Student Pilot Finances/How To Plunge Yourself Into Massive Debt/I Regret Nothing

*cue hysterical laughter*

Okay, so one of the first questions people ask when they want to know more about flight training is “Is it really as expensive as people say?”

And the answer is yes. Whatever you think you’re going to end up spending on it, it will probably cost twice that. Here’s a link to the rates at my school. And those are mostly the numbers based on the *minimum* number of hours required by Transport Canada. Most people will take longer than that to be ready for the test. Furthermore, between getting your private license and getting your commercial license, you have to get your Pilot in Command time up to a minimum 100 hours, and that’s not included in there either.

So, thinking about those statistics on how many people make it through flight training and how the majority don’t finish, I wondered how much of that is due to lack of funds. I bet it’s most of them. When I started, and word got around about what I was doing, suddenly there were people left and right telling me they’d done some flight training at one point. But then they ran out of money. Over and over I heard the same story. I’ve seen people on the internet in the throes of that running out of money stage, and it’s heartbreaking. I almost feel guilty for having been able to do it myself.

I suspect there’s some people who were surprised I made it this far, even though now they all say “I knew you could do it!” But the people who know me the best tell me they never had any doubt I could do it, and the only thing that really surprised them was that I managed to make it happen financially. I’m not someone who’s really good with money, but now that I’ve made it this far, I figure maybe I do have a few things to say on the subject with regards to flight training.

So here’s some straight talk about the realities of how much it costs to learn to fly.

The main thing I’d recommend, that I did do right, is making sure the money is there when you need it. You don’t want to be nearly ready for whatever level test, just need a few more hours of practice, and then run out of money. If that happens, then you’ll be out of practice by the time you get your hands on more money, and need more hours of practice before you’re ready again. Having a credit card with an amount of credit you never imagined you’d actually use is great for that. Lines of credit to pay off the credit card with cheaper interest rates are even better. I stress about money easily, and when the secretary at Harv’s would remind me I needed to top off my account, it made it so much easier to know I had my credit card in my wallet and could take care of it right there and worry about paying the bank later and focus on flying when I needed to.

Another consideration is whether or not to buy your own plane. I had a lot of people tell me that I should buy my own plane, that it would be cheaper in the long run. I think if you’re only planning on getting a private license that’s probably a valid argument. For myself, I didn’t, and I’m glad I didn’t, but not for financial reasons. On the one hand, I’d have been responsible for maintenance and airworthiness reports, hangar space, repairs, and I don’t know what else, all while trying to focus on learning to fly.

On the other hand, I’d have only learned to fly one plane. All through my private license, I flew about ten different Cessna 152’s. Some had climbing props, some had different types of radios and instrument styles, and sometimes the stall horn would go off if you looked at it the wrong way while another wouldn’t go off until you were fully stalled. Then I got my license and got checked out on the Cessna 172, and the Citabria. When I’m ready to go on to my Multi-IFR, the school has two Seminoles available for me to fly, and if I’d bought my own plane, it would have been a single engine and would have been useless for getting a multi-engine rating, even if I were lucky enough to find myself a plane with both a VOR and an ADF to work with on my IFR rating. So, I’d say, if you’re planning on just doing a private licence, go ahead and buy a plane. If you’re planning on going commercial, don’t bother.

What else to say…

Where to get the money? There’s a good question. Student loans doesn’t cover flight training. They don’t consider that legit post secondary training and you can’t get government student loans for it. Everyone will tell you to apply for scholarships, but there are actually very few, and almost none worth more than 1500$. Most of them are like, 200$-300$. I have not won any monetary scholarships. The big one I did win was the first to solo scholarship, and that was mostly schwag, plus a really fracking nice headset. Still totally worthwhile, even just for the headset, but it doesn’t go very far when it comes to avgas. I kind of have a dream of someday having enough money to fund a couple thousand dollar scholarship.

I was lucky. We had some money –about 25k–and my husband agreed to sign it over to me to follow my mad little dream. I think I probably spent about 15k on my private licence. I’m now finished my commercial licence and that money’s all gone, plus I’m about 15k in the red. I would have run dry of credit long before completing my CPL if I hadn’t had that money to start. If your flight school is on a certain list, you can qualify for a student line of credit, which is what I’ve got, but if you don’t own a house or a car worth more than a few thousand bucks, you have no collateral, and they can’t repossess your pilot’s licence so they’re hesitant to lend you a whole lot. I got a limit of 20 in the student line of credit, and another 10k in a second line of credit. My Dad was willing to co-sign for me, but turns out because he’s self employed, his signature didn’t actually help me, even though he’s the most financially stable person I know and could have paid for all my training out of pocket. I have also received a little over 10k between my Dad and my paternal Grandmother and other family members.

And that’s another thing. I have family I can turn to if things ever got really bad. I wouldn’t be on the street if the debt became overwhelming. If my Dad wasn’t as financially stable as he is, going into this much debt would be terrifying. Many people wouldn’t have had a job where their income would have allowed them to borrow as much as I have, and wouldn’t have the startup money to offset the debt. I’d love to be able to say, like many people do, if you want it, you just have to find a way to make it happen, look at me, I did. But I know there are tons of people out there who love flying who may never be able to follow their dream because they could never scrape together  the resources necessary, and it’s not fair. I’ve been lucky.

So how much does it cost to learn to fly? The answer is all of it. All your monies. All gone. And some of the monies that belong to the bank too, as much as you can sucker them into lending you. All the monies you can sucker your family into giving you. If you discover you love flying, you will hemorrhage cash at rates you do not now think possible. There are always more ratings, more training, more time-building, more licenses to get, and if you love flying, you’ll just keep going until you have no more money. The numbers on checks and bank statements will start to seem surreal and loose real meaning. But if you’re going commercial like I was, unless you’re filthy rich, it’s really an all or nothing thing.

And yet, there has not been one single moment in all of this where I’ve thought to myself “I wish I hadn’t done this,” or “I don’t know if this was really worth it,” or “This didn’t turn out to be everything I hoped it would be.” It is everything I hoped it would be, and like the title says, I regret nothing.

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4 responses to “Student Pilot Finances/How To Plunge Yourself Into Massive Debt/I Regret Nothing

  1. Embry Riddle offers a bachelors program that is geared towards pilots. A student goes from private pilot to ATP and even get a bachelors degree. I wonder if the students in that program are eligible for govt. student loans?

    • I imagine mostly likely, for the academic parts at least, for sure. I don’t know so much about how student loans work in the US, to be honest. They may be a lot looser there about giving out student loans for general flying too, than they are here in Canada.

    • I went to Embry Riddle, not for flight, but from listening to pilot friends there, I believe you could do student loans for flight. It ends up being mostly private loans because the government loans people qualify for aren’t large enough anyways (higher interest rates). Private loan providers were willing to provide such large sums of money for students with a financially “good” co-signer (the name brand of the university helps too).

      Most pilots I know funded their advanced training by becoming a CFI/CFII at Riddle as soon as they were able to, or by joining one of the ROTC branches on campus (ERAU has the second largest US Air Force ROTC detachment besides the US Air Force Academy). Many veterans there used their GI bill to pay for flight training and tuition (I believe it pays up through all flight costs to get you the private, instrument, and commercial ratings). I believe there may also be free instruction for those lucky enough to qualify for the competition flight teams (but the teams are probably impossibly hard for most people to join, don’t take me at my word on this sentence of you’re looking for flight training).

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