The 40-hour Private Pilot Myth

Flight has lots of mythology: Icarus and Daedalus; Pegasus, the winged horse; flying dragons and flying monkeys (c.f. “The Wizard of Oz”).

One of the biggest flight training myths is that of the 40-hour private pilot. (An even greater myth is the Part 141, 35-hour pilot – like that’ll ever happen.) There are some students who pin their flying hopes, and their financial planning, on the assumption that they’ll get their private pilot certificate in the FAA Part 61 40-hour minimum – which is why there are a lot of disappointed students.

Sure, there are probably a few students who have gotten the Part 141 minimum requirements, students who had nothing to do but study and fly, usually with supportive parents who also flew and took their child flying with them. And, sure, there have been Part 61 students who were able to accomplish the certificate in the minimum of 40 hours. But their numbers are small and the reasons are many.

I had one who would have done it in 40.5 hours, if he had cared about the knowledge requirements of the certificate. I was a new instructor and his father and sister flew, and he had been flying from an early age. No matter what maneuver I showed him, he had it nailed on the first lesson. His steep turns were a dream; his stall recovery work was flawless; his short field landings were textbook perfect. But he didn’t like to study, and grudgingly stopped flying for 6 weeks to do so, then squeaked a 72 from the knowledge exam and was running out of money by the time of his check ride. We had two flights in those six weeks – he couldn’t afford more – and I hoped that, despite the lack of recent practice, he would pass – if he could get through the oral part of the practical. He did, barely, and then the lack of recent practice made him bust his flight test with a bad soft field landing, something he could do in his sleep.

There are 747-loads of reasons why the 40 hour private pilot certificate is a myth. First, there’s the weather. Even here in wx-sublime San Diego there are issues. The offshore waters can remain cold, inducing our marine layer that covers the terrain out to the mountains and destroys VFR practice. In the winter, we actually get storms that spawn in the Bering Sea and shoot down the California coast wreaking havoc with our VFR plans.

Second comes maintenance. Sure, all the trainers in the flying club are well-maintained, but even well-maintained airplanes break – and usually they break when you most need them. Someone makes a hard landing, or skids the tires flat, or pushes the airplane into another, and the airplane your student prefers is down for a time. Oftentimes, your student just isn’t comfortable in a replacement airplane, and training suffers.

The third reason for not getting your private pilot certificate in 40 hours is that life gets in the way. Most student pilots have to work to pay for the flying, and their mortgages, family expenses, medical bills, vacations, etc. Sometimes it’s the student not planning for exactly how much money the certificate actually costs. In today’s dollars (2013) in San Diego, you can figure on spending close to $10,000 for a private pilot certificate.

Sometimes it’s the job that gets in the way. I have a student who travels frequently to the east coast on business and is sometimes unable to fly for weeks at a time. When he returns, it takes a session or two to get him back up to speed – that adds time, and money spent, to the training regime.

Family is another factor keeping students from being on the fast track to a private pilot certificate. Aunt Midge is sick in Bemidji and you’ve gotta visit. Mom and Dad are visiting from Sheboygan and you’ve gotta take them to Sea World, the Zoo, the desert, the mountains, the beach, whatever. Little Johnny has whooping cough and you’ve gotta take him to the Doctor. Sometimes your wife or husband gets a little testy because you’re spending so much time/money/effort on a pursuit that he or she doesn’t understand and she or he starts feeling neglected. It’s life.

It’s tough trying to learn to fly and keep all the other “life” balls you’re juggling in the air, all at the same time. So … when you plan to start your journey into SoCal skies, you’ve gotta plan for something more than the 40 hour minimum and try to realize that it is just another myth, like the tooth fairy, an honest politician, or a diet that really works.

But should you happen to find a diet that really works, drop me a line, will ya?

Posted in Training Topics