The first steps to becoming a pilot

For students training to be pilots outside of a formal school or military setting, the path of study is often unclear. I know it was for me. As I meet more of the piloting community I’m finding it is often a long and winding road for many of us.

If you are as lost as I was, this post is for you.

Typically beginning aviators take something called a “discovery flight” where a pilot takes them up and gives them control of the plane for a little while and the student gets a feel for flying.
From there a student wishing to continue must decide what kind of pilot they will be. It goes something like this:

-Sport Pilot License (similar to recreation pilot) – requires a drivers license, 7-20 hours of flight training plus FAA exam, you can fly yourself and one other person
-Private Pilot License – requires a 3rd class medical certificate, 40-60 hours of flight training plus FAA exam, you can fly yourself and other people, but you cannot charge for your services, only fuel costs
-Commercial Pilot License – requires a 2nd class medical certificate, 120-250 hours of flight training plus FAA exam, you can fly people and cargo and get paid to do it
-Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) – requires a 1st class medical certificate, 1,500 hours of flight training plus FAA exam, you can fly for an airline

In addition to these licenses there are ratings – instrument ratings, multi-engine ratings, and so forth that allow you to fly in different airplanes and weather conditions.

I decided to shoot for a commercial pilot license with an instrument rating (this means I will be able to fly at night, through clouds, and in other conditions and rely on my instruments and not my visual cues to navigate). To do this, one must first obtain a private pilot license, which you can do concurrently with your instrument rating. To gain the training you need to get a private license, you must first get a 3rd class medical certificate and a student pilot license. Sigh. One step forward, two steps back.

The 3rd Class medical certificate is the least rigorous of the three medical exams and [depending on how connected you are] can cost anywhere from $40 to $150. Luckily for me, the CFI (certified flight instructor) I bartered my first two flights with gave me the contact info to one that would do it for $40. According to the FAA there are roughly 3,400 doctors qualified to do your FAA medical exam so if you are not made of money and want to call around, you could probably find a number of different pricing options. It’s a fairly simple exam. You fill out your medical history and the doctor asks you about any surgeries, scars, or birthmarks you may have. They want to know about any doctor’s visits during the past three years. During the exam the doctor will take your blood pressure, listen to your breathing and heartbeat, look at your feet, knees, stomach and back, check your eyes apart from any corrective lenses or glasses as you would do at an optometrists office, measure your height and weight and take a urine sample. If you pass, you obtain your 3rd class medical certificate and student pilot license on the same form all in the same day!

As an official student pilot with a certificate to prove it, you gain your first step in eligibility for a number of scholarships to aid you in your training.

So, I have my student pilot license, 1.7 hours of flying in my log book, a student private pilot manual I found at the library, and a CFI open to working with me again. Now, it’s just that pesky matter of a plane…it is the student’s responsibility to come up with the plane you train on.


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