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The Prep Work for Learning to Fly: What Do You Need to Learn Before Ever Flying a Plane?

Becoming accountable for yourself in a cockpit, not to mention your passengers, is a serious responsibility. Before you leave the ground on your own, it helps to familiarize yourself with several concepts and realities of pilot life.

For example, learning to fly involves a lot of math and science.  However, being a pilot doesn’t require one to be a mathematician or scientist.  All it takes to be a successful pilot is a willingness to learn some of the basic concepts, harbor realistic expectations, and maintain a strong work ethic while tackling study materials.


Basic Scientific Principles

Important scientific concepts all pilots must understand before ever getting in aircraft is Newton’s Second Law of Motion and Bernoulli’s Principle. Misunderstanding those concepts and improperly applying them to flying can lead to accidents.

Newton’s Second Law of Motion states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, and Bernoulli’s Principle states that the pressure of a fluid increases in inverse proportion to its velocity.  Put another way, the pressure of fast-moving air is lower than slow-moving air.  Together, those two explain how wings provide lift.  It was long thought that Bernoulli’s Principle was the primary cause of wings producing lift, but with the latest advances in aerodynamic theory and wind tunnel modeling, Newton’s Second Law is considered more important.

Prospective pilots should have at least a basic grasp of these two concepts before completing the licensing process. They govern the sky; they should govern your understanding of flying in it as well.


The Importance of Math

When it comes to math, pilots must be prepared to perform basic addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division, and some algebra and geometry.  A lot of flight planning smartphone apps and computer programs are available to calculate a lot of math once done manually, but it’s still important to understand the underlying reasons behind those equations.

For example, when computing weight and balance, an app or program will tell you if your center of gravity (CG) is too far aft or too far forward.  If the pilot hasn’t learned to compute those manually, it’s more difficult to understand the consequences of operating outside the aircraft’s published CG limits.

Another example is in fuel planning calculations.  A pilot needs to understand the math behind dividing the amount of fuel on board by the fuel burn of the engine(s), which results in the endurance time, or how long the aircraft can fly in time.  The pilot then must take the endurance time, multiply by ground speed, and reach the range available.  An inability to do this math will result in running out of fuel prior to the destination.


Blue Skies and Sudden Showers

One overlooked area that is absolutely vital for pilots to understand is meteorology. Some might think of meteorology as simply looking at the radar on a smartphone app, but pilots must understand how weather works much more intimately than that.  Pilots don’t have to predict the weather, but knowing how air moves, the effect of temperature and dewpoint, causes of airframe icing, and cloud characteristics are extremely important to study before beginning flight training.

A basic grasp of the causes of turbulence will enable the pilot to find ways to avoid turbulence or at least seek to minimize its impact on aircraft and passengers.  And, regarding icing, a good pilot realizes that even in aircraft equipped for FIKI (flight into known icing), it’s best to not test the limits of the anti-ice or de-ice capabilities.


Do You Have a Realistic Timeframe for Learning to Fly?

In addition to grasping these aspects of science and math, prospective pilots must also have an honest conversation with themselves regarding the time commitment necessary for learning to fly. While pilots training full time in the military with each aspect of their lives focused on learning how to operate the in the sky can solo fairly quickly, the reality is that those who are learning to fly part-time might have needed more time.

The best way to learn any skill is to practice consistently, with lessons reasonably close together on a regular schedule. Students who complete lessons in regular succession and who constantly apply themselves to a field of study have a better chance of succeeding than those who dip in sporadically, cramming in a great deal of information in two days, for example, and then not touching the material again for weeks.

The best pilots are thinking pilots who are ready to learn from others. They think deeply about flying, the concepts which apply to it, and are eager to discuss what they are learning with other pilots in addition to their instructor. This can take longer than a cram course, but it can also make for a safer, more effective flyer.

It may take students quite some time to become a full-fledged pilot, and that’s perfectly fine. We all learn in different ways and at different paces. However, if you’re planning to fly yourself to your June honeymoon in Bermuda and sign up for Lesson One in the middle of May, you may wish to manage your expectations.


Are You Ready to Study?

Pilots must understand not only the science, meteorology, and math behind each safe journey. They are also expected to familiarize themselves with the cockpit they are about to enter. They must know what each lever, switch, knob, and pedal does and how to operate it.

In addition, pilots should be prepared to know how pre-flight their aircraft, how to read navigation charts, the best way to speak to air traffic control, and what to do if they are landing at an unfamiliar airport. In other words, pilots must command a great deal of information before climbing into the cockpit, and this requires a strong work ethic.

Understanding the undertaking of becoming a pilot can be daunting, but a commitment to succeed will take you far. Consistency, a willingness to learn, and a clear focus on your goal of flying are all necessary components.

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