Thursday, June 14, 2007

Tips for the Thrifty Student Pilot

I listen to several aviation "podcasts." For the uninitiated, "podcasts" are like radio shows, except they are recorded and "broadcast" through the internet. You can listen to them anytime on your computer or, if you have an iPod, on your iPod, in your car, etc..... I like to listen to them during my commutes.

One of the podcasts is called "Uncontrolled Airspace." In late April, they spent part of an episode responding to an email about ways to make learning to fly more affordable. Being somewhat "cheap" myself, I had some thoughts that I put in an email to them. They later posted the email on their website, and I thought that I should put it here as well, since I know that most of my family will be learning to fly at some point.

Well, my nephew, at least, will be a pilot someday. (In case you can't read it, his shirt says, "I wanna be an aviator."). There are a thousand ways to learn to fly, and even more ways to pay for it, but here are my tips for easing the financial burden..... (It's long -- if you're just looking to read about Adventures With Millie, you can click the link on the right.)

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I sympathized with Dave's comments in episode 19 about the cost of learning to fly, and have listened with interest to the followup comments from other listeners. I'd like to tell you how I ended up saving a bunch of money learning to fly, have one commentary to make, and a few more tips for Dave and anyone who's concerned about the cost of learning to fly. It's long, so use as you see fit.

Background: I first signed up for an intro flight back in 2001 when I was living and working in the Boston area. I went out to the FBO at Bedford, took my intro flight, and then listened to the sales pitch from the instructor and the other FBO employees. It was the same as I heard from other FBOs in the years since -- I needed $4-6,000 (for the first 40 hours), and the FBO wanted me to pay it up front in chunks of $1,000 or more. My rent at the time was $900 per month and my car was worth about $1,500, and I just couldn't stomach writing a check that was more than a month's rent before even starting. I heard the refrain from other FBOs I visited over the next couple years -- I should have the money all ready to go before I start, and I needed to immediately write a check of $1,000 or more. Plus $300 for ground school. And I needed to buy a headset (from them) and an expensive bunch of books (from them). I just couldn't afford it the way it was presented to me, and I remember the feeling of dejection as I drove from the airport to work.

I didn't lose the bug, though, and in late 2005, after I had moved to the DC area, I got a list of local flight instructors from the NAFI website, and started contacting them to ask about less expensive ways to fly. Two replied. One spent an hour talking on the phone with me one evening, and told me about self-studying for the written exam (saving about $350 off the cost of ground school), and recommended Gleim or King Schools. The other invited me to meet him for lunch that Saturday at the airport cafe. I met him, we talked, and he took me around the ramp (behind the chain link fence -- sacred ground!!) and told me a bit about some of the planes. After a bit he invited me to come to a flying club meeting the following Tuesday. I went, joined the club, started attending club functions, and generally started meeting people and making friends.

Here's what I learned: the FBO was renting 172s at $115 per Hobbes hour, and their instructors were $30-60 per hour. If you figure the national average of 70 hours fo flying time and a $45/hour instructor for 40 hours, that's ($115 x 70) + ($45 x 40) = $9,850.

The club I joined cost $45 per month and a non-refundable $500 to join. They rented 172s for $68 per tach hour, if I recall correctly, which translates roughly into ($68 x .75 =) $51 per Hobbes hour. The difference in plane cost alone could save me (($115 - $51) x 70) = $4,480 over 70 hours of flying. In actuality, it took me 63.6 hours including my checkride, so I saved about $4,070, or a bit less as the hourly cost has creeped up to $72 per tach hour with fuel prices increasing.

Then, once I was in the club, I met people who were CFIs but who were not doing it to make a living or trying to build time. One was a former Navy/NASA CFII who had been flying for fifty years and was retired. Another CFI was a guy my age who had a full-time job in the construction industry but who just loved to fly. A third CFI worked in government, was just a nice guy, and wanted to help out a struggling student pilot. I completed my checkride last week with 41.2 hours of dual instruction. Other than the occasional lunch or beer after a club meeting, my instructors have not accepted payment for a single hour of instruction. That's a savings of ($45 x 41.2) another $1,854.

In all, this approach theoretically ended up saving me nearly $6,000 over the cost of training through the FBO. I only say "theoretically" because I'm a bit of a gadget freak and just had to buy a handheld GPS ($190 for a nice, used Lowrance 500 off EBay), a good ANR headset ($280 refurbished from the factory), and other stuff that I could have done without but just couldn't control myself. More importantly for my budget, though, I paid for the club plane only as I used it, so the $500 up front to join the club was the biggest check I had to pay all at once. After that it was a couple hundred dollars here and there, and much more palatable to my wallet, budget, and wife.

Commentary: FBOs are their own worst enemy when they push prospective pilots to plunk down thousands of dollars before their first lesson. I wonder how many potential pilots like Dave (and me in 2001) just walk away when confronted with a big bill like that. If I recall correctly from his autobiography, Bob Hoover learned to fly by working for a week to earn enough for 15 minutes of flight training each weekend. If they really want to reel in students, what the FBOs should be saying is, "Come on out Thursday afternoon, bring $160 and we'll get you your first hour of instruction and go from there." Then, "Give us a call when you're ready for the next lesson." It'll take longer for the student to get his ticket, and probably more hours, but since when is "more hours" a bad thing for an FBO? As to whether it's better or worse for the pilot, well, if it worked for Bob Hoover....

Tips for Prospective Student Pilots:

1. Get a list of instructors from the NAFI website and contact them directly. Tell them you want to learn to fly, you can't plunk down thousands at the FBO, and ask for advice. Other than the pilots and instructors I met who were associated with clubs at my airport, I have also met one instructor at a little airport nearby who charges $75 per hour for instruction in his plane, and $50 per hour for the plane once his students solo. Those people are out there, but they're not at the FBO counter.

2. Spend some time at the airport and meet people. Three times when traveling in the last year I've stopped by small airports in other cities and struck up conversations with pilots. Twice, the pilots were heading out for a joy ride and, once they found out I was a student and just fascinated with flying, they invited me along. On one flight I got some stick time in a '46 Aeronca Champ! Look for open hangar doors and stick your head in to shake hands and admire the planes. One beautiful spring day I took my lunch, left the office, and ate on the hood of my Jeep at the airport while reading "Stick & Rudder." A passing pilot said, "Good book," and we struck up a conversation. It turned out the pilot was a CFI, and before long I was offered a couple hours of free instruction.

3. Find out what clubs there are, and look for clubs that meet frequently. In my opinion, clubs generally don't advertise all that well, so you'll have to dig and ask around. My club meets once a week, which is unusual, but the benefit to a student of spending that much time around people talking about airplanes and flying is invaluable. The rental cost will save you thousands over the cost of renting from the FBO. And, if you're lucky, you'll meet club members who are instructors and willing to instruct in club planes for less than the FBO charges or, if you're lucky like me, for nothing. Even the non-CFIs can have a lot to offer. One pilot in my club who's training to be a CFI spent four hours one night grilling me in preparation for the oral portion of my checkride. It was good practice for both of us and we concluded with a mutual list of 20 things to look up.

4. Look for CFIs who are retired from some other career. These guys have a huge amount of experience, generally a lot of time, and quite often they're just happy to be out and flying. They also have great stories, though I don't believe half of them.

5. Don't pay retail for anything. All sorts of PPL training materials show up on EBay (my stuff is all going up soon so I can turn around and buy used instrument training materials). The six-disc DVD set from Sportys costs $199 retail, I got it for about $75 off EBay. Craigslist is another possibility -- a guy in my club got a Garmin 296 for $550 off Craigslist. Books are available used from retailers like and Barnes & Noble. The Pilot's Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge retails for $35, but is showing up used on for $3.69 as I write. Even better, if you get in a club, there will be people who have the books just sitting around gathering dust, or the club may even have some materials you can borrow.

6. Self-Educate. Other than books, there are free podcasts, forums, and websites. There's the FAA website, which was mentioned by someone else, but there are also online forums like where CFIs are circling, waiting to answer questions and give advice. The University of North Dakota has free flight training video podcasts that can be downloaded -- they're excellent. Jason Miller's instructional podcasts (and now videos) from are also excellent. I recently told my instructor that he should get his CFII so I could continue instrument training with him and he replied, "What, so you can teach yourself that too?" Everything you teach yourself from the available materials is stuff you won't have to pay an instructor to give you ground training on.

Oops. I didn't mean to write so much, but given a pulpit I can get carried away. Anyway, there's my two cents worth. Bottom line -- avoid FBOs, find a club, self-educate, and don't pay retail.

Brand Spanking New PP-ASEL


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