One of the most common questions people ask when I tell them I’m in flight training is “What do you have to do?” The most basic of answers is:

  • Fly a total of at least 40 hours flight time, 20 with an instructor.
  • Pass the FAA written test
  • Pass the FAA practical test (checkride)
  • Pass the FAA oral test
  • Obtain a third-class medical certificate

I’m speaking here of becoming a Private Pilot, there are seperate requirements for the commercial, instrument, and airline transport pilot’s license.

Although I may choose to get my instrument rating — so I can fly in low visibility — I’m not planning on it at this point. With a private pilot’s license, I can fly wherever I want in VFR (Visual Flight Rules) weather conditions (3 miles or more visibility and a ceiling of 1,000 ft or higher), into controlled or non-controlled airports.

Flying The Plane

Although 40 hours is the minimum, most students take somewhere between 40 and 75 hours to complete training, so don’t rush it. I started ground school at the same time as flight training, and it seems to be working out quite well so far.

Written Test

The second requirement is the FAA written test — here’s where ground school comes in. A copy of the FAA’s Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge and test questions can be obtained from the FAA’s web site ( Don’t underestimate ground school from a local community college. My class consists of six students and two previous students. The conversation is invaluable.

Alternatively, you can choose to study on your own, typically with the help of a DVD course. King Schools and Sporty’s Pilot Shop both offer full course sets for all major certifications. I’ve watched previews of the King exam, and the methods are very good, although, I personally prefer the classroom.

Checkride & Oral Exam

Every student dreads it, suddenly your friendly instructor has been replaced in the right seat by an FAA Examiner, and worse yet, he’d like to see you land, or do a steep turn, or whatever it is that you’re not quite as good at as you think you should be. Your upcoming certificate ultimately rides on his or her approval of your flying.

Although I’ve not experienced it yet, I’m going into it prepared. The examiner is required to follow the FAA’s practical test standards (PTS) — and you can download the manual. I’m going to read it, completely, and practice it a few times before taking my checkride.


To be a private pilot, you must obtain and hold a current third-class medical certificate. The certificate is valid for three years, if you are under 40, and two if you are over. The certificate can be obtained from any FAA Medical Examiner.