Has the flying bug bitten you? Perhaps you come from a family of flyers, or you’ve had a short flight in a light aircraft and loved it? Stand by to open your wallet (or purse), spend hours crafting your use of the controls, ignore your family and friends with your head in books for days on end, and forever be murmuring practice radio calls. Welcome to learning to fly! It’s great, you’ll love it.

So what do you do first? If you have yet to fly in a light aircraft with your hands on the controls, book a trial lesson with a local flying school. All schools offer these and basically it’s an hour with a qualified flying instructor in a typical school aircraft – something like a Cessna 152 or 172, Piper Tomahawk or Cherokee, Diamond DA40 or perhaps a Robin DR400.

Before the flight, the instructor will give you a quick brief on what to expect and this will include emergency procedures. That’s not because they expect an emergency – far from it! – but it’s the law. The instructor will be Commander of the aircraft – as you will be when you achieve your PPL – and has a legal obligation to brief passengers.

You’ll probably be seated in the left seat with the instructor beside you. This is normal for flight instruction. The instructor will run through the essential pre-flights checks, then start up the engine and taxi the aircraft out to the runway, talking to Air Traffic Control (ATC) as you go. He will make the takeoff and climb out to a cruising altitude. Then you’ll take the controls!

The first task is to fly straight & level, ie maintain a steady heading on the compass and stay at a level altitude. Then you’ll progress to a turn, banking the aircraft, and then to a climb and descent. If you’re doing well, the instructor may throw in a stall and steep turn. Then it will be time to return to the airfield and you’ll have a taster of the procedures, checks and discipline required to become a proficient pilot. The instructor will handle all this – though encouraging you to handle the aircraft as much as possible – and will make the actual landing.

It could be that’s enough for you but if you’re encouraged to go further, don’t hold back. Learning to fly was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and it took a lot of dedication and commitment, but was also the most rewarding. Gaining your PPL is something to be proud of. You are Commander of an aircraft, responsible for yourself and passengers, with a host of new skills.

What type of licence?
Before you go any further, you need to consider what type of private pilot’s licence to go for. There are two: the Light Aircraft Pilot’s Licence (LAPL) and the Private Pilot’s Licence (PPL). It’s the same for both aeroplanes and helicopters.

The main differences between the LAPL and PPL are:
* Medical: the LAPL requires a medical declaration from your doctor similar to that required for an Heavy Goods Vehicle (HGV) driver. A PPL requires a Class II medical examination from an Approved Medical Examiner (AME).
* Privileges: The PPL is a licence that meets the standards of the International Council of Aviation Organisations (ICAO) and is thus recognised all over the world. The LAPL is Europe-only.

If you think you might want to go on to a Commercial Pilot’s Licence (CPL) or Air Transport Pilot’s Licence (ATPL), or if you are likely to want to fly in the USA or outside Europe, then go for the PPL. If not, the LAPL will suffice. Of course, medical considerations may make the choice for you.

The syllabus for the PPL and LAPL, both in the air and on the ground, are very similar, with a shorter number of flight hours required for the LAPL. Sounds good but in reality, all those hours are well spent. You just cannot have too much experience when it comes to aviation.

Learn to fly

Choose your school
This is a very important process. Do NOT rush it. You will be spending a lot of time and money with whatever club/school you choose. You will probably spend more time with them once you have your licence. So, take your time, resist attempts to get you to sign on the dotted line and understand who you are dealing with.

Look at the aircraft. Do you feel happy with the condition and equipment? Some schools have gone the high-tech route with glass cockpit aircraft, some prefer the low-tech (and usually lower cost) analogue instruments. There’s nothing wrong with either – it’s personal preference.

Possibly more important is location. You really don’t want to be driving for more than an hour to your flying lesson. That puts extra pressure on you in what is already a tough learning curve. Also, should the school ring you and say, “weather’s great, so and so has cancelled, wanna fly?” you want to be within take-up distance.

A big school at a busy airfield will have more facilities and resources but the downside could be time spent waiting to take off. Busy airfields have more procedures and stricter radiotelephony (R/T) but at least you’ll quickly become accustomed to dealing with Air Traffic Control.

A smaller, less busy airfield will have simpler R/T procedures and you’ll get airborne more quickly. Circuit flying is also less hectic and smaller airfields often have a more sociable atmosphere.

Complete package?
Many schools offer a complete PPL package. These offers are worth looking into but before paying upfront, satisfy yourself that you’re happy to fly with the school. It may take six months – sometimes more – to complete a PPL course. If you have any doubts, don’t pay a large sum up front. Take a few lessons first. When you sign up for a PPL course, take along photo ID and a utility bill with your name and address. The police now require flying schools to identify potential pilots.

For a European (EASA) PPL(A) you must complete a minimum of 45 flying hours, of which up to five hours can be completed on an approved flight simulator. Do not be surprised if you need more than 45 hours – most people do. It’s a good idea to budget for around 55 hours. The course contains a minimum of 25 flying hours dual instruction and ten hours supervised solo flight time. The solo flying includes one cross-country flight of at least 150 nm during which you must make two landings at two different aerodromes away from your home airfield.

The minimum of 25 hours dual instruction (with the instructor sitting next to you) will take place mostly in the local training area and will be broken down into set exercises:

  • Flying straight and level
  • Climbing and descending
  • Circuits including take-offs and landings
  • Stall recovery
  • Recovery from unusual attitudes
  • Steep turns
  • Navigation and so on.

Going solo
Progress will be fast at first, then have its ups and downs. This is normal! Landing the aircraft, even for the most experienced pilots, is a cross between science and art, something to be practised. Rarely are two landings exactly the same.

Once you are competent at landing the aircraft, the next big stage is the first solo. There is no set number of flying hours for this. It will come when your instructor has worked with you through all the elements of flying a complete circuit. He and the CFI (Chief Flying Instructor) also need to be sure you could cope with an engine failure or some other mechanical issue resulting in a forced landing. They have to be sure you can perform a go-around if required, and that you can operate the radio.

Bit by bit, your flying instructor will brief you to do more challenging flying, including leaving the circuit on carefully planned cross-country flights. A good instructor will be stretching you but also thoroughly checking your pre-flight planning, and giving you a de-brief after the flight.

At the same time, you’ll also be working your way through the theoretical knowledge. You’ll need the relevant textbooks, available singly or in packages from pilot shops. Make sure the books are current; details do change. There are seven written exams to study for and pass for the EASA PPL(A):

  • Aviation Law & Operational Procedures
  • Human Performance & Limitations
  • Navigation & Radio Aids
  • Meteorology
  • Aircraft (General) & Principles of Flight
  • Flight Performance & Planning
  • Communications

Before you can fly solo you must have passed Aviation Law (and have also passed the medical). Most flying schools will run their own ‘groundschool’, with instructors going through the textbooks with you, and there are also Computer-Based Training DVDs available. All these items will be recorded on your student record, along with hours flown and regular progress reports by your instructor.

The aim of the PPL training course is to pass the Skill Test. This is a thorough, demanding flight with an examiner – someone you have never flown with before. Before your flying school enters you for the test, you will have completed the full syllabus, both flying and ground school, and have successfully practised every element of the Skill Test.

Pass the Skill Test and, well done, you’re a pilot!

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