The Wright Stuff: How To Earn Your Wings

I've loved airplanes since I was a kid. Even today, my idea of a good time is to eat at a restaurant near Washington National Airport that provides a perfect view of planes taking off and landing. So, when a friend suggested that I join him for flying lessons, it didn't take a whole lot of arm-twisting for me to give him a thumbs-up. Just before Christmas, we joined the ranks of the 83,000 aspiring pilots who pick up the hobby each year. Many of them, like me, are professional men in their 30s. Like many beginners, I approached the task with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. After all, flying small planes doesn't have the reputation of being the safest of hobbies, even though statistics show that it's a lot less dangerous than driving a car.

CLOUD-WORTHY. Getting a basic private license to pilot a small single-engine plane can cost $2,000 to $5,000, depending on where you live. The fees include the cost of aircraft rental, flight instruction, ground school, insurance, and books. You can spend more than $10,000 if you want to get an instrument flight rating. That allows you to fly in bad weather, when you must rely on instruments to land.

Obtaining a private license usually takes six to nine months. You need 35 to 40 hours of flight time. After your flight instructor accredits you--and you pass a physical to check your eyes and general health--you get to fly solo. Then, you must pass a flight test with an examiner from the Federal Aviation Administration and a 50-question, multiple-choice test.

I chose a school called the ATC Flight Training Center in Fort Washington, Md., near Andrews Air Force Base, home of Air Force One. If you can't find a flight school by thumbing through the Yellow Pages, you can get information by dialing the nonprofit General Aviation Task Force (800 422-6359) or the Aircraft Owners & Pilots Assn. (800 872-2672). Visit two or three schools before signing up to make sure you find an instructor you like. You'll be spending a lot of time together in close quarters.

It's a good idea to attend optional ground school, or read up on your own, while you take flight lessons. The ground study, which costs $100 to $200 for roughly 20 hours of class time, will reinforce your flying instruction. Another option is ground-school videotapes (table).

ROARING START. Once you settle on a school, you'll open an account for flight time. You often get an introductory flight at a discount, perhaps $25 an hour, compared with $45 to $75 for a regular lesson. You can pay as you go or get a discount by paying in advance. Some groups, such as AOPA, will lend you up to $5,000 with no collateral to put toward flight lessons. The annual interest rate is 14%.

Don't be surprised if you get airsick the first time out. The plane rocks far more than a 747, and the engine noise is deafening. After a few flights, that queasy feeling should go away. The first few flights give you a feel for the fundamentals. My first lesson covered how to taxi on a runway. Your instinct is to turn the yoke, which looks like a steering wheel and banks and pitches the plane while you're in the air. But when you're on the ground, you steer the plane by applying pressure to rudder pedals on the floor, which control the direction of the wheels.

After about 25 hours of flight time, I become confident enough to wonder about owning a plane. But most people buy a plane only if they plan to fly at least 200 to 300 hours a year, which is a lot for beginners. For most new pilots, renting makes more sense. Rental prices range from $35 per flight hour for a simple two-seat aircraft to $40 to $60 for a four-seater.

Another option is to join a flying club, which is the equivalent of vacation time-sharing. Typically, 5 to 10 people co-own the plane. You pay an initiation fee of $200 to $2,000, depending on the equity interest you take. There may be monthly dues of $15 to $175, which cover the hangar, insurance, and maintenance fees.

I'll probably opt for a flying club when I get my license. Meanwhile, I'm trying to summon up the courage to take my first solo flight. For now, I'll be happy just to make it through that.

      BOOKS  Aviation Fundamentals, Jeppesen Sanderson, Englewood, Co., $32.95
       FAA's Pilot's Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge,
       Air Safety Foundation, Frederick, Md., 800 638-3101, $10.75
       King Schools, San Diego, 800 854-1001,
       $169 for private-pilot course to pass FAA written exam
       Sporty's Pilot Shop, Batavia, Ohio, 800 LIFTOFF, $243 for course
      MAGAZINES AOPA Pilot, Aircraft Owners & Pilots Assn., 800 872-2672, $39/year
       Flying, Hachette Magazines, 800 678-0797, $24/year
       Private Pilot, Fancy Publications, 303 447-9330, $21.97/year
      DATA: BW
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