Think twice before starting a PPL

Written by Mark Smith on Monday 13 May 2019 12 minute read

The PPL

Normally when people first decide they want to learn to fly they immediately think they need to get a PPL. So off they go to a flight school, part with lots of money and head off on 45 hours of training, 9 exams covering air law, operational procedures, human performance, meteorology, navigation, flight performance & planning, aircraft general, principles of flight and communications and get a full medical done.

But is this really the best most cost effective means of flying for most people? I would argue most people would fly a couple of times a month, usually not too far from their local area and maybe the odd long distance flight to a fly-in or what have you.

In order to do this you don’t need all the expense and time required for a PPL and later on in this article I’ll present the alternatives available to us in the UK.

Who needs a PPL?

Well, a PPL covers some things the alternatives just don’t:

  • Commercial Pilot - you will need a PPL to get started in your career, so it makes sense that is the best entry into it.
  • International flying - the PPL is a global licence recognised worldwide, so once you get it you can fly anywhere.
  • IMC flying - flying in low visibility and cloud is not covered by the PPL, but can be added as a rating, unlike the cheaper licences.
  • Night Flying - you can add a night rating to your PPL so you can fly after sunset.
  • EASA Aircraft - any certified aircraft is open to you, think Cessna, Piper, Cirrus etc, whereas other licences are limited to non-EASA types, which are listed here

Result being if you want to do any of the above, the PPL is the best approach for you to take.

Training Costs

One of the biggest decision points for most people is cost and that is the one of the reasons to question whether a PPL is right for you. If you are someone who wishes to go on the occasional flight with a friend or solo then the cost, in both time and money terms is pretty large. Especially the initial outlay in time and money to achieve the licence.

My local airfield charges £165p/h to train in a C152, you need 45 hours which is make the flight time total £7,425 which doesn’t include the books, exams and medical required. Adding these in brings it over £8k, quite an investment indeed for the occasional pleasure flight. This also assumes minimum hours, the UK average is 55-60 hours which would bring you to >£10k. A lot of money and also a lot of time to achieve.

Post Licence

So you’ve went as far as getting your licence, now what? Well you need at least 12 hours in the 2nd year in a certified aircraft plus 1hr instruction time. Again at my local field rates, in a C152 this cost, to just keep it valid, will be £1605. But you’ll want to fly more and possibly bring a few friends occasionally so will need to hire the larger more expensive C172.

If you decide to go down the route of buying an aircraft, excellent! I have done this and it’s amazing, I’ve learned a lot with regards to maintenance, servicing, syndicates and running an aircraft. Unfortunately for you, as you’ll have a certified aircraft, it needs to go to a certified mechanic who needs to use certified parts which carry a certified price tag to go with it. You unfortunately can’t get your hands dirty and instead must hand over many many pounds to fix defects and keep the plane in order. More money!

Medical

This is a big one, especially for those maybe a bit older or with health issues, you will need to get a full medical completed before you can get a PPL and this could just rule this option out for many people. But don’t despair, some of the other licences do not require this!

Wrap up

The PPL lets you do many things, carry more than one passenger, fly in marginal conditions, use large fast certified aircraft etc. If you want this then awesome, go have fun, but bring money!

However, I think most people don’t need this level of investment in time and money and I want to lay out a few alternatives to the ubiquitous PPL below that I think will suit most flyers.

The Alternatives

NPPL

The NPPL or National Private Pilots Licence is just that, it’s a private pilots licence that allows you to fly nationally, in our case, the UK. It’s valid all over the UK and with individual agreements, in several other European countries as well. It’s a life time licence, but isn’t of any use without ratings, of which I will discuss two below. These ratings are valid for 2 years, upon which re validation will occur. Crucially, there is no medical required, the general rule is if you are fit to drive a car you can use a self declaration form.

Unlike the PPL you can’t do the following things with the licence:

  • Night flying
  • IMC (poor visibility)
  • Fly Certified aircraft, unless they are added to the Annex 2 list
  • Flying internationally (unless there is an agreement between the UK and destination country)
  • Fly aircraft > 2000kg
  • Fly with more than 3 passengers (1 in the case of Microlights)

There are several ratings available to the NPPL, i’ll focus on two, Microlight (m) & Light Aircraft (SSEA).

Microlight (M)

This is what I have and has the lowest cost to entry of the powered flying licences as well as the fewest flying hours and exams. It’s perfect for the hobby pilot, who just wants to fly for fun at low cost!

This allows you to fly flexwing and three axis aircraft that do not exceed 450kg in weight all up or 475kg if fitted with a ballistic parachute system, that have no more than 2 seats and a stall speed less than 35 knots.

Training

Microlights only require 25hrs of training, 10 of which are solo and the hourly rate is usually between £100-130 which would bring it to a max of £3,250 for minimum hours (half the price of the PPL). The average time seems to be about 35-40 depending on school so lets look at the 40 hours cost at the £130 per hour which is £5,200. Still cheaper than the PPL at minimum hours.

There are 5 multiple choice exams to do in Meteorology, Navigation, Airlaw, Human performance and Aircraft Technical. These are fairly straight forward and have a fee of £25 each. There is a single text book required that covers all of these, as well as an online training course if you are that way inclined.

I did mine in 6 months flying roughly every other weekend, with some larger breaks depending on weather and availability and came in at the 25 minimum hours, so my outlay was about £2,500, not including exams.

Aircraft

Think of a microlight and most people thing of the flex wing, but this is only a part of it. Microlights have evolved to become extremely capable aircraft, that can well out perform their GA cousins, run at a fraction of the cost on regular Super Unleaded (mogas) and, due to the nature of the 35kt stall speed, are all essentially STOL aircraft.

flex wing microlight

thruster

Jabiru UL-450

They can operate out of rough grass strips and fields as well as head cross country at 6-10k feet and cruise anywhere between 40-50kts to 110-120kts.

As they are not certified aircraft, you can perform your own maintenance and many of the aircraft use off the shelf car parts for servicing such as oil filters, spark plugs etc. They have an annual inspection which is £150. Unlike larger aircraft you aren’t talking gallons per hour fuel consumption, but rather litres, with 13 litres per hour being a common fuel burn. This makes both owning, maintaining and running these aircraft very cheap.

Finally the cost, you can really pick your budget, from maybe £4,000 for a second hand flexwing or x-air to £100,000 for a brand new composite high performance model, you can pretty much pick a budget and you’ll have something. There are even electric powered microlights these days!

Light Aircraft (SSEA)

The next step up on the ladder is this licence, another national licence it allows you to fly aircraft up to 2,000kg and allows you to carry up to 3 passengers. The clue is in the abbreviation, SSEA stands for Simple Single Engine Aircraft, so no multi engine aircraft or retractable landing gear; though you can add on retracts and variable pitch props with differences training, which is nice!

Training

32 hours total training are required for this licence and it would probably be done in the likes of a Cessna 152 or similar which means it would be more expensive to get than the microlight licence. With differences training you can get cleared to fly microlights also, and hours gained on microlights count towards this licence.

As with the microlight licence, no medical is required and you can self certify via the CAA website, essentially as long as you’re fit to drive a car you’re fit to fly.

Aircraft

As mentioned, the weight limit is 2,000kg, any aircraft above this is not covered as part of the licence. Also, it officially only covers non-EASA aircraft (annex 2) aircraft (those that run on a Permit to Fly) which means Pipers, Cessnas, Cirrus would not be covered (though the CAA has temporarily extended support for these types).

Jabirus including the 4 seat J430 tourer

Europa XS

Vans RV series are very popular this is the 4 seat tourer

Military Bulldogs and Chipmunks are also covered

The aircraft you can fly are fully capable multi seated tourers and include Piper Cubs, ex military Bulldogs and home built 4 seaters,. The closest I could find to a definitive aircraft list was the Light Aircraft Association (LAA) TADS page on their website. A lot of the aircraft are home-built and can vastly out perform their Cessna and Piper counterparts. They are also owner maintained with the annual Permit completed by LAA inspectors, similar to the microlights.

EASA LAPL(A)

Some people have declared this “the new NPPL(SSEA)” and I can see why. It is pretty much identical to the NPPL(SSEA) with regards to aircraft you can fly as well as passenger number, but is a pan european licence and you can add a night rating to it as well as restricted IMC . This is probably what I would go for if I decide to fly a larger aircraft, however, and it’s a big HOWEVER, hours on an NPPL don’t count towards this licence any more and it would be a case of starting from scratch. This would be enough to put some people off for sure.

If I was starting out and knew I was going to fly aircraft up to 2000kg and wanted to bring more than one passenger, this is licence I’d go for.

Training

A total of 30 hours minimum training is required, which includes 15 hours od dual instruction and 6 hours of solo flight time. This must also include 3 hours of solo cross country.

Exams are also required which cover the below subjects:

  • Air law
  • Human performance
  • Meteorology
  • Communications
  • Principles of flight
  • Operational procedures
  • Flight performance and planning
  • Aircraft general knowledge
  • Navigation

Aircraft

You can fly any aircraft up to 2,000kg and a max of 3 passengers (4 people max), this includes those aircraft available to the NPPL(SSEA) pilot as well certified aircraft such as Cessnas, Pipers and their ilk. It certainly opens a lot more doors than the other licences but is quicker and cheaper to achieve than the PPL.

No Licence

Yep, you read correctly, there are some aircraft you don’t even need a licence for, though training is highly recommended!

This class of aircraft are known as nanolights and are the lightest powered aircraft one can fly, it’s a fairly new class of aircraft having been except from licencing by the CAA in 2017. These are of the flexwing style and are essentially Self-Propelled Hang Gliders (SPHG) with wheels and a paramotor engine bolted to the back. They are single seat and legally cannot be above 70kg weight without a pilot (75kg if it has a ballistic parachute fitted), including fuel and must have a landing speed no greater than 20 knots..

It’s a very interesting area and a few aircraft have sprung up such as the Eurofly Snake & the Flylight PeaBee. As they’re so small and light, they can even be folded away and kept in the back of a van which means no hangar costs to deal with either!

Overview of licences

PPL LAPL NPPL(SSEA) NPPL(M)
VFR
Night
IMC
Commercial
Global
Europe
Aircraft > 2000kg
Aircraft < 2000kg
Aircraft < 450kg
>3 Passengers
3 Passengers
1 Passenger

Conclusion

So there are a lot of licences and it is quite a confusing subject, especially when you bring in non-EASA vs EASA aircraft, but a simple breakdown is this:

If you wish to become a commercial pilot, get a PPL.

If you want to fly classic or bring 3 passengers on a regular basis go for the EASA LAPL

If you want to fly cheaply in and out of small fields with the option for touring, get an NPPL(M).

Hopefully this article proves useful to someone and if I have got anything factually wrong do let me know in the comments, aircraft licencing is a confusing subject!

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