (PP) certificate is also available, but they are uncommon among PPC flyers, and simply amount to more extensive training. For most PPC flyers, the biggest perk to obtaining your PP certificate is the legal ability to fly at night.
- If you already have an SP or PP certificate for another aircraft type, you can get an endorsement for PPC with some nominal additional flight training, an instructor recommendation, and a Proficiency Check (refer to 14 CFR § 61.321).
- Yes, you can say ‘license’ instead of ‘certificate’ if you like, but don’t be surprised by pilots who will love to correct you, even if they know what you mean. We used the word ‘license’ to title this page because it so commonly used by non-pilots.
No Arguing, Please…
We’re going to emphasize that the correct answer to the impending question is always YES: you need to get professional instruction, even if you only intend to fly ultralights.
Please don’t contact us with your “but I did it” stories. People have lived to tell their tale doing all kinds of insanely dangerous and should-have-been fatal things, but that isn’t what we’re promoting. Of course we know people have done it, but that doesn’t mean that it’s legal (depending on the aircraft used) or an even remotely good idea for the average PPC pilot-in-training, and it can prove to be a fatal undertaking for a person who has never previously flown any type of aircraft.
Of course we know that it is legally allowable to fly an FAR Part 103 ultralight PPC without any former or formal instruction. Then again, I suppose you can also try to give yourself open-heart surgery using a pair of scissors, needle, thread, and a badly edited YouTube video. The real point here is – someone along the way should have taught you the difference between can and should.
Understanding Instruction vs. Education
It has been said that “instruction aims at the implanting of knowledge and the promoting of dexterity, while education aims at the development of the faculties.” When you want to learn about flying, it’s important to know the difference in what you’re getting.
In aviation, most often you will encounter instructors. Their primary focus is to ensure you have the physical capabilities to operate the aircraft, and the minimum mental faculties to make reasoned flying decisions and navigate the airspace. Their goal is to ensure you can pass the Check Ride and get your pilot certificate… and that’s about it.
Contrast this with educators, who are tasked with helping you build a foundation of knowledge on a subject, an understanding of how and why things are the way they are, the critical thinking skills that accompany it, and – if you’re both lucky – develop in you a desire for lifelong learning in the subject. Flying schools are more prone to have education-oriented staff, but it’s an expensive option, and not one that exists for PPC pilotage, to our knowledge.
There is no right or wrong way to learn per se, but most adult learners have developed clear preferences for how they learn, so it’s important to understand up front if you’re an instruction or education-oriented person. It will make finding a compatible instructor much easier.
What NOT to Expect from a CFI
It is a common saying in aviation and amongst flight instructors that a pilot certificate is a ‘license to learn’ (improper terminology not withstanding).
Here’s an idea: try saying that with a straight face to your teenage son or daughter holding that shiny new driver’s license. Doesn’t sound quite right there, does it? I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time with the idea of giving someone a 2000+ pound killing machine and telling them to now go ‘learn how to drive’ unsupervised in the lane next to me. Luckily, I’m not alone: it’s why most states now require driver education.
If you really want to learn how to fly, your thinking should be no different.
Pragmatically, this mindset exists because your flight instructors are… as we’ve already pointed out… instructors, and seldom educators. In that same vein, we can also see and understand that most of the pilot training industry is built around a watch-and-do system that is just trying to get the minimum information across using the least-cost/time critical path.
Once again, we are not trying to declare this as good or bad, but rather we’re trying to point out that you – a pilot-in-training – need to understand the limitations of instruction. If your goal is only to check the boxes and fulfill the minimum obligations to get your certificate, you need to know that you’re not really getting nearly as comprehensive of an education in piloting as you probably will need (or want) in the long-run. For the PPC Sport Pilot certificate (versus, say, the Private Pilot certificate), even more so.
In the end, some CFIs want to be efficient and minimize your time at task, while others will prefer to spend the extra time to more deeply share knowledge. Keep this in mind when you are thinking about whether a particular instructor would be a good ‘fit’ with your approach to learning.
What to Expect, Demand, or Ask From a CFI
Since there are not a huge number of PPC CFIs we’ll readily admit that sometimes your options can be pretty limited, but here’s what we think you should be considering when seeking out flight instruction.
A Fair Price
Make sure that all of your costs are made clear up front, and that there are no nasty surprises. See the section below on Costs for some of the more common considerations.
The Right Aircraft
Make sure their PPC will fly well where you’ll be at. There’s nothing worse that being a new student pilot and trying to wrestle a grossly underpowered aircraft into the air at the same time.
Also, make sure their PPC will be available for the duration of the training. Some CFIs – believe it or not – will refuse to allow you to solo in their aircraft, and won’t allow you to continue your instruction until you go out and buy your own unit. Aside from the facts that it’s a huge disruption in the learning process, it may not be immediately financial viable, you probably won’t really know what kind of aircraft you’ll want to buy at that point, and you just may not have the money at that moment, you simply would NEVER find a fixed-wing CFI making such demands! We strongly recommend steering clear of anyone who requires you to ‘buy before you fly’. If they’re that afraid of their students’ flying ability, we’d suggest it might speak volumes to their instruction and judgement to sign you off to solo in the first place.
Running a Business
In the simplest scenario, the question to ask is what happens if you crashed or damaged their aircraft? What if your instructor was injured in the course of providing you instruction?
Are they insured, bonded, or self-insured? Are you expected to pay the costs of repair? What about medical bills? No one thinks to ask these questions until after-the-fact, and by then it’s… too late. If you’re really nervous about these things, ask if they use any type of signed contract, mutual agreement, or waiver.
Patience and Courtesy
Sad to say, but some CFIs are known to be jerks if you even think about looking sideways at them or questioning their methods. People are people, and sometimes personalities clash, but a good CFI will show patience and understanding. Our best recommendation is to talk to others who have used a particular instructor, and ask for honest feedback. You’ll almost always hear one criticism or another about an instructor (no one is perfect), but consider it an ominous warning sign if you start encountering multiple heated complaints about a person.
Just because someone has years of experience doesn’t mean they are any fun to fly with, and just because they may be a new instructor doesn’t mean you cannot get a quality experience, either. Take the time and ask questions, get to know the person, and make sure it’s a good fit. You’re going to be spending some quality time with that person, so…
Time to Fly
Some CFIs have flexible schedules, while some are working and can only fly on the weekends. Find a CFI that works with your schedule. Some of us have had a great experience by taking 2 weeks off, traveling to an idyllic flying location, and pounding out the hours in one continuous run. Others of us have earned our certificate over the course of many months flying on the weekends. There isn’t a right or wrong method, but make sure the CFI’s approach aligns with your needs.
We strongly promote the idea of doing more than the minimum – even before taking your Check Ride – if it’s possible. CFIs are focused on the goal, but there are other goods lessons and practices to learn too, and there are lots of things we know newly minted pilots may never learn during training, but find in short order that they wish they had:
- Proper use of the radio in higher traffic environments. Some training grounds may never require you to pick up a radio, but that doesn’t mean you won’t need it where you fly.
- Crosswinds and breezy days. Although CFIs will usually work very hard to ensure you only fly during optimal conditions, this will not be the case thereafter… prepare for the suboptimal.
- Thermals and updrafts/downdrafts. Many pilots (especially if you’ll be trailering around) will eventually fly in dessert-like conditions, or fly at unique sights where mesa updrafts and forest downdrafts present unseen challenges.
- Class B/C/D endorsement. Most PPC pilots don’t care about (nor are equipped for) B/C airspace, but if you want to fly at or into that small, towered Class D regional airport near you, you’re going to need this endorsement. There is some debate about the process, but it appears to be generally accepted that the CFI can restrict activities and narrow the endorsement to only one type of airspace, if desired. (Note that your instructor will either have to already have the 61.325 endorsement themselves, or be a private pilot CFI.)
Some instructors will not want to practice advanced techniques until after your Check Ride, and virtually all of them will at least wait until you’ve done your minimum time in the seat and fulfilled the certificate requirements. No matter what the case, we recommend budgeting an extra 3-4 hours of dual instruction specifically for some advanced flight training, if the instructor is amenable.
Virtually all of us as new pilots ended up with dozens (hundreds?) of questions after our training. Find out if and how much your CFI is willing to stay in touch and talk through those questions when they come up. See if they are active on public discussion boards (or host their own). Do they send out a newsletter or e-mail every so often, just to check in with their ‘graduates’? It’s these little things that can make a difference.
We break down instruction costs into four categories. All costs are at the time of this writing (2020).
Most instructors will want you to have completed your written exam BEFORE you start flying with them. It’s a good idea anyways, especially if you’re new to flying. We aren’t going to play nice or beat around the bush in this instance: just go to King Schools and purchase their Sport Pilot Ground School and Exam Prep package, as well as the supplemental PPC DVD. It’s $300 well spent. If you can’t pass the exam after doing their coursework, you probably shouldn’t be flying.
At the present, dual time in a single engine fixed-wing aircraft cost about $200/hour, on average. That means that you could get your Fixed Wing Sport Pilot flight instruction for about $4000. Why are we saying this? Because a.) fixed wing instruction is often very easy to find locally and b.) once you have it you only need to get some minor additional time in a PPC and a sign-off from two different PPC instructors to add the PPC endorsement.
Now before you panic, the reason why we just said all that was to level-set what we think a reasonable cost is. Instruction time for a PPC certificate should cost near to or LESS than that (being there’s fewer hours required).
Think about it: if it isn’t, then why not just take the route we suggested and get yourself-dual certified? You’ll also have the added bonus of saving on overhead costs if you can do fixed wing training close to home.
There are occasionally some mitigating costs to consider.
Some instructors provide additional training as ‘practical test/checkride prep’ in between flying in the mornings and evenings. It isn’t technically a requirement for you to complete towards your certificate, so if they’re doing that you may choose to weigh that value and consider what it is worth to you separately.
The first exam will be your written, and we suggest budgeting for $200, plus travel costs. Unless you live in a big city, getting to the computerized exam sites will usually require you to at least make a day trip, if not overnight.
The other chunk of change can go to the designated pilot examiner (DPE) to do the practical test. There are not a whole lot of them out there, and you need to cover their time and travel costs. Some of them are amazingly generous with their time, and others will nickel-and-dime (if not outright profit) off of you. We’d actually encourage you to shop around on this point, if you have the means to travel. We’d normally say you should plan for about $500 to cover their costs, but circumstances can vary quite a bit.
(As an aside, you only ride with the DPE on your first certificate, not for any subsequent endorsements. Fixed wing DPEs are much more prolific. It’s another example of considering fixed wing first if your circumstances are particularly restrictive.)
Examples of overhead costs will be travel and fuel reimbursement to instructors who travel to you, or RV/hotel/meal/fuel costs if you are traveling to them. Sometimes instructors want to travel to new and exotic places so traveling to you is a perk for them, but sometimes it is not.
Overhead costs should also consider lost income if you’re taking unpaid time off of work.
There’s no fixed number here, but if you’re staying away from home for two weeks in a hotel, that going to be at least another $2000 right there that you need to consider.