How Long Does It Take To Become A Pilot?

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Original publication date: January 12, 2022
Last Updated: February 9, 2024
Author: Max Skyler
Topic: Flight Training
Number of Comments: 0

Becoming a pilot is a serious commitment. It requires a significant investment of time, money, and effort, in order to succeed in achieving your aviation goals. It requires patience, focused discipline, attentiveness, and a growth mindset in order to not only become an aviator, but also in order to excel as one.

Earning your private pilot license requires a minimum of 40 hours of flight training. To earn your commercial pilot license requires an additional 210 hours, for a grand total of 250. If you wish to become an airline pilot, you will need to have accumulated at least 1500 hours of total flight time.

These aforementioned numbers merely cover the minimum flight requirement legalese as mandated by the FAA. The real answer to the question as to how long it takes to become a pilot is far more complex and requires far more time and effort than you would think. Let’s explore how long does it really take to become a pilot.

Don’t be fooled by the reductionist numbers.

It’s not just what’s written in the FAA regulations that counts toward your goal.

It’s the untold number of hours you will spend reading, studying, reviewing, taking notes, visualizing, rehearsing, planning, preparing, pre-flighting, refueling, debriefing, practicing, repeating lessons, and more.

Do not be lulled into a false sense that published FAA minima are “all that it takes”.

It’s easy to read the FAA regulations and assume that since it “only” takes 40 hours of training, it must be trivial to get one’s private pilot license. What is easy to overlook and fail to realize is all of the blood, sweat, and tears that you, as an aspiring pilot, will have to endure in order to achieve this goal.

The rigors of training extend far beyond just the minimum 40 hours that you will spend in the cockpit with your flight instructor.

And at this point, here we are only talking about the private pilot license (PPL).

Once you have earned your PPL, and you have taken your victory lap around the airport’s traffic pattern (pun intended), you will then have to rinse and repeat and endure even more challenging and grueling flight training, in order to advance to the next level.

Getting your instrument rating requires another “minimum” of 40 hours, but the untold story lies in the sheer magnitude of hours you will be spending above and beyond that, in all ancillary tasks required in order to master the instrument rating.

The same then applies to your commercial rating, and each and every endorsement you wish to obtain.

If you wish to earn an Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) rating, then the 1500 hour minimum doesn’t even begin to unravel the whole story behind the journey you will have to undertake, in order to get there.

Pilot Rating / CertificateMinimum Hours of Training or Cummulative experience
Private Pilot40 hours of training
Instrument Rating40 hours of training
Commercial Rating250 cumulative hours
ATP Rating1500 hours
Minimum hours of flight training, by the book, according to the FAA.

Boot camp or flexible scheduling? Both require hard work.

If you have the ability to dedicate 100% of your time toward flight training, then a boot camp may be right for you. If you don’t have any other commitments to school or work, then there are aviation boot camps out there that can get you from zero to ATP in less than a year. But this involves complete immersion in aviation, spending practically every waking hour either training or studying. You would literally live, breathe, and eat aviation during the boot camp.

On the other hand, if aviation is more of a hobby for you, or a side venture, while you hold up a regular 9 to 5 day-job, then you will be wont to take your flying lessons in the evening or on weekends (depending on the time of year and how many hours of daylight you have available to you). It is here that time management, goal setting, and getting your priorities straight become essential, if getting your pilot license is to fit into the grand scheme of things in your life.

How much time do you need for ground school?

Flight training is not just the “40 minimum hours” you spend in the airplane with your instructor. It is also the hours you spend in ground school.

Yes, ground school is also a required part of the flight training curriculum. You must receive classroom training from a certified flight instructor, on all matters pertaining to the pilot license or rating you are looking to achieve.

This includes understanding the FAA rules and regulations. This includes understanding the procedures and preparation required for each facet of a flight, from takeoff to landing, including what happens before and even after a flight.

Ground school can either be in the form of a traditional instructor-led group classroom course that meets one or more times per week.

It can also be one-on-one classroom training, with just you and your instructor.

Or it can even be an FAA-approved ground school prerecorded, self-paced video course.

You can expect to spend 10 to 20 hours on ground instruction, at minimum, followed by the tens of hours that you will spend in between each lesson, studying, reviewing, taking notes, doing homework, and taking practice quizzes.

This sure sounds like a lot more than “40 hours of training” to me. How about you?

You will need to prepare for the written test.

Once you have successfully completed your ground instruction, you will need an endorsement from your instructor (or if it is a self-paced course, the endorsement is typically given after you successfully complete an online practice test) in order to take the written test.

At this point, you will want to spend several more hours preparing for the written test, including taking and retaking practice tests, to help you get ready for it.

And then the actual act of taking the written test itself must be done within a 2.5-hour time limit.

Preflight preparation should never be downplayed.

When you arrive at the airport for each flight lesson, you will need to preflight the airplane before you and your instructor get started. The preflight checklist can take several minutes. Over the course of each lesson, these minutes can add up to several hours of time, spent on the preflight inspection.

Proper execution of aircraft run-up is of vital importance.

Every time you fly, your pre-takeoff checklist includes a run-up test, to ensure that your engine, your instruments, and flight controls are operating properly. This itself also takes up several minutes, which adds up over the course of the lifetime of your training into several hours.

Flight planning is a deliberate and methodical process.

Flight planning is one of the most critical aspects of flying. Unlike driving, when you can just hop in a car and make a spontaneous, impromptu decision to drive aimlessly wherever and whenever you want, hopping into an airplane and taking off requires careful, deliberate, methodical, and precise flight planning.

This is especially true of cross-country flight planning (any flight that is 50 nautical miles or farther, from your departure airport).

You must gather all the information about your departure and destination airports, the route you will be taking, the altitude you will be flying, the radio frequencies and navigation aids you will be tuning in to, the speed you will be flying at, the airspace you will be flying through, the weather conditions during your flight, alternate airports in case you need to divert, the fuel requirements, how many passengers you will be carrying, and the total weight of passengers, luggage, and fuel, that you will be carrying on board with you.

Flight planning can take as little as 10 minutes to possibly 30 minutes, depending on the route you will be flying, and how proficient you are at doing your due diligence to plan and prepare for your flight.

Over the lifetime of your flight training, this adds up to several hours.

Aircraft shutdown, tie-down, and refueling are also vital.

Your responsibility as a pilot doesn’t end when your lesson is over. You also need to take responsibility to properly execute your shutdown checklist… Properly shut down the engine and all systems, properly secure and tie down the airplane, and refuel the plane if you are required to. All of these activities add up to several hours over the lifetime of your training, but are not included in the “40 hours of time”.

Post-flight debriefing is crucial to your flight training.

After every lesson, your flight instructor will spend a few minutes debriefing you. They will critique you on how well you performed your flight maneuvers during that lesson. They will identify the areas that you did well on as well as the areas in which you need improvement and more practice on. They will impart information or homework for you to review and to prepare for the next lesson. This itself can take several minutes of time after each lesson.

Oral exam preparation requires practice and more practice.

The oral exam is one of the requirements of the checkride, for the private, instrument, commercial, and ATP ratings, as well as for many other flight endorsements you may pursue.

The exam itself is a one-hour interview/discussion between you and an FAA-certified Designated Pilot Examiner (DPE), which demonstrates your knowledge and evaluates your critical-thinking and problem-solving skills as a would-be pilot.

Guess what? This one-hour oral exam can require several hours of preparation. Not only will you need to review every possible subject area and every possible question that you may be interrogated about, but you will likely also want to engage in several mock oral exams with your instructor, to help you prepare for the real deal.

Checkride preparation is the final hurdle.

By this time you will have already passed your written exam.

You will have just taken your oral exam.

Now it is time for the final checkride, which is a one-hour flight test, administered by a DPE.

Your instructor will have already endorsed you to take the checkride, which they wouldn’t have done if they didn’t already feel that you were ready for it.

But in the days or weeks leading up to the checkride, your instructor will be taking you on several mock-checkrides, to help you prepare for the real deal. Are these included in the 40-hour minimum? Most likely not!

In between each mock checkride, you can expect your instructor to debrief you and help you focus on areas that you may be weak in, which need improvement before you can be ready for the actual checkride.

Preparing for the one-hour oral exam is a multi-hour ordeal.

Delays due to weather can hinder the learning process.

Inclement weather is not a student pilot’s friend, when you are training for your private pilot license. When it rains, snows, the clouds are overcast, or the winds are too strong, your flight training will be temporarily halted.

If you are someone who only flies once or twice a week, then each inclement weather grounding can be a setback in your flight training.

In order to gain proficiency as a pilot, you must fly as often as you can.

Gaps in your training schedule can require you to spend more time reviewing and practicing each flight maneuver, until you master it and becomes ingrained in your muscle memory.

Weather, being a factor beyond your control, can inevitably result in you needing to spend more than 40 hours to get your pilot’s license.

If you are training for your instrument rating, or you already have your instrument rating, then it may be possible to continue flying in adverse weather conditions, subject to certain conditions and weather minimums. But even in this case, there may be limitations on the training you can receive, until you learn and master the concepts and are ready to fly in actual instrument meteorological conditions (IMC).

Aircraft unavailability can put a damper on your progress. 

It goes without saying that if your airplane happens to be unavailable due to maintenance, or there aren’t airplanes available to rent because they have already been booked by other pilots, then you may experience a setback in your progress. This may result in you having to review or repeat lessons that you need more time to develop proficiency on.

Your relationship with your instructor should be monogamous.

You will be spending a good amount of time with your flight instructor.

They will be responsible for monitoring your progress, tracking your development as a pilot, and assessing your readiness to fly solo or to take the checkride.

Therefore, it would behoove you to stick with just one instructor for the entire duration of your training, from the first lesson all the way up until the checkride. (The checkride itself is administered by an objective DPE, never your own instructor, who could be biased.)

Switching instructors in the middle of your training, or even alternating amongst multiple instructors between lessons, can severely slow down your progress. Each new instructor would not have any background, familiarity, or context of how much progress you have made with the other instructor, what are your areas of strength, and what are your areas of weakness, apart from what may be documented in the syllabus. This can result in setbacks and delays in making forward progress with your training.

Unfortunately, it does tend to happen, more often than not, that instructors will quit their flight schools to move onto greener pastures, leaving their students hanging.

It also can happen that your instructor calls out sick or life happens and they unavoidably have to cancel or reschedule with you, resulting in further setbacks. But this is just something to be aware of and keep in mind.

Therefore, it would be a good idea to meet with your instructor before you start your training, to get a feel for their longevity with the flight school and their commitment to seeing you through to you earning your license.

What should you do when you are grounded and cannot fly?

In each of the aforementioned circumstances, when an aircraft is unavailable, your instructor is unavailable, or the weather isn’t cooperating, the best way to counteract any setbacks is to keep studying and to keep reviewing.

If you haven’t taken your written test yet, double up on your studying and use that time to further prepare yourself for it.

Plan mock cross-country flights. Review your charts. Watch videos on the flight maneuvers or the concepts with which you need additional practice with.

There is a lot you can do, independently, to keep the ball moving on your flight training when you are grounded and cannot fly.

Practice to gain proficiency as a pilot.

So there you have it:

The untold story of how much time and effort it really takes to become a pilot.

Yes, there are the 40 minimum hours, as documented by the FAA regulations. But the reality is that you will be spending multiples of that inside the cockpit and outside the cockpit, studying, preparing, debriefing, and reviewing.

Developing proficiency and mastery takes time, discipline, patience, repetition, determination, and resilience. It is by no means a cakewalk.

• You will not get everything right on the first try.
• You will not nail your first landing.
• You will fumble through your communications with Air Traffic Control (ATC).
• You may lose track of your bearings despite the availability of navigation equipment at your fingertips.
• You may forget certain procedures.

Practice makes perfect. (This timeless axiom never gets old!)

How long it will take you to become a pilot depends on:

• how many hours a day or how many hours a week you can commit to studying
• how much money you can afford on flight lessons each week or each month
• other external factors that may be beyond your control

It could be a matter of weeks.

It could be a matter of months.

Or it could even be a matter of years.

Rinse and repeat.

These are just for the private pilot.

• Rinse and repeat for the instrument rating.
• Rinse and repeat for the commercial rating.
• Rinse and repeat for the multiengine rating, complex endorsement, and high-altitude endorsement.
• Rinse and repeat if you wish to become a CFI.
• And then there’s the ATP, which requires real-world commercial experience. 1500 hours is the minimum to get you the golden ticket, but those 1500 hours are saddled with hundreds of additional hours of time inside and outside of the cockpit.

Becoming a pilot is a journey, not a destination.

Becoming a pilot is a lifelong journey.

If you have a passion for aviation, then It is the journey, not the destination, that matters.

What type of pilot do you want to be?

Max Skyler

Max Skyler is a Private Pilot with nearly 200 hours of total flight time under his belt. He is a freelance writer for Flying is not his day job. (He's into computers.) But flying is among his passions and hobbies. He just passed his instrument ground school course, and is getting ready to take the IFR written exam as we speak, in early January 2024! He hopes to earn his instrument writing within a year. We've brought him onto our team to share his insights on all-things general aviation, with our community of readers. Let's wish him good luck on his instrument written exam!

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