The Process: Steps to the Private Pilot Certificate

By Martin Pauly ✈ November 22, 2020

Compared with many other things, like getting a drivers license, the process of becoming a pilot is much more complex. But we tackle one thing at a time, and your instructor will be there along the way to guide you from step to step. The flowchart further down on this page will give you an overview.

Here is a high-level summary of the steps involved:

  • Find an instructor
    It is typical for a student pilot to train with the same instructor throughout the training for the private pilot certificate. You can change instructors, of course, but be aware that there is typically some efficiency loss through repeat of already performed steps, where the new instructor can verify what you already know and where you still need help.
  • Find an airplane
    This may be as easy as flying the airplane the instructor assigns as your training aircraft. Or maybe you want to buy an airplane to train in, or join a flying club or aircraft partnership in which your instructor can train you. There are lots of choices, at different price ranges, and you typically get what you pay for in terms of comfort and equipment.
    Not all instructors can train in all aircraft, because flying clubs and flight schools usually have rules for who is allowed to fly with students in their planes. I suggest to prioritize finding an instructor over the airplane. A great instructor can provide a meaningful a d comprehensive training experience in a lesser airplane, but a bad instructor (or one with whom you don’t get along well for any reason) will not provide a good training experience in even the best airplane. So pick your instructor first and your airplane second.
  • Citizenship verification or TSA approval
    Since 9/11, by law instructors and flight schools are required to verify documents flight training applicants to show they are US Citizens. For foreigners, training is possible after a background check through the TSA’s Alien Flight Student Program. It’s a one-time step, but one that has to occur before training begins.
  • Obtain a medical certificate and student pilot certificate
    Technically, a medical certificate is not required before the first solo flight, but I recommend to get one before the training starts – so as to not spend a significant amount of time and money only to find out there is a dead end.
    The good news is the vast majority of people can get a medical certificate just fine. Most student pilots apply for a Third Class medical, unless they train to become a professional pilot in which case it may make sense to obtain a Second or First Class Medical, again to make sure there are no health reasons which would prevent you from flying later.
    The student pilot certificate is also required before your first solo flight. An application is created through the Integrated Airman Certification and Rating Application (IACRA) website and typically submitted to your certificated flight instructor.
  • Start flying
    Your training begins with a few very basic maneuvers, and gets more advanced from there. You learn how to fly straight and level, and how to climb and descend. You learn how to fly turns. Then we step it up a notch and combine turns and straight&level flight by flying patterns, while compensating for wind – in preparation for flying a typical traffic pattern. Take offs and landings – yup, we add those as well. You will become familiar with the use of the radio to talk to air traffic control, or to announce your position at a smaller airport without a control tower. And just to be prepared, we will practice emergency procedures – to be prepared in case something goes wrong.
  • Ground school
    In parallel with your flight training, you will go through a ground school study program. This includes things like meteorology, aerodynamics, regulations, navigation and flight planning. Ground school can be done in different ways: There are physical classes offered at flight schools and community colleges, and there are self-study courses which you can go through at your own pace.
    You will also have individual ground school sessions with your instructor, one on one, on items which require a better understanding or which cannot be taught well in a classroom or through a book. This complements the training from a ground school class or self-study program.
  • First solo
    For most student pilots, the first solo flight is the most exciting and memorable experience on their way to the private pilot certificate – maybe more exciting even than passing the practical test at the end. The first solo will occur after your instructor has full confidence in your ability to handle the airplane safely and correctly. You will have to pass a written test administered by your instructor, and the first solo will take place on a beautiful day where the weather has no chance of making things difficult. It will be a short flight, but a significant confidence builder.
  • Cross-country flying
    After you feel at home in the aircraft around the airport, it is time to practice navigation and flight planning skills to go from A to B – and learn how to use the airplane to travel. There are certain minimum requirements for cross country experience you will need to have prior to your checkride, but depending on your interests and desires (and your budget), this can be grown to incorporate longer cross-country trips.
  • Night flying
    FAA regulations require student pilots to acquire night flying experience, both with an instructor and solo. Navigation is quite different at night, for obvious reasons. The air is usually calmer, and so are the radio frequencies. Night flying can be very pleasant, and we will explore it during this phase of your training.
  • Knowledge test
    Sometime before your practical test, you will have to pass a written test – called the knowledge test in FAA terminology. It’s a multiple-choice test which covers the broad range of subject matters you learned about in ground school. After passing the knowledge test, you will have 24 months to complete the practical test.
  • Practical test
    The practical test, also known as the checkride, marks the end of your flight training. It consists of an oral exam portion and a flight test. (See here for some useful information from the FAA.) After a satisfactory performance, you will leave with a temporary private pilot certificate, good for 120 days during which time your permanent certificate (a plastic card) will arrive in the mail. Congratulations, you are now a private pilot!

How many months, and how many flight hours will it take? And what will it all cost? It varies greatly from person to person, so it is hard to give an answer which is meaningful for all cases. Having said that, most student pilots who finish their training do so over six to twelve months. (It can be much faster if the training is full-time in a Part 141 flight school, but will probably cost more.) The FAA requires a minimum of 40 hours of flight time in preparation for the practical test; however, that seems to be on the low side for most people. Between 50 and 60 is where many people end up, with exceptions on both ends of the range.