Private Pilot’s Licence – How to Get One
I first decided that I wanted to learn to fly and get a private pilot’s licence way back in 1997. However I did no planning whatsoever to make it happen and in fact it didn’t really happen until several years later. I had every opportunity to have a fly in a friend of a friend’s microlight, but for whatever reason, it just didn’t happen!
It wasn’t until the Christmas of 2003, when my darling wife purchased one of those experiences like the Red Letter Days types of gifts. Well if the truth be told, she actually got the card, but hadn’t purchased the gift token as she was unsure as to whether or not I would go for it. To some degree she was right; she had purchased or the intention was there to gift me a flight in a GA aircraft, which was not what I initially wanted to do. You see my pragmatism was getting the better of me and I knew I would get the bug, after all I had been into aviation since being a kid and if I didn’t like it initially, I would make myself like it for sure!
So I decided that I wanted to go for a flight in a microlight, knowing that if/when I got the bug I could more readily afford a share in a plane or even get my own when the time was right.
I recall doing a good bit of homework before choosing the flying school to go and interview and take a trial flight. It just so happened the one I chose was the nearest to me. You see at first, I reasoned, it wasn’t going to make that much difference where I did my private pilot’s licence (PPL) course. I believed one flying school would be pretty much the same as any other.
I was wrong. It does make a difference where you learn, as flying schools and airfields vary – some organisations are better than others. The type of aircraft you learn on can be important, especially if you are particularly small or large. For some student pilots it might be preferable to learn over a longer period due to either funds, weather or the time you can afford, or maybe even a bit of all of that; while others are better opting for an intensive full time course. For these reasons, as well as others, it is sensible to do some research before embarking on a private pilot’s licence course. After all, the licence will cost several thousand pounds.
Although you can fly solo at the age of 16, you need to be at least 17 before receiving the actual licence. There is no upper age limit, as long as you are in good health. Legally you will need to fly – a minimum of 45 hours before you can obtain your PPL(A).
Of these, a number will have to be solo hours, when you will fly the aircraft by yourself but under the supervision of an instructor. Depending upon which licence you are going for will also determine the number of solo hours required. Unlike learning to drive a car, you will ‘go solo’ long before you actually gain your licence, after which ‘ lessons with your instructor will interspersed with practising to fly on you own. As well as the practical training that takes place in the air you will need to pass several aviation exams, commonly referred to as the ground school exams. The exams are not that difficult although there is a lot to learn and they require a substantial amount of studying, which can be undertaken as a self study course or in a classroom environment with other fellow students.
Be aware that the requirement for 45 flying hours (based on doing the JAR PPL(A) licence is precisely what it says it is – a legal minimum. The majority of flying students take longer than this, sometimes much longer. Varying figures are quoted by flying schools, but the UK national average is believed – to be between 60 and 70 hours. Some people only budget for 45 hours, strongly convinced that they will learn to fly quickly. Many people are also convinced that they will be ‘naturals’ when it comes to learning to fly and are really shocked to find out that flying is difficult and that they do not pick it up quickly. I think this probably applies to male pilots more than female pilots, simply because we have bigger egos? Flying training also involves other topics such as navigation and radio use, and few people take naturally and quickly to all aspects of the course.
Even if you do not struggle with the training, there are other reasons why the course may take longer than you expect. Probably the most import factor is the weather, for flying is totally dependant upon the weather conditions. I know from my experiences that leaning to fly a microlight aircraft took me the best part of 2 years to complete all my flying hours required. Unfortunately the UK in particular has a real mix of weather conditions that if you are learning to fly in the British Isles you will need to prepare yourself for this uncertainty.
Many flying students feel as though their whole course consists of ‘two steps forward, then one step back’ as rain and wind stop play for several weeks. With this in mind, it is sensible to budget for more hours and a longer length of study than you might expect.
A couple of ways of getting round this are the short intensive course or going abroad to get your PPL. Learning full time over a few weeks has advantages: you are less likely to forget things between lessons and can hopefully schedule all your flying in the summer, a safer bet for good weather. However, many people cannot take enough time off work to learn in this way, and while flying schools may quote a three-week course, it often takes longer. Finally, learning at this fast pace does not suit everyone and can be stressful. Alternatively you could consider doing a block of intensive flying during a week or fortnight off and then continue with a few lessons per week thereafter. This gives you the benefit of some constant flying over a short period and a lot of flying schools do these kind of bookings, particularly abroad and advertise them as ‘Hours Building’ courses.
Courses overseas can usually be completed in a few weeks, perhaps in combination with a family holiday. It is a way of avoiding the vagaries of the British weather and may be cheaper, as courses abroad are often less expensive than in the UK. The USA used to be a very popular destination, but the large amount of additional regulations introduced by the US authorities since September 11, 2001, has put many people off. If you decide to learn to fly overseas, do your research carefully and allow plenty of time to complete the training, as it could possibly take several months, depending on your progress, weather conditions and numerous other factors.
Try to get a personal recommendation for a flying school in whatever country you choose, rather than just selecting one out of the magazines. Remember also that cheapest is not necessarily the best. You will also need to factor in the costs of travel and accommodation, plus some extra training on your return to the UK in order to get used to different weather conditions and radio procedures. Most importantly, be certain that the school you pick awards JAR-FCL (i.e. European) qualifications, because if you get foreign ones, the time and money required to convert them will negate all the savings of learning abroad.
If you decide to learn in the UK, it is a good idea to be close to your home and/or work, as you are likely to have at least a few lessons cancelled due to poor weather conditions, sometimes after you have already arrived at the airfield. Flying training can also be very tiring, especially in the early stages, and you will not learn much if you are exhausted after a long drive to the airfield before every lesson.
As well as location, cost is obviously a big consideration in the choice of training. The hourly rate for flying does not give you the whole picture, so check what else is likely to be added. Some airfields charge landing fees for home-based students and these can add up to a substantial amount, particularly during some parts of the syllabus, such as when doing circuits and learning to land. Try to find out if the hourly rate is calculated from when the engine is started, from when you begin taxiing the aircraft or by some other means. It can make quite a difference, particularly at large airports where you may spend a long time taxiing and waiting for take-off clearance.
The size and type of airfield is also worth considering. Learning at a large airport has certain advantages, such as becoming accustomed to operating alongside large aircraft from the outset and dealing with instructions from Air Traffic Control (ATC). However, it can involve a great deal of wasted time, waiting on the ground or taxiing for example. After getting your PPL you may also find yourself flummoxed visiting a small airfield, where you have to decide where to go and what to do rather than being told by ATC.
Conversely, those who learn at airfields with only Air to Ground (A/G) radio become accustomed to decision-making, and at some airfields they may become proficient at short field procedures (landing and taking off from short runways). However, these pilots tend to be less confident when they fly in to a large airport with full ATC and possibly in controlled airspace.
Getting started is perhaps the most important aspect of the journey towards a PPL. The best thing is to choose a flying school that fulfils most of the criteria that are important to you and then book a ‘trial lesson’. All flying schools offer these air experience flights or taster sessions, which usually last half an hour.
When you phone the school, let them know that you are considering getting a licence, as you may be treated slightly differently from someone who is going for a trial lesson as a ‘one-off’ experience. Allow plenty of time, look around the school, ask questions and talk to some students if you can. Do this at all the schools you are considering. Flying schools have different atmospheres and it is important to find one where you will feel comfortable.
Next, it is important to have an instructor you get on with. If you like flying with the instructor you have for your trial lesson, it’s worth asking if this individual can teach you throughout the course. At some flying schools students can have the same instructor for all or most of the course, while at others they have to take ‘pot¬luck’ for every lesson. Continuity is important so choose a school where you can pick your own instructor and stick to him or her, if possible. Unfortunately, you are unlikely to have the same instructor for the whole of your course, as flying instructors are not well paid and few of them do it as a career – they are usually gaining experience before moving on to a position with the airlines.
Many flying schools offer a substantial discount if you pay for the whole course in advance. This may seem attractive, but schools frequently go out of business, sometimes taking the students’ money with them. It is safer to pay for only a few hours with a smaller discount, pay as you go or use a credit card, as the card’s insurance will cover you if the school fails. So you’ve chosen the school and paid for the lessons. The next thing to do – and it is worth doing this before you pay anything up front – is to get your medical. Before you fly solo you will need a ‘Class 2’ aviation medical, which involves an examination by an Aviation Medical Examiner (AME). The flying school is likely to have a list of the AMEs in their area, or you can look on the CAA website. So long as you are reasonably fit, you are likely to pass.
You will need various text books for the exams, aviation charts, a personal log book, plus rulers and other paraphernalia for navigation. While prices vary, Transair’s complete private pilot’s licence study pack can currently be bought for just under £200 and contains Trevor Thom’s Air Pilot Manuals on Flying Training; Aviation Law & Meteorology; Navigation; The Aeroplane Technical; Human Factors & Pilot Performance; and Radio Telephony, Transair’s own Pilot’s Flying Logbook, TPS-1 Flight Computer, TR-5 Student Kneeboard, Flying Gear Flight Bag, 16″ Navigation Ruler and Navigation Round Protractor.
AFE also offer a wide range of student pilot packages at similar prices. There isn’t a great deal to honestly put between them. However I would recommend seeing if you can have a ‘thumb’ through copies of the various training publications to see which you prefer, before you buy. These are a fairly significant investment and its worth having a look.
It is recommended that you purchase one of the books on each of the ground school subjects: Air Law, Human Performance & Limitations, Aircraft Technical, Meteorology, Navigation and Communications/Radio Telephony. You will need copies of up to date aeronautical maps, navigation protractor, ruler, fine tip marker pens, and finally a copy of PPL Exam Pro to help you practice and pass those several ground school exams.
While some flying schools and various aviation catalogues sell everything as a complete private pilot’s licence pack, at a less expensive price than buying the items individually. If you intend to do the course quickly, perhaps over a few weeks or months, it is worth getting one of these. However, if you are learning at a slower pace, you may find that the charts become out of date before you use them, and some of the books may need updating. Certain areas of aviation, such as air law, change frequently. So it might be worth hanging on and buying things as and when you actually need them. The same applies to buying aviation items second-hand. While it may save you money, you will need to make sure that the items are up to date.
Up to this point I have been discussing the private pilot’s licence, a Europe-wide qualification that allows you to fly in the UK and overseas. You can also add extra ratings to it, such as instrument and night ratings, or go on to get a Commercial Pilot’s Licence. However, there is another private pilot’s qualification, the National Private Pilot’s Licence (NPPL). This is the particular licence I obtained after completing my training on a flexwing microlight. This licence only allows you to fly in the UK, and you cannot add ratings to it, but it theoretically can be obtained in 32 flying hours, an attractive proposition to those struggling to afford the full private pilot’s licence. However, most people take far longer than the minimum hours, so in the end there may be little difference in the time it takes to obtain the two licences.
The main advantage of the NPPL for some people is that the medical requirements are less stringent, so if you have any kind of medical condition, it may be worth looking at the NPPL in more detail. Upgrading from the NPPL to a full PPL is possible, should you start the former and then decide to change to the latter. The NPPL may not be awarded for much longer however. There are plans for the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) to take over all pilot licensing within Europe, with changes expected by 2012 that probably include aspects of the NPPL, although the exact details have yet to be finalised.
When you are finally awarded your private pilot’s licence you will be qualified to fly in Visual Meteorological Conditions (i.e. reasonable weather) at home or abroad. You can fly to other airports, take passengers, buy your own aircraft or a share in one, and undertake further training if you wish. It will be tremendous fun, and could totally change your life.
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