Training for a pilot certificate requires acquiring aeronautical knowledge and aeronautical experience.
The key to completing your goal at the lowest cost is to acquire the aeronautical knowledge using the cheapest opportunities to acquire the knowledge and demonstrate proficiency to your flight instructor.
Here’s an example. 14 CFR 61.109 requires a private pilot applicant to acquire 3 hours of cross-country flight training and 5 hours of solo cross-country time; 8 hours minimum cross-country experience. Most applicants only have 5 hours of solo cross-country time, but many more than 3 hours of cross-country training; perhaps closer to 10 or 12 hours. The key is that before the flight instructor will endorse the student pilot for cross-country flight, the student not only has to have received training, the student pilot must also have demonstrated cross-country proficiency.
The skills that must be mastered for cross-country flying are detailed in 14 CFR 61.93(e), which include weather interpretation and hazard identification, flight planning, navigation, performance planning and radio navigation. Weather interpretation, flight planning, performance planning can be learned and demonstrated on the ground. Navigation and the workload of managing the flight, which includes radio work, keeping a flight log, looking for traffic, all while controlling the airplane, are the focus of the in-flight cross-country training.
During the cross-country training flight, your flight instructor will act more in the role of an evaluator than an instructor, observing how you manage the flight, make decisions, communicate, and of course, fly the airplane. If your instructor observes that you are consistently “behind the airplane”, with the workload exceeding your capabilities, your instructor will know that you need more training before solo cross-country flight.
Before your first dual cross-country flight, you should spend as much time on the ground with your instructor, reviewing your navigation log and flight planning. You should make sure that each resource that you will need during the flight is in the sequenced order and easily accessible in the cockpit. You should also ‘chair fly’ the flight, first at home, allowing you to visualize the flight with all of the required tasks (i.e. “prior to entering the runway, I’ll note time off, initial heading and level off altitude, start my timer, ensure I’m squawking altitude. After takeoff and noise abatement procedure complete, I’ll turn to my on course heading. Next, I’ll complete the 1000 ft checklist, trim for cruise climb and then contact FSS to open my flight plan. During this time I’ll check my navigation equipment.”) Then, ‘chair fly’ it with your flight instructor playing the role of FSS and ATC, giving you a chance to practice the radio phraseology needed for your flight. If you have access to a simulator, you could fly the entire cross-country in the sim, which will help to build your ‘muscle memory’ on the needed sequence events for a successful flight.
All of this work on the ground pays dividends in the air. As you are already familiar with the requirements of cross-country flight, you will be able to think at least three steps ahead of the airplane, demonstrating that you are managing the workload, and still be able to handle the unexpected (which your instructor will undoubtably throw in).
For maneuver lessons (lessons where the focus is introducing and practicing maneuvers such as slow flight, stalls, ground reference) your instructor should give you a maneuvers checklist which guides you through the procedures to perform the maneuver for your specific training airplane. Before your practice these maneuvers in the airplane, having the procedure committed to memory, and having contextual muscle memory already developed, will allow you perform the maneuver with ease in the air. To develop this muscle memory, you can practice the maneuvers in a representative simulator, dry run the maneuver in your training plane while it’s on the ramp, or just close your eyes, and visualize the maneuver, calling out each control to manipulate and each item to check for.
For takeoff and landing lessons, you have a heavy workload, which includes performing the landing checklist, pattern procedures, and radio calls. Each of these tasks should be committed to memory, and within in the context of flying the pattern, so that they come easily when you need to recall these procedures while out in the pattern. Again, using a simulator, dry-run in the cockpit, or visualization will help to burn-in the required performance in the correct sequence.