What You Need to Know Before Going on a Discovery Flight

Flight instructor showing student pilots flight deck of helicopter
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Taking the first step toward becoming a pilot can be nerve-racking. It’s difficult to know what to expect, and for some of us, the unknown is fearful.  Even if you’re not nervous at all, it’s nice to know what to expect before you take your first flight.

Here are a few common questions and the answers from people have had about their upcoming discovery flight. Hopefully knowing what to expect will allow you to sit back, relax and enjoy your flight!

How Do I Choose a Flight School for a Discovery Flight?

All flight schools are regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration and both flight schools and flight instructors are held to the same standards when it comes to safety and operations. Some go above and beyond these standards, but for the most part, you’ll want to make sure the instructors are friendly, the airplanes are well-maintained, and if you do want to continue on and take flight lessons, that the airplane and instructors that you want are available. Here’s a complete list of what to look for in a flight school.

What Kind of Airplane Will I Go up In?

Most discovery flights are conducted in light general aviation aircraft – a small, single-engine, propeller-driven aircraft with two to six seats. Common aircraft for discovery flights include a Cessna 172, Piper Archer, Diamond DA-40, or a Cirrus SR22.

Is That Little Airplane Safe?

Yes.

Light aircraft, especially those used for flight training, are very safe and reliable aircraft. To be operated for hire, these airplanes must undergo a complete inspection every 100 hours and an annual inspection, in accordance with federal aviation regulations (FARs).

Who Will I Be Flying With?

You’ll fly with a commercial pilot or flight instructor.

Most discovery flights will be conducted with just the two of you on board unless you arrange to bring a passenger with you before hand.

Where Will We Go?

A: Discovery flights are usually quick flights around the local area. You’ll probably fly over local landmarks, and perhaps your house or place of business. Depending on airspace regulations and local airport procedures, there may be restrictions in some areas. In general, you probably won’t go much further than 20 or 30 miles from the airport.

Can We Fly Over My House?

A: If your house isn’t too far away, and the conditions permit (i.e., there are no airspace restrictions or noise abatement procedures) then yes, flying over your house might just be possible. But it’s not possible all the time. Check with the flight school for local procedures if flying over your house if important to you.

How Long Will It Take?

A typical discovery flight takes between one and two hours.

Will I Get to Fly?

Most of the time, you’ll get to fly. That is the point of a discovery flight, after all. But there will be certain phases of flight in which the instructor will have to take over the controls, such as to accommodate air traffic control requests, to maneuver at loa altitudes and for take off and landings.

Will I Be Expected to Fly?

A: You don’t have to take the controls if you’d rather not. The instructor won’t force you to fly until you’re ready and willing. 

Is It Safe for Me to Fly?

A: Your instructor will coach and monitor you every step of the way, and won't let you get into a situation that's unsafe. 

Will I Get to Take off And/Or Land?

Don’t count on it. Takeoff and landing are critical phases of flight, and they both require a certain amount of skill and attention on behalf of the pilot. Sometimes an instructor will let you place your hands and feet on the controls during takeoff, but he will ultimately be controlling the aircraft.

Will We Do Loops or Barrel Rolls?

Aerobatic maneuvers aren’t usually done during a discovery flight. If it’s your first time in the air, you’ll probably be grateful to stay right-side-up.

Will I Get Sick?

Possibly. Airsickness is common, and it’s nothing new for instructors and pilots to deal with. In fact, flight instructors always prepare for sick passengers, nd you’ll almost certainly find a sic sac in the airplane just in case. Don’t worry if you do get nauseous; getting sick once doesn’t mean that you will get sick every flight. 

Do I Have to Talk on the Radios?

A: Not unless you want to and your pilot is in a position to allow you to try it out without compromising the safety of the flight. Radios are taught later during flight training. Most people have a bit of radio anxiety and are happy to know that the instructors will handle all of the radios during a discovery flight.​

Should I Tip the Pilot/Instructor?

No. Pilots are paid for the flight, and there’s no need to tip extra. Most of the time, the pilot will tell you that he isn’t allowed to accept tips.

Am I Expected to Purchase Flight Lessons or Otherwise Be Roped Into Buying Something Else Afterward?

Not at all. Your pilot will gladly tell you everything you need to know about flight training, but it’s a casual, no-pressure atmosphere and signing up for flight training is definitely not expected. Pilots know that flying isn’t for everyone, and that not everyone will be interested after a discovery flight. That’s why they offer them – to allow you to see if you’re interested before signing up for flight lessons.

What Should I Wear?

Wear close-toed shoes and comfortable clothing. You probably won’t want to wear anything too loose or anything too restrictive.  Casual clothing like jeans and a t-shirt is completely acceptable.  

What Should I Bring?

Feel free to bring a small purse or bag, but you likely won’t need to access anything in it during the flight, so it might be best to leave it in the car. Bring a bottle of water if you’d like, and don’t forget the camera!

Can I Take Photos During the Flight?

Yes. Each flight school will have their own policy and some may ask you to reserve photos for noncritical phases of flight, such as cruise flight, in order to not distract the pilot during takeoff and landing. But for the most part, you can use your smartphone or camera during discovery flights. Often the pilot will ask you to put it on “airplane mode” which should still allow you to take photos.  

Can I Bring My Wife/Husband/Child/Dog?

You’ll want to arrange for any potential passengers with the flight school. It might depend on the aircraft available, the weight of the passengers and various other factors.

Can My Wife/Husband/Child/Dog Watch?

Some airports restrict ramp access to just badge holders, and some airports don’t. But there’s usually at least a place to watch from outside the fence of from inside the flight school building. Ask your flight school for details.

How Old Do I Have to Be to Take a Discovery Flight?

There’s not usually an age minimum for discovery flights, although parents might need to be present to sign a waiver and give their permission.