How much does it cost to learn to fly?

This common question deserves some explanation.  First, there is no standard cost – it is different for everyone.  So let’s break down the various costs involved and some factors you can control to make flight training efficient and affordable.
Airplane Rental
There is a wide variety of aircraft you can train in from a basic 2-seat Cessna to a high performance Cirrus.  The rental costs are proportionate to the operating expenses so generally the smaller the aircraft, the lower the rental rate.  This is because smaller aircraft have smaller engines that burn less fuel and simple systems that are easier to maintain.  Larger aircraft burn more fuel and have more complicated systems resulting in higher maintenance expenses.  That being said, smaller aircraft may have limitations such as the amount of weight it can carry so the cheapest airplane may not always be practical.
A 2-seat Cessna may rent for $99/hr while a Cirrus SR22 could be up to $300/hr.  Most flight schools advertise the minimum FAA required flight time of 40 hours (35 hours if a Part 141 program) but it is very rare a student completes training within the minimum allotted time.  The national average is much closer to 75 hours to complete a Private Pilot course.  So why do flight schools advertise unrealistic figures?  Because they know if you are shopping around, $8000 sounds a lot better than $15,000!  A realistic estimate would be $7,500 to $20,000 for airplane rental depending on the airplane you choose.
Flight Instructor
Just like a personal trainer or lawyer, flight instructors are paid by the hour.  An instructor bills for time they are teaching including hours in the aircraft as well as pre- and post-flight briefing time.  If you have a 2 hour appointment, you may spend an hour flying as well as 30 minutes before and after the flight briefing so the instructor is paid 2 hours.
Early in the training process you will spend more time briefing because there is so much information to cover.  But as you progress the briefing time becomes less because there is less introduction of new material and more review.  As an average you will spend twice as much time with the instructor as actually flying.  If the 75 flight hours holds true, then you will spend about 150 with the instructor.  At $65/hr this results in about $9,500 for the instructor time, regardless of aircraft flown.
There are some training materials you will need such as a flight bag, headset, charts, flashlight, etc.  The cost varies widely as some students buy used materials from Craig’s List while others buy new, high-end items.  The two largest expenses in this category are headset and iPad.  Headsets range from $200 to $1,200 but we recommend starting with a good quality but cheaper headset in the $400 range.  Once you pass your checkride you can reward yourself with a nice Bose headset if you wish and use the extra one for passengers you will be taking on flights.
The iPad (or tablet of your choice) is one thing I would recommend though it is optional.  The alternative is purchasing paper charts, directories and airplane manuals.  While pilots used paper charts for decades the future is electronic due to the convenience, wealth of resources (apps) and accuracy.
Other Misc Costs
The few remaining items include a required knowledge test, generally $165, and the examiner fee for the checkride currently about $500.  Some schools may have course fees, club dues or other expenses but they should be clearly explained and transparent.
What you can do
You can see these costs quickly add up but before you get discouraged, let’s talk about some of the things you can do to reduce these costs.  The single most important thing you can do is arrive at lessons prepared.  Most schools use a training syllabus so you know in advance exactly what is going to be covered every lesson.  Instructors would much rather spend your time together discussing subjects you found challenging in your studies instead of spoon-feeding information.  At the end of every lesson take a few minutes to itemize what you are going to accomplish before the next appointment.  The instructor and aircraft time will be substantially less and the training quality much improved when you take ownership of your success.
Form a study group.  Just like high school or college, reviewing material with peers is a great way to gain knowledge.  Quiz each other and engage in a little friendly competition to not just meet but exceed the minimum requirements.  Study groups not your thing?  Then use the wide variety of free resources available such as FAASTeam seminars, online Air Safety Foundation courses and quizzes, trade magazines, forums – the resources are endless.
Use a simulator.  You don’t need to convert a second bedroom with an elaborate setup. A regular PC with joystick is fine.  Microsoft Flight Sim and X-Plane are excellent tools to practice in a stress-free environment.  Try completing your lesson at home with the simulator before the real deal.  The simulator excels at wiring your brain to read and interpret instrumentation as well as develop habit patterns for procedures and checklists.  The more comfortable you become with basic operations the more you are able to expand your situational awareness and focus on higher levels of learning in the aircraft.  If your school has a flight simulator be sure to take advantage of that as well.  Most time in these sims are loggable with a portion of the time allowed for meeting the FAA time requirements.  Have a snowy day and can’t fly?  Hop in the sim and practice navigation or emergency procedures instead.  You will continue making progress at a fraction the cost of the airplane rental.
There are many variables affecting the time and cost of learning to fly.  Hopefully this explanation helps you set realistic expectations and clear guidance on what factors you can control.  Every student is different and never hesitate to discuss concerns with your instructor or flight school manager.  They are there to help you succeed.
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