Forty Hours To PPL: The ‘New’ Math

To become a Private Pilot you must have a total of 40 flight hours: 20 with an instructor and 10 solo; let’s see, 20 + 10 equals… hey, wait a minute! Actually, any good flight instructor could tell you exactly what’s going on.

Regulation 61.109 details the experiences that are necessary to become eligible for the Private Pilot checkride in a single engine airplane. The rule says that a person who applies for the Private Pilot certificate must have logged 40 hours of flight time that includes 20 hours of flight training from an authorized instructor and 10 hours of solo training.

Within the 20 hours of dual instruction the student must have completed…

  1. three hours of cross country flight training,
  2. three hours of night flight training, including 10 night takeoffs and landings and one night cross country flight,
  3. three hours of instrument flight training, and
  4. three hours of flight training in preparation for the checkride within 60 days of the checkride.

During the 10 solo hours the student must have completed…

  1. five hours worth of cross country flights — one of those flights being a triangle course having a total distance of 150 nautical miles, and
  2. three takeoffs and three full stop landings at an airport with an operating control tower.

OK, 20 dual and 10 solo still do not equal 40. What takes place during the missing 10 hours? Well, your flight instructor will determine that. These are 10 ‘discretionary‘ hours that can be either dual or solo or any combination of both.

Before 1997 the regulations required that a Private Pilot acquire 20 dual and 20 solo hours. The change came when the FAA realized that people learn at different rates and some need additional work in specific areas. The fact is that most students will need more than 20 hours with an instructor to become a safe Private Pilot. Under the old version of this rule if a student needed not 20 hours dual but instead needed 30 hours, their Private Pilot certificate would necessarily have taken a total of 50 hours — the 30 hours of dual plus the required 20 hours of solo time (30+20). Since the majority of students need more than 20 hours dual, the minimum time to get the certificate was closer to a practical 50 — not 40.

The 1997 amendment to the rule is an adjustment intended to make 40 hours closer to the true minimum. Now, if a student needs 30 hours dual to become a competent pilot they can receive that extra dual training without exceeding 40 hours (30+10) total time. This empowers the instructor with the flexibility to tailor training to meet the needs and pace of a student. Some students might actually need only 20 hours dual. In that case, at the discretion of the instructor, the ‘missing‘ 10 hours could all be solo. That would mean that this student would qualify for the certificate with 20+20. A student who needed 25 hours with an instructor could then qualify with 15 hours of solo flight (25+15). Any combination will work as long as there are at least 20 hours dual and 10 hours solo.

Strategy: Plan your finances for a 30+10 program and get pleasantly surprised if it costs less. I have a friend who told his flight instructor when he started taking flying lessons that he wanted to become a good, solid, and safe pilot first — and if he happened to pass the checkride along the way — then that would be good too. I think that is the right attitude to have when learning to fly.

THE BOTTOM LINE: The time and money spent with a really good flight instructor will be one of the best investments of your life. Your instructor will get a feel for how things are going as you progress. He or she will not know in advance exactly how many dual and solo hours you will ultimately need, but will let you know what areas need more work and what areas need less work as you go along. Your job is to make sure you know what those areas are. Dollar for dollar, a 20+20 program would be cheaper because the 10 hours of discretionary time would be the less expensive solo time, but this is one place where it doesn’t pay to pinch pennies.