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How much does a pilot’s license cost?

Plus: Tips for how to pay for it

A pilot’s license cost depends on many factors: the type of aircraft you fly, where you live, the level of certificate you seek, how often you train, and more.

In general, expect to pay an hourly rental rate for the aircraft and for the instructor’s time in the air and on the ground. You’ll also want to set aside some money for the fees to take a computer-based knowledge test and a practical test (“checkride”). Study materials and gear are additional costs; prices vary widely, from free FAA downloads and borrowed headsets to interactive training courses and advanced cockpit technology.

In many flight schools the FAA requires a minimum of 40 hours of flight time to earn the private pilot certificate. Some of that is with an instructor, and some is alone in the airplane. Most people don’t finish at the minimum. There’s no industrywide data to say exactly how many hours of flight experience most pilots have when they earn a certificate, but it’s most likely somewhere between 50 hours and 70 hours. In total, training for a private pilot certificate may cost $6,000 to $20,000 or more.

Saving Money

You can minimize your costs in flight training by making the most of each hour in the air. That means preparing for each lesson, flying as frequently as you can, and practicing what you can on the ground, before the engine starts running.

  • Study Flying is mostly knowledge, with some hand/eye coordination thrown in. Think about the best professional athletes you know. They seem to be able to anticipate plays and be one step ahead. That’s from a deep knowledge of the game. The same goes for flying. If you fully understand what the airplane is doing, how the air traffic control system works, and how to talk on the radio, your time in the airplane will be greatly reduced.
  • Simulation A riff on studying, simulation is practicing flying without getting in the airplane. Studies have shown that learning skills on a simulator first, or even honing those already introduced in the airplane, can greatly reduce the time spent training in the air. The simulator can be as simple as a desktop PC or as complex as a $100,000 machine at the flight school that you would rent by the hour. Either way, using the technology effectively will cut your costs significantly.
  • Fly often Retention and repetition are key mantras of training. Flying only once a week or twice a month will kill your progress. If possible, carve out three times a week where you can fly. The money will flow out faster, but the total cost at the end will be less. If the pay-as-you-go model is stretching out training, some students find financing their training can accelerate the process.
  • Go old New airplanes fly pretty much the same as old airplanes. If money is a factor, don’t hesitate to find a well-maintained older airplane. You’ll learn the same skills for a lot less money. But don’t skimp and go with something so cheap it’s not well maintained. When the airplane spends a month out of commission for a repair, you’ll lose progress.
  • Be sporty Light sport aircraft are small, fun, and—well, sporty. And earning a sport pilot certificate in one, while not giving you the full privileges of a private pilot certificate, will come faster and for less money. Want more freedom later on? You can easily upgrade to a higher level of certificate. (Learn about the requirements for each level of certification here.) Getting an early win, like passing the exam to become a sport pilot, can be a great motivator and it’s easier on the credit card.

Creative ways to pay for it

Although the cost of learning to fly may sometimes seem beyond our financial means, there are creative ways to get the job done.

Aviator Zone Academy flight school founder Felipe Santiago was 12 when he decided to pursue an aviation career. Money was tight but Santiago’s passion and persistence paid off. He landed a summer job at a flight school washing airplanes, answering the telephone, helping schedule flights, and did “whatever I could to trade for flight time in a Cessna 150. That kind of started everything.” He founded the Miami-based flight school in 2018 with one airplane and one instructor. At age 27, the 2021 AOPA Flight Training Experience Awards winner for best flight school in the Southern region employs six instructors, two dispatchers, and a maintenance technician; and operates seven flight training aircraft.

Mowing yards is a summertime job for scores of teens but Piper J–3 Cub pilot Ben Templeton took it to another level. He assisted his father with landscaping duties at Triple Tree Aerodrome’s 7,000-foot-long grass strip in Woodruff, South Carolina, to earn funds for flight time before embarking on a 48-state tour for GA awareness. After he returned from the adventure, Templeton paid it forward, giving more than 40 rides to kids in a Boeing Stearman biplane during the airfield’s fall fly-in.

A love for flying spurred Madison Seymour to pursue flight lessons and AOPA flight training scholarship funds helped her earn a private pilot certificate at age 17 while she was a Michigan high school student. Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University professors learned of her story and offered Seymour a scholarship to cover her journey toward a professional aviation career. Seymour offers scholarship application tips to help others achieve their flying aspirations: Be yourself, apply frequently, “consider it a job and be professional,” personalize the application, do your homework, and be honest.

Student pilot Meagan Huerta sold her motorcycle and handmade artwork to fund flying lessons. She became interested in aviation by learning firsthand about the importance of helicopter medical evacuations after both her brother and her sister were airlifted from separate accidents. The Jacksonville, Florida, resident’s financial strain eased a bit after she was awarded a $3,000 AOPA Student Pilot Scholarship administered by Women in Aviation International during the group’s virtual conference in March 2021. The airframe and powerplant mechanic apprentice is continuing to raise funds for flight lessons by washing airplanes at Herlong Recreational Airport, participating in maintenance flights “just to get in the air,” and by marketing original artwork.

Adapted from “Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way,” by David Tulis in the 2022 You Can Fly issue of Flight Training and “How Much Is Training?” by Ian J. Twombly in the 2021 You Can Fly issue of Flight Training. Find more Flight Training resources online.

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Industry scholarships

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Student Pilot Trial Membership