09/12/2014 01:40 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Ever Wondered What It's Like to be a Private Pilot?

What is it like to be a private pilot?: originally appeared on Quora: The best answer to any question. Ask a question, get a great answer. Learn from experts and get insider knowledge. You can follow Quora on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+.


Answer by Tim Morgan, Pilot

Hm, where do I start?? There's so much to say, both good and bad, about having flying as a hobby...

So first, a little background. I've always known I've wanted to earn my pilot's license, since as long as I can remember. I meet a lot of other pilots who are the same way -- "oh, I've always known I wanted to do this." Getting your private is a commitment, and a lot of people drop out, so in some way it makes sense that these are the people with the motivation to stick it through.

I've also always known that I don't want to fly planes for a living. Flying for me is a relaxing, whimsical, personal thing. Sitting in a busy, sterile airline cockpit at 35,0000 feet, watching Wyoming inch by below you, is an excellent way to suck all that away from the act of flying.

Since this question isn't "How do you become a private pilot," I won't get too much into training, but suffice it to say, it took just under six months to complete, and that meant riding my bike to the airport twice a week (and getting to work at 7 am on Wednesdays so I could be out by 3 in time for my lesson at 4). There aren't a lot of things I'd be willing to work a 7-3 workday for, let's just say that. It stands as evidence to how much I'm romanced by the idea of flying.

I don't/can't own my own aircraft, so I rent from a flying club. They have a variety of planes there and a Web-based scheduling system to reserve them. I almost never have problems with the system, and it gives me the flexibility to fly different planes for different missions.

Now that my license is in hand I can enjoy flying as a private pilot. There are many different ways that I exercise this privilege and they each bring a different kind of enjoyment:

  • Soaring over beautiful landscapes: The simplest and easiest way for me to enjoy being a pilot is just to take a plane up and explore the Bay Area, or further, from the air. This kind of flying is peaceful and relaxing. There are no traffic jams, no horns, no obstacles to avoid in the air. Driving is a constant test of vigilance -- and parts of flying are too, to an even greater degree -- but sightseeing from the air is a tranquil and inspiring experience more akin to rafting down a gentle river.
  • Visiting exciting locations: "Cross-country flying" is what it's called, though you rarely cross the whole country. I've flown to old gold rush towns, beachside airports, and quaint diners in the middle of nowhere -- all trips that would have been hours in a car but are merely 30 to 45 minutes in a plane. The challenge of flying outside your usual "comfort bubble" is combined with the excitement of exploring a new area. The flying club I'm a member of has a high-performance aircraft capable of climbing high enough to fly into Lake Tahoe. I've done it twice and it's a blast to descend over ski slopes and breathtakingly rugged mountains.
  • Aerobatics: The club also has one aerobatic aircraft. If tranquility is not my thing on a particular day, or if I have a friend who thinks (s)he has a strong stomach, I can enjoy pulling Gs, looking up and seeing the ground, and generally having way too much fun with loops, rolls, and spins.
  • Being useful: This one is a little more rare, since flying is expensive. When you first get your license, your friends all ask you the same question, "How long would it take to get to [x]?" And when you say, "Oh, only an hour or so," they think they got the perfect alternative to driving ... until you tell them how much it would cost. Most shy away at that point. But every so often, the stars align, and you find that you are the perfect man for some kind of ferry or transport or photography or survey job a friend needs. (Keep in mind that as a private pilot, you can't get paid for any of these things, but your love of flying means you're probably willing to do it pro bono.)
  • Sharing the love: Some of your friends will be scared of flying. Some will be ambivalent. Some will be thrilled for a chance to go with you. Whatever the case, most pilots are more than extremely eager to share their love of flying with their friends. Usually passengers disembark saying, "That was so cool!", post all their photos on Facebook, then resume their normal lives. Every so often one of them will keep coming back for more. He's the guy who should become a pilot :) If you see your house from the air once, and you think it's cool, that's normal. If after doing the same thing five times, the idea of flying is still thrilling to you, you should probably consider flight school.

There are a lot of qualities that make one a good private pilot, too. Most of these can be attained from training. There's some innate, "born-with-it" skill in flying, but no one dropped out of training because they "weren't born with the touch" or similar. There's nothing you need that can't be trained. Some of the skills a private pilot uses:

  • Multitasking: This is key. During the takeoff and landing portions of flight, a pilot must be able to fly the plane, read checklists, consult charts, navigate, talk on the radio, and think about his next step at the same time. This starts out as an impossible task but gets easier with practice. And there's a sort of satisfying thrill about it when you've got all those balls in the air but you're confident and capable. Ever cooked a big meal before? You know that feeling you get when you've got three pots on the burners, a bun in the oven, vegetables to chop, and two egg timers going? And you've got a hundred tasks in your head, but you're on top of it all and there's never a moment to catch your breath? That's the sort of thrill you can get from navigating busy airspace as a private pilot.
  • Safety mindset: Safety is a huge deal in aviation. Instructors emphasize safety consistently throughout training -- this means making safe decisions, putting safety before everything else, always keeping your options open, and always planning for contingencies. It means keeping to a rigamarole: Doing things step-by-step, by the checklist, so you don't forget anything, and double- or triple-checking things during critical parts of flight.
  • Command responsibility: So this applies more to commercial pilots, but it's there for us private pilots as well. When you're in the car with your friends, everyone's kind of on the same page about what a car is, how it works, what the rules of the road are, etc. But when you fly your passengers, they are usually giving you a blind trust. They look to you for guidance and sound decision-making. This puts responsibility on your shoulders to be a good pilot-in-command: to make sound decisions, and to take responsibility for your actions and for the safety of your passengers. It requires a level of maturity and clear-headedness.

Being a private pilot is also about continued training. When you get your driver's license, you're done. Go drive. (Maybe you go on to get your motorcycle license, but other than that, training over.) A private pilot's license is just the most basic baby step into the world of aviation.

After getting my private pilot's license, I got the following endorsements and checkouts from my flying club: Tailwheel (for flying small maneuverable aircraft), high-performance and complex aircraft, mountain flying, and aerobatic flying.

I'm currently in training to get my instrument rating, so that I can fly in clouds and fog. After that I could perhaps get my multi-engine rating, or my seaplane rating, to open up more options as to aircraft I can fly. I'm also probably going to get my commercial license -- not because I want to make a career out of flying, but simply because more training makes me a safer and more skilled pilot. You practically never stop training as a pilot, if you want to do more, go more places, or fly better aircraft.

OK, so I said there are downsides. And without further ado:

  • It's expensive: The cheapest kind of flight I do is an aerobatic flight. Thirty minute departure, 10 minutes of hardcore aerobatics, thirty minute approach and stomach recovery. The cheapest plane of the club. Typical price is about110. Now, a trip to Tahoe and back in the high-performance plane, with gas as expensive as it is, is about800. Few people want to spend800 on a trip to Tahoe, even if they beat the weekend traffic in getting there.
  • There are a lot of regulations: When you get out into the boonies, there's not a lot you can't do (but please don't do anything stupid!), but in major cities, there's a lot of places you can't fly, and a lot of rules you have to obey. Way more than driving. And whereas they can just paint lines on roads, in the sky you have to visualize where the "can" and "can't" fly areas are. It gets easier with exposure and practice, but sometimes I feel like way too much of my brain is filled with all the rules we have to know.
  • There's a culture of fear around flying: People think planes fall out of the sky when their engines quit, or that it's dangerous (see next bullet point), or have other reasons for not wanting to fly. This results in things like friends not wanting to fly with you, neighborhoods not wanting you to fly over them, a decreasing number of airports (and therefore places to go) because of NIMBY syndrome, etc. Flying is slowly becoming an over-regulated, fun-less chore. I'm glad to live in a time when it's still possible to enjoy the freedom and tranquility of it to a great degree.
  • It's not the safest hobby ever: General aviation, statistically, is a lot less safe than airline flying, and a little less safe than driving. Fortunately, unlike driving, the risks are manageable -- you can significantly decrease your risk of dying in an airplane by simply making smart decisions and striving to be a safe, competent pilot. And for those of us who love to fly, we accept these risks. As I say to my friends, "I was born with a love of flying, not macrame."
  • Pilots take the blame: If you fuck up, even if it's an innocent fuckup, the NTSB will be looking for ways to string you up. The NTSB exists to protect the sanctity of The System -- The System can never be at fault; if an accident occurs, the pilot screwed up and The System is sound. It's basic government CYA. Fortunately, protection exists, like AOPA Legal Services, to help prevent you from becoming a pariah in the event that you have an accident.

Whew! OK, so if after all those negative points, you're still interested, you'll probably have a really good time as a pilot! The most important thing I can emphasize is this:

Becoming a pilot is easier than you think.

If you have the cash, and you're capable of committing to the training schedule without losing interest partway through, then that's all you need. There's no need for "born talent," or anything like that. All you need is money and dedication.

My recommendation is to find a nearby airport, find a flying club at that airport, and schedule a discovery flight. An instructor will take you up on a 30-minute or 1-hour flight where you will be introduced to the basics of flying. It's a chance to take the controls of a plane and see if it's something you can see yourself enjoying. Spending 30 minutes flying a plane will tell you more about what you would experience as a private pilot than this over-long answer could.

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