Congratulations! You've decided to follow your dreams and get your Private Pilot certificate. You've probably contacted a nearby flight school or CFI at your local airfield. And, you might have even discussed rates, taken a demo flight, and started planning for your training.
Then what? How is your training going to be organized? What are the key milestones in your training? How do you know you are making progress?
These are important questions that you should be asking yourself and your CFI. In this article we attempt to answer these questions for you.
Your journey to your Private Pilot certificate will take you through 3 phases (or stages).
Phase 1: The Pre-solo Phase
This phase lays the foundation for all further flight training. In this phase, you focus on understanding the training airplane, how to fly it, how it behaves under different settings of power and "pitch attitude", and how to safely operate the aircraft at your home airport and within the local practice area. Phase 1 culminates in your first solo flight.
A typical syllabus for phase 1 would look like the following:
- Preflight preparation, checklist usage, takeoffs, landings, and the 4 fundamentals of flight (straight and level flight, climbs, descents, turns).
- Airport operations, and basic maneuvers (flight at various airspeeds, turns to headings, climbs and climbing turns, descents and descending turns).
- Maneuvering during slow flight, stalls.
- Performance maneuvers (steep turns), emergency operations.
- Ground reference maneuvers (rectangular course, S-turns, turns around a point).
- Takeoffs, landings, and go-arounds.
- Weather information, aeronautical decision making, operations at alternate airports in the local area (entry into the traffic pattern, communication procedures).
The last step in Phase 1 is a pre-solo phase check, normally conducted by another instructor. On successfully passing the phase check and a mandatory pre-solo written test, you will be ready to solo the aircraft, i.e. fly it on your own without the instructor present.
If you pass the phase check, your instructor will sign you off for your first solo flight! A huge achievement!
Phase 2: The Pre solo cross-country Phase
Phase 2 of your training builds on the skills that you have learned in phase 1, and expands your capabilities with cross country flights, night flights, and basic instrument maneuvers. This phase helps you gain increased confidence in flying the aircraft safely. You will fly the airplane solo and practice maneuvers by yourself (solo) in addition to receiving instruction on cross country flying.
You should also plan to prepare for, and pass, your FAA knowledge test while in phase 2. This is a requirement for obtaining your private pilot certificate.
A typical phase 2 syllabus would include:
- Performance takeoffs and landings (short field, soft field).
- Navigation using pilotage, dead reckoning, and radio aids (VOR, GPS).
- Aircraft weight and balance calculations.
- Cross country flight planning, including aircraft performance calculations, weight and balance, obtaining weather information, and making go/no-go decisions.
- Night flight, including a night cross country and operations at night in the airport traffic pattern.
- Flight by reference to instruments.
- Dual cross country flights with your instructor in preparation for your solo cross country flight.
The last step in Phase 2 is a pre solo cross country phase check in which another instructor evaluates whether you can safely operate the airplane during your cross country flights. They will evaluate your ability to control the aircraft in all phases of flight, communicate effectively with air traffic control, operate safely within the environment of other airports, and demonstrate adequate aeronautical decision making abilities.
Once you pass the pre solo cross country phase check, you are ready to fly the required solo cross country flights. Congratulations! You just crossed another major milestone.
Phase 3: The Solo Cross Country and Pre-checkride Phase
In phase 3, you gain proficiency in flying the aircraft to airports that are not in your local area (cross country flights) - at least 50nm miles away. You also start preparing for your practical test.
Your lessons in phase 3 would include:
- Short solo cross country - one landing at an airport that is greater than 50nm from your home airport. You may do more than one of these flights.
- Long solo cross country - a flight with a total distance of 150nm with landings at at least 2 different airports.
- Solo and dual flights that help you practice the required maneuvers for your upcoming practical test.
Phase 3 culminates in a pre checkride phase check where another instructor assesses your readiness for taking, and passing, the practical test.
Once you have passed the pre checkride phase check, your instructor will be ready to sign you off for your practical test.
The Practical Test (aka, the "checkride")
You've made it this far, and now it is time for you to pass the practical test before you can become a private pilot. Exciting!
The practical test is conducted by a FAA "designated pilot examiner" (DPE), who is an experienced pilot to whom the FAA has granted privileges to test and certify airmen.
The test consists of an oral exam (called the "ground" exam) and a flight exam and should take about 4 hours to complete. They will use the FAA's Private Pilot Airmen Certification Standards (ACS) as the testing standard to evaluate your performance.
Once you pass your practical test, you become a Private Pilot!