Earning a pilot certificate requires acquiring aeronautical knowledge and aeronautical experience, both of which are tested.  Let’s break down cost of acquiring these two buckets.

Aeronautical Knowledge

You can obtain the required aeronautical knowledge through many different means, including a combination of these methods.  The quality of the instruction is dependent on how your learn best.

  • Classroom-based ground school – $400
  • Self-study – cost of books – less than $100
  • Online, computer or DVD instruction – $279
  • One on One with an instructor – usually in conjunction with one of the above; total cost will vary with  instructors’s rate and the amount of time you need

Your aeronautical knowledge will be tested using written quizzes and oral questioning by your instructor, and the FAA Knowledge Exam (written) and oral questioning by the FAA inspector or Designated Pilot Examiner.

Aeronautical Experience

Aeronautical experience is hours in an airplane, most of which will be with an instructor.

  • Sport Pilot – 20 hours minimum, nationwide average 35 hours
  • Recreational Pilot – 30 hours minimum, nationwide average 50 hours
  • Private Pilot – 40 hours minimum, nationwide average 70 hours

Check out AOPA’s Certificate Comparison Chart for more details on the privileges and limitations of these certificates.

The cost of acquiring this aeronautical experience


By far, the largest chunk of your cost will be the aircraft rental rate.  Its getting hard to find flight training aircraft for rent wet (fuel included) for under $100 an hour.  Do look.

The key to keeping this part of the expense down is to maximize the value of the aircraft time.  Much of the required learning to earn a pilot certificate can and should be done outside of the airplane; radio phraseology, aeronautical decision making, cockpit technology can all be learned on the ground, using simulator, at home while ‘chair’ flying.  Look for a future blog post on recommended strategies to minimize the amount of aircraft time you need, while maximizing the value you obtain while you’re in the airplane.


Your flight instructor will typically charge you their hourly rate for the entire time they spend with you, or assisting you, while learning to fly.  One of the biggest impacts you can have to reduce this expense is to be prepared for each lesson.  You should know exactly what you are going to learn during the next lesson, and what you need to do to prepare for the lesson.  If your flight instructor can’t give you this, get a new flight instructor.  If you show up unprepared for a lesson, your flight instructor is going to have to spend more time briefing you for the lesson, resulting in less time making progress during the lesson, lengthening your total training time and cost.

Exam Fees

  • Knowledge Exam – You can take the FAA knowledge exams at PSI Lasergrade or CATS.  Exams are $150 but EAA and AOPA members receive a $10 discount.
  • Practical Exam – Technically, its possible to have an FAA employee (aviation safety inspector) administer your practical exam, but due to staff shortages, most Flight Standards District Offices (FSDOs) only administer initial Flight Instructor practical exams.  The bulk of practical exams (or checkrides as they are colloquially known) are administered by Designated Pilot Examiners, who are typically very experience flight instructors who have been granted with the privilege to administer exams.  Examiners charge a market rate for their service, and in the Sacramento area $450 is the typical fee.  You can find examiners near you using this FAA website.

Other Expenses

  • Student Pilot Certificate and Third Class Medical certificate ($100). See http://www.faa.gov/pilots/amelocator/ for list of Aviation Medical Examiners
  • Headset ($150-1050)
  • Pilot Operating Handbooks ($30-80)
  • Flight Plan Logs ($5)
  • Aeronautical Sectional Charts ($8-$11)
  • Airport Facility Directory ($6)
  • Kneeboard ($20)

Total Cost

There are many numbers thrown out for the cost of earning a pilot certificate – $10K seems to be a good quote for a 50 hour private pilot, but with the national average at 70 hours, $13K might be more accurate.

The flight training industry needs to move to a flat fee for a pilot certificate, similar to other educational courses.  This change will require a change in the flight training process and experience, more time spent in simulators, and a major change to how flight instructors are trained.  More to come…





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