How Much Does a Private Pilot License Cost?

Image: Getty/Brian Hagiwara

The cost of flight training varies widely. A private pilot license can cost between $4,000 and $15,000, depending on the location, type of airplane used, type of flight school, instructor experience, and the pace at which a student is able to learn. To narrow down the cost a bit more, let’s start by breaking down the individual variables involved in flight training.

What’s Included in the Bill?

First, a flight school will usually charge by the hour, with a portion of the charge going toward an hourly aircraft rental rate, and the rest toward an hourly instruction rate.

The combined total will be the bill that you pay. Most flight schools will expect payment directly after a flight, but some will allow you to prepay for a set of block time at a discount rate, and some flight schools will allow you to set up a payment plan or another type of financing plan.

The total flight time is calculated by using either Hobbs time or the Tach time, which calculates the time the engine runs. This means that you only pay for the time spent with the engine running (or sometimes when you turn on the Master switch), and nothing extra.

For any given flight, the total instructional hours might differ from the total flight time charged. Some flight instructors will include a charge for briefing and de-briefing time, which means the flight instruction charge might be 1.5 hours while the flight might be 1.0 hours.

Sometimes a fuel surcharge is also included in the bill and depending on whether the aircraft is rented out on a wet rate or a dry rate, additional charges might appear.

Along with money for the hourly flying bill, you'll also want to put aside some cash for pilot supplies and flight training books. 

How Many Flights Will It Take?

A person who is applying for a private pilot certificate is required to log a minimum of 40 hours of flight time. Some of these hours will be with an instructor, and some will be solo flights.

Forty hours is the very minimum required, and while some students do complete their certificate in 40 hours or just over 40 hours, the average time to complete a private pilot certificate is more like 60 hours of flight time.

Weather delays, instructor availability, aircraft availability, the frequency of training flights and a variety of other factors can mean that more hours are necessary to become proficient. A student who flies every day will progress through training quickly, while the student who flies once a week or once a month would spend much of their time reviewing material, and may take longer to finish their training.

What’s the Bottom Line?

It can be difficult to budget for flight training when you aren’t sure how much it will cost. But if you determine the hourly costs associated with the aircraft rental and the flight instructor fee, you can then decide how often you can fly, how much time per week you can invest in your training, and the costs can be broken down. If you can fly twice a week, you should budget for about 4 hours of training per week. Most local training flights are between 1.0 and 1.5 hours in the aircraft, so a student who flies twice per week might log about 2.8 hours per week.

If we apply a random rate of $125 per hour for aircraft rental and $25 per hour for instruction, you’ll pay a total of $150 per hour, or up to $420 per week. At an average of 2.8 hours per week (some weeks will be more, and some less) it might take 15 weeks and $6,000 to complete your training at the minimum of 40 hours required.

You can expect it to take you more than 40 hours to complete training, however, so it’s useful to plan for 50 or 60 hours, bringing the cost up to $7,500-9,000. 

How Can I Keep Costs to a Minimum?

Students can’t control the aircraft rental rate or the fuel surcharge, but there are some things you can do to keep your flight training costs to a minimum. First, you’ll want to make sure you and your instructor are following a syllabus and training plan that makes sense for your personal goals and time frame.

A training plan helps both people know what to expect and how the student is progressing.

A student who is willing to study on his own will progress faster and will spend less money on ground instruction. Flight instructors must make sure students are prepared with the knowledge required to pass the FAA practical exam or check ride. If the student doesn’t do any learning on his own, the flight instructor will spend more time teaching the student, and when you’re on the flight instructor’s clock, you’ll be paying for it. There’s not a need to have the instructor walk you through the written exam test prep question bank, or to go over every small detail in the private pilot manual with you if you can learn it on your own. If you’re a self-starter and want to study on your own, you’ll save money.

Take the written exam before you begin flying. Learning everything you need to know on the ground will ensure you are making the best use of your time in the air.  A student who doesn’t learn any book knowledge will spend more money in the airplane, with his or her instructor explaining every small detail. If you’re already aware of these small things, often procedural details, you and your instructor can quickly move on to practicing other things.

Don’t take too many breaks in your training. Long pauses in training mean that when you return, you’ll have to spend time re-learning things you once knew. And a long enough pause might mean that you’re now paired with a new instructor, who doesn’t necessarily know where you left off. These problems can often be prevented if you are able to fly more often.

Find more tips on saving money during flight training here.