A Continental 737 (N13716) lands into the sunset at IAH in late 2010. - Photo: JL Johnson

A Continental 737 (N13716) lands into the sunset at IAH in late 2010 – Photo: JL Johnson

A few months ago, we brought you the story about how I was excited to begin attending ground school in pursuit of unlocking my life-long dream of learning to fly. I was excited, ambitious, and, in retrospect, naive. If you haven’t read that piece, it’s a quick read and contrasts nicely against this one.

Life’s path is littered with success and failure. And while we tend to hear more about success, failure is where some of the most valuable learning occurs. So this is the story out how, despite learning a lot while attending ground school, I flunked out.

This is a positive story. Trust me and read on…

A Southwest Shamu visits MCI in 2009. A failure from my early PlaneSpotting days. I know better now. - Photo: JL Johnson

A Southwest Shamu visits MCI in 2009. A failure from my early PlaneSpotting days. I know better now. – Photo: JL Johnson

There are many approaches to earning a private pilot license (PPL):

Here in the U.S., the path to earning a private pilot license can vary widely from person to person. That said, there are requirements that everyone will eventually need to meet. As it turns out, many aspects around how and when you meet them are conveniently up to the aspiring pilot.

I prefer classroom instruction, and chose a two-month course led by a certified flight instructor (CFI). There are many alternatives. One way is to go on a discovery flight, and then jump straight into 1:1 time with a CFI. This approach is typically paired with rigorous self-study. Speaking of self-study, this in itself is another approach. It is totally flexible and can be the most cost-effective option. Read more about knowledge test requirements here.

Most of the study materials are readily available:

I was surprised to learn that many of the required study materials are available digitally through the FAA or other governmental bodies. If you are ready to get started, here are links to a few key documents:

While digital versions are available as a service of the government, hard copies and supplementary material tend to be more popular. Check with a local CFI to see which materials they prefer, or visit an online pilot store to explore package deals. Just remember — a hard copy of something that is free digitally should not be priced like a textbook.

God Save The Queen! Another failure from my early spotting days. - Photo: JL Johnson

God Save The Queen! Another failure from my early spotting days. – Photo: JL Johnson

The road to PPL is an expensive one:

One of the first questions asked in ground school: “How much money does it take to get into aviation?” Our instructor didn’t hesitate to reply with a smile: “All of it.”

Humor aside, the road to PPL is a costly one. Here are some basic figures…keep in mind this can vary widely from person to person and circumstance:

  • Flight time/plane rental: PPL qualification requires a minimum of 40 hours of flight time. Here in the Midwest, a Cessna 172 rents “wet” (gas included) for about $120 per hour. This translates into a bare minimum investment of $4,800 in flight time.
  • CFI fees: At least 20 of the minimum 40 hours must be with a CFI. CFI rates vary widely by area. Where I am, CFIs run around $50/hr. CFI time is “handshake to handshake” which means one hour of CFI time does not necessarily translate into one hour of flight time. Add an extra minimum of $1,000 to the budget.
  • Supplies/supplements: Headsets, plotters, sectionals, study supplements, oh my! In addition, most folks will buy hard copies of books and potentially even subscriptions to services such as Foreflight. Add a minimum $500 to the budget.
  • Exam fees: The written exam fee is $150. Medical qualification varies. Assume a minimum of $100 for medical documentation and evaluation. Checkride fees vary, but plan to spend somewhere around $500. This includes an hour or two in the plane, so add an extra $240. Raise the budget by another $940.

My ground school course was reasonably priced, at just a few hundred dollars. Since formal ground school is not required I’ll leave it out of the budget. All-in, unless you have a friend with a plane or a buddy who happens to be a CFI, plan to spend a minimum of $7,240, but likely much more. A study by Chron concludes the all-in cost runs approximately $10,000. Again, costs will vary by region and individual circumstance.

Another learning opportunity. This one from a trip to SEA in 2013. - Photo: JL Johnson

Another learning opportunity. This one from a trip to SEA in 2013. – Photo: JL Johnson

Why I failed at Ground School:

I grossly under-forecasted pretty much everything. I didn’t understand the time commitment required. And I knew the process would be expensive, just not THAT expensive. Additionally, I fully expected that I could stretch my training (and related expenses) out over a few years, which isn’t advisable.

The last nail in the coffin of my flying career? My day job demanded unprecedented business travel just after ground school had kicked off. This resulted in too many missed sessions. Murphy’s law dictated that work travel would get busy just when I didn’t want it to. Of course, now that I’m out, my travel business travel prospects have vaporized.


The little bit of time I spent at ground school was awesome. And I would happily do it again… Just not now, or anytime soon. I learned a lot, and I am stronger for it. While this is not the end, I am shelving this aspiration for another time in life.

Failure is tough. And while I would much rather learn from the mistakes of others, I’m happy to have had the opportunity to experience this one first hand. I hope that you can learn from my mistakes. Let me know what you think in the comments. And stay tuned for another AirlineReporter story about giving the PPL a try!

Managing Correspondent - Lee's Summit, MO. JL joined AirlineReporter in 2012 and has since become one of our most tenured and prolific writers. He enjoys catalyzing AvGeek excitement in others, and semi-frequent travel. While he's always looking for the next big adventure, home is with his growing AvGeek family in Lee's Summit, MO, a suburb of Kansas City. Find JL on MastodonEmail: jl@airlinereporter.com

Learning to fly… for real this time

Hi JL,

Glad that you at least enjoyed the bit of ground school that you were able to attend. On the bright side, at least you didn’t halfway through PPL training before realizing you couldn’t afford to finish!

Hang in there though. If my own experience is any indication, life has a funny way of coming back around with another shot at something like this, right when you least expect it and have mostly given up!

There are lots of places to get ground school without lots of money or time. I suggest the GLEM books for reading and the Ascent online ground school. The GLEM Private Pilot FAA knowledge test book will get you through what you need to know to pass the FAA test, you still will need a CFI signoff to take the test. For videos try Aviation101, MzeroA, Fly8ma and Sprotys. For computer based training try Xplane 11. Don’t give up, I fell in love with flying when I was 16 but didn’t have the time to take lessons until I retired.

You can always try the free private pilot ground school on FLY8MA: https://fly8ma.com/courses/2021-free-private-pilot-ground-school-pilot-course/

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