Taking a Discovery Flight? Here's What to Expect

A DiscoveryFlight, often called an introductory flight, is just what it sounds like: A flight that allows a person that's never been flying to try it out for the first time. Discovery flights are often offered at a discounted rate, and they’re a great option for someone who wonders if they should get a private pilot's license.

People take discovery flights to learn what it’s like to fly, see if it's something they might want to pursue, and sometimes just to see the area (although some companies distinguish between discovery flights and scenic flights, such as a tour of a city, so make sure your discovery flight is going to accomplish what you intend it to.)

A discovery flight is usually a short flight with a certified flight instructor or commercialpilot and includes your participation. If you've never flown before, you might be wondering what to expect. Here are a few things to expect during a typical discovery flight.

It Will Be Casual

Young pilot getting in plane.
Gary John Norman/The Image Bank / Getty Images

Some flight schools are more formal than others, but in general, your pilot will be friendly and relaxed. A flight school is an environment for learning, so you may see other student pilots and private pilots engaged in lessons, taking a ground school class, or just hanging out and chatting with other pilots. Your instructor will likely welcome you personally, might ask you a few personal questions to see what your level of interest is, and then will discuss the details of the flight with you. 

It May Be a Small Airplane

Most discovery flights are conducted in Cessna 172 or Piper Warrior aircraft, or another similar airplane. Most of the time, the aircraft will be a single-engine propeller-driven aircraft in which the instructor and customer or student will sit side-by-side in the front. These airplanes are typically 200 horsepower or less and cruise between 100-150 knots. These aircraft are meant for flight training and are safe, reliable airplanes for discovery flights. 

You Might Participate

It’s voluntary, of course, but you will likely be allowed to fly the aircraft on your own, with the instructor coaching you. After takeoff and when the instructor has maneuvered to a safe altitude above the ground to an area where you can practice, he or she will demonstrate how to do basic turns, climbs, and descents, and will let you control the aircraft. Depending on your level of interest, you might even be able to perform a private pilot maneuver or two. But it’s always dependent on your level of comfort, and the instructor will ask you before giving you control of the airplane. Some people would rather just enjoy the view without ever touching the controls, and that’s completely fine, too.

A Casual but Professional Preflight Briefing

Just like on a passenger jet, the pilot or instructor will spend a few minutes with you explaining what will occur, where you’ll fly, and a game plan for how the flight will go. You’ll also get a preflight safety briefing, including how to work the doors and seat belts and where to find the sick sack if you end up needing one.

There Might Be a Few (Small) Bumps

Turbulence is usually not an issue since instructors usually steer clear of choppy weather on discovery flights. It’s not enjoyable to get bounced around, even for experienced pilots, but much less so for someone who has never flown in a small airplane before.

For the most part, discovery flights are conducted on calm days, but turbulence isn’t entirely predictable, so don’t be alarmed if there are a few small bumps. It may be more or less turbulent than you expect it to be, but your instructor wouldn’t take you up in an unsafe condition, and a small amount of turbulence is quite normal for light aircraft.

You Will Wear a Headset

Pilots wear headsets to reduce the cockpit noise and to clearly communicate with each other, as well as other pilots flying in the area and air traffic control, if necessary. You will be given a headset to wear. They’re comfortable, and they allow you to hear and speak to the pilot and other passengers. Don’t worry: Your voice won’t be heard over the radio by other pilots or ATC - there’s a push-to-talk switch that the pilot uses for that. When you talk into your headset microphone, only the pilot and any other passengers will hear you. 

You May Get Airsick

You might not get sick, but you might. It’s actually really common for people to get airsick, especially on their first flight or two. Don’t be embarrassed if you do. The combination of nerves, excitement, and a floating feeling can make anyone feel nauseous. Even experienced pilots can get queasy from time to time – it’s just one of the side effects of flying. If you feel nauseous, just tell the pilot and he’ll get you on the ground as quick as possible, where you’ll feel better almost immediately. And don’t be discouraged. Many student pilots are sick at first, but the more you fly, the quicker your body adjusts to the sensations. Most students work through any airsickness during the first few flights.

Learn What it Takes to Become a Pilot

There won’t be any cheesy sales pitch, but do expect that your instructor will be eager to share the joy of flight with you. He or she might tell you more about what to expect during flight training, how to go about getting a pilot's license, and will gladly answer your questions about flying. They're not salesmen, though, so there's not usually an awkward sales pitch; after all, instructors are usually paid regardless, and there’s not usually a bonus for signing up a new student (although sometimes there is). Most instructors really are just excited to share the world of flying with others. At a minimum, your instructor will probably share with you the next steps if you decide that you do want to come back for more flying. 

See the Local Area

Yes, you can probably fly over your house. It's a typical thing to do during a discovery flight. You may also see local landmarks, nearby lakes, towns, and cities. If you have a specific place you want to see from the air, just let your pilot know. If it’s within range and doesn’t violate any airspace restrictions, they’re usually happy to oblige. 

Discovery Flights Usually Take 1-2 Hours

During a typical first flight, you'll brief for about 15-20 minutes, fly for 30 minutes or an hour, and then you’ll want to allow time for photos in front of the airplane, and to chat with the pilot if you have any questions or if you decide to go to the next step and begin flight training. The entire experience usually takes between one and two hours.

Most Importantly, Expect to Have Fun

Discovery flights should be fun. They're usually a low-key, relaxed flight in which you'll see the sights, take in the elements of flight and learn a thing or two about flying an airplane. Take time to enjoy it.