So you want to learn to fly an aeroplane and earn your PPL(A) or LAPL(A)? Here’s all you need to know to get started.
27 July 2023
What is your reason for thinking about learning to fly? Is it because you know someone who flies and they seem to be having the time of their life? Perhaps you travel across the UK and Europe for business and/or pleasure and flying yourself seems a good idea? Or maybe it’s some romantic notion about freedom of the air, or twisting and turning in 3D, just like the birds?
All the same, what you must do first though, is try the experience of flying a light aircraft and make sure you really do enjoy it. Take a trial flight (sometimes called a ‘flight experience’) at a local airfield. All flying schools and clubs offer these. The bigger clubs may have a range of flying experiences, from a flight in a simple four-seat touring aircraft such as a Cessna 172 or Piper PA-28, right up to an aerobatic sortie in a specialist Pitts biplane.
So, you’ve had the trial flight and you’re ready to start PPL training. If you’re thinking of turning it into a career, such as an airline pilot, then make sure that you can pass the medical (see p18) and turn to our feature on becoming a commercial pilot (page 24). If you want to fly as a private pilot, the first decision is what type of licence you want to end up with (see below) and then decide on an airfield and a flight school.
PPL(A) This is the main private pilot’s licence, as regulated – now – by the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). The UK has left the European system run by EASA but the CAA has pretty much copied over the EASA regs,, and will be issuing its own PPLs. These licences will be internationally recognised around the world, including across Europe, and in the USA, Africa, Middle East, Australia and New Zealand.
The good thing about the full PPL(A), whether issued by EASA or the UK CAA, is that it is internationally recognised and you can add ratings such as an Instrument Rating (IR). The PPL is also the first step to a commercial career, should you want to go that route. The only downside, if there is one, is that to exercise the full privileges of the licence you will need to pass and hold a Class 2 Medical.
LAPL(A) The Light Aircraft Pilot’s Licence (LAPL) is purely a UK national licence. It is not internationally recognised although as time goes on, it’s possible that Europe will accept it. The main differences to the full PPL are that the training course is shorter, just 30 hours, and the medical requirements less onerous. A LAPL allows you to fly aircraft up to 2,000kg in weight with a maximum of three passengers. You can’t add an Instrument Rating, but you can a Night Rating. The LAPL is perfectly suitable for most leisure pilots and can be upgraded to a PPL with further training. NPPL The National Private Pilot’s Licence (NPPL) is UK-only and is rarely taught for light aircraft these days.
A microlight-only licence is still an NPPL, although you can also fly microlights on either a PPL or a LAPL.
There are plenty of flying schools to choose from in the Clubs & Schools Directory section, which starts on page 66. They range from big companies at busy regional airports to smaller operations based on a grass airfield. So how do you choose the right one?
“A big decision is whether to train with a big school at an airport, or one based at a smaller airfield”
You’re going to be spending a lot of time at your chosen school, so an important consideration is the time needed to travel there and back. Most flying lessons last an hour or two, with a pre- and post-flight briefing. Add in a drive to and from the airfield of, say, an hour, and that’s a half-day gone, which may test your resolve.
Also, the UK’s weather isn’t always co-operative. There will be days when you turn up at the airfield only to find that it isn’t flying weather. Yes, you can make good use of the time by going over the theoretical knowledge books, or by practising radio calls, but you may simply end up driving home again. Some flight schools have invested in a flight simulator, which can be a good (and relatively inexpensive) way to practise such procedures as radio navigation and make use of bad weather days.
A big decision is whether to train with a big school at an airport, or one based at a smaller airfield. There are pros and cons with each. The bigger airport will prepare you for the radio calls and procedures, and it’ll probably be in controlled airspace, which means you’ll get used to talking to air traffic control. A bigger school is also likely to have a larger number of aircraft and instructors, giving a degree of flexibility. However, such schools are usually orientated around the business of getting pilots through their training, and less likely to have a social side than, say, a club at a smaller airfield.
The smaller airfield is likely to be less busy than the bigger airport, meaning that your hard-earned money will be spent in the air rather than in a queue. Spend some time at the airfield, watching aircraft come and go, so you can get an idea of the time it takes to get airborne.
Of course, flying schools make use of other airfields in their area, partly to widen your experience and also because circuit training might be discouraged at bigger airports.
Whichever type of school you go for, be cautious of paying for much of your training upfront. Although paying upfront may mean a slight discount, it’s been known for flying schools to go under and students lose what they’ve paid. Also, although it’s rare, you may find you don’t get on with the club or school and want to move elsewhere to continue your training. If you do this, make sure all the paperwork is up to date and available. When it comes to your eventual licence issue, the CAA will need to see the training records.
Whatever school you choose, your progress will be much smoother if you can take regular lessons with as short a gap between each as possible – ideally, no more than a week. Ultimately, learning to fly should be a lot of fun, and if you aren’t enjoying the experience, then don’t be afraid to move onto another school which might suit you better.
For a PPL(A) you must complete a minimum of 45 flying hours, of which up to five hours can be on an approved flight simulator. Don’t be surprised if you need more than 45 hours – most people do and it won’t go against you when it comes to the Skill Test.
The pilot training syllabus was originally put together for military pilots, who are usually young, training full-time on someone else’s money, and facing the chop if they don’t perform. So it isn’t surprising that most civilians learning in their leisure time take a bit longer.
It’s a good idea to budget for around 55 hours. The course contains a minimum of 25 flying hours of dual-instruction and 10 hours of supervised solo flight time.
The solo flying includes one cross-country flight of at least 150nm, during which you must make two landings at different aerodromes away from your home airfield.
The minimum of 25 hours of dual-instruction, with the instructor sitting next to you, will largely take place in your local training area and be broken down into set exercises:
■ Flying straight and level
■ Climbing and descending
■ Circuits, including take-offs and landings
■ Stall recovery
■ Recovery from unusual attitudes
■ Steep turns
■ Navigation and radio use.
At the same time, you’ll also be working your way through the Theoretical Knowledge in groundschool. You’ll need the relevant textbooks, which are available singly or in packages from pilot shops, and also as DVDs and even online. Do make sure that the textbooks you use are current, as details do change.
The PPL(A) requires nine exams to be studied for and passed (more on p22). Last year, 2021, the exams moved online.
Try to nail the exams the first time around by ensuring that you’re thoroughly prepared. Books of typical exam questions are available, which can help you to identify areas that the exams commonly focus on and will help boost your confidence.
Flying lessons are expensive, so it’s important to make the most of your flying funds. Try to fly at least once a week during training or you’ll be playing catch-up.
Be as structured and organised as possible during the training. Make sure you know what the next lesson is going to cover, read the relevant material in your textbooks, and be prepared for the lesson. Turn up early, make sure your instructor knows you’re there and get a pre-flight briefing.
Pooleys publish useful guides which help you track the various exercises in the syllabus and how you should prepare. The guides also have space to record how the lesson went, and what you may need to practise more, which is a good way to monitor how you’re getting on.
Use your free time to rehearse checklists, especially ones which apply in the air, such as the en route and downwind checks, so they’re second nature. Rehearse radio calls and try to visualise what’s likely to be happening when you make them.
Procedures such as the overhead join can be practised on the ground by walking around imagining you’re in the air (don’t worry about feeling a fool – aerobatic pilots do this before a flight to fix the routine in their mind).
All this free ground prep will mean that you’ll get the maximum benefit from your expensive time in the air.
The aim of the PPL training course is to pass the Skill Test, a thorough and demanding flight with an examiner who you’ll never have flown with before.
Before your flying school enters you for the Skill Test, you’ll have completed the full syllabus, both flying and groundschool, passed all the exams, and successfully practised all of its elements.
The examiner will check every aspect of your flying, including flight-planning, navigation, a diversion, handling the aircraft and various types of landing. It sounds daunting but your instructor wouldn’t have put you forward if he/she wasn’t confident in your ability.
Pass the Skill Test and, congratulations, you are now a pilot!
So, you’ve booked a trial fight with a club/school. No what?
You’ll be greeted at the club by the flying instructor, an experienced pilot who will probably sit in the right-hand seat, with you in the left, which is the conventional arrangement when training in fixed-wing aircraft. The instructor will talk to you before the flight and do point out that you’re thinking of learning to fly, rather than just doing it as a sight-seeing jaunt.
As you settle into the aircraft, you’ll see similarities with a car. There will be a dashboard, called an instrument panel in an aircraft, and normal seats and seatbelts. The controls are a bit different to a car, with either a yoke, which is a bit like a cut-down steering wheel, or a control stick. Some aeroplanes, such as a Cirrus, have a side-stick which frees up space in front of you.
The instructor will then talk through the checklist before starting the engine. At some point, you’ll probably hear him/her talking on the radio. Big airports with a lot of traffic will have a control tower, which issues instructions that must be followed, while smaller airfields and grass strips operate with a lighter touch.
Then the instructor will taxi the aircraft to a holding point for more checks, and when cleared, onto the runway. As you accelerate down the runway, the noise and vibration from the wheels fades as the wings develop lift, the instructor will pull back on the control yoke / stick, to ‘rotate’ and… you’re flying!
Once airborne and away from the airfield, the instructor may ask you to take the controls, which is a great feeling. A few gentle turns left and right, a climb and a descent, and if you’re game, maybe a steep turn. Local landmarks will be pointed out and, yes, you may even get to fly over your house, if you’re lucky.
The final part of the lesson is, of course, landing the aircraft after making the correct return to the airfield circuit. Circuit? That’s a rectangular aerial path around the active runway, usually 1,000ft above ground, which is part of the procedure for landing.
The instructor will handle the landing but keep a close eye on what they’re doing. They’ll be gradually slowing the aircraft down and deploying what are called ‘flaps’, which are parts of the wing that change their shape and enable the aircraft to fly at lower speeds.
The actual landing is a mixture of science, skill and art. The science bit is getting the speed and rate of descent right. Skill comes in when dealing with sidewinds (known as ‘crosswinds’) and also changes in wind speed and direction close to the ground. At about 20ft off the ground, the instructor raises the nose up, to put the aircraft into the ‘hold-off’ position, and closes the throttle. As the aircraft slows, it’ll settle onto its main wheels and land. The arty bit is turning the touchdown from a ‘thump’ into a ‘greaser’!
There are some flying scholarships and bursaries available to help pay for training but you’ll need to apply early and build a case. Try these associations:
■ The Honourable Company of Air Pilots: www.airpilots.org
■ The Air League www.airleague.co.uk
■ Light Aircraft Association www.laa.uk.com
■ The Royal Aero Club Trust www.royalaeroclubtrust.org
■ British Women Pilots’ Association www.bwpa.co.uk
If you’ve been away from flying for a while but would like to give it another go, then there’s no better time than now. The flying season is about to start, offering longer days and better weather.
Whether you want to revalidate your old licence as a brand new sparkly PPL or as a LAPL may be down to whether you can pass a medical. Once you’ve decided which licence, the next step is to take some refresher training with a flying instructor and assess how rusty your piloting skills are.
The objective is to pass a Licence Proficiency Check (LPC), a slimmed down version of the full Skills Test, and obtain an appropriate rating, such as a single-engine piston (SEP) aircraft rating. You’ll also need English Proficiency to Level 4, 5 or 6.