Know Before You Go

Know Before You Go

February 20, 2019 8 Comments

If you are preparing to become a pilot, this blog post may save you thousands of dollars. While we live in a world full of ridiculous, over-the-top claims, this is not one of them.

There are so many paths you can follow as a pilot, so many different airplanes and missions to choose from, and so much money at stake. Where do you even begin? 

Here are six simple principles that will save you money, time, and help you become a safer pilot in the end.

#1 Decisions Decisions: Part 61 or Part 141?

What’s the difference? Part 141 is an actual school, with a schoolhouse and full-time instructors. Part 61 is more like an apprenticeship, meaning a Certified Flight Instructor (CFI) with an airplane, and the only schoolhouse is the school of real life.

Do you prefer a structured environment where you show up at 8am every day and sit in a boring classroom with an unenthusiastic instructor to complete your ground school? Then Part 141 is your answer. Or do you prefer to learn by watching every YouTube video under the search result "ground school"? If that’s you, then Part 61 is your answer. Although some flight schools are Part 61, they are subject to lesser regulatory oversight from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

In the end, there is no right or wrong answer, it is only what is right for you. A formal school may be better for someone who needs structure and has loads of cash. An apprenticeship is better for someone who is self-motivated and prefers to go at his or her own pace.

The FAA publishes pass rates for all its exams. In 2014, 90% of students passed their Private Pilot written exam with an average score of 82%. Moral of the story? If you study, you pass. It's that simple. The people who failed, were poorly prepared.

Key Takeaway: The Internet has made formal, in-person ground school an outdated concept, even though the proliferation of actual schools across the country speaks to their benefit.

We can only make recommendations, but in this case, why would you pay so much money for something you can get for free? In the end, you will receive the same information.

 #2: Take your written and medical exams first

Taking your medical exam first is an absolute no-brainer. Let's say you take some medication that is on the banned list, such as an antidepressant. Subject to certain exceptions, all antidepressants are disqualifying. Hypoglycemic medications are also mostly banned, so diabetes is problematic. Of course, your personal health comes first and must always be the most important consideration, but you don't want to become hypoglycemic while in Instrument Meteorological Conditions (IMC), while low on fuel, having to divert to an alternate airport, with screaming kids in the back seat. If you can't get a medical, then why do the training? Best to find out in advance.

The justification for first passing the written exam is equally compelling. Would you rather do your rote memorization on the ground or pay $200/hour for it in the air? Knowing how a VOR works is ground school 101, while using a VOR to navigate aloft is confirmation of your ground school effectiveness, it is a test of your pilot skills, and it is the purpose of your flight. Any instructor will be happy to teach you how a VOR works and get paid $200/hour for something you could have learned on your own. In the end, it is your job to be prepared to get the most out of your flight lesson. You can bank on this. Literally.

Key Takeaway: Do your written and medical examinations first.


#3 Understand requirements and resources

Nobody knows everything. This is where getting to know pilots and doing your research pays off in terms of big money and time. Free ground school? Free online test banks? You got it. Let’s chat more.

Take the Private Pilot Written Exam for example. The initial FAA written exam requires only two things:

  1. an understanding of the material and
  2. a signature from a CFI.

Established ground schools offer the CFI endorsement, but you can also find a local CFI to sign you off. This is why making the Part 61 or Part 141 decision first is critical.

So how to prepare for the exam? There are concepts and there are test questions. You need to understand the concepts, if you want to be a safe pilot, but the exam is a test of how well you understand the test itself and not some abstract concept. The FAA publishes the Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge. This is the official FAA publication intended to prepare you for the exam. Should you buy it? Roger that. You should not take the exam if you don’t own it and haven’t read it, period. Is it sufficient to help you pass? No, and here’s why.

There are no test questions in the book, yet you are preparing for a written. The bottom line here is simple. In order to be a safe pilot you first need conceptual understanding, so practice test questions until you are consistently passing.

Key Takeaway: Knowledge is power, time, and money. Time spent looking around for resources is almost always time well spent.

#4 Define your mission

Why are you learning to fly? Answering this simple question will help you determine your path. Maybe you want to fly locally, in day time, and in small airplanes. In this case, the sport pilot license may be your final objective. But if you want to become an airline pilot or fly your family around the country for vacations, you may need to take a different path.

Identifying your objective, requirements, and available resources is key to executing your plan. Knowing your mission and the relevant standards required to complete that mission, will save you time and money in the long run.

Key Takeaway: Know your mission and execute the plan accordingly.




Sad fact: it's all about the Benjamins and, in this business, there are always time limits operating against you. For example, your Private Pilot written exam is only valid for two years; therefore, if you have not been awarded the license in this time period, you’ll have to retake it. Medical exams expire too and losing proficiency may cost you a pretty penny.

When you identify your objective (e.g., an IFR rating) and begin the process, make sure that all of your resources are in place. Although having your resources in place is not critical to your overall success, it is critical when it comes to your time and money.

Key Takeaway: Financial preparation makes things go more smoothly. Ramen noodles are filling, nutritious, and calorie dense. Adapt to survive and get it done.

 #6 Knowledge plus confidence equal success

Student pilots are frequently disoriented, uncomfortable, and ready to spend cash. Con artists would call them "marks". Students get pushed around because it's only natural for it to happen, but don’t forget, you are the customer. You are the pilot with a mission and your CFI and examiner are there to help you reach it. Complete your mission and train to standard.

If you want to pass your check ride, you must know the Airman Certification Standards (ACS). If you've met them, no school can hold you back.

So, know the standards and assert yourself. Doing so will indicate to your CFI that you will be a good pilot. You are situationally aware and you drive the process.

Key Takeaway: Know the process. Know your mission. Assert yourself.

In closing, perseverance is what gets you to your objective. In reality, there is far too much material for a new pilot to feel comfortable, which explains the tradition that a PPL is called a "license to learn". As a private pilot, you're only scratching the surface of what should be a lifetime learning process. 

But you can and will succeed if you commit and prepare. 

Good luck and stay safe. If you enjoyed this content, then please like and share us on Facebook and consider letting us help you become a better pilot by purchasing one of our products.


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March 18, 2019

Paul, I corrected my post because yes, many “flight schools” are Part 61. As regards the rest of your post, I felt like you take it personally that I am biased against the schools. You shouldn’t.

I take the 10,000 foot view, literally and figuratively. On average, the instruction you get from the online guys is better than average, but that doesn’t rule out that some local instructors will in fact be better. But on average, they aren’t.

Take one simple example. Is there a single flight school in existence that tells all their students up front to pass the written test before they fly? (I’m ignoring Discovery flights) I doubt it. And yet , why are you flying if you don’t know what a VOR is? Why are you flying around when you haven’t done your medical and might not even be eligible for a license?

How does your school mitigate the conflict of interest between wanting to keep a revenue source, versus providing a more focused training product? How does your school handle CFI’s who only want to “get their time” and teach really badly? Does your school provide a real syllabus? Do you conduct preflight and postflight briefings for every flight?
Do you realize that from an economic perspective, you don’t pay all those bills, your students do?

You may very well be a right honorable gentleman and a great instructor. On this I cannot opine. I can only speak to averages, and to the many and varied problems I see with the flight schools, including one local flight school that nearly killed a couple people recently. My CFI calls American Flyers, a local flight school, “American Failures” for a good reason. I’ve heard too many horror stories to think it’s some kind of “crazy accident”. I’ve personally paid for terrible instruction.

Being a pilot is hard. Running a business is hard. You have my respect. But I call the balls and strikes as I see them.

paul mannion
paul mannion

March 14, 2019

Your comments about Part 141 vs Part 61 schools are way off the mark. There are many excellent Part 61 flight schools that provide high quality flight training. As a flight school owner, I pay high monthly rent to provide a professional environment in a nice office with a corporate style conference room in which I teach a formal ground school. I strive to engage the students in a vibrant atmosphere that encourages them to learn the practical applications of the knowledge subjects that the FAA requires on their written tests. And, as a Part 61 instructor, I provide the structure needed to make efficient use of my student’s time and money. While You Tube may provide some interesting and supplemental information, it cannot substitute for the 25 years of instructing experience that I have obtained in my flight instructing career. Which, by the way, is a full time career. Nor can it provide any two way communication between instructor and student. The quality of a flight school is determined by the effort that the management wants to put into it, not by the paperwork shuffle required by the FAR’s.

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