So, You wanna be a pilot?

alex 172

Now that I’ve had a few weeks to enjoy being a newly minted private pilot, I decided to do some quick calculations on that unfortunate stack of receipts related to my flying education.


Some flight schools will throw out very low numbers in order to entice potential students. I’ve heard schools throwing out numbers in the $4500 -> $6500 range. Fortunately, my school never tried to promote wildly optimistic figures for my schooling cost. I knew it was going to be expensive, but I was willing to pay for it.

There are three types of flight students.
Student A: Independently Wealthy
Student B: Willing to sacrifice and save in order to pay for schooling.
Student C: Not afraid of large debts.

Unfortunately, I fall in category C. My feeling was that it was the best time for me to take on such an endeavor. With no kids, and very few non-work responsibilities, mid-late 20’s is a good time to start flying. So I figured, I might as well rack up the debt now, and do it. Otherwise, I would probably regret it for the rest of my life.


Besides the financial commitment, the next valuable commodity to tally when considering flight school is time.

  • How much time do you have?
  • How much time does your instructor have?
  • How much time does it take to get to the airport?

When I began flight training (08/2005), I was telecommuting for Penn State. I had a very flexible schedule, and I was only 25 minutes from the airport. I could schedule Thursday and Friday afternoon lessons. By 01/2006, I moved on to a new job that was an hour away from the airport with ZERO vacation time. Suddenly, I became a weekend only pilot.

Being a weekend only pilot, bad weather can keep you from flying for months, especially during Pennsylvania winters. There was once a 3 month span, where I had a lesson booked every weekend, but I did not fly at all due to weather.

Student time is just one time related item. What is your instructor’s schedule? If your instructor is booked, or the rental planes are booked up, you might run in to major scheduling difficulties. My instructor only had a limited amount of time for training every week, but it was very compatible with my schedule. I was very fortunate, I had the same instructor the whole time.

The Whole Enchilada

Expense Description Cost
Plane Time Just the rental plane $9,243
Instructor Time Dual Time and Ground School $3,382
Equipment Required CD’s/Books/Headset $1,030
Examiner Checkride $325
Total $13,980

Keep in mind, that total figure does not include the expense of just getting to the airport. My rough estimate is about $1500+ for travel expenses. Add that to the total, and its $15,000.

Lessons Learned
Here is a bit of advice to the prospective student, after my three years of training.

Use the cheapest aircraft possible
I started out in a Cessna 152 for $80/hr and switched to the 172 which now bills out at $130/hr. My rough estimate is that I spent around $3500 for the transition. That’s including the extra expense, and the 10 hours of flight time required for me to resolo in the 172. My advice to new students would be use the 152 through the entire private pilot process, then get checked out in the 172.

Go cheap on the headset
I shelled out a lot of money for an ANR headset, when a cheaper headset would have worked fine for my student training. A Lightspeed QFR Solo is a decent headset for $150. Use a cheap headset for training, and then go get a Zulu.

Weekend only flying will take time
You hear these stories about people finishing their private with 40-50 hours of flight time in 2 months. It’s possible, If you’re a college student on summer break in Arizona.. If your flying weekends only in Pennsylvania, its not going to happen.

East coast weather sucks
January->March is too windy. April is too wet. July and August are hazy, hot, and humid. Because of my weekend only schedule, there were multiple 2-3 month periods where I did not fly at all, with lessons booked every weekend.

Be Patient
Many people who take flying lessons end up quitting in frustration. Lack of funds, lack of time, lack of dedication, or lack of patience. In the case of some people, they shouldn’t be flying in the first place.

I was able to succeed by having a long term focus. There are going to be many times during your training when frustration will pop up. The weather is going to suck. The bills are going pile up. Your instructor is going to be booked. The plane will be broken. There were at least 10 incidents during my training where I drove two hours round trip to the airport, only to be grounded because of bad weather or a broken plane.

Keep focused on the long term, and don’t let short term irritants keep you from achieving your goals.