From Student Pilot to Private - How to Make Every Lesson a Success

By Jacob Tacke, CFI

Flight training seems like a fun and rewarding pursuit to the prospective private pilot, as it should be– but it is never effortless or easy. If you are a student pilot, you’ve likely heard that up to 80% of student pilots fail to achieve their goal of obtaining a private pilot certificate. (AOPA)

Like any major pursuit in life, the success of your flight training is not determined in a single day, but over the course of many ground and flight lessons. One bad lesson will not derail your dream, but weeks or months of apparent stagnation in your training can harm your self-esteem and your wallet. Left unchecked, this can feed into self-doubt and resignation.

Making each and every lesson with your instructor a success is a major factor in earning your Private Pilot Certificate. If every lesson is a success, then your training as a whole is a success. So what is the key to consistently successful lessons?


It may sound simple and easy, but preparing for your next ground or flight lesson at home will drastically improve the quality of your lessons and training as a whole! You’ve probably heard your instructor tell you to keep thinking ahead, to “stay ahead of the airplane”. This can and should start days before you even go to the airport if you study effectively.  Every hour of home study is money and time saved with your instructor in the classroom and airplane. Here are some tips on how you can study meaningfully on your own time:

#1: Find out what topics/knowledge areas the next lesson will cover.

It may seem obvious, but knowing what subject matter is going to be covered in your next meeting with your instructor is paramount. This is especially true if the upcoming lesson is about knowledge areas that you haven’t discussed already. By already having a foundational understanding of the topic and showing up to the lesson with the ability to talk with your instructor about the material on a deeper level, you are already saving time and money. But where should you look for information on the topics?

#2: Find relevant and accurate sources to study.

While your instructor may seem like the best source for learning about all things aviation, effective home study requires you to seek out information from appropriate sources on your own time. I recommend always starting with the FAA’s publications, and then working in non-FAA material and media from trustworthy sources once you’ve taken notes from the official material. 

References to your studying as a student pilot should include:

  • FAA Advisory Circulars
  • The Pilot’s Operating Handbook for the aircraft you train in
  • Materials from other Federal Agencies such as the NTSB, NOAA, NWS
  • Textbooks/Materials part of your Part 141 Course
  • Articles and Resources Provided by Trusted Sources such as the AOPA Air Safety Institute
  • Additional resources recommended by your flight instructor

    #3: Chair-fly!

    Chair-flying is the practice of sitting at home, imagining you are in the aircraft, and walking through the steps of any given flight maneuver in your head.  

    • Map It Out

    I recommend starting with a pencil and a blank sheet of copy paper. Start by writing out every step of the maneuver, no matter how miniscule it may seem.

    The FAA’s Airplane Flying Handbook (AFH) is a great place to start for learning maneuvers. Not only does it list the steps for each maneuver, it gives common errors associated with each maneuver to watch out for. 

    Once you’ve read the appropriate steps and their order for a given maneuver, rewrite and personalize the list to emphasize any steps of the maneuver you struggle with. For example, if you have been struggling with inputting enough rudder pressure for power-on stalls, highlight the part of the step that says you will keep the aircraft coordinated with the rudder and add a note that you will keep scanning the slip/skid indicator throughout the maneuver.

    • Think It Out

    Now that every step of the maneuver is in front of you, start imagining you are in the airplane and flying the maneuver. Initially, use your hand-written step-by-step guide to assist you in keeping track of where you are in the maneuver. As you start to memorize the steps and your emphasis items, try to flip your notes over and go from memory. Which step is first? Imagine doing the first step, and then think about what your cue would be to move on to the next. What flight control inputs are you going to make? How quickly or gradually should those inputs be made? What instruments are you cross-referencing?

    • Fly It!

    Now that you have spent time studying and chair-flying the maneuvers that you’ll be asked to demonstrate in your upcoming lesson, you are mentally prepared to give them your best shot in the actual airplane. Now that you have done the work of memorizing each maneuver ahead of time, you can focus on honing your skills with the flight controls and worry less about scrambling to catch up after forgetting a crucial step.

    • If you take the time to thoroughly learn a flight maneuver by memory and chair-fly it ahead of your lessons, you will have much more efficient and successful flight lessons.


    Tailor your learning to yourself:

    Just like how you identify focus areas in a given maneuver when chair-flying, you can identify focus areas when studying for the ground portion of your practical exam. A great way to do this is by using learning resources that both help you study and show the examiner that you have put care into learning what you are expected to know as a private pilot. Northstar Aviation sells pre-tabbed FAR/AIMs which are a great launchpad to study for your checkride. They are clean and professional looking tabs that you can build off of to highlight your own focus areas efforts as a student pilot!


    Don’t be too hard on yourself!

    While you can and should prepare thoroughly for each ground and flight lesson, no one is perfect. As stated earlier, one poor lesson will not end your dream, and perfection is not expected of you. If you have a bad lesson or maneuver, take time to analyze what went wrong and how you can do better next time. Remember– a good pilot is always learning!