Sunday, October 11, 2009

How much does learning to fly really cost?

The cost of learning to fly is often found to be the main obstacle standing between aviation enthusiasts and their dream of one day flying an airplane on their own. In this post I hope to shed some light on the topic by sharing the actual cost figures for my initial flying training, from pushing the door of the Redcliffe Aero Club for the first time on March 17th, 2007 to obtaining my Private Pilot Licence 585 days and 76 flight hours later.

The dollars quoted here are Australian dollars. One unit of our national currency is worth 90 US cents and 60 eurocents. The cost of flying training varies considerably between countries, so if you're reading this from overseas any direct conversion of the costs into your local currency won't help you much. As a rule of thumb, flying training in Australia is a bit more expensive than in the US but a lot cheaper than in Europe.

Granted, the figures given below are extracted from a statistical sample of exactly one, but at least these are real figures. Which begs the question, how representative is yours truly of the average student pilot? Let me put it this way: no-one ever referred to me as a problem student (at least not while I was listening) but I was never called a born aviator either.

Some flying skills I acquired rather easily, others took much longer to sink in. I trained in very typical General Aviation aircraft, namely C152s up to GFPT and C172s up to PPL. My training schedule was disturbed many times by spells of bad weather and multi-week business trips overseas. I also had to fit flying lessons within the typical schedule of someone with a full-time job, a partner and a social life. There are a couple of navigation exercises that I had to do twice, either due to weather or because of me busting controlled airspace.

There were also a couple of occasions when I walked back to my car after a flying lesson thinking that flying was not the thing for me after all. Of course each time I came back and of course the next time was great. So all in all I think my experience is fairly representative.

The costs of PPL training can be broken down into five categories:
  • Dual hire of the aircraft: you pay for the aircraft and for the instructor sitting next to you in the right seat.
  • Solo hire of the aircraft: you pay for aircraft hire only.
  • Briefings: that's when you receive one-on-one classroom-style instruction from your instructor, typically before and after each flight.
  • Fees: you cannot escape paying fees for your medical, for theoretical exams and flight tests, and for that useless ASIC card.
  • Pilot paraphernalia: maps, ERSA, textbooks, protractor, ruler, flight computer, headset, etc.
Without further ado, here's the figures:

Total budget is therefore $19,382. It's a lot, but notice that 87% of the budget went directly toward time spent in the air, either solo or under direct instruction. I flew 76 hours in total, i.e. 25 hours more than the 51 hours that are considered as a minimum by the training curriculum of the aero club where I learnt.

Because $19,382 is a scary figure, we'll now talk about it in terms of a monthly flying training budget, since most flying schools follow a pay-as-you-go charging model: you pay if and only if you fly.

In my case the monthly expenses averaged $1000. This is only an average: be prepared for an increase in the cash-burn rate in the final few months though. The last two or three navigation exercises in the PPL are long flights, which can easily add up to more than 10 hours of flying in one month if you're lucky with the weather.

This is why I would recommend saving money before starting training so that you know from the start that you will not have to put flying training on hold because of a cash-flow problem. The more often you fly the less you have to re-learn with each lesson, and therefore the lower the overall number of flight hours required. For example, you could have $10,000 saved beforehand and then set aside $500 each month for flying expenses over 20 months.

In conclusion, learning to fly is expensive. There's no two ways about it.

That being said, I believe anyone whose income allows them some degree of discretionary spending can afford flying training up to the Private Pilot Licence and even beyond, provided they plan their training properly and have their priorities straight in the entertainment and hobbies department.

You may have to cut back on other discretionary expenses, but once you've caught the bug you won't look back. And you will need to free time up anyway, because for the next year or so learning to fly will consume a lot of your free time and spare brain cycles.

You may also want to check with your family and partner that they are in agreement and supportive of your plan. Discuss financial arrangement of course but also the time demand flying training is going to put on your evenings and week-ends. Don't downplay the risk factor either, there are inherent risks with flying and you'd better be upfront about it and use the opportunity to dispel common misconceptions about those little airplanes who keep falling off the sky.

The price tag may be expensive, but the benefits of learning to fly reach far beyond the cockpit. Vincent at Plastic Pilot said it all once: how flying improved my life. I can relate to each and every on the list. The only thing I regret about learning to fly is to not have made the decision years earlier. If you're reading this thinking you may want to give it a go, ring your local aero club and book a trial introductory flight. You'll never regret it.


Vincent, from said...

Julien, thanks for sharing your own costs. My training is now too far away and I lost the evidences, but training in Switzerland resulted in similar costs. And then I doubled it to get my Instrument Rating.

I want to make two remarks here however. Initial training is by far the most expensive phase of a pilot's life, because it has to be intensive. Keeping a license valid is much less, and it is possible to reduce the flying budget close to zero for some times and re-activate a license when the times get better. I'm exactly in such a phase right now. I'm looking forward to a next post from you about the costs of non-instructional flying.

Secondly, depending to what you compare, flying is not that expensive. I have friends who maintain old, vintage cars. Others play golf or ski rather intensively. The costs of such activities are also not low. The difference is that we know exactly what we pay per hour. Make the sum of a ski week-end (chalet rental, fees, food, may be some fun at night, ...) and you'll be surprised where you land.

Finally, it's also possible to find less expensive planes. For the Flying Across America venture, I'll fly a trusty Cessna 150, costing less than US$100 per hour. Not as exciting as a Saratoga or a Diamond Twinstar, but flying is flying, isn't it ?

Julien said...

@Vincent: Very good point, one is indeed a lot more in control of one's flying expenses with a PPL in hand. I'll post something about my costs post-PPL and the different trade-offs on offer soon.

Totally agree with you too about the cost of other hobbies with smaller, more frequent expenses. DIY is also a good example: two trips to the DIY store over the course of one week-end at $50 or $100 each time quickly add up. And since no-one is keeping track of costs it all flies under the radar.

Anonymous said...

Great post Julian. With the spate of fair conditions and available aircraft
in the past months, my own flying costs have been mounting recently.
I still get a pang of guilt each time I open the 'Flying' account in
Quicken, but it's good at least to see that my costs are tracking okay against those of a self-described 'average' pilot. (Though the dual costs
of the 172's I've trained on run a bit higher).

For what it's worth to date I've averaged $1150/month (ex fees & misc), and
while this figure is high I'd agree from first-hand experience that flying
less often than 3-4 times a month is counter-productive as relearning
the complex skills and coordination required wastes time and saps patience.
Recency is your best friend.

Like you, this is something I wish I'd done many years ago. The lasting glow of having
a really good lesson is something difficult to convey, or to experience in other
hobbies. At the risk of rambling, I think a big part of the enjoyment of flying is that it's something
that has to be earned through the development of skills and the right attitude.

Cheers, Sean

Julien said...

@Sean: thanks for your comment, I'm happy to see that my figures are not too far off!

Over the last few years the cost of aircraft hire played the yo-yo a bit because of the huge ups and downs in the price of fuel, so that may explain the difference in dual hiring costs.

Different schools also charge different rates for instructors. Sometime the dual rate includes briefing and de-briefing time, while in my case it was always billed as a separate item.

Earlier today I was reading an article about the fall of the US dollar with respect to the Aussie dollar. Down 40% in one year. If the trend continues this way, flying to the US for a few weeks of intensive flying training will soon start to make financial sense!

Shawn michel said...

nice post.
I am a pilot training student and i am very happy to see this type of blogs. Thanks.

Private Pilot said...

Awesome article. Thanks. My total came to $11,208 for my private pilot.

Anonymous said...

Wher did u do it