Learn to Fly

A Flying Start

If you are visiting this page, you have made the first step toward becoming a pilot, dreaming. Every pilot I know started out by dreaming of being up there, above it all, with the birds, the clouds, the wind.

Each year, women from all walks of life, from high school students to grandmothers, learn to fly. You can too!

There are lots of reasons to learn to fly. Some pilots fly for business or vacation trips. Some want to fly professionally. Many pilots fly for the sheer fun of it.

Is Flying for You?

You may want to start your pilot journey by coming to a 99s meeting and talking with member about their flying experiences. You’ll meet women who once, like you, were just starting out with load of questions and concerns. The 99s are a diverse group of pilots and we love to share our love of flying. Our members will be happy talk with you about their experiences as a beginning pilot and help you find a flight instructor and/or flying school. Their experiences will help you form a better idea of what learning to fly is like.

The SCV99s chapter has a standing invitation to women who are interested in becoming pilots to come fly with us. If you would like to fly with us, just come to a meeting, and we’ll make arrangements for you to come along on our next fly-out!

Finding a Flight School

Our chapter has CFIs (certified flight instructors) that can help you learn to fly at Bay Area airports. In addition, the Ninety Nines International site has a list of flight and ground instructors who are 99s members listed by the city where they instruct. The AOPA website also has an online tool to help you find a flight school near you. Once you find a flight school that could work for you, ask for an introductory flight. You’ll never regret it!

Try to talk to some of the students and ask them what they think about the school, the planes, the instructors. Ask them if they have had any problems and, if so, how were they resolved.

Some questions to ask at the flight school:

  • What types and how many planes are available for primary students? How many is important – if they only have one of the type of plane you want to use scheduling could be a problem.
  • What is the instructor to student ratio?
  • What are their insurance requirements and how their policies work-as a student are you covered?; is there a deductable and how much; will you need to purchase supplemental insurance separately?
  • How is the scheduling done- who schedules the classes; what happens if you have to cancel or reschedule?
  • How are maintenance problems reported?
  • How is billing handled? Some schools have you pay in advance; others are pay-as-you-go. Some offer “block-time” where you prepay for a certain amount of time, often at a discount. Be sure to ask about refunds too, if you pay in advance.

If you go on introductory flight, check out the equipment. Does the aircraft appear to be well-maintained? Is is clean? Is there any fluid leaking? Are there holes in the instrument panel where instruments used to be?

Aircraft do not have to be pretty to be airworthy – the FAA requires that all aircraft used for training be inspected regularly and maintained by certified mechanics. However, the overall condition of the aircraft can give you an indication of the level of professionalism and concientiousness of the school.

What to Expect

Many women, when they walk into a flight school, don’t have any idea what to expect. It can be a little intimidating — everyone seems to be so knowledgeable.

Don’t be afraid. Every one of the pilots there started out as a student. Most are there because they want to share their love of flying with someone just like you.

What is Flight Training like?

Flight school is like driving school in many ways. When you learn to drive a car you learn a) the rules of the road and b) how to control the car.

In flight training you learn a) the rules of the sky (plus a few other rules) and b) how to control the plane. It makes sense then that flight instruction is divided in two parts, ground school and flight training.

The Ground School Part

Ground school is similar to the classroom training in driving school. You learn about how airplanes work, how weather can affect your flight, how to load your plane properly, make sure you have enough fuel, how to use maps (we call them charts); all about the airplane instruments: altimeter, vertical speed indicator, heading indicator, and others; how to talk on the radio; FAA rules & regulations — all the things you need to know to make you a safe pilot.

You’ll start learning the lingo of pilots in ground school, and what all those acronyms mean, like CFI, WX, ATIS, VASI, FSDO etc. (And, boy, are there a lot of ’em).

A good ground school will teach you all you need to know to become a knowledgeable, safe pilot, not just what you need to pass the written test. Make sure your school is FAA certified; then you can be sure you learn all the things that the FAA thinks is important for you to learn.

Many students take both their ground training and practical training (flying) from one source, their flying school or club. This is often most convenient.

Other, possibly less expensive, options for ground school include self-study, computer-based study, videotapes, private instruction, and local college programs. Talk to other pilots to see what worked for them and what’s available in your area.

Check out your local community college or parks and recreation department to see if they offer an FAA certified ground school course. A community college or Adult Ed course could be less expensive than a course at a flying school.

Taking the Written Test

When you’ve completed ground school, you will take a 60 question knowledge test which you must pass with a score of 70% or better.

Online, there are a number of sample tests you can take for practice. To find them, google “private pilot sample tests”.

The Flying Part

You will probably start your flying in a small, two seat, single engine plane. Cessna 150s & 152s and Diamond Katanas are popular trainer aircraft.

Right from the beginning, you will do most of the actual flying. You’ll sit in the left seat — the driver’s seat. Lesson one will cover flying straight and level: keeping the wings level and keeping the nose pointed in the right direction. Soon you’ll learn turns and stalls, climbing and descending, and take-offs and landings. You’ll start feeling comfortable and in control as you practice your maneuvers over and over again.

Before you can solo, you must get your medical certificate which is issued by an FAA-authorized medical examiner. For more details about the medical requirements, see below.

You are Ready to Solo

When your instructor feels you are ready, you will make your first solo flight.

Your plane will feel like it is jumping into the sky. It’s not your imagination. Without your heavy flight instructor aboard, your airplane will lift off and climb faster than ever! Though you may be nervous, you’ll find yourself doing just what you’ve practiced with your instructor so many times. You may be concentrating so hard that it won’t be until after you’ve landed and taxied off the runway that you take a breath and realize that you’ve done it!


Choosing an Instructor

It is very important that you find an instructor that can teach you in a way you can learn. Make sure she is someone you like, too. The cockpit of most trainer planes is very small and you’ll be spending a lot of time in one together.

Don’t settle for an instructor that is intimidating, negative, or that just doesn’t explain things clearly. Remember, you are paying her to teach you to fly.

If you start out with an instructor and find you don’t like her, or aren’t learning very well, or aren’t making good progress, don’t be afraid to fire her and find a better teacher. Flight instruction is costly enough without paying someone who isn’t teaching you to fly.

How Long Does it Take?

Learning to fly is not difficult, but it does requires study and practice. How long it will take you depends on how often you fly. If you can take lessons two or three times a week, you’ll learn it quicker than doing it once every two or three weeks because you won’t have to “relearn” what your “forgot” between lessons.

Federal Aviation Regulation Part 61 itemizes the things you must learn and requires a minimum of 40 hours of training (20 with an instructor (CFI)and 20 solo) to earn a private pilot certificate. Some people complete their training in the minimum time; most people take 60-80 hours. If you learn to fly at a FAR Part 141 school, the FAA minimum is 35 hours, and most people take 50-60 hours.

Taking the Checkride

When you have completed all the flight training requirements, and your instructor feels your are ready, she will sign you off to take your checkride (flying test) with an FAA designated pilot examiner. The checkride includes an oral quiz and a flight test.

Through the oral quiz, the examiner will try to ascertain your basic aeronautical knowledge. He might ask you to plan a flight, taking into consideration all the various variables, such as weather, how many people on board, time of flight, route, fuel consumption, etc.

For the flying checkride, the examiner will ask you to perform several maneuvers (steep turns, stall, landing, short field takeoffs, etc.) to show that you can control your airplane. Don’t worry. He won’t ask you to do anything that you haven’t already reviewed many times with your CFI.

See also Suggestions for Doing Well on Your Checkride


Currently, in the Bay Area, it will cost about $12,000 – $14,000 for a private pilot rating. This includes the cost of instruction (ground and flying), books, and aircraft rental. Costs vary depending on what part of the country you live in.

Caution: some schools will give you a quote that is based on the minimum of 40 flying hours required by the FAA. Remember, if you are average, it will take you about 50 -60 hours to complete you flight training.

Flight schools charge by the hour. You will pay as hourly aircraft rental rate for the time you actually fly. Your instructor also receives an hourly rate for the total time she spends instructing you, on the ground and in the air. Usually you pay for each lesson at the end of that lesson. However, some schools and instructors will give you a discount if you can pre-pay for blocks of time. It can’t hurt to ask.

Medical Requirements to Fly

Your Vision:

  • at least 20/50 without glasses or contacts, or at least 20/30 with them
  • be able to see red and green.

General Health:

  • no nose or throat condition that would be aggravated by flying
  • proper balance
  • must be able to hear a whispered voice from 3 feet.
  • no mental/neurological problems, such as psychosis, alcoholism, epilepsy, any unexplained loss of consciousness, any serious medical condition such as heart attack or chronic heart disease, diabetes mellitus, or any other debilitating illness condition will make you unsafe to pilot an airplane.

To get your medical certificate, you will need to go to an FAA-authorized medical examiner. You can get recommendations of doctors in your area from your flying school, at the local FSDO (Flight Standards District Office), or by asking your local Ninety-Nines.

The examination is a very simple routine one. The doctor will check your vision and hearing, blood pressure, pulse (you must have a pulse to be a pilot!), and balance.

To get help finding a medical examiner, you can ask your pilot friends who they go to. Since all pilots must renew medical periodically, they will be able to help you.

Be honest when you fill out your FAA application/medical history form. Don’t omit information, even if you think it may jeopardize your passing the physical. Most people who are in general good health can pass easily.

Your first medical certificate is also your Student Pilot Certificate, which will allow you to fly solo with your instructor’s endorsement. Be sure to tell the medical examiner that you are a student pilot so he will file the proper papers with the FAA.

Other Requirements For Licensing

To solo, you must be:

  1. be at least 16 years old.
  2. speak english.
  3. pass a basic medical exam.

Pilot Certificate Types

Determining which type of certificate you want depends on what you want to do with it. Once you have your private pilot certificate, you can go on to advanced ratings such as instrument (for cloudy weather), commercial, instructor, or even air transport pilot (for the big birds). There’s a rating for seaplanes, and for multiengine planes.

If you want to fly another class of aircraft (besides fixed wing, single engine), you will need a different rating. Other classes of aircraft include balloons, airships, ultralights, gliders, helicopters and gyrocopters. You don’t need to get the fixed-wing, single engine land rating to qualify to get a license for these other classes of aircraft. However, much of the knowledge required is the same.

Student certificates, good for 24 months, allow student pilots to fly solo practice flights with their instructors endorsement. Your medical certificate serves as a combination student/medical certificate.

The Recreational certificate, designed for pilots who want to fly close to home during the day only, has restrictions that the private certificate doesn’t have. It is available for all modes of aerial travel and recreation including: balloons, airships, ultralights, gliders, helicopters and gyrocopters.

The most popular certificate by far, is still the fixed-wing airplane pilot certificate.

If you are considering a helicopter rating, you might want to investigate getting your primary flight instruction as fixed-wing airplane pilot certificate, then adding on the helicopter rating. The cost could be significantly less than getting all of your primary flight instruction in a helicoptor.

All certificates, except student, are good for life. However, continuing your flying career depends on passing your FAA medical examination.

Further Information

The FAA offers guidelines and more information on getting your pilot’s license.

The San Jose Flight Standards District Office (FSDO) is at

1250 Aviation Ave, Suite 1250, San Jose CA 95110
Phone: 408-291-7681

To find the FSDO closest to you, check the FAA website.

See also our Future Women Pilots page.