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The Truth: How Hard is Learning to Fly?

The Truth: How Hard is Learning to Fly?

Nothing worthwhile comes easy but learning to fly is mostly determination, not brain power. Budd Davisson explains the ins and outs of becoming a pilot.

How Hard is Learning to fly REALLY?

One of the interesting aspects of specialist aviation magazines like AVIATOR is that for every reader who is hardcore and actively involved in flying, there are generally many more who are reading and watching, but not actually doing. Is that you? If so, you’re definitely not alone.

So, what’s holding you back? The reasons generally given for not jumping in almost always group themselves into “intangibles,” like doubting your own ability to master seemingly impossible technical tasks, to very “tangible” concerns about time and money.

A good percentage of the reasons, both tangible and intangible, that people give for holding back, are based on old-wives’ tales or bad information. Let’s run down the “Gee, I wish I could, but….” list and examine each of the common reasons given that, even though the desire is there, people don’t learn to fly.



The intangible reasons are quite often based on fears that have no basis in fact. This is especially when it comes to the knowledge or mental aptitude required. Most people forget that everything they’ll ever need to know about flying will be force-fed to them during ground school. It is the ground instructor’s goal to take a person who barely knows the definition of “up” and school them in the intricacies of aviation. You can learn anything and they can teach it.

How much maths do I need to know?

It would help if you can add and subtract. And multiplying is handy sometimes too. That’s about it! Honest! A general knowledge of maths will take care of the entire thing.

How deep is the technology involved?

Do you have a general idea how your car engine works? Gas and air mix in the carburettor/fuel injection system, it’s squirted into the cylinders and fired by a spark plug. There, we just gave a crash course in aviation engine theory. The rest of the systems are just as familiar and parallel to the family car, but much simpler. Aeroplanes are quite rudimentary, once everything is explained.

What about aerodynamics and other scientific concepts?

CASA has carefully distilled the amount of aerodynamics you need to know into easily-learned lesson plans. Similarly, quite a number of after-market teaching institutions have come up with ways of explaining how an aeroplane flies while imparting a practical understanding of the concepts without requiring an engineering degree. Much of this can be done online.

Do I have to understand meteorology?

Again, remember what ground school is for. It’s there to teach you what you don’t know. Besides, the weather information you get on the nightly news contains 90 per cent of the meteorological theory you’re going to cover in flight training. TV weather is always presented on a map, complete with hot and cold fronts, lows and highs and other items you’ve seen on an almost daily basis. Ground school will expand on that slightly and orient it toward aviation.

I hear some CASA regulations are hard to understand.

You heard right. CASA doesn’t always specialise in clarity, but every ground school on the planet does. They make their living coming up with ever-more-understandable ways of presenting CASA regulations to students. They’ve created all sorts of easy-to-follow classroom outlines aimed at clearing away the regulatory fog.

I’m afraid I’m going to panic or freeze under pressure.

That’s understandable. This is an entirely new environment: no one but pilots routinely deal with the third dimension. Even so, it’s highly unlikely (read that as nearly impossible) that you’ll panic as things become more intense. This is a classic case of fear of the unknown. One hundred per cent of the time, the most common reaction from first-time students is, “That wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it would be. I can do this.”

What about airsickness? I don’t want to embarrass myself.

Very, very few people actually get sick in an aeroplane while learning to fly and, of those who do, the majority have spent so much time worrying about it that they’ve made themselves sick. Even those who have initial problems get past it in around three hours of flight time.

I’m easily frustrated.

Let’s be honest: this could be a problem. Learning of any kind has a saw-toothed progression, three steps ahead, two back. In learning to fly, however, it can sometimes be exaggerated: there are days you can’t do anything right and it’s impossible not to get frustrated. That’s not the problem. The problem may lie in what you do about it. If you’re not a dust-myself-off-and-get-right-back-on-the-horse kind of person, maybe you’d be happier doing something with fewer challenges. However, if you like the feeling of coming back and conquering something that has previously defeated you, you’re going to love learning to fly. It’s amazing how great the feeling of accomplishment can be. That alone is reason enough to learn to fly.

I’m older, will this be more than I can handle?

Mature age can be a positive in that you handle frustrations and setbacks better than one of those impulsive whippersnappers. You may learn a little slower, but that’ll be the extent of age-related difficulties. Also, CASA doesn’t recognise age as a disqualifying factor. This may sound like a cliché but in aviation the effects of age are largely in your head. If you think you’re old, you’ll be old, and vice versa. Is there a logical age limit? No because it’s a demonstrated ability thing. If you can do it, you can do it. Period. No one says you can’t teach an eighty-year-old new tricks. It’ll take a little longer is all. The number of active octegenarian pilots is surprisingly high.

My fine motor skills aren’t good. Is that a problem

Hand-eye coordination is a good thing. Too bad more of us don’t have it. Flying is primarily a head- game. You have to know what it is you want to do, see what is happening and modify it to fit. If you can safely drive, you have the motor functions required to fly. You’d be amazed how many mere mortals have learned to fly.



Some of the reasons given for not learning to fly have a basis in hard fact, but quite often the limitation is assumed to be there, when in fact, CASA doesn’t recognise it as such. Still there are those factors, most of them physical, that are deal breakers.

Is the medical difficult?

The aviation medical is fairly cursory and is aimed at spotting big problems (blood pressure, eye sight), not small ones. In many cases, if there is a disqualifying factor, is can be worked out with CASA and a remedy found.

A Class 1 (Commerical standard) or 2 (PPL standard) medical certificate is issued by CASA and is an International Civil Aviation Organisation-compliant medical assessment. You can only fly overseas if you have a CASA medical certificate.

A recreational aviation medical practitioner’s certificate (RAMPC) is an alternative to the class 1 or 2 certificate and is based on the modified Austroads medical standards. A general practitioner can issue you a RAMPC only after you have attended a consultation where your medical status has been assessed.

There are no medical requirements for learning to fly when students are in an aircraft with their instructor. However, if you have any relevant medical conditions or history, you should consider discussing this with a medical practitioner and your flying school before starting to fly. Safety is paramount for you and others so being fully prepared is essential. Information about your health and ability to hold a Class 1 medical certificate helps you make decisions about your flying career.

To fly solo you need to have either a Class1 or 2 medical certificate or a RAMPC.


The Most Common Excuses Given

The two most common reasons given for not learning to fly are time and money. When someone says that, what they are saying is that every single person out there who has actually learned to fly has more time and money then they do. We seriously doubt that’s the case.

When someone says, “Oh, I don’t have the time,” what they are actually saying is “I don’t want to take the time.” It’s a cop-out and another way of saying they aren’t sufficiently motivated to find a way to make it fit their life.

As far as being to expensive is concerned, I would agree that flying doesn’t come cheap. But it’s still attainable. I would recommend saving money before starting training so that you know from the start that you will not have to put flying training on hold because of a cash-flow problem. The more often you fly the less you have to re-learn with each lesson, and therefore the lower the overall number of flight hours required. For example, you could have $10,000 saved beforehand and then set aside $500 each month for flying expenses over 20 months. It’s your call.

I believe anyone whose income allows them some degree of discretionary spending can afford flying training up to the Private Pilot Licence and even beyond, provided they plan their training properly and have their priorities straight in the entertainment and hobbies department.

You may have to cut back on other discretionary expenses, but once you’ve caught the bug you won’t look back. And you will need to free time up anyway, because for the next year or so learning to fly will consume a lot of your free time and spare brain cycles.

You may also want to check with your family and partner that they are in agreement and supportive of your plan. Discuss financial arrangements of course but also the time demand flying training is going to put on your evenings and weekends. Don’t downplay the risk factor either, there are inherent risks with flying and you’d better be upfront about it and use the opportunity to dispel common misconceptions about those little aeroplanes that keep falling out of the sky.

The price tag may be expensive, but the benefits of learning to fly reach far beyond the cockpit.


Time as a Reason

Don’t think you’re going to learn to fly in your “free” time because free time doesn’t exist. It all comes from someplace, the most common being family, job and other pursuits.

Family considerations. Don’t build a wall of resentment around your flying activities by stealing time from the family or other personal relationships. Include them and try extra hard to be there for them when you’re needed (kids sports, plays, etc). It’ll pay off in the long run.

Job. If you’re one of the lucky ones with a flexible job schedule, then you have a ready source of available time as long as you don’t shoot yourself in the foot by overdoing it.

Hobbies/Other activities. Other leisure time activities are the most likely sources for available time.  Flying is one of those skills that benefits from near-total immersion: you want to put your head into it and keep it there until you’re finished. This is the ideal situation although we recognise it’s not always possible. However, since your life depends on learning the skill well, it only makes sense to let boating or golfing slide to a back burner while learning to fly occupies the front two.

Scheduling. The ideal situation is to fly twice a week, which assumes you have both the time and the money. The less frequently you fly, the more hours it is going to take because of the brain drain between hops. Once a week works fine, but the losses associated with time become higher as you go past that. This is the primary reason it’s advantageous to have all of the money for the training going in, so you don’t have to beg, steal and borrow your way through it.


Finances as a Reason

Aviation is expensive. That’s impossible to argue. But it’s also one of the most rewarding, engrossing things you’ll ever put a dollar into. If you have any creativity at all, finding the finances to learn to fly is a good place to put it into action.

Total Costs Required. The total amount you’ll spend depends very much on location and the type of training situation you are enrolled in. For those who wish to follow the recreational path, costs per hour range from $195.00 per hour dual using a basic Jabiru J170; to $215 an hour (dual) using a higher performance BRM Bristell. For GA students, a Cessna 152 or Piper Warrior II will cost around $225-$230 per hour; while the hourly cost for dual hire in a Piper Archer is around $265.

Big School/Little School. The big school has the advantage of a more tightly controlled program and the disadvantage of a less personal approach. It’s also probably going to be more expensive.  The little school will be the opposite in both of those areas. Continuity is probably more guaranteed at the larger schools because their instructor turnover is a little less, but that’s not always the case.

What are the Hardest Parts?

Everyone who learns to fly remembers one or two things that gave them fits. Usually individuals don’t identify the same thing, although there does seem to be a hierarchy of least favourite training activities.

• Flight Test

• Practice Forced Landings

• Circuit Emergencies

• Circuits

• Calculating weight and balance problems


Are There Scary Parts?

This depends on the individual, but we’d be lying if we said there were no scary parts. However, the initial solo isn’t one of them. The first solo generally happens so quickly and with so little warning that it’s something you just “do.” The long navigational exercise makes students nervous until they actually depart, then they are generally too busy to get scared. The flight test, however, is easily the scariest part, mostly because of the psychological build-up and the anxiety experienced when being watched and appraised by a testing officer.

How Tough is the Flight Test?

The goal of a flight test isn’t to flunk you, regardless of what the airport wags say. And, if they’d shut up, the “test” wouldn’t loom as such a frightening experience.

The goal of a flight test is to protect you by making certain you’ve learned what you should have learned and can do what you’re supposed to be able to do. You’ll be nervous and under pressure, so if you can perform on the ride, you’re probably okay.

If you bust the ride, it’s no big deal. You just go back and do it again after getting a little more training in the areas the examiner saw as being weak. This is a good thing, not a bad thing. Look at it as being CASA’s way of taking care of you and your family. And by the way: far more people pass than flunk.

So, what do you think? ‘Think you can make it happen? Of course you can. Look at all the other people in the universe who have learned to fly. They can’t all be smarter and more talented than you and that’s an absolute fact. So, what are you waiting for? Go on, just do it!

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