Updated: Nov 17
As a first generation pilot, I understand the struggle of finding answers to questions that you don’t even know to ask in the first place.
In fact, my non-aviation friends and family still don’t quite understand the difference between the private pilot’s license, instrument rating, and all the other fancy terms even though I’ve explained countless times. If it’s been a confusing journey for you - don’t worry. For the aviation newbie this is a lot of information that you’re unfamiliar with. It’s all good. Let’s start with the basics.
Lucky for you, the first certificate to fly is free: your Student Certificate AKA your license to be a student in an aircraft. You just have to be 16 (unless you’re flying a glider or balloon) complete an online application that your instructor can walk you through, speak English, and have a government issued I.D.
If you’re only here to fly recreationally, you can get your Sport Pilot Certificate, Recreational Pilot Certificate, or Private Pilot License. Most people go for their private pilot license because the alternatives have many limitations. It is relatively easy to obtain the Sport or Recreational Pilot Certificates and it doesn’t take many hours to qualify, but just because you have the experience to “qualify” doesn’t mean you are actually capable of being a safe pilot. Most people need 40-60 flight hours to be a competent pilot, so you might as well go for the Private Pilot License which will allow you more options when it comes to what planes you can fly and where you can fly them.
For the recreational pilot, you’ll most likely want to get your Private Pilot’s License compared to alternatives. For the professional pilot, you’ll need to start with your Private Pilot’s License as a foundation for more learning.
Any other additions to your Private Pilot License are not necessary if you don’t plan to earn money as a pilot, but they can be extremely helpful in maintaining your safety. If you’re here to fly professionally (so you can get paid) or to earn more than just your Private Pilot License, you’ll work on your Instrument Rating next.
Simply put, the Private Pilot’s License allows you to fly in clear skies while the Instrument Rating will enable you to fly with reduced vision and cloudy weather. The Instrument Rating (IR) will allow you to become a safer, more competent pilot able to handle a wider array of circumstances. You’ll expand the conditions you are legally allowed to fly in and your own personal minimums (the conditions you feel comfortable to fly in).
For the private pilot who just wants to fly on weekends, the IR is optional. For the pilot with professional aspirations ($), the IR is necessary.
Next up, will be your Commercial Pilot’s License. This license is your ticket to start getting paid for flying. You can only earn money for flying after obtaining your Commercial Pilot’s License.
The Commercial Pilot’s License means you’re eligible to earn an hourly wage or salary; so, what jobs can you get? You can tow banners and gliders, aerial photography, fly skydivers, become an airline pilot, etc.
To be an airline pilot, you’ll likely need significantly more hours than you have at this point in your training as a commercial pilot. You’ll need to time build. Many people timebuild as a Certified Flight Instructor to earn the hours they need to be an airline pilot.
To become a flight instructor, you’ll need to become a Certified Flight Instructor. Most flight schools will guarantee their students at least an interview for a flight instructor position. Then, it may take 1-2 years to earn the hours you need for an airline position.
You can also take this a step further and come a CFII, Certified Flight Instructor for instrument flying. The difference between a CFI and CFII is that a CFI can teach private pilots while a CFII will teach instrument students.
Simplified, you’ll likely earn your Private Pilot’s License and possibly your Instrument Rating to fly recreationally. To fly professionally, you’ll get your Private Pilot’s License, Instrument Rating, Commercial License, and likely CFI. Then, while you timebuild to become an airline pilot, you might work on your Multi-Engine Rating.
Common Questions for Aviation Newbies
How many hours do I need to become a private pilot?
Among other experience requirements, you’ll need 40 hours. However, most people need more than 40 hours to have the skills and knowledge to become a private pilot.
How many hours do I need to earn my instrument rating?
On top of the hours you’ve earned as a private pilot, you’ll likely need 40-50 more hours.
Do I have to become a CFI before I can be an airline pilot?
If you want to start getting paid while you timebuild, getting a job is a good idea. There are many low-hour jobs to choose from, but most people opt to become flight instructors until an airline opportunity comes their way.
How many hours do I need to timebuild before I can get an airline job? You’ll need 1,500 hours to get hired at an airline. You can get your commercial license at 250 hours, so you may need to timebuild another 1,250 hours.
Can I get a job after I’ve earned my Private Pilot’s License?
No, you’ll need your Commercial Pilot’s License (250 flight hours) to get paid for any flying.
Do I have to get my Instrument Rating?
The professional pilot and CFI will need the Instrument Rating.
The pilot who just wants to fly for fun does not need the Instrument Rating, but it can increase safety.
How long will it take to become a commercial pilot or CFI?
You can get all of your ratings done within 12 months if you are a full-time flight student. Otherwise, you can take as long or short a time as you’d like. Some people space their flight training over a few years.
How long will it take to just get my Private Pilot’s License?
It can take as short as 1 month for the full-time flight student. For the fly-once-per-week student, it may take a year.
Do I need a physical or other medical clearance?
Yes. Before you can solo, you’ll need an FAA medical. If plan to fly less than 5 passengers in a relatively small aircraft (See FAA Basic Med requirements), you can get your Basic Med online. However, you’ll need at least a third class medical for your Private Pilot’s License. To become an airline pilot, you’ll need your First Class Medical.
How do I get an FAA medical?
A quick google search can lead you to an FAA medical examiner in your area. They’ll ask you if you want a Third, Second, or First class medical. For your Private Pilot’s License, you only need your Third Class Medical. However, you can opt to get your First Class Medical just so know if you are eligible for the future.
Approximately how much will each pilot’s license cost?
Private Pilot’s License $12,000 - $13,000
Instrument Rating $8,000 - $10,000
Commercial Pilot’s License $30,000
Flight Instructor $5,000
Can I minimize the cost of my flight training?
Some schools will have higher prices for expedited programs, but that may be beneficial for you if you are in a hurry to earn money as a pilot.
The more often you go flying and study at home, the less time you’ll have to take reviewing the same material with an instructor. If you fly everyday, you will likely spend less money than if you fly once per week because you’ll retain more knowledge and skills easier.
Click here for money-saving tips.
Purchase your logbook here.
BFR - By far the most concise well organized VFR flight review book on the market.
Private Pilot Oral Exam Guide - Updated to reflect vital FAA regulatory, procedural, and training changes, this indispensable tool prepares private pilots for their checkride.
FAR AIM 2021 - Federal Aviation Regulations/Aeronautical Information Manual