Flying, if you can find a way to pay for it, is tremendously fun. Finding a way to pay for it is tricky.
If you want to learn to fly, and you live in Davis, the Cal Aggie Flying Farmers are your best bet. They're located at the airport, and as expensive as they may seem, their prices are better than most other flight schools/clubs I've seen. It costs about $30-$40 less per hour to fly with an instructor here than in Santa Barbara.
Two shots my wife took flying back to Davis after I picked her up at Oakland Intl. The first is crossing over the bay near Concord, and the second is right after takeoff from Oakland.
I'll add more details when I have time, but here is some information for those interested in getting a pilot's license (NOTE: Unless otherwise noted, everything on this page is specific to fixed wing powered aircraft. I don't have any real experience with gliders or rotor craft).
Certificates & Ratings
There are several different types/levels of pilot's licenses, and each level will give you different flying privileges.
- Student pilot certificate: First of all, ANYONE can attempt to get this as long as you pay the fee for it (around $65-70). Now, before you can legally solo in an airplane, you must have obtained at least a "3rd Class Medical certificate" from an AME (Aviation Medical Examiner). This medical certificate will actually DOUBLE as your "student pilot certificate", allowing you to legally solo an airplane when the time comes. You can get the medical anytime, and if you're in the Davis area, the closest place to get one is Sutter Davis Hospital. The certificate is fairly restrictive, and basically only allows you to (once ready and when instructor permits) legally fly solo (being the sole occupant of the aircraft). You can only fly in good weather (your instructor will also set a limit), must have been signed off recently (usually within two weeks at most flight schools) by an instructor, must fly in the local area (less than 50 miles away) unless a longer flight is specifically signed off on by an instructor. This permit basically exists to allow a student to gain proficiency flying (practicing landings, for example).
- Recreational certificate: A less rigorous version of the private pilot's license. This is somewhat uncommon. I don't remember of the top of my head what the restrictions are, but basically, it is more restricted than the private pilot's license. The bottom line is, you need less training to get this license, so you probably aren't as safe of a pilot or as good of a pilot if you only have this license. I would recommend skipping this license and getting a private pilot license if at all possible. Not all flight schools offer this license.
- Light Sport Pilot certificate: A new certificate class that allows you to fly without a medical certificate. Your valid state drivers license must be carried and serves as your medical certificate. Light Sport pilots are restricted to two-place Light Sport airplanes (max two seats, 1320 lbs gross, 120 knots and other restrictions), daytime only, no business, and tighter visibility and other restrictions. Training requirements are less, 40 questions on the knowledge test vs. 60 on the Private Pilot, 20 hours and no hood or night training. Despite the reduced training requirements, obtaining a Light Sport Pilot certificate will likely take more hours and cost more than a Private Pilot. Because the license class and the aircraft class are new, most of the trainer aircraft are new and rent for over $150/hr with instructor. They are also much harder to fly than a Cessna 150, the trainer of choice at most flight schools. This means you will likely need more than 20 or even 40 hours to gain enough competence to solo and pass your practical test. Finding a Designated Examiner to give you your practical test is also problematic. Of the two examiners in this area, one is booked up with other work and seldom has time to give a test and the other has had his certificate suspended twice and is unlikely to ever get it back. Having "been there and done that", with Light Sport training I strongly recommend that anyone interested in becoming a pilot ignore the Light Sport route and go for a Private Pilot certificate. One positive aspect of the Light Sport certificate is that Private Pilots who let their medical certificate lapse may continue to fly as Light Sport pilots. Anyone interested in discussing my largely negative experience with Light Sport training can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
- Private Pilot certificate: This is the basic license. The vast majority of US pilots (I don't remember, but I think it is something like 80-90%) have only this license. It allows someone to pilot a single engine aircraft (with a number of limitations on which kind of craft) in good visibility (i.e. you pretty much have to avoid clouds/fog, which can be quite tricky in some coastal areas). Contrary to some common beliefs, you can fly at night with this license (although it is a really good idea to get an instrument rating and a co-pilot if you plan to fly at night very much). Once you have this license, you can generally rent Cessna type aircraft at airports, and fly where you please (weather permitting).
- Instrument rating: This is where things start to get really serious. You do a LOT more book/classroom learning for this rating, and the requirements for passing are quite rigorous. It is not at all uncommon for people not to pass the tests (sometimes the written test, but more usually the flight test) their first time. Getting this rating teaches a pilot how to fly using only the instruments in the plane. Theoretically, a pilot with this license could fly a plane cross country in full fog/clouds from takeoff to landing. With certain military and commercial systems (called category 3 systems if I remember right) and the right training/certification, it is possible to take off, fly wherever and land, all without ever once seeing the ground. Most pilots however will fly in slightly more forgiving circumstances. Getting this rating will generally vastly improve your piloting skills and confidence.
- Commercial certificate: Once you have your commercial license, you can accept money for piloting. This isn't actually the toughest license to get. It mainly requires that you have a set number of flight hours (250 hours generally). You also learn to fly certain aircraft like retractable gear craft, and high performance aircraft (i.e. bigger engine). NOTE: No airline would ever hire someone with only just 250 hours. You usually need to have around 1000 or so hours to be considered as a co-pilot on a puddle jumper. Common jobs for a pilot with just a commercial license (and presumably an instrument license as well):
- Aerial photography
- Tourist flights
- Banner towing
- Flight instructor (although requires additional license)
- Flight instructor: This license requires a commercial license first. It basically teaches you how to fly from the right hand seat, how to instruct flying skills, familiarity with FAA teaching regulations and so on. This is the goal for many a pilot. Once a pilot has this license, they can start getting paid to fly (and even if the pay isn't that great, at least flying isn't a big black hole of cash anymore).
- Others: There are several other licenses, but I won't bother to go into detail on those now
- Flight instructor - instrument (for teaching the instrument rating)
- Airline transport pilot (required to be main pilot for a passenger hauling air carrier). Must have at least 1500 hours to get.
This is the major hurdle for most people. Here are basic cost (and hour where known) numbers that you can expect
- Private pilot: The cost of this license varies really widely. It depends on the region, the school, the student, and the student's circumstances (i.e. how much time and money they have to spend). Expect it to cost at LEAST $5000. It is not terribly uncommon at some more expensive locations for the whole license to cost closer to $10,000 (especially if the student can't devote a lot of hours each week to study and practice). The FAA publishes minimum hour numbers for this license, but those numbers are only minimums. Almost nobody ever finishes in those times (either 35 or 40 hours of flight time, depending on the type of school attended). To give you an idea about how wildly optimistic those numbers are, the national average flight time to get the private license is about 70 hours. If you spend $100 an hour for flight time (approximately the cost for a cheap Cessna 152 + and instructor here in Davis, which is cheap compared to other places), that would mean $7000 if you took the national average time. There are other expenses as well. You will need to buy books, a headset, charts and a number of other supplies (plus class time and test costs). Whatever you think it is going to cost you, multiply it by 1.5, and have the cash upfront when you are ready to start. Do this for two reasons: 1) Often times flight schools will have block rates that make it slightly cheaper to fly if you buy flight time in bulk (or if you keep money on your account). 2) It really sucks to run out of cash before you finish. This can mean months (or more) of time off, and it will be expensive to catch up once you do have the money again. In addition to the money, another entanglement that should be resolved before training is the physical exam. Private pilots are required to pass a simple physical exam performed by an FAA-approved MD. Though the exam is not particularly demanding, there are certain health conditions which could either bar you from obtaining a license or require additional documentation or tests. For example, any kind of psychotropic medication such as Prozac will disqualify you from obtaining a medical permit. Lasik treatments are also subject to a review process that may disqualify you depending on how they were done.
- Instrument: Once you have the private, you need about 50 hours of cross country time before you can do the instrument rating (there is a little play in this as you will get some XC time while working on the instrument rating, but it is probably better to have the 50 hours done first anyway). This will cost 50 x whatever the going rate is for the aircraft you want to rent (usually a Cessna 152 is the cheapest, but it can't hold much (i.e. no fat pilots, and only skinny passengers)). Once you've got the XC out of the way, it'll take a lot of time for ground school (CAFF has relatively cheap ground classes if you do your ground there). As for flying time, the FAA minimums are 40 hours of instrument time. With a standard part 61 school (which most schools, including CAFF, are) you can have up to 10 of that be with a certified simulator (cheaper than actual flying). Only 15 of those hours need to be with an instructor, and the rest can be simulated instrument (in a real airplane, not a simulator) using a safety pilot. Unlike many other ratings, the FAA minimums aren't too far off from reality, and there's a good chance you may be able to finish within the minimums. If you do finish within minimums, that probably means $5000 or so for the license at somewhere relatively inexpensive like CAFF (plus XC time and $$).
- Commercial: I've been told that there isn't a lot of flight time involved in this license, and it isn't a particularly tough license to get. Mainly, you've got to have 250 hours before you can get this license. That means $$$$$.
- Others: I don't really know. I don't really want to think about it. Maybe I'll win the lottery.