How Much Does it Cost to Become a Pilot?
There is no single "one-price-fits-all" answer to the question of how much flight training costs. Learning to fly costs between $3,000 and $12,000, on average. The cost varies so widely because a lot of factors influence it.
While the exact cost can be very difficult to predict, you have a great deal of control over the cost through the decisions you make as a customer.
If you ask a flight school to estimate the cost of earning a pilot certificate, be sure you understand what the quote includes. Is the quote based on the bare minimum training hours or a more realistic national average? Does it include books, supplies, tests, and sales tax? Which airplane is the quote based upon? Try to get a cost estimate in the form of an average price range instead of a single number. If you are shopping around, be sure you are comparing "apples to apples."
Whatever the overall cost estimate, realize that your mileage may vary! Be optimistic that you could spend less than you predicted, but be prepared to spend more. Below are several variables that influence total flight training cost, in no particular order.
Choice of Entry-Level Pilot Certificate
Each type of entry-level pilot certificate has different minimum training requirements. Your total costs will depend on whether you choose to pursue a sport pilot, recreational pilot, or private pilot certificate. Read more about these options on the entry-level pilot certificates page.
Rental and Instruction Rates
The flight school sets the hourly rental rates for its aircraft. Check whether your flight school offers rental discounts. Some schools offer discounts if you pre-pay for a block of time or pay with cash instead of credit. Beware of paying large sums of money up front -- there have been cases of flight schools going out of business and taking their students' money with them.
Aircraft rental prices and/or fuel surcharges usually increase when fuel prices increase.
Rental rates usually include fuel ("wet" rate), but if you are renting "dry," you may be able to save money by purchasing fuel from the least expensive source available.
The specific market where you are training affects the costs of rental and instruction. Certain areas tend to have higher prices, especially larger cities.
For example, at the same time a 2000 Cessna 172SP was renting for $145 per hour in the San Francisco Bay area, the same type of airplane was renting for $110 per hour in Wisconsin. Instruction in the San Francisco Bay area averages $70 per hour while it costs around $35 per hour in Wisconsin.
Type of Aircraft Used
The make and model of training aircraft you choose has a twofold effect on the cost of your training.
First, the acquisition and operating costs of your aircraft have a direct effect on hourly rates.
Second, the complexity of the aircraft affects how quickly you will learn to fly it. The simpler the aircraft, the less it will cost you to learn to fly.
Renting vs. Owning
Some people learn to fly in their own aircraft instead of renting from a flight school. When you own your own aircraft, you're directly responsible for the operating costs such as fuel, oil, maintenance, storage, and insurance. Owning can be less expensive than renting if you fly often enough. You can also look into joining a flying club, which might be a happy medium between renting and owning.
Type of Ground Training Chosen
The per-hour cost of ground training varies depending on the method. One-on-one ground training with your instructor is generally the most expensive option. Classroom-format and home-study courses usually cost less. Visit the "What is ground training?" page on this site for more information.
Following a Syllabus vs. "Winging It"
The more organized your training, the better. Using a syllabus helps keep your costs down.
Following a well-written syllabus will help you prepare for lessons. You'll benefit from learning items in a logical sequence. Thanks to clear completion standards, you'll know where you are in training.
If your instructor refuses to use a syllabus, it might be time to find a new instructor. In the worst case scenario, your instructor may be trying to take advantage of you by slowing down your training.
Frequency of Training
The more closely spaced your lessons, the less you will spend overall. You will retain information better if you fly a few times per week than if you fly once every two weeks for example.
The best way to stretch a limited budget is to save up money for flight training ahead of time. Trying to stretch a budget by flying infrequently usually leads to higher overall costs.
Your training will cost less if you can avoid gaps. If something causes you to have to put training on hold, such as running out of money, losing or changing a job, moving, family issues, etc., you'll need to spend time re-learning things you already covered. The longer the gap in your training, the more you'll need to re-learn before you can pick up where you left off.
Choice of Pilot Supplies
The frugal pilot supplies route: search eBay for a used entry-level headset or rent one from the flight school, stick to the "student" flight bag or even a backpack, don't buy an electronic E-6B flight computer, buy used books, and find things like flashlights and timers at Wal-Mart.
The expensive pilot supplies route: buy a brand-new $1,000 noise-canceling headset, a flight bag big enough for a two-week trip, an iPad, a kneeboard that includes the kitchen sink, a handheld GPS, a multifunction pilot's watch, and the "aviation" versions of a flashlight and kitchen timer.
You'll need to decide how much you want to invest in pilot supplies as a student. You can either start small and hope to resell some of your items if you upgrade, or go all-out buying high-end things that will serve your needs now and in the future.
Pilot supply catalogs might convince you that you need one of everything. But you don't. Talk to your flight instructor and other pilots about what you really need as a flight student.
Cost of Tests
The base cost of an FAA knowledge test is currently fixed at $150. If you're a member of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), you can receive a $10 discount at CATS testing centers.
More variable is the cost of your practical test (checkride). If you take your checkride with an FAA inspector, there is no fee. If you take your checkride with an FAA designated pilot examiner (DPE), he or she sets the fee, which can be several hundred dollars.
Cost of the Medical Exam
If you are training to become a sport pilot and have never had a medical certificate denied or revoked, you're in luck: you don't need a medical certificate, so you won't need to pay for a medical exam!
Otherwise, you'll need to obtain at least a third-class FAA medical certificate during your training. Aviation Medical Examiners (AMEs) set their own fees. A medical exam generally costs between $100 and $200. Your insurance might help pay for the cost of your exam. It's not common, but is worth checking into.
If you have conditions that require special issuance of a medical certificate, there may be extra costs associated with visiting other physicians, obtaining paperwork, etc. Also, a special issuance certificate may have an earlier expiration date, requiring you to make more frequent visits to an AME for renewal.
Learning Rate / Total Completion Time
The FAA sets the minimum number of flight hours required for each certificate, but these are only minimums. To earn a pilot certificate, students must be able to perform to certain standards regardless of how many hours it takes to reach those standards. Students learn at different rates for reasons that may be beyond their control. Some of the variables mentioned previously, such as complexity of the aircraft, frequency of training, and study habits can be controlled, reducing completion time.
Your total completion time directly influences total cost when training is billed on a per-hour basis. Some programs "gaurantee" you will earn your certificate with a fixed cost, but if you choose one of these programs, be sure you understand any "fine print."
Your Study Habits
One of the best ways to keep your costs low is to have good study habits. This means devoting a lot of time to reading, reviewing, answering questions, and completing assignments. The more you study on your own, the less your instructor will have to "spoon-feed" you -- which costs money! Students who show up for lessons unprepared, or fail to study and review materials at home will spend much more money on flight training, with lower chances for success.
Are You Getting What You're Paying For?
Cost does not necessarily equate to value. Depending on your needs, cheapest is not always the best, nor is the most expensive route automatically the right way to go. Decide what is important to you, and try to find a flight training solution that meets your needs. Base your decision on value rather than cost alone.