How to Become a Private Pilot

How to Become a Pilot

Image by Bailey Mariner © The Balance 2019 

The private pilot certificate (or private pilot license) has been the most commonly sought-after pilot certificate for years. Some people seek a private pilot certificate purely as a hobby or sport, while others desire the convenience of aircraft travel for vacations or to visit family members.

Some private pilots and aircraft owners use their airplane as a primary mode of transportation to business meetings or events, and for some, it's a step in the road toward becoming an airline pilot. If you've decided that the private pilot certificate is right for you, then these are the next steps.

Private pilots are trained well enough to navigate a small aircraft through the nation's airspace by themselves. While in training, a private pilot learns aircraft maneuvers, navigation techniques, emergency procedures, and cross-country flight planning. Private pilot training is more intense than training for a sports pilot certificate or a recreational pilot certificate, but not quite as extensive as for a commercial pilot certificate. Here are the steps for how to become a private pilot:

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Make Sure You're Eligible

Make sure you meet the eligibility requirements outlined in the regulations. See FAR 61.103 for more information. A private pilot applicant needs to be at least 17 years old, able to read, speak and understand English, successfully complete the flight training requirements and the knowledge exam. In the end, a private pilot applicant will need to pass a practical exam that consists of a verbal exam and a flight test.

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Obtain a Student Pilot Certificate

You'll begin by obtaining a student pilot certificate (and typically an aviation medical certificate at the same time). You have three options for obtaining a student pilot certificate:

  • You can get your student pilot certificate and aviation medical certificate at the same time at the aviation medical examiner's office when you go in for your appointment. The document that the examiner gives you after you successfully complete your medical exam will be both a student pilot certificate and medical exam in one. It is the most common option since the medical certificate is required before a student can solo the aircraft.
  • The second option is to go to an FAA Flight Standards District Office (FSDO) and submit an application for a student pilot certificate by itself.
  • Lastly (and much less commonly), a person can submit an application for a student pilot certificate to an FAA examiner.
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Pass a Third-Class Aviation Medical Exam

Obtain an aviation medical certificate. If you haven't already passed your aviation medical exam, you'll need to have one done before you can solo the airplane. Solo flight can happen quicker than you think, so it's best not to put off the medical exam. To exercise privileges of a private pilot, a person is required to have a current 3rd Class FAA-issued medical certificate.

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Find an Instructor

If you don't already have a flight instructor or flight school in mind, check at your local airport. If your airport has a flight school or Fixed-Base Operation (FBO), check there first. If not, ask around at the terminal or other business on the field. It's a small community, and most of the time, there are flight instructors that are eager to teach.

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Take the FAA Written Exam

Some flight schools and instructors will require you to successfully complete the FAA Private Pilot Written Exam before ever stepping foot in an airplane. Others will let you fly as much as you'd like while you study at home for the test. Either way, the test must be completed before you can take the final private pilot check ride for your certificate. It's best to take it early on—flying is easier when you have the background knowledge. It just makes sense. Don't put it off.

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Start Flying

You'll need to gain the required flight experience. You'll start by learning basic maneuvers, such as takeoff, landing, turns, climbs, and descents. A student needs at least 10 hours to solo the aircraft, but many people take more time to learn how to fly the airplane—while the primary focus might be learning how to land the airplane, you'll also need to know emergency procedures, how to communicate on the radios, etc. After your first solo, you'll work on solo cross-country flights; you'll learn navigation techniques and more difficult maneuvers. From there, you'll fine-tune your piloting skills for the final exam- the check ride.

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Take the Checkride (FAA Practical Exam)

You'll need a certain amount of experience to be eligible for the check ride. For example, a private pilot applicant is required to have at least 40 hours of flight time, of which 20 are from an instructor, and 10 are solo flights. More specifically, you'll need at least 3 hours of cross-country training with your instructor, including 3 hours of night flying, one cross-country that is over 100 nautical miles, 10 takeoffs, and landings, and 3 hours of basic instrument training. On top of that, you're required to have 10 hours of solo flying, which includes 5 hours of a solo cross-country flight, and one cross-country that is over 150 nautical miles with landings at three different airports.

The check ride is given by a designated FAA examiner, and it consists of a verbal exam and a flight exam. The exam can last from about two hours to 6 hours, depending on your level of knowledge and the examiner's methods. The ground portion is usually done first and can last from 30 minutes to a few hours. If the verbal exam is successful, the examiner will then conduct the flight portion of the exam, which typically lasts 1-2 hours.

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Get Your License

Upon successful completion of your FAA Practical Test, the examiner will assist you in filling out the FAA paperwork online. You'll have to pay them (rates vary so check with your instructor beforehand). The examiner will give you a temporary private pilot certificate to use while you wait for the official FAA certificate to arrive in the mail.