I started my flight training journey the summer before my senior year of high school when I was 17 years old. My parents were not about to foot the bill, so it was up to me to pay for it. Working two minimum wage jobs after school and on weekends, that meant that I had to make every penny count...so I was determined to do everything in my power to learn how to fly for as little money as possible. It ended up taking me 10 months to complete my private pilot training, because I could only fly on weekends...and thanks to winter weather in the PNW, sometimes I had to abstain from training for a week or two at a time. Even so, I ended up getting signed off to solo at 17 hours and signed off for my Private Pilot Checkride at just under 44 hours. Since then, I have trained at many flight schools throughout the PNW and have learned to stretch the dollar in nearly every way possible without compromising safety. I have also developed a method of studying that minimized costs while yielding a 100% first-time pass rate on all 11 checkrides that I have taken to date. Below, I am going to share with you have YOU can learn to fly on a budget and save as much money as possible during flight training. Please note that this advice is meant to minimize the amount of money you spend overall on your flight training...which may come at the cost of convenience and time, which is often times just as important of a commodity as cash. It is important to consider your financial situation and lifestyle before beginning flight training and weigh money vs convenience/time because in many cases, I would recommend advice that contradicts the advice that I am providing here. Ok, with that in mind, let's dig in.
Before You Begin Flight Training
1. Make sure that you are medically fit to fly, take a Discovery Flight, and determine your aviation goals BEFORE you start spending lots of money. Schedule an appointment with an Airmen Medical Examiner (AME) and apply for a third class medical certificate (third class is usually the cheapest option) or BasicMed. Learn more about this process here.
Is flying really for you? Find out with a low-cost "Discovery Flight." Usually you can get these for $99, and it will include about 30 minutes of flight time that is usable towards the 40 hours that is required to take the test. You instructor will hand the controls over to you for much of the flight so you can get a feel for it, and determine if it is something you want to pursue.
Do you want to be a professional pilot, or are you doing this for fun? Learn a bit about the process of becoming a pilot, and what it takes to learn to fly. If you want to make a career out of being a pilot, learn about what the career is actually like and what it takes to get there. It is an AMAZING job, but like any career, it has its own set of cons. Do the research. Don't invest thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours into a career that doesn't sound appealing after all the glamour has been stripped away.
2. Avoid the Sporty's/King/ASA/etc. flight training kits and courses that include video courses, books, flight computers, knick knacks, etc. You don't NEED them, and they will cost you. Expect to pay $250-$400 for any of these courses. Many schools or instructors will insist on one, but remember that YOU are the customer. If they won't relent, maybe it is time to find a different flight training option that allows you to spend less. You can get by just fine with the following study materials:
3. Avoid big-name or Part 141 flight schools (ATP, HAA, etc.). Instead, opt for small mom-and-pop flight training options that instruct under part 61. Part 141 vs Part 61 explanations can be found elsewhere, but for the sake of this article, just know that part 61 training is much less structured by federal laws and affords a lot more flexibility to students and instructors alike, which means less jumping through hoops for the sake of jumping through hoops, as required under part 141 training regulations. Mom and pop FBOs or flight schools also have a much less inflated marketing budged, so they won't be passing on their high administrative costs to their students. If possible, select a flight school with more than one trainer airplane so that there will be more general availability and a backup in case one goes down for maintenance. Though this may be cost-prohibitive due to relocation, learning to fly in an area with lots of sunshine year-round is preferable because flying frequently is ideal, and bad weather can ground you for weeks.
The other Issue with big Part 141 schools is that it is reported by many that instructor or airplane availability can be limited, so completing their programs can be a very drawn-out process. I don't have any personal experience training at a 141 school, but I have instructed at a community college with a Part 141 program, and many of my students had issues with administration-based delays that required them to delay their flight training by many months. If you do opt for a part 141 program, be very, very, very careful considering their additional costs that may include housing, quarterly fees, required courses or prerequisite courses, etc, because these can add significant costs to the flight training process, and if you end up missing deadlines for enrollment in certain situations due to financial, weather-based, or maintenance delays, you might have to wait months before the window opens again. Compare this to the relative simplicity of Part 61, where you and your instructor work together to check off simplified flight training requirements at your own pace. Both 141 and 61 give you the EXACT same license at the end of the day (though collegiate 141 programs can reduce hour requirements for those of you looking to go the the airlines...but those almost certainly will increase flight training costs substantially, so I will not discuss that here since our goal is to save money).
Finally beware of programs that advertise a fixed-cost flight training program. They will often base these numbers off of the minimum required flight training times (40 hours) instead of more realistic flight training times (45-60 hours). It would be very frustrating to base your budgeting off of only 40 hours of flight time, only to reach 40 hours in your logbook and have you instructor tell you that you will need an additional 10-15 hours of training before they sign you off because you need some more practice.
4. Avoid glass-cockpit airplanes and opt for airplanes with old-school, round-dial gauges. Glass cockpits (cockpits that feature lots of screen and digital flight instruments instead of round-dial gauges) are sexier and often times newer than their round-dial (aka "steam-gauge") counterparts, but they are also much more expensive - often times as much as 30-75% more expensive. Many flight school marketers or instructors will tell you that if you want a career in aviation, you will want to learn on airplanes with these modern avionics and bells and whistles because that is what you will be operating down the road at your job. While there is some truth to that, you will have plenty of opportunity to learn these systems down the road. Further, many, many airplanes used today are not equipped with modern avionics, and if you don't learn how to operate the old-school systems, you may be at a severe disadvantage when offered a job someday if all you have flown is glass.
Another point to be made here is that when training for your private pilot's license, you need to develop good habits early on of keeping your eyes outside of the airplane 90% of the time. A glass cockpit, with its bright, vibrant colors and library of information, can be very distracting and could lead to developing bad habits. I know this because it happened to me!
5. Your rental training aircraft should cost between $90-125 per hour (with fuel) max for a Cessna 172, 150/152, or a Piper. You won't often find these prices in a large city, so this might mean you need to train somewhere more rural. Even if it requires a commute, remember that you will need AT LEAST 40 hours of training in the aircraft, which means a $25 per hour price difference will end up costing you AT LEAST $1,000 more. This stuff adds up. You don't need to train in a high-performance airplane, or as stated previously, in an airplane with fancy avionics. You might find that, if you can, purchasing "block time" in an airplane will save you some money. For example, a Cessna 152 might cost $100 per hour, or you can save 10% by paying $900 for a 10-hour block, up front. This can be a good way to save, but again, make sure you are committed to learning to fly before you do this, as it is often non-refundable.
Your Instructor should charge you $40-$60 per hour. The same advice to train in a rural location applies here. Even in rural areas at mom-and-pop flight schools, some highly experienced, in-demand instructors may warrant higher costs, but you should have no problem finding great instructors who charge within this price range as well. I even welcome my students to ask me for a reduced hourly rate in exchange for being a top-notch student who shows up prepared to every lesson. My gracious instructor gave me a reduced rate when I was learning, so I want to pass on the good will if someone truly needs it and is willing to be a no-hassle student.
Some flight schools or aircraft rentals require membership to a flight club. Membership in a flight club can cost $300-$1000 per year, and often times it only marginally reduces the hourly rate of rental aircraft and instructors. I personally never joined one of these, but I did run the numbers when doing research and found out that more often than not, these clubs either didn't save me any money or ended up costing me more. Do your research and crunch numbers before joining.
6. You don't need a Bose A20, Lightspeed Zulu, or any other ANR headset. They are great if you have the extra money to spend on them, but by no means are they necessary at all. An affordable headset like this one will work just fine. You might consider treating yourself to a better headset upon completion of your checkride or maybe when you land your first job as a pilot.
7. Don't go buy an iPad or tablet. Don't subscribe to ForeFlight, Garmin Pilot, or any other expensive navigation app. Don't buy an expensive GPS receiver like a Stratus. If you already have an iPad or tablet, you can download the FltPlan Go app and use it for free. Find a used Dual XGPS150 or something similar on eBay for cheap and use that as a GPS receiver. If you don't have an iPad or tablet, it isn't a necessity; paper charts will work just fine. You can always go digital down the road when you aren't strapped for cash. If you MUST buy an iPad, buy a relatively recent version that will have hardware capable of running the apps, but try to buy it used.
8. Look into scholarships. Many organizations out there provide scholarships and financial aid for flight training. Particularly numerous are scholarships for women pilots or gay pilots, so be sure to do your research. Some Oregon-based flight training scholarships can be found here.
During Flight Training
9. Ask your instructor what the next lesson will cover, and show up to that lesson having already studied it thoroughly. Be able to explain the subjects to your instructor. This reduces the need to spend excessive ground time or flight time learning what a maneuver is. I will go out on a limb as say that most instructors - myself included - enjoy flying more than teaching ground lessons. The more flying we get to do during a lesson, the more fun we are probably having. Obviously its not about us having fun, but your instructor will appreciate it, and you will save time and money. Everyone wins.
10. Study, Study, Study, Study, Study, Study. I've mentioned you should show up prepared, and I mean it. If you have already read up on short and soft field landings and takeoffs, and you can explain them to me pretty well, that saves me a 20-30 minute lecture and we can get straight to work after just a couple minutes of discussing the maneuvers. Once you have learned the maneuver in the airplane, go home and read about it again. Be sure to chair fly each maneuver, meaning sit in a chair and imagine you are flying the maneuver. This will help develop muscle memory and it is a lot cheaper to practice in an imaginary airplane than it is to pay for the real thing. It might help to find a cockpit poster of your airplane, or take photos of the entire cockpit to help during your studying and chair flying.
Throughout my own flight training journey, I developed a particular method for studying that really helped me learn the material, not just pass a test. I was able to pass all 11 checkrides I have taken so far by studying this way, so hopefully it might work for others. It is somewhat tedious, and can take time, but it works. Check it out here.
11. Have everything COMPLETELY ready to go when your instructor arrives. This means airplane check-put paperwork done, preflight done, weight and balance done, oil levels checked, airplane gassed up, weather briefing obtained, NOTAMs checked, chains unhooked, headset plugged in, etc. Your instructor should be able to get out of their car, walk to the airplane, and fire up the engine. Obviously, this arrangement is to be allowed only after the student has learned how to properly take care of everything, and they are comfortable with it. As an instructor, I begin charging for my time the moment I show up at our agreed upon time. If you as my student are comfortable with all the preflight routines, I would MUCH rather show up, do my 30 second preflight walk around to double check things, get in, and go, than stand around watching my competent student fuel up, preflight, etc,. This saves everyone time, and your money will go much further. You would be surprised at how few of my students ever take me up on this, though. Despite repeated reminders, they will show up at 4pm when we plan to meet, and then I sit there for 15-20 minutes watching them do something that, at that point, really does not require my supervision. I want my students to save money, and I give them every opportunity to do so...but at the end of the day, its on them to be proactive.
To drive this point home, here is a quick story: I had a student with whom I had spent considerable time working on a lengthy and complex cross-country flight plan. The night before, he sounded a little unsure of the flight over the phone. I told him no problem, we can call off the flight right now if he doesn't feel like he can do all the required flight planning in time for the next morning, as it was time for him to call some shots as a near-private pilot. He elected to meet as planned the next day. When we met, he still had flight planning paperwork to complete that ended up taking 2 hours for him to do...and I charged him for the 2 hours that I sat around waiting for him to finish. Moral of the story? Showing up unprepared can cost you.
12. Study Study Study some more. Review step 8. Do your homework. If the weather sucks and you can't fly, spend that time studying instead. Chair fly the lesson that you were supposed to fly.
13. For advanced aviation students (and even Private Pilot students) who are working on their instrument rating or commercial certificate, an FAA-approved simulator can save you thousands. For example, there is a simulator in Independence, Oregon, where a commercial pilot student can fly up to 50 hours of the required 250 hours...for just $35 per hour, with an instructor, TOTAL. Yes, you read that right. That means they would pay just $1,750 for 50 hours of the 250 hours required in order to take the commercial pilot checkride. I consider this Oregon's best-kept flight training money saving secret out there. Learn more here.
14. Fly often. This will help you retain and strengthen skills learned in previous lessons. Many instructors advocate for 2-3 times per week, and advise students not to begin training until they have accumulated enough money to allow them to fly this frequently. However, don't be discouraged if you cannot afford to fly this often, or if your schedule does not allow it. It CAN be done in an affordable manner, but you will want to be strict about following the other advice in this guide to compensate for the reduced frequency.
15. Finally, if I have learned anything throughout my career in aviation, it is this: anything and everything in aviation CAN and WILL take longer than you planned, expected, or budgeted for. If you always consider this rule in your flight training plans, there will be few surprises. It is an annoying reality, but with so many figurative and literal moving parts, required maintenance, unexpected maintenance, schedule conflicts, weather, administrative delays, and with lives on the line and little margin for error in aviation, there will ALWAYS be delays here and there that end up costing you time and potentially money.
During my training, I have spent entire weekends waiting at the airport for the weather to clear (the forecast said it would! SURPRISE - the forecast was wrong!). I have driven up 3 hours to take my checkride only to have my examiner no show because of a miscommunication between my instructor and the examiner. I have had to postpone multiple checkrides multiple times - sometimes for weeks - due to weather. I have had to wait in limbo up in Alaska for days at a time for a training slot to open up. I've slept through my alarm on the only sunny day sandwiched between weeks of bad weather and missed the chance to finish a critical cross country training flight, putting me weeks behind. I had to quit instrument training three times because I ran out of money or my college workload became too great or the airplane turned out to have a bad engine. And then there are the times when I had to stop flying due to things happening in my personal life.
Life happens, sometimes we are responsible for the delays, and many times we are not. I don't say this to discourage you, or to tell you that you need to budget 150% of your planned expenses just to be prepared, but I do want you to realize that there will be frustrating delays that can require you to spend a little more money, and to be ready for them. Don't quit - it is worth it!
Hopefully this guide can help you save some money during your flight training. Please feel free to reach out if you have any questions or comments, or additional tips to help make flying as affordable as possible.