By Lauren Scott, DFC Flight Instructor
Exhilarating, fun, adventurous, feeling free and independent, challenging, unique. If you ask any pilot why he or she flies, you are likely to hear some of these words. One word you will not hear is the word cheap! Aviation is an expensive endeavor, and whether a pilot has significant wealth or is working three jobs to pay for flight training, we can all benefit from considering how to make the most of the money we invest in flying.
Clubs may be organized and run in a variety of ways, but at its core, a flying club is a group of individuals who come together to share in the operating expenses of a plane or group of planes in order to keep operating costs lower. Clubs usually require an annual or monthly membership fee to join, and then by sharing expenses like maintenance, insurance, and parking or hangar fees, are able to keep the hourly rental fee at a lower cost than flight schools. For example, at Desert Flying Club, basic 4-seat training aircraft are offered at about $20 less per hour than comparable rental airplanes nearby. With a monthly membership fee of $45, a pilot will start saving money if he or she only flies a little over 2 hours per month.
Another valuable benefit of joining a flying club comes from participating in the social and safety seminar opportunities. Recent Desert Flying Club safety seminars have covered night flying, safety briefings, weight and balance, maintenance, and rusty pilot seminars. Even at casual social events like holiday gatherings, our love for aviation leads us to have conversations where we can learn from one another’s experiences, in turn increasing our knowledge and (hopefully) safety. If a simple question or new flight opportunity arises that a pilot would like to discuss with another pilot with more expertise, it’s easy (and less expensive) to call a pilot friend from the club than to pay for dual instruction (though of course we encourage you to get a CFI if you need one!)
The School or Club
Before committing to a flight school or club, do your research. Here are some important questions to consider: Are their rental rates and instructor fees reasonable? Are the planes kept in good condition? How full are the reservation schedules, and will you be able to fly the number of hours you’re looking for? What’s the policy for taking a plane overnight on a trip? Does the rental rate include fuel cost (wet) or is that an additional expense (dry)? Is the school or club close to home? (Studies have shown that students who live within 30 minutes of their airport are more likely to finish their training). If possible, ask a pilot in the community which school or club he or she recommends.
Especially if you are a student pilot, know that you will be spending hours of time with, and paying a lot of money to, your Certified Flight Instructor. All CFIs have hundreds–if not thousands–of hours of flying experience. They must be thoroughly knowledgeable about topics such as flight maneuvers, aerodynamics, weather, aircraft systems, etc. CFIs must also pass rigorous written, oral, and practical FAA testing about instructional methods, participate in continuing education to keep their certificate valid, and must also have high ethical standards. However, there are as many different instructors as there are personality types, and unfortunately there are “bad” instructors among all of the great ones. Experience is important, but I’ve also known pilots with comparatively low hours who made excellent instructors. The more important factor is probably how well you feel this instructor’s personality and teaching style work for you. Also try to find an instructor who really loves teaching, as opposed to one who is primarily building time to get the next job; not only will they take a more vested interest in your progress, they may be more likely to be around long enough to finish your training. Ask about their training syllabus. If possible, take an introductory flight with the instructor you are planning to train with; it is the perfect opportunity to check out the plane itself, the school or club, airport, and the instructor. Do not be afraid to consider switching instructors, or temporarily try a different instructor, if you have reservations about your training progress. It’s a big decision, but some students just work better with other instructors.
In aviation, one of the attitudes that is detrimental to safety we call anti-authority. That is not what I am referring to here; rather, it is having a healthy perspective that the major responsibility for learning rests upon the student. The students who make the most rapid progress–and do it spending the least amount of money–are the ones who take initiative. They study between lessons, watch training videos, complete ground school, and show up to the airport prepared. They listen attentively and take notes at lessons, ask questions, and try to put into practice the instructions their CFI gives them. In short, they put a lot of effort into learning the material and skills.
Closely related to #3 above, students can save hundreds of dollars on flight training by completing homework and readings between lessons. Make flashcards, watch free videos online, read the related material, print out a copy of the aircraft POH and checklists, practice flying the maneuvers in a chair (called chair-flying), sit in the airplane with the engine off and practice going through the checklist items, get a hard copy of the FARs (and read and highlight them), and study books like the Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge. If available, use a computer or flight simulator to practice procedures and radio calls. Also choose a good online or in-person ground school course, and start working on it before or while beginning flight training (some good online programs are Goldseal, Sporty’s, Gleim, MZeroA, and King). Take multiple practice tests, and try to achieve a score of at least 90% on two or three attempts before taking the FAA Knowledge Exam. Your CFI and Pilot Examiner are both required to review the areas that were missed on the written test, so the better your score, the less time (and money) will be needed to go over the deficient areas. Finally, download the app Live ATC on a phone or computer to listen to radio calls and start learning the proper radio phraseology.
Develop an efficient method of staying organized in the classroom and in the cockpit. Fancy pilot bags are nice but not necessary, but do select a bag with pockets or dividers to help keep things in their place so they can be located easily. Have a solid, quality headset and a case to protect it, as it is often an expensive investment and will be removed, used, and replaced every time you fly. Other helpful items are a small three-ring binder with plastic sheet protectors and a small notebook, which can be used for jotting down weather information and frequencies. Some pilots like to use a yoke or window suction mount to hold a phone or tablet, and others like to use a clipboard with a leg strap to secure a tablet or notepad in place. Try to keep the checklist in the same place each time you put it away in the plane, so it is always easy to locate. Have a pen or pencil holder handy, or at least attach a pen or pencil to a string so it doesn’t get lost.
Understandably, flying the plane is the most exciting part of training. But as the saying goes, the plane makes for a terrible classroom. It’s noisy, there is a lot going on, and when the engine is running, your expenses are building quickly. Yes, ground time with your instructor costs money as well, but it is time well-spent as they try to impart skills and knowledge to you that will be much harder to absorb in the plane. The pre-flight brief should be a thorough brief covering required pre-flight actions (such as checking weather, NOTAMS, maintenance status, weight and balance, and performance), as well as cover what is to be practiced in flight that day. Items such as a pre-takeoff safety briefing, radio calls, maneuver procedures, and completion standards, should be practiced and explained. Following a training flight, a thorough debrief will include a constructive evaluation of the tasks practiced that day: what items were done well, and what items to keep improving and how. It should also include a preview of what will be covered in the next lesson in order to help the pilot be prepared.
Earning a private pilot certificate at the minimum 40 flight hours is unusual, with the national average being closer to 60-80 hours, which works out to about $10,000-$15,000. If you fly as you go, keep in mind that the ideal training frequency for most students would be to fly about 3-4 times per week. Any less often, and more lesson time needs to be spent on reviewing information and skills. Some students save up a certain amount, fly regularly, and then have to take a break to catch up financially. This will cost more in the long run, as piloting skills and knowledge can deteriorate quickly when they are not being used regularly.
Setting aside certain days or times for lessons and for studying helps students to keep learning and progressing at a regular pace. This also applies to certificated pilots. Private and higher pilots are required to fly with an instructor once every 24 calendar months to maintain currency by completing a flight review. A pilot who has flown regularly since the last review is probably going to need a shorter ground lesson and flight lesson than a pilot who shows up and has not flown or studied since the last flight review.
Your CFI probably knows other students at around the same stage of flying as you. Ask them for the name of someone you can get together with outside of lessons to explain what you have been learning and quiz each other on topics like weather, systems, airspace, and regulations. If you have a friend or family member who is a pilot, ask them to quiz you. If possible and if training in a 4-seat airplane, ask if you can ride along on a training flight as an observer with another pilot. If you are building time toward an instrument rating or commercial pilot certificate, find another private pilot with whom to share expenses while you take turns flying “under the hood” (simulated instrument) and acting as safety pilot. Lastly, consider joining an aviation organization like Experimental Aircraft Association, Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, or the Ninety-Nines. For a fairly low annual membership fee, these groups are a great place to network, share experiences and knowledge, and possibly qualify for flight training scholarships.
FAA WINGS (www.FAAsafety.gov) is a free program for pilots and mechanics in which to participate. For pilots, there are two types of activities: ground and flight. The ground activities include thousands of available videos, webinars, podcasts, and articles on every aviation topic imaginable to enhance your learning and safety as a pilot. Flight activities might include airport operations, maneuvers like slow flight and steep turns, and takeoffs and landings, instrument procedures, and must be completed with and validated by a CFI. Besides learning and reinforcing lots of valuable information, completing WINGS flight and ground activities can fulfill pilot currency requirements toward the flight review, (and even help CFIs renew their certification). Many of the monthly safety seminars offered by Desert Flying Club qualify for WINGS credit. All it takes to sign up is a current student (or higher) pilot certificate.
While aviation will probably never be inexpensive, there are many smart ways to approach training and flying which can reduce the amount of money required to fly well and to fly safely. Contact us to learn how DFC is a great way to save money while pursuing your dream!