On Becoming a Pilot (in Canada)
 
by David Black
Founder and Director of Air Time Canada (http://www.airfun.org)

I get a lot of emails, and sometimes phone calls, asking me questions like:
 
  •  How do I become a pilot?
  •  Where do I start?
  •  How long will it take?
  •  How much will it cost?"

  •  
    This article will answer those questions - and more. It's very thorough (read: long) and is packed full with information. You might want to print it and read it in a quiet place. It has been designed and formatted for printing.
     
    Uses of a Pilots License
     
    There are lots of things you can do with a pilots license. Just think of how useful and fun a driver's license is and multiply that by 10.
     
    I've used my Pilot's License (with a Cessna 172) to travel all over the continent (to places as close as Seattle and as far as Disneyland or Las Vegas). I've gone on Airplane Picnics (great fun), on Airplane Dates (try to beat that), and flown to fun events like the overnight Crab & Salmon Feast at Long Beach.
     
    Long Beach (Tofino, Vancouver Island) is a great example. Let's say you want to spend the day there on the beach.
     
    By car it involves an all day trip (driving, ferry crossing, more driving) then an overnight stay in a hotel. After your day at the beach it's another overnight stay in a hotel and an all-day drive the next day to get home. Total time: 3 days!
     
    Now by plane: A one-hour flight - through some of the most spectacular scenery there is. Walk across the street from the airport and you're at the beach. At the end of the beach day, hop back into the plane and an hour later you're home. Total time: 1 day!
     
    And what you save in ferry and hotel costs will pay for the airplane rental. Remember: when renting an airplane you only pay for the time it's flying. That full-day at Long Beach will cost you 2 hours of rental. That's around around $200 - including fuel - for 4 people!
     
    Of course, you can also use your pilot's license to earn a living. Commercial flying is one of the most rewarding (and best paying) careers around. You'll need a special kind of pilot's license if you want to fly for a living. Let me explain:
     
    Types of Licenses
     
    In Canada, there are 4 types of Pilot's Licenses that you can hold (one of them is actually a permit and not a license - more about this later).
     
    Recreational Pilot Permit Fly with your friends and family for fun and transportation. Valid in Canada Only.
    Private Pilot's License Fly with your friends and family for fun and transportation. Valid all over the world.
    Commercial Pilot's License Fly for a Living (and fly with your friends and family for fun). Valid all over the world and includes the 'Big' Jets (but not as Captain).
    Airline Transport Pilot's License Fly for a Living (and fly with your friends and family for fun). Valid all over the world and includes the 'Big' Jets (even as Captain).

     
    Your very first Pilot's License has to be either a Recreational Pilot Permit or a Private Pilot's License. The latter can be upgraded (with experience and additional training) to a Commercial Pilot's License and then (with more experience and even more training) to an Airline Transport Pilot's License.
     

    Fig 1 - Allowed Upgrade Paths for Licenses & Permits

     
    Which type of license you start with (Recreational or Private) will depend on what you want to ultimately do with it - and on how much money you want to spend (the Recreational Permit is cheaper).
     
    By the way, if you're wondering how a Permit is different from a License, it's this: Licenses are issued in accordance with International Standards and are recognized all over the world (that is how a Canadian pilot can fly a jet from here to Germany with only one License). A Permit, on the other hand, is issued according to local (Canadian) standards. There are no international standards for permits, so they are not recognized or valid outside of Canada. A Canadian Permit isn't good in the United States - even though the USA also has a type of Recreational Pilot Permit.
     
    License Add-Ons
     
    But wait! It gets more complicated. If you're the holder of a License (not a Permit) then there are features that you can add on to your license. These are called Ratings & Endorsements. These require additional training, and sometimes another written or practical (flight) test.
     
    Here is a list of some of the types of Ratings & Endorsements. that can be added to Canadian Pilot's Licenses:
     
    Multi-Engine Rating Allows you to fly an airplane with more than one engine.
    Instrument Rating Allows you to fly in Clouds and other 'poor' weather.
    Float Rating Allows you to take-off and land an airplane that is equipped with floats (on water).
    Instructor Rating Allows you to teach other people how to fly. Can not be applied to a 'Private License'.

     
    There are a few more. You'll learn about them in more detail as you get into flight training. For now it's useful to know that if you want to be hired as a commercial pilot, you'll need more than just a bare-bones Commercial Pilot's License. You're not very employable until you also have some (or most) of the Ratings.
     
    The Medical
     
    You'll need to pass a regular Medical Exam in order to hold a Pilot's License. Technically, you can start your training without doing the Medical Exam, as long as you pass the exam before a certain stage of the training. I strongly recommend, however, that you get the Medical Exam out of the way right up front. If there is any medical reason that you can't fly, you may as well know it before you spend a bunch of money on flight training.
     
    Vision is rarely a problem for the Pilot Medical. As long as your vision can be corrected with glasses or contacts. If you're not legally blind, then you're probably ok. Wearing glasses, having stigmatism, or being short-sighted are not problems. If your vision is good enough for driving, it's probably good enough for a pilot's license. However: the specific criteria for vision depend on what type of license you want to hold. Being completely color-blind can be a problem.
     
    The Pilot Medical Exam is focused more on the kinds of things that can suddenly incapacitate a pilot. Heart attacks, strokes, etc. The most common reasons for not passing the medical exam are: high blood pressure, diabetes, epilepsy, suicidal tendencies, etc.
     
    Your Family Doctor is not the one who will conduct your Pilot Medical Exam. This exam can only be conducted by a doctor specifically qualified (by Transport Canada) to conduct Pilot Medical Exams. You can find a list of qualified doctor's on the Transport Canada web site (www.tc.gc.ca/CivilAviation/) or, if you live in the Vancouver Lower Mainland, you can do the smart thing and go to the Pilot-Medical Guru's at:
     
    Ultima Yvr
    300-4440 Stark Street
    Richmond, BC, Canada V7B 1A1
    (604) 232-2430
     
    This is a clinic full of doctors that do nothing but Pilot Medical Exams. They know their way around the Transport Canada bureaucracy and have all the equipment (like ECG's and Audiograms) right there on-site - so you don't have to visit multiple labs to get it all done.
     
    When you call them up, they will want to know what kind of Medical you need. For a Private Pilot's License you will need a Class 3 Medical Exam. For a Commercial Pilot's License you will need a Class 1 Medical Exam.
     
    The cost of the exam is not covered by your BC Medical. You will have to pay around $175.
     
    The Medical Exam has to be repeated periodically - depending on your age and the type of license you hold. You might have to go back once every 5 years or as often as once every 6 months.
     
    Here is the actual link to Transport Canada's list of Aviation Medical Examiners:
    http://wwwapps.tc.gc.ca/saf-sec-sur/2/came-meac/
     
    Working on the License
     
    I'll outline what the training process is like for the Private Pilot's License. The Recreational Pilot Permit is very similar - just a little less of everything.
     
    Once you've chosen a school (I explain how later in this article) you'll have to enroll in their Ground School Classes and buy your textbook and supplies. This will typically cost you between $500 and $600.
     
    In most cases, Ground School is a class that you will attend once a week. Most schools hold their ground school classes on multiple different days and times so that you can attend the classes that fit your schedule.
     
    Some schools also offer a 'Distance Learning' option for Ground School (ie: via the internet or correspondence). I strongly recommend that you attend a real classroom instead, with a live instructor and other students. If you want to do any distance learning (on-line courses) I recommend working on your PSTAR. That is an exam you have to pass in order to get your Student Pilot Permit. Click here for more about that.
     
    Simultaneously with Ground School, you will begin your Flight Lessons. Each flight lesson takes between 1 and 2 hours. At first there will be an instructor in the plane with you during flight lessons. Eventually you will reach the point where your instructor will supervise some of your lessons from the ground - with you flying the plane by yourself.
     

    Fig 2 - General Sequence of Events towards a Private Pilot's License (click to enlarge)

     
    Don't wait until you are finished Ground School in order to start the Flying lessons. It is best to do them together. Experience in the airplane helps the ground school make more sense ... and ground school helps make the lessons in the airplane more valuable.
     
    I recommend that you try to schedule flying lessons at least once per week. Less often and you will have to spend part of each lesson re-learning something that you forgot since the last lesson. If you can manage a couple of times per week you'll do really well.
     
    Depending on the type of school you choose, you might be able to pay for your Flight Lessons as-you-go (rather than all-at-once before you start). This can make a huge difference for some people and is often a major factor in choosing a school. If you are paying for you Flight Lessons as-you-go, then each lesson will typically cost you around $150.
     
    The FAM FLIGHT
     
    Most flying schools offer a special deal they call a 'Fam Flight' (stands for Familiarization Flight). A Fam Flight is essentially a regular flight lesson - except at a significantly lower price than a regular flight lessons. But you're only allowed one per person per lifetime. They are used by flying schools to 'reel in' students, but even if you've already signed up for lessons you are still entitled to take a Fam Flight .. and you should. You will get to log the flight just like a regular lesson and will get a chance to see how you like the instructor.
     
    College Schools
     
    The training process I described above (under the heading Working on your License) is how it works at Traditional flying schools. There are also a few schools around that I call College Schools. At a College School you will work simultaneously on a degree of some kind (usually an Associate Degree) and on a complete set of pilot's licenses and ratings. You would typically graduate from this kind of a program with a Commercial Pilot's License and all of the necessary ratings such as a Multi-Engine Rating, Instrument Rating , and Instructor Rating.
     
    Unlike the Traditional School, a College School program is a full-time endeavor. Lots of time in classrooms and lots of time flying. On the plus side, you will graduate ready-to-be-hired - and you probably will be hired (as a Flight Instructor) right after graduating. On the minus side: College-School programs are very expensive. Plan on spending at least $70,000 - and it isn't pay-as-you go.
     
    College Schools vs Traditional Schools
     
    The college-school isn't necessarily a better way to go - even if you can afford it. There are advantages and disadvantages to each approach. There was a time when college-schools were considered a better choice if you wanted to pursue a flying career - because their students were getting jobs faster. Right now, however, the demand for pilots is so strong that both types of schools are enjoying almost 100% job placement of their commercial graduates.
     
    Traditional School College School
    Lower Cost (by 2x or more) Includes an Associate Degree
    Part-Time Endeavor. Finished in 2 years
     
    How NOT to choose a School
     
    Don't choose a flying school based on the Cost Estimate they hand out. These Estimates are always based on the Government Minimums and are always much less than the real cost. In the end, how much it will cost you will depend on many factors - mostly your own ability and commitment. In fact, the rates from one flying school to another vary only a little. The quality of instruction will have a much bigger effect on your total cost - because poor instruction will mean a lot more 'hours' of training before you are ready.
     
    Don't choose a flying school based on how neat and tidy everything looks either. Remember: every school has pretty well the same amount of 'discretionary' money in their budget. Maybe the school that has the beautifully fresh-painted airplanes is the one that didn't spend that money on an engine overhaul? Or maybe the school with the really nice front-office furniture is taking that money out of classroom equipment?
     
    Note: I'm not saying that nice-looking airplanes or a professional-looking front office is a bad thing. I'm just saying that those are the wrong criteria to judge a school by.
     
    How to Choose a Flying School
     
    Flying schools vary in what kind of training they provide. Some specialize in training Recreational or Private pilots. Others specialize in training Commercial pilots or maybe in providing Instrument Ratings. Some schools have a very rigid "military-style" training regime while others take a more casual "go-with-the-flow" adaptive approach.
     
    You want to choose a school that is appropriate for your personality and learning style, that is aligned with your training objectives, that has adequate staff and aircraft to finish the job, that has a good ground school (this is really important), and that has a good reputation (for quality-of-training and safety) among those who know.
     
    So talk to pilots and other people that are involved in the local aviation scene. Tell them what your training objectives are. Decide up front if a College School or Traditional School is best for you. Get advice from people you trust. You can also get a recommendation from me by answering the questions at the bottom of this article and emailing it to me.
     
    How much will it cost?
     
    It's a difficult question to answer - because it depends on what kind of license we're talking about, how much skill and commitment you bring to the table, the quality of the school, what type of school (college or traditional), what kind of aircraft you will be training in (if you're large, the cheap 2-seater may not be comfortable for you), etc. Here are a few 'guideline' numbers:
     
    Recreational Pilot Permit
    Traditional School
    ~ $5,000
    (~ $550 down, then pay-as-you-go spread over 1 year)
    Private Pilot's License
    Traditional School
    ~ $8,000
    (~ $550 down, then pay-as-you-go spread over 1-2 years)
    Commercial Pilot's License
      plus Ratings
    Traditional School
    ~ $35,000
    (~ $700 down, then pay-as-you-go spread over 1-3 years)
    Commercial Pilot's License
      plus Ratings
    College School
    ~ $70,000
    (large down-payment + installments over 2 years)
     
    The costs above do not include some of the incidentals, such as the Pilot Medical Exam, and Written Examination Fees charged by Transport Canada.
     
    The Military Option
     
    Of course, one way to become a pilot is to join the Air Force. It's a great way to go .. just keep a few things in mind:
    1. You will have to serve for a number of years
    2. The license you get will be a Military Pilot's License - you will have to convert it after your discharge
    3. No guarantee that you'll fly the type of plane you want (fighters, transport, choppers ..)
    4. It's Very difficult to get accepted
    You don't need to have any flying experience to get accepted by the air force - they do their own training. You do, however, have to be a near-perfect human specimen. They will even interview your kindergarten teacher before accepting you. Too many speeding tickets when you were 16 will disqualify you. And you better be in perfect health (including your eyes).
     
    Once you get accepted into the basic flight training it will be a tough go. The first 6 months is mostly an 'elimination process' - survival of the fittest.
     
    But, if you're up to the challenge, military flying is about as much fun as you can have in an airplane. And as a bonus, you will be done your tour-of-duty in a pretty short time and have lots and lots of good-quality experience under your belt. The kind that opens doors very quickly at the airlines.
     
    A Taste of Aviation
     
    If you would like a 'taste' of aviation - see if you really want to persure it or not - here are a few things you can do without spending a ton of money:
    1. Take a Fam Flight.
       
      I've already described this a few paragraphs up.
      It's a great way to see what it feels like to be at the controls of an airplane.
      Be warned, however! :-) It can really hook you. It did me.

    2.  
    3. Take an On-Line Course.
       
      Don't run out and enroll in a full-fledged Ground School. That will cost you hundreds of dollars
      and require all kinds of materials that you don't need to buy right now. Instead take an
      'intro to aviation' course or take a PSTAR course (for under $20).
       
      I've put together an article about PSTAR. Tells you what PSTAR is, how you can study it for free, and describes a great on-line PSTAR course that is available cheap. Click here for the article.

    4.  
    5. Take an Air Time Canada Course.
       
      I'm the founder of an aviation program class called Air Time Canada.
      If you happen to live in the Vancouver Lower Mainland (or are willing to travel) you can take this class.
      It includes a one-day Ground Day (a lot of fun and laughing) followed by an optional flight with
      you as the co-pilot. You'll talk to air traffic control, operate the instruments, and fly the plane.
      Click here to find out more.

    6.  
    7. "Learning to Fly" Video Series.
       
      Sporty's Pilot Shop, in Ohio (USA), has put together a really great video series about learning to fly. It covers everything from what kinds of licenses there are, all the fun things you can do with your license, interviews with pilots of all types (F16 pilots to Helicopter pilots to Airline pilots to Recreational pilots), and even a walk-through of the first flight lesson. You can watch it on-line (in 5 parts). The whole thing is about an hour. Here is the link:
      airfun.org/ltf_video/ltf1.htm

    8.  
    Happy Flying ..
     
    ... David Black
     
    About David Black
     
    David Black is not a professional pilot and doesn't work for or represent a flying school. He runs the Air Time Canada non-profit aviation program in his spare time, but his days are spent running a Technology Consulting company that helps executives with strategic technology issues such as outsourcing, quality engineering and strategic marketing issues:
    Technology Consulting & Advice for Executives
    Adverts by Google (shown below) help support this web site and Air Time Canada.
    The information above, however, is not an advertisement. It is the author's personal BLOG on the subject of becoming a pilot.