pic of two people in cockpit

Making the switch from passenger to pilot

If you’ve been feeling an urge to turn left instead of right when you step aboard a business aircraft, you’re not alone. Transitioning from passenger to pilot is more common than you might think, and whether you aspire to fly for recreation or take command of your own business jet, it’s likely simpler—especially since you probably don’t face the financial constraints that can keep many aspiring pilots grounded.

“Successful, mid-career professionals are absolutely an important part of the student pilot population,” says Elizabeth Tennyson, vice president, aviation program operations, at the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA). She adds that earning a pilot’s license today “is easier and more convenient than it’s ever been.”

If you’re interested, but not thoroughly committed, “don’t underestimate how easy it is to call up your local airport and schedule an introductory flight with an instructor,” says Flagship Foods CFO Patrick Moulder, who earned his pilot’s license in 2014. “An hour up in the air can be a pretty cool experience, even if you don’t want to pursue the whole license,” adds Moulder, who got interested in flying while accompanying his CEO in a Cirrus SR22 piston single on frequent business trips.

Among the requirements for an FAA private pilot license or certificate: you must be at least 17 years old and have a minimum of 40 hours of flight time, including at least 20 hours with an authorized instructor and 10 hours of solo flying; you must also hold a third-class medical certification and a student pilot certificate and pass a practical knowledge test—aka the flight test—and a written exam.

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Today, a host of interactive tools and online programs improve the learning experience and make it convenient to work toward your rating just about anywhere. If you’re interested in flying only sport aircraft, or have a medical condition that precludes earning a private pilot’s license, you can seek a recreational pilot’s license, which requires less time and training.

Though the path to the pilot’s seat has been eased, many would-be aviators still drop out en route to earning a license. Identifying the appropriate aircraft type to fly, choosing a good training facility and instructor, and establishing goals help ensure success.

“Create a schedule and stick to the schedule,” advises Matt Gelfand, a Nashville businessman. Introduced to business aviation after buying a NetJets Marquis Card and Wheels Up membership following the sale of a company he’d founded, Gelfand immediately became enamored with the idea of flying himself and earned his license in early 2016. “I was hooked,” he says. “I really wanted to use it to travel not just on business but with my family.”

You should train in the type of airplane you plan to fly. If you intend to own an aircraft, buying it to train in can make sense, because doing so will ensure you know your airplane well and maximize the economic benefits of ownership. For business and family travel, a range of single- and multi-engine aircraft make ideal platforms. If you’re interested in aerobatics, exploring the backcountry, or using a floatplane to get around the lakes near your summer home, aircraft suited to your needs are available.

Pilot organizations like the Experimental Aircraft Association, the Seaplane Pilots Association, and AOPA have staffs available to answer questions about ownership. Join a type club for the aircraft you plan to fly. All major airplane models have such clubs, which are organized and run by owner groups. The clubs are founts of valuable information and camaraderie, and many of them sponsor safety clinics and other specialty-instruction programs.

With dedication, you can earn your pilot’s certificate in six to nine months, at a cost in the neighborhood of $10,000.

Look for a flight school with a modern, well-maintained fleet and a standardized training curriculum. Ask pilots you currently fly with and your lift providers for recommendations. The AOPA, which lists flight schools across the U.S. on its website, recognizes superior schools and instructors with its annual Flight Training Experience Awards. The Flight School Association of North America, which has an accreditation program, lists member facilities on its website.

Train with a senior career instructor, suggests Rick Todd, president of the National Association of Flight Instructors. Such an instructor “may cost a little more, but it’s money well spent,” Todd says, especially today: working as a flight instructor has long been a venerable tradition among pilots aspiring to airline jobs, but with hiring by commercial carriers on the upswing, such instructors may land an airline job before they finish your training. “You don’t want to be changing instructors three or four times before getting your rating,” says Todd. A search engine on NAFI’s website can identify member instructors by location, ratings, type of instruction, and other criteria.

Maintain a positive attitude. “I see people have a bad experience with an instructor or a school, and they lose interest,” says Gelfand, noting that he flew with several instructors before choosing one whose teaching style meshed with his needs.

Finally, commit the required time and effort. Earning a pilot’s license is a serious endeavor. “I did a lot of book studying on my own, at night after I put the kids to bed,” says Gelfand.

With dedication, you can earn your certificate in six to nine months, at a cost in the neighborhood of $10,000. You may want to continue with your instrument and multi-engine ratings, earn a commercial license, or get a type rating if you plan to fly a heavier aircraft or even a jet.

Moulder, who flies a Cirrus, earned his license in about six months, “basically taking lessons every weekend.” His training also benefitted from flying with his boss. “We’d bring instructors with us on business flights, and I would get some [flight] time that way,” Moulder says.

Gelfand, who also owns and flies a Cirrus, completed his primary training with an intensive three weeks at the Flight Academy in Seattle, which specializes in training for the composite single. Gelfand now uses his Cirrus SR22T for business and family trips, and is second-in-command type-rated in a Beechjet 400XP twinjet that he leases for trips beyond the range of his Cirrus. (He hires an instructor to serve as pilot in command for those flights.)

“It’s a passion for me, not just a tool,” says Gelfand. “It’s a second profession. It changes the whole experience of travel for me.”

Both Moulder and Gelfand point to the Cirrus Airframe Parachute System, which can deploy a parachute to lower the aircraft to the ground in emergency situations, as a primary reason they choose to fly that aircraft type.

Moulder’s boss, meanwhile, has upgraded to an Eclipse 500 twinjet. Moulder has no interest in a jet rating, but as the Eclipse is approved for single-pilot operation, he can sit in the right seat and help with radio work, learning more with every flight.