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.

  • chris hubing


    15 grand ouch… and i assume you’re only have vfr?

    i really wanna do this… i started playing with flight sims when i was 5. my fave exercise in fail was to try to land a 747 on the U.S.S. Nimitz in San Fran bay. i’d get close to the deck and throw the thrust reverses on full and come to almost a stall…. inevitably there just wasn’t enough room to bring the beast to a halt, so i’d end up kinda slowly falling off the end.. was fun though. πŸ™‚

    phil sorber’s dad owned a cessna 172 (non retractable gear) for a little while and i got to fly it (N2329E).

    if i was going to do it, i think that i’d take off a couple weeks from work and do one of the flight schools down in florida. that’s what phil’s dad recommended. the weather down there is much, much better and you can bang it out. i’ll have to save up some coin, but i also want a new motorcycle… decisions, decisions….

    good blog post.


  • asv

    Thanks for the congrats Chris!

    Yeah, I definitely think the few weeks off route would be a good way to go, at a place where the weather is predictable and generally calm.

    I’m waiting a few months to begin IFR training. I might even consider going the concentrated school route as well. I like my flight school, but I don’t want to spend 2 years getting my instrument.

  • Ed T

    $9,243 would have made a 50% downpayment on a gently used C152

  • Steve

    But it’s all worth it in the end, right? πŸ™‚

    I’ve lucked out in having a great airport close by that I am training quite affordably. Starting off in taildraggers (Champ/Cub) for about $55/hr and instruction’s about $30/hr and then transitioning to a C150 for the rest of the training at about $65/hr. Add to that I fly a couple times a week and I might save some more in the end. But regardless of the cost, it’s far too much fun to be in the sky!

  • P-Flyer

    Way to go!!! Sounds about right to me. In Phoenix (Mesa) I finished my PP-ASEL on 4/22. Here’s what it cost:

    FAA Written: $80.00 (AOPA Discount is $10.00 I think)
    Exam Fee: $400.00
    Airplane Rental: $6,831.00 (PA28A-181 @ $90.00 dry)
    Instruction: $2,825.00
    Fuel: $3908.85
    Stuff: $1,000.00 (E6B, Headset, Books, etc)

    It’s worth every penny.

    I live about 25 miles from the airport and I’m afraid to add that up too! I finished at 78.1 hours – a lot of people finish faster… Great blog!

  • asv

    re: Steve

    Totally worth it in the end. I wouldn’t trade my experience for anything. I wish there were some more affordable options for training, but I’m right outside of philly.

  • asv

    Thanks for the comment P-flyer, I finished up in the mid-70’s.

  • Gail

    Man, I am so glad you wrote this post. I get asked related questions all the time, because most people have no idea how much time and money is invested in getting a license. Now I can just link here!

  • asv

    Thanks for commenting Gail. Its definitely a lot more expensive and time consuming than most people think. I’m still really happy I did it. Now its on to IFR training in a few months.

  • gail

    When I was going through ground school last year I had a much closer look at the realities you mentioned above (weather, time, other costs, etc.) and eventually came to the conclusion that I wouldn’t be able to afford my #1 hobby (travel) or even my #2 hobby (photography) for a long time.

    I had to ask myself whether I would sacrifice my first two hobbies for a pilot’s license that I’d still have to do outside of a full-time job and in the end I had to say no, not now. It would be tough but I think I could stop buying photo equipment, but the one thing I could not make myself do is stop travelling.

    So the license is shelved until such time that I can either make that sort of sacrifice or have a sudden infusion of capital (and even then I’d probably travel with it). If money were no object — we’re talking a lottery win here — I’d go for a helicopter license.

    So I’ve contented myself with flying as a passenger in whatever I can — helicopters, single-engine, warbirds, biplanes, etc. Still fun!

  • gail

    I forgot to mention that part of the satisfaction, the reward, is having made those sacrifices and putting in that level of commitment to your goal. Hats off to you, Alex!

    (David would’ve been so pleased, especially to hear that you’re going for your instrument rating. It took him one year to get his.)

  • asv


    Thanks for sharing your experience.

    Yes, its can be very hard to juggle flying with a full time job and other interests. I hope you can pursue your license in the future.

    You mention helicopters, I would love to get my helicopter rating too! So much to do, too little time and money.

    Thanks for the congrats! Dave was someone who solidified my and many other people’s interest in flying. I can’t wait to move on to instrument training.

  • Gordon R. Vaughan

    Congratulations, you know by now that’s a major accomplishment. It’s funny, I kept tabs of all my student pilot expenses too, and still have them somewhere filed away. My recollection is that it was about a third of what you paid, but that was 1980-81. Of course aircraft rental is up, but I guess instructor rates have gone up a lot, they didn’t used to get paid much at all.

    I used four-place aircraft for most of my training, which I ended up thinking was worth it (after being sold on it by my instructors), but there wasn’t such a huge price differential back then.

    Yeah, you start paying a lot closer attention to daily and seasonal weather patterns, as you wonder whether you’ll get to fly or not. You also really do notice how far away the airport is! I now live just minutes from a nice general aviation airport, but haven’t flown in years, sadly πŸ™

    And that’s the bad news, or maybe a caveat. As hard as it seems, unless you’re in category “A”, above, getting your private license is actually the easy part. You’re got a set goal to reach, and expensive as it is (and though it may not seem like it at times) a fairly set cost target.

    Once you’ve got your private ticket, then you’ve got to find a way to keep flying on a consistent basis, and that means you’ve got to fit it into your budget rather than treat it as a special project. I’ve seen some pretty well-off folks who couldn’t manage that.

    I’m not trying to discourage you at all, but do recommend you take a good hard look at your budget and goals and try to think strategically about future flight training, joining a club, or whatever. You might find, for example, that stretching out your training isn’t such a bad trade-off.

    I managed to keep flying for 7 years after getting my license, most of the time in clubs, but it’s frustrating how costs keep rising; avgas prices are just the latest in a long trend. And, as you noted, moving can also really wreak havoc with flight training (I got about a third of the way through an instrument rating, and never did pick it up again after moving). Still, even if you can find a way to fly just a few hours a year in busy times, you might manage to stay with it.

    Good luck πŸ™‚

  • skydvr

    Interesting read – I’ve wanted to learn to fly for a long time now, and lately, the itch is really starting to get to me. But, being as I’m NOT in my mid-late 20’s with no kids and minimal mortgage, I’m having a hard time being realistic about it. Some of what I’ve read here may help in that regard.

    My ideal would also be helicopters, but, that’s even less “practical” than fixed wing, and quite a bit more expensive to boot, so barring the proverbial “lottery win”, fixed wing would be a great way to get in the air.

    Congrats on your accomplishment – enjoy it!

    Hmmm… maybe if I sell my motorcycle, and give my wife the “overly opitmistic” cost figures….. hmmm…..

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  • Aviation Headsets

    Β Great sharing……..