The typical course for most students is to start off in a relatively simple training aircraft and progress on to faster, higher performance airplanes as they gain experience.
Some classic "trainers" include the ubiquitous Cessna 172 and Piper Warrior.
The 172 is an outstanding all-around airplane, with a high wing, docile handling and reasonable speed for longer trips. They're relatively cheap to operate, simple to maintain and the most popular airplane ever built.
The Piper Warrior family of airplanes offer the same characteristics as the 172 but with a low-wing.
They'll both cruise at around 125 m.p.h. and perform reasonably well with two good-sized people on board.
You simply can't go wrong learning in either and it boils down to a matter of preference or which one is available where you're learning.
If you so desire, you can also learn to fly in a higher-performance airplane.
Cessna's 182 is similar in appearance to the 172 but offers more horsepower, climbs faster, cruises faster (around 150 m.p.h.) and carries more. It will be a little more difficult to handle when you're first learning but not terribly much so.
If you have your heart set on something different, the Cirrus SR-20 might fit the bill. It's a four-seat, low-wing airplane that will cruise around 170 m.p.h. and has advanced radios. It's an easy airplane to fly but because it's faster than a typical training aircraft takes more planning and management on the part of the pilot.
The beauty of learning to fly in a higher-performance airplane, particularly if you buy it yourself, is that once you're done training you'll probably find that the same airplane in which you learned also meets most of your needs for travelling by air.
The downsides are that insurance can be difficult to obtain or at least more expensive and if you're renting you may not be able to fly the airplane at all until you've accumulated a minimum amount of hours.
At the risk of repeating myself, it really depends on your desires and finances when it comes to your options for choosing the airplane in which you'll learn to fly.
The other question is "where do I find an airplane" to which, again, you have plenty of options.
This is not as crazy as it might sound at first. In fact, owning your own airplane may be the option that makes the most sense for you.
The advantages are numerous:
Buying your own airplane is the most expensive way to get into flying that particular type of airplane, but for many people the benefits outweigh the costs. If that's the case for you, go for it. I don't think there's a pilot alive that doesn't dream of owning their own airplane, myself included.
A partnership can be a great way of retaining most of the benefits of owning your own airplane outright while also significantly reducing your costs.
A single partner will reduce your share of the fixed costs by half, two partners cuts your share by two-thirds and three partners reduces your fixed costs by 75%.
The downside is that for every partner the potential availability of the airplane is decreased. That may or may not present a problem depending on how often, and when, the pilots in your partnership fly. But that dream trip to Baja for a month might require you to get the approval of your partners, each of whom may have their own idea of a dream trip as well.
If you all fly quite often and want to fly at the same time there is the potential for scheduling conflicts. Creating a set of scheduling guidelines that work for everybody in the partnership is a critical step.
Likewise, choosing your partners is important. Your personalities must mesh as well as your schedules. When a bill comes due, you need to know your partners will pay their share because the bill isn't going to go away.
Yet another potential hurdle in a partnership may be insurance. If your partnership consists of three highly experienced pilots flying a new, complex, high-performance airplane and one student pilot who intends to learn to fly in that airplane guess which pilot is going to drive your insurance rates through the roof? If everybody is fine with that situation, no problem.
All that being said, a thoughtfully conceived partnership can be an outstanding way of acquiring and flying the airplane of your dreams. There can also be great comfort in knowing that you're not going it alone.
Certainly, if you know of one or two other people who want to learn to fly (or are already pilots and want to own their own airplane) and who would fit well together, forming a partnership can be a brilliant and cost-effective means of owning an airplane and learning to fly.
In one sense, a flying club is like a partnership only with more members. More members means your share of the costs are lower, but also that the availability of the club airplanes may be lower as well.
In many cases, however, the availability question might not be a significant issue. Here's why: Most pilots don't fly all that much. In fact, many hardly fly at all.
It's a shame, but it's also true. Pilots fly something like 35 hours a year, on average. In my flying club, flying 35 hours in a year would put you among the top five most active pilots, maybe even among the top three. And my club had 65 members and five airplanes. In fact, an entire third of my flying club flew less than 15 hours in a year combined!
That meant I was able to, in effect, have my pick of five airplanes more or less whenever I needed them but the fixed costs associated with those owning those airplanes was split 65 ways. It was a great deal for me because I flew 53 hours in 2005 and 100 hours in the first half of 2006.
Why was I flying so much? Simple: I was working on adding ratings and licenses. In 2004, when I wasn't working on additional ratings and licenses, guess how much I flew? 34.1 hours, right at the 35-hour-per-year average.
And here's where flying clubs can make significant financial sense.
Remember those 153 hours I flew in 2005 and the first half of 2006? Since my flying club is a non-profit corporation, all but one of our airplanes are paid for and we only charge an hourly rate that covers our actual costs (plus a maintenance accrual) I would estimate conservatively that I saved at least $25 per hour compared to renting an airplane from an FBO.
$25 per hour, times 153 hours is $3,825 I didn't spend. Deduct the $1,700 in club dues I paid over those 18 months and I still wound up saving at least $2,100.
Another benefit: Because most flying clubs operate much like partnerships you're usually free to take an airplane on an extended trip.
Depending on the rules of the club it may not be uncommon for club members to book an airplane for a week or longer and fly somewhere for vacation. That means that once you've earned your license you can actually go somewhere in the airplane without facing the minimum daily usage charges of three or more hours that are common if you were to rent an airplane from an FBO.
Here's an example: Every year my wife and I fly from the Twin Cities to Madeline Island for a long weekend. The flight up and back takes about three hours total and we book the airplane for three days. We go up on a Friday morning and return on Sunday afternoon. My total bill for the airplane: Only the three hours or so of flight time.
If I were to rent an airplane from an FBO for a three-day weekend I'd be faced with at least a three-hour per day minimum charge, which means our annual Madeline Island trip would generate a bill for nine-hours even though we only flew three hours in the airplane. Or, to put it another way, we'd drive 10 hours round-trip instead.
It's fair, by the way, for an FBO to insist on a daily minimum charge. They're in the business of renting airplanes and they can't do that if their airplane is sitting at another airport while the pilot is lounging around on vacation.
There may be some up-front costs to joining a flying club that you'll want to consider. Some clubs have a set number of shares that are based on the total assets of the club divided by the number of members. Others leave the share price up to negotiation between the seller and buyers. Still others have nominal entry fees but will typically have higher hourly rates.
There will also likely be fixed monthly dues in addition to the hourly cost of actual flying. The point here is that if you don't fly at all in a month you still may be expected to pay the monthly dues.
Flying clubs usually make a lot of financial sense for people who are learning to fly and therefore going to be flying a lot, for people who fly a lot but not enough to justify owning their own airplane or buying into a partnership or for folks who might take one or two trips a year and want the flexibility of scheduling an airplane for an extended block of time.
Starting your own flying club can be a great way to get involved in flying at a reasonable cost. The first flying club I joined was started by one guy who wanted to learn to fly. He convinced his company to help finance the purchase of an airplane, recruited 14 other members, mostly from inside his company, and bingo, a flying club was born.
He wound up earning his pilot's license relatively cheaply and we had a lovely airplane that was cheaper than anything we could rent elsewhere and had the added benefit that we could take in on extended trips. Personally, I flew that airplane from Ohio to Washington, DC, New York and Maine.
Remember that green and white Cessna 172 I wished I'd bought? It was sold to the flying club I eventually joined.
If something breaks or needs maintenance it's generally not your problem (unless you broke it in the first place, in which case it might become your problem) but up to the FBO to repair.
There are no monthly dues, no up-front costs and nothing to pay if you don't fly.
FBOs will also have flight instructors to teach you and and a range of facilities from absolute dumps to beautiful glass and steel buildings that rival top-notch hotels. They're responsible for all the maintenance, scheduling inspections, updating GPS databases and all the paperwork associated with operating an airplane.
FBOs are also key fixtures on every airport. They sell fuel and charts, perform maintenance and rent hangars to earn their keep.
Their airplanes tend to get a lot of use, which means they might not all look that hot (although there are also plenty of lovely airplanes for rent at FBOs) and the hourly costs are usually higher than you'd find at a typical flying club. The difference in hourly cost compared to flying clubs, however, may be more than made up for in monthly dues and initial buy-in fees.
If you fly occasionally and rarely take extended trips it's hard to beat an FBO since they're pretty much arrive and fly.