How expensive is to get a pilot license?

If you are thinking of learning to fly, whether it be for fun or for a career, the cost of getting your pilot’s certificate is usually one of the first questions you want to ask. Unfortunately, there is no single correct answer to the question of how expensive it is to get a pilot license – the cost of getting qualified can vary quite a bit depending on a number of factors. Here is my analysis of the cost, and the factors that make the biggest difference. I finish up with a case study – my own costs in getting my Private Pilot’s license in Boston in 2017/2018.

Factors

Where do you live?

If you live in the United States, I have some good news for you – getting pilot qualifications is relatively affordable. This might not be obvious to most people, as the good old USA can be an expensive place to live. But wait – even your location within the United States can make a big difference to the cost of getting your certificate. The main reason for this is the cost of labor, as your main expenses in getting your certificate are paying for the maintenance of the airplane (either through the rental cost, or your own maintenance expenses if you are lucky enough to own a plane), and the cost of your flight instructor’s time.

That said, other factors come into play. What is the supply and demand for planes and instructors like in your area? How often are your lessons likely to be cancelled at last minute due to poor weather? Will you have to take long breaks in your training, for example during the winter? These effects can mean it takes you longer to get your license, which usually means you’ll need more training as student pilots tend to forget what they’ve learned if they don’t fly very regularly (more on this later).

I live in the Boston, MA area – which turns out to be a fairly expensive place to go flying, by US standards.

Which license and ratings do you want to get?

There is a massive difference in training costs between a sport pilot certification and an airline transport qualification. Research carefully which license is appropriate for your ambitions, and the relative costs between them. Bear in mind that some of the more restrictive certificates are not much cheaper than some of the less restrictive ones – they are a false economy and almost nobody chooses to get them. For example, there is relatively little cost difference between a Sport Pilot certificate and a Private Pilot certificate in the US, yet the latter affords you much greater freedoms and privileges – carrying a passenger, for example. Don’t consider anything below Private Pilot unless you have a very unusual reason for wanting to do so.

Are you considering getting any additional ratings or endorsements to go alongside your certificate (for example, Instrument Rating)? Some of these ‘add-ons’ to your pilot certificate are pretty inexpensive to obtain – such as the high power training which allows you fly aircraft equipped with 200hp (or greater) powerplants. A small number of hours of training and you’re good to go. However, ratings such as Instrument Rating, which allow you fly IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) can double the cost of your certificate.  

Which plane do you want to learn in?

By far the largest expense you have to cover when working towards your pilot certificate is the cost of running the plane (whether you rent it, or own it), and the hourly cost of running a plane varies considerably from model to model. At my flight school, you can rent something tiny such as a Piper Tomahawk for as little as $90 per hour all-in, whereas a single-engine Cirrus SR-22 and the twin-engine offerings will set you back  several hundred dollars per hour. As well as the plane itself, the equipment levels installed in the plane significantly affect the rental cost. For example, a basic traditional Cessna 172 with mechanical instruments might cost $150 per hour to rent, whereas the exact same airframe with a glass cockpit (digital, computer-driven instruments and other advanced avionics) is likely to cost 20% more.

You might be tempted to go with the ‘fancier’ aircraft or avionics installations – but in my opinion, this is a waste of money when you are just starting out with flying. You really should be focusing on learning the basics of flight, aircraft control, regulations and environmental factors, not wasting your mental bandwidth on learning how to use fancy computer systems. Most experienced instructors will recommend that you learn on traditional instruments anyway, as being familiar with the operation and idiosyncrasies of these older aircraft systems is an essential skill you should have in your pilot’s toolbelt. You can always learn how to ‘fly glass’ later.

Given that you will be renting a plane for at least 40 hours – and probably closer to 80 – before you get your certificate, the rental costs really do add up fast. 80 hours at $150 per hour is $12,000 – just for renting the plane.

How often can you fly?

Once a month? Three times a week? Most instructors would advise that you need to be able to fly regularly, at least once a week (and preferably twice a weel) during your training, to get a pilot’s certificate. If you can’t, you’ll spend half of your lessons being retrained on the material you forgot from last time, which mean that you’ll need more lessons. You may also become more frustrated with your own progress, as it may take much longer to learn the ‘feel’ of the plane, and develop your ‘sight picture’, if you can’t be a frequent flyer. This leads to slow progress and reduced confidence, which further slows down your training. I got my on just one lesson a week, with the occasional second lesson squeezed in when time allowed.

However, quicker isn’t always better. Taking it slowly may come with the disadvantages listed above, but it also comes with some benefits. Yes, your training is likely to cost you more in the long run if you take it slow. However, it may be more affordable to do it this way, as you’ll have longer to pay for your lessons – the cost of your training will be spread out over a longer period of time. If you’re financing your own lessons by working, you’ll earn more during the period you’ll be taking lessons. If you are borrowing money to pay for your training, you may have longer to pay the money back.

How much prior knowledge/experience to you have?

As mentioned above, the cost of getting your certificate is dominated by the running cost of the plane and your flight instructor’s time. There are certain minimum experience levels you need to attain during your training. For the Private Pilot certificate for example, you must have at least 40 hours flight experience, 20 of which must be hours during which you were receiving instruction from a qualified CFI.

It is possible to get your certificate with the minimum required level of experience, but it is extremely rare. For Private Pilots in the US, the average experience level at the time of gaining the certificate is almost double the minimum, and some people take longer than that. Unless you are made of money, don’t assume you’ll get your certificate any faster than average.

That said, any prior experience or knowledge you have may accelerate your training. I am an engineer by training, and I studied physics at school. I played a lot of Microsoft Flight Simulator as a younger man. These prior experiences allowed me to pick up most of the ground school concepts (such as how instruments work and the principles of flight) relatively quickly. Without this prior knowledge, I would have needed more ground school time and the cost of my training for my pilot certificate would have been more.

Are you a fast learner with the right mindset?

This isn’t a factor you have much control over, but it is a significant one. Just how quickly you ‘pick things up’ and your ability to internalize and remember what you have been taught will be a big factor in determining the amount of instruction you will need to get you up to the right standard. If you are mechanically and scientifically minded, you’ll probably pick up everything you need to know much quicker.

Are you willing to study on your own?

I’ve been fascinated by aviation for as long as I can remember, so I didn’t need any extra motivation to study by myself between lessons. With the right materials, you can save a lot of time and money in ground school by teaching yourself the ropes. I recommend this book for good broad coverage of what you’ll need to know for your Private Pilot certificate, which will be tested both practically during your check ride, and theoretically during your written knowledge exam. There are lots of good dedicated resources designed to help you prepare for this exam, I used Gleim and was relatively happy with it.

What you’ll need to pay for

Now we’re discussed the factors, let’s take a look at all of the things you’ll have to shell out for during a Part 61 Private Pilot training syllabus:

  • The running costs of the plane (either rental or you’re the running costs of your own plane)
  • Your flight instructor’s time (usually by the hour)
  • Training materials – ground school textbooks, exam prep guides, etc.
  • Basic equipment – fuel tester, headset (you might be able to rent one), flight computer, flight bag, etc.
  • Documentation – navigation charts, chart supplement book, etc.
  • Checkride fees
  • Knowledge test fees
  • Medical examiner’s fees
  • Insurance

Case study

To serve as a case study, I have compiled the costs I incurred by training for my Private Pilot certificate. In my case, I took lessons at Hanscom Field (Bedford, MA), just outside of Boston. I attended a part 61 school, and trained in a very basic Cessna 172M with traditional avionics. I am an engineer and scientist by education and trade. I have been interested in aviation for many years, so I’d already picked up many of the fundamentals, including principles of flight, operation of avionics and flight controls. I was 40 years old at the time of my training, and I’d never been in a small plane before. I flew at least once a week, sometimes two, with the exception of a two month break I took during the winter. I had logged approximately 75 hours of flight time when I received by certificate, of which about 50 were with my instructor. I bought materials and learned the ground school material in my own time, and the entire process took me 15 months (including the break) from discovery flight to certificate. Here is a breakdown of my costs:

Item  Cost
Plane running costs  $        12,900
CFI time  $          1,950
Training materials  $              150
Equipment  $          1,000
Documentation  $              100
Checkride fees  $              800
Knowledge test fees  $              100
Medical examiner fees  $              175
Insurance  $              100
   
TOTAL:  $        17,275
How expensive it is to get a pilot license in Boston?

Pro Tips

You’ll face a number of choices as you embark on your mission to get a pilot certificate, and this will continue throughout your training. Here are my personal tips for you to make the right choices for getting your certificate as financially efficiently as possible:

  1. Rent a cheap plane for your training (as long as it is well maintained and regularly available).
  2. Go for tradition instruments (“steam gauges”) over digital avionics (“glass cockpit”).
  3. Fly frequently – at least once a week, but more often if you can.
  4. Practice key techniques on your own between lessons (solo pattern work at a towered airport is great). You won’t be paying for your instructors time while you sharpen up your skills.
  5. If you get frustrated with your instructor, or he/she gets frustrated with you, consider trying a different one. Some people’s styles just don’t gel and if you find yourself in this situation you won’t make good progress and it will feel as though you are throwing money away – because you will be!
  6. Study on your own from ground school, but make sure you use good quality and up-to-date training materials.
  7. Don’t take a break from your lessons unless you really need to!