VROOOOOOOOM!!! Here comes the jet plane, getting ready to land in the hangar. So open up the doors! C'mon… open up!

Ever since your mother duped you into eating those strained peas by pretending that spoonful of mush was an airplane, you've been fascinated with airplanes, flying, and the wild blue yonder. If you only knew how to fly, you could get away from your humdrum life (and that deceitful woman you call "mother") and fly free like the birds. But there's a problem: if you don't learn how to fly, you'll drop like a stone and crash. There are only two options: 1) become stinking rich and hire someone to fly you wherever you want to go, whenever you want, or 2) get a pilot's license. Option 2 is a tad cheaper.

With a pilot's license, you will be able to start a career as a pilot, fly friends and family around on weekends, pilot your own plane for business trips, compete in aerobatics competitions, assist with humanitarian or "search and rescue" missions… the list goes on and on. So read on, and get ready to learn how to fly, dear Icarus… but don't get too close to the Sun (your wings might melt).

A quick word about safety. Human beings are not, by nature, supposed to fly, so it's natural to feel some anxiety at the thought of learning how to do anything at 10,000 feet. While it's true that flying involves some inherent risks, it is about the safest form of transportation we have - much safer than driving. Cars are involved in 10 times as many accidents per vehicle mile as general aviation aircraft (that is, all aircraft except airliners and military). Aviation is heavily regulated by a host of safety standards set by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), aviation's governing body in the United States. Your flight training will teach you how to fly safely and how to react during those rare occasions of emergency that are beyond your control.

If that doesn't assuage your fears, take heart: safety experts say that if you were born on a plane and flew continuously all your life, you'd live well past 100 before you eventually crashed (that is, if the food didn't kill you first...).


No matter what your ultimate goal in aviation is - be it recreational flying or a more advanced training program - you must start by getting a private pilot's license. (Word to the wise: technically, pilots hold "certificates," not licenses, to fly, although hardly anyone except the FAA calls them that.) This private license allows a pilot to fly a single-engine airplane under visual flight rules (VFR), meaning visibility of at least three miles, as well as at night. A private pilot may carry passengers but may not be paid for doing so, although the pilot can share operating expenses with the passengers.

Once you have earned a private license, you can work toward other certificates: a commercial certificate allows you to be paid for your flying, a flight instructor certificate enables you to teach others, and an airline transport certificate permits you to fly an airliner. You can also add various ratings that allow you pilot multi-engine airplanes, navigate using instruments in bad weather, and fly different aircraft like seaplanes, gliders, helicopters, and balloons. But before you even think about doing that fun stuff, you gotta get your basic private license.

The prerequisites for a pilot's license are simple enough that almost anyone can earn one:

  • Medical examination. You must pass the basic medical exam that all applicants are required to undergo, certifying that you meet the medical standards for safely operating an aircraft. This medical exam is so important, that we've devoted the entire next step to it. To cheat and skip ahead, click here.

  • Language. All applicants for the private license have to be able to read, speak, and understand English (the international language of aviation).

  • Age. The FAA says you must be at least 16 years old to fly solo with a student pilot certificate, and 17 years old to get a pilot's license. There is no upper age limit, provided that you are healthy enough to pass the basic medical exam discussed above.

  • Time. It's gonna take quite a bit. A private license requires a minimum of 40 hours of flight time, with most student pilots logging closer to 60-80 hours before their final check ride, as well as extra time for study on the ground in preparation for an FAA written test. The length of your training depends in part on whether you want to study full- or part-time. Intensive full-time programs can be completed in as few as two weeks or a month, while a part-time student typically takes between four and six months of flying several times a week.

  • Money. Again, it's gonna take quite a bit. While flying is certainly not restricted to the fabulously wealthy-you can learn to fly on a budget - it nevertheless is not an inexpensive endeavor. If you train part-time at a local airport, for example, plan on investing in the range of $3,000 to $5,000, with costs varying widely by region. It is a good idea to consider whether you have the funds to start toward and reach your goal within a reasonable time period. Keep in mind that you do not need to pay for all of your flight training up front. Most training programs let you pay as you go, although you might get a price break by paying for a block of lessons in advance.

For an interesting discussion about the costs associated with obtaining a pilot's license, check out this forum at Airliners.net.