What does it take to learn to fly?


It was a clear day and the temperature was a little above zero, unusual for the middle of January in the nation’s capital. But I hardly noticed the weather as I was lost in a world of my own having finally achieved a childhood dream. As I walked on onto the airport apron, approaching my aircraft, I was a little nervous. I had flown before but, having just been issued my private pilot’s license (PPL), this was the first time—not counting my flight test—I would be what is known as the “pilot-in-command.”

It was an incredible feeling! The fact that I got my license in just 10 months speaks to the eagerness with which I pursued that dream.

This post is based on Canadian regulations but because the requirements are similar in just about every jurisdiction, I thought I would post a few thoughts that might be of interest to others who might be interested in getting their PPL.

Ground school

Your first step is to find a ground school that suits your requirements. While your learning will be directed by the same overall curriculum in all of them—after all, the Transport Canada requirements are identical for everyone—take the time to look at the different schools in your region. In my case, I was looking for a place where I would get professional instruction and enjoy the camaraderie of other pilots, people who, like me, loved to fly and talk about it. (I had no idea when I started just how popular “hangar flying” is among pilots.)

Selecting your school and, more importantly, those who will teach you, is critical, I would come to learn—you spend a lot of time with them. Quite apart from the 17 hours (minimum—it’s usually more) in the cockpit together, a fair bit of time is spent together during ground school and briefings.

Another criteria for choosing my school was an ability to rent a plane for an hour, a day or a week once I finished my training.

Digital or analog?

IMG_0013You must also decide if you want to learn in what is called a “glass cockpit”—a fully digital aircraft cockpit. Going all high tech may sound like fun—especially to a high-tech guy like me—but my goal was to learn the basics first. Just like when I learned to drive a car with a stick first, that meant going old school with the six pack of analog dials and gauges. (The “six pack” refers to the primary flight instruments: the airspeed Indicator, the attitude indicator, the altimeter, the vertical speed indicator, the heading indicator and the turn coordinator.)

There are a few good choices in the Ottawa area—I opted for the Rockcliffe Flying Club (RFC) [http://www.rfc.ca] based at the Rockcliffe Airport (CYRO) located next to the Canadian Aviation and Space Museum in near-east Ottawa. (Full disclosure: I so enjoyed my learning experience, I became and remain an active board member and promote the Club whenever I can.)

The instructors are fantastic, the other club members are a lot of fun (the tagline of the club is “where friends come to fly” and you feel it from day one), they offer a pay-as-you-go model and they have rental choices that includes both a Cessna 152 and a Cessna 172—I went for the 172 as I am rather tall.


The other benefits I found at the RFC included a “safety first” attitude, lots of options to put flying within reach of just about anyone and an ability to learn to fly in a stress-free setting with top-notch—and patient—instructors. At the Rockcliffe Flying Club, you can also learn everything from primary skills all the way to an instructor rating. Oh, and there is the opportunity to build hours instructing while getting paid, a rather nice bonus.

I found I also loved the you-decide-the-pace environment. And because CYRO is an uncontrolled airport, you don’t have to wait for a clearance to get in the air (quite important as you pay by the hour of “engine on” time, not “in the air” time).


The inspection of the flight schools you are considering should include intro flights. First, it will confirm if you want to go through with it, especially if you haven’t been in a single-engine aircraft before. Second, if you stick with it, you can use that flight toward your dual flight hours.

The learning begins. . .

Once you selected the club, your instruction will be split into three main parts, all happening in parallel: theory, paperwork and practice.

To get your PPL, you have to pass a written, multiple-choice exam. To prepare for it, you must also complete at least 40 hours of ground school. At the RFC, this is done over approximately three months, with three-hour evening sessions twice each week.

The ground course is broken down into various sections (meteorology, air law, navigation, etc.) for quite a few more hours than the legal minimum. In addition, once you have finished ground school, you can always attend the lectures again to stay current.

In addition, I was happy to see that the classes where not focused around just “passing the exam.” Instead, the intent was to provide you with all the information you need to become a safe and proficient pilot. I won’t say it was easy to pass the written exam—there is a lot to learn—but I was well prepared, often because the teachers were readily available to answer questions outside of the classroom. (Most of them work in positions related to what they teach, a real bonus in my eyes.)

Get your medical certificate early!

One of the most important parts of the “paperwork” is that you must get a medical certificate for your license to be valid. My recommendation is to get it done as soon as you start the training as it can take quite some time. Importantly, this allows you to find out quickly if there are any medical reasons that will prevent you from getting your license. There may be nothing worse for the eager pilot-to-be than setting up to do your first solo flight and finding out you can’t because you don’t have your medical certificate.

Another part of the paperwork is the English proficiency test—they can do it right at the club—that takes about 20 minutes and is quite easy if you have a decent command of the English language. You normally do this toward the end of your training, just before your flight test.

Still under “paperwork,” I will add the Restricted Radio Operator license and the PSTAR. The radio license is another multiple-choice exam that gives you the right to use a radio on the frequencies reserved for identified flying objects.

The PSTAR (which, originally, stood for Pre-Solo Test of Air Regulations) is yet another multiple-choice exam—but one that is even easier because you get the questions and possible answers beforehand. (There are great websites with detailed answers, as well.)

How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice

Training is broken down into three parts: pre-solo, cross country and emergency procedures.

Pre-solo: The part teaches you about the basic handling of the plane both on the ground and in the air, and basic procedures such as the walk-around, pre-takeoff checks, in-air checklists, etc. It also teaches you what you need to know to take-off and land safely without the extra weight on the right seat (also known as an instructor). Don’t worry, the person in charge of your training will not let you go up on your own until there is certainty you will bring the plane—and yourself—back safely.

I did my solo flight on June 23, 2009. Like every other pilot, it is a moment I will remember vividly for quite a long time. It is surprising how much faster a plane climbs without that extra weight.

Ottawa avion aout 2009 038

Cross country: This is a lot of fun and comes after many hours on and around the airfield practicing your touch-and-go techniques. Arriving at another airport outside of the 25-mile radius you were locked into before that is a great feeling, too. And, having done the trip with your instructor before you get out on your own, you shouldn’t get (too) lost.

Emergency procedures: This is all about reacting correctly when you get yourself into a jam. This is not really a distinct section as this part of the education happens during the entire training period. It makes sense to spend a lot of time on this, though, even though small, single-engine airplanes are very safe. (This is true and not just a message to my wife.)

Having said that, the first time the instructor pulls the power on you when in the circuit and calmly says “simulated engine failure” over the intercom, you better remember what to do. Quickly.

Once you’ve gone through all of this, you will start the finishing steps with a pre-flight test and, ultimately, the flight test itself. My recommendation for everyone: Over-prepare the forced approaches and diversions. And, if you practiced these procedures before the first snow, make sure to get some extra training when everything is white. I can tell you from experience that things look quite different from up there once the snow arrives.

That is the sweeping overview. Here, now, are a few tips that might be useful if you plan to get your license:

  • Be well prepared before the briefings and flight lesson. Read the related chapter or section in the flight-training manual so you’ll have your questions for the instructor prepared.
  • Be ready to spend quite a few hours reading books and preparing for the written exam. And don’t just learn the stuff to pass the exam. I almost certainly over-prepared. But I am certain what I learned along the way will serve me well for a very long time.
  • You can sit in the plane for free when it is on the ground so take that opportunity to review emergency procedures to the point where they become second nature.
  • If the weather is not well within your personal limits and comfort zone, especially for the flight test, reschedule. Yes, your dream is so close, but it might be wiser to wait a few days. I did my flight test on a fairly windy day with a strong cross-wind and, in retrospect, I should have rescheduled. Remember, for the flight test, you are the pilot in command.
  • You might want to book flights in the regions where flight examiners like to go for the flight test so you can get a good feeling for how things look at one thousand feet above ground level and where the closest airport is located.
  • When it comes to being ready for diversions, make sure to bookmark your Canadian Flight Supplement (CFS) so you can quickly find the information you need during the procedure. This is good advice, as well, when you fly after the test. And remember to fly the heading to your new destination and adjust your airspeed according to the simulated conditions.
  • Enjoy every minute of it! While there is a lot to learn, it is—and should be—a lot of fun.

If you’ve always wanted to become a pilot, go for it! Stop finding excuses to not do it because it truly is exhilarating. Since getting my wings, I have continued my training and am now licensed to fly both at night and using visual flight rules over the tops of clouds (VFR­–OTT) rather than with reference to instruments. I also added a float-plane endorsement, but that’s the subject of another article.

I had long held the desire to get my private pilot’s license. Now that I have it, my only regret is that I didn’t do it sooner!

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