When time flies and you don’t, the scheduling or financial issues that kept you grounded might result in an expired medical and the need for a flight review. By that time, your piloting skills are likely in desperate need of some polish. Fortunately, there are good home-study courses available to help those of us faced with this very situation.
But picking the best course for either getting back into flying or getting ready for a flight review is a lot about knowing your learning style. For this article we took a look at five popular interactive online courses for rusty pilots getting back in the air, or to supplement real-world VFR refresher training. Here’s what we found.
Gleim Pilot Refresher
Gleim’s online Pilot Refresher Course is designed for pilots preparing for a flight review. While it doesn’t specifically cover issues related to returning to the air after significant time off, the material presents a thorough, clear and well-organized review of private pilot basics. The course is also eligible for FAA WINGS credit, which can help meet future currency requirements.
Course content is broken into nine sections, each of which begins with an audiovisual presentation. The presentations-slides with a voice-over-provide an overview of the section topic and generally run between 5 and 15 minutes. There is a note-taking function available during the presentations. Each presentation is followed by a 10-question true/false study quiz, which serves as a pretty good indicator of how much studying you need to be doing on the topic. Answers are reviewed after completion with explanations presented below the questions. Section reviews emphasize terminology, which might be quite useful for a pilot who has been away from the industry for a while, but less so for someone still comfortable with pilot lingo.
Following the true/false quiz, each section has a unit outline that breaks the topic into relevant points. The outlines are a no-frills read-and-study tool. While the outlines occasionally include links to outside resources, they don’t incorporate the kinds of video, audio and graphic study aids seen in some of the other courses. Once the outline has been reviewed, each section has a ten-question multiple-choice quiz that must be passed before you move on to the next section. The course also includes an oral exam study guide that covers questions for private, sport and commercial pilots.
Perhaps the strangest quirk with this course is that you can’t go back to any of the quizzes once they’ve been passed. They can’t be reviewed or taken again once completed. On the upside, the course information is good and the format makes it easy to quickly review areas that are familiar and focus on topics that need more work. It is also the only course reviewed that requires the use of real-world performance and POH data specific to the aircraft you intend to fly.
Still, at $29.95, the Gleim Pilot Refresher Course is the least expensive of the group and we think it offers a lot of material for the money, which pays for 24 months of access to the program. Course completion time will vary depending on the amount of time spent reading for each section. Gleim provides flight review ground school and insurance recurrent training certificates at the end of the course.
Rod Machado’s Rusty Pilot Collection
Rod Machado’s Rusty Pilot Collection is an extensive array of products that includes books, audiobooks, eLearning courses and videos. On the advice of the man himself, we selected the Flight Review Preparation eLearning Course Bundle, and two e-Books-How to Fly an Airplane Handbook and Rod Machado’s Private Pilot Handbook-as a good, basic get-back-in-the-air package.
The eLearning bundle includes two courses-one that focuses on regulations and one on airspace-with a little over seven hours of content in all. Each course is divided up into several parts and each part is broken down by topic. The courses themselves are animated video presentations with an often comedic twist. The interactive mini-quizzes at the end of each section can be retaken and the menus that appear at the side of videos make it easy to find specific topics or return to a section for review. There are also glossary and additional notes sections available for each course. Courses can be streamed online or downloaded to a mobile device. A flight review ground school completion certificate is available at the end of the course bundle. Total cost for the courses is $59.90.
The biggest issues with the eLearning courses is that you need either a good internet connection or to download them (mobile only) before watching. On a slow connection, the videos don’t just pause like most media being streamed on a bad connection. Instead, the video freezes, but the course jumps to the next section once the video runtime is up whether the video has actually finished or not.
We think the books are decent resources for a pilot’s library, plus they’re fun to read. The inclusion of How to Fly an Airplane made this the only course we reviewed that really addressed the stick-and-rudder aspect of getting back to flying. Together, the How to Fly an Airplane ($44.95) and Rod Machado’s Private Pilot Handbook ($49.95) e-Books have more than 1100 pages of content, including stories, explanations and illustrations on everything from aircraft systems to stalls-along with information on topics like weather, airspace, communications and regulations more commonly covered in review courses.
There is a lot of mixing and matching that can be done with the Rusty Pilot Collection to get a good package for an individual pilot’s specific needs. If updates for the books come out after purchase, you can update your copies on the website. The courses and books are an entertaining and informative mix of humor, knowledge and real-world experience, as long as you have a good internet connection.
King Schools Return To VFR Flying Kit
The Return to VFR Flying Kit from King Schools is a collection of 13 separate King video courses. Courses can be accessed online or through the King Schools Companion app, which is available for iOS. Most of the individual courses are eligible for WINGS credit.
Course structure varies, with some topics-such as cross-country flying-being taught using real-world flight scenarios. Others, like weather, take a more lecture-based approach. Information is presented in clear, accessible ways with relevant illustrations. The courses are broken up into video labs, with each lab covering a subsection
of the overall course topic. Course lengths vary from fifteen minutes to about two hours. Courses do not include interactive components or knowledge review tools.
While the courses are a comprehensive collection of aviation knowledge, the possible downside is that the sheer amount of information available in this kit might be a bit overwhelming for someone returning to flying. Collective runtime for all of the kit videos is a little under 17 hours, which also allows for more time to cover topics not as thoroughly addressed in other refreshers, including courses dedicated to emergencies, practical risk management and night flying. Course topics are clearly labeled and arranged in a logical progression for someone getting back into the cockpit.
The $299 cost covers lifetime course access and updates. The price also includes access to the King Schools online library, which we think is a good resource.
Sporty’s Rusty Pilot Kit
The Rusty Pilot Kit from Sporty’s is perhaps the best organized and most effective of the refresher courses we tried. The kit includes two online video courses-a flight review course and a VFR communications course-the FAA Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge, current FAR/AIM and a kneeboard. The video courses are available online and through the Sporty’s mobile app. Both of the online courses are eligible for FAA WINGS credit.
The Flight Review course is broken down into seven lessons and takes about two hours to complete. Each lesson topic is divided into subsections that include a series of short videos. The videos are clean, clear and concise and the animations are very good illustrations of the points being made. There are quizzes at the end of each lesson. To complete the course, a final review quiz becomes available once every video has been watched. A passing grade of 80 percent or better will earn you a flight review ground training endorsement. Lesson quizzes can be retaken and there is a good collection of optional resources available to read.
The real standout with this kit was the one-hour VFR Communications course. Especially given that talking on the radio is often cited as one of the more daunting areas for returning pilots, the course does a great job describing best practices for communication in the air. The example communications-including incidental communications used throughout the videos-are clear and meticulously accurate. Like the Flight Review course, there are good supplemental materials available. The only real issue with the course is that it could have paid more attention to lost communications procedures.
To complete the course, two review quizzes must be passed with scores of 80 percent or better.
The quizzes are another thing that Sporty’s does right. The questions are generated from a question bank. Since you’re effectively getting a new quiz each time you take one, it’s a much better study tool than a repeat of an already-passed test.
Finally, the courses allow you to share your progress with selected individuals-such as your flight instructor-via email. You type in an email and the course provides that person with a link to your course progress page so they can see what you’ve completed and your quiz grades. You can also easily revoke access whenever you choose.
The price for the entire Rusty Pilot Kit is $99. The individual video courses are available for $34.99 each. Courses are accessible for 365 days after purchase.
AOPA Rusty Pilots Online Course
AOPA’s Rusty Pilots Online course is the only option we reviewed that is primarily focused on helping pilots return to flying rather than preparing for a flight review. The scenario-based course is based on the in-person Rusty Pilots seminars that AOPA has been running since 2014. The course is eligible for WINGS credit and AOPA’s Accident Forgiveness program.
Format-wise, the two-hour interactive course takes you through a cross-country flight, using examples along the way to introduce topics including regulations, decision making and weather. It’s presented in nine chapters, each of which deals with a phase of the proposed flight. Not counting the introduction and conclusion, each chapter has a short quiz that must be passed to move on.
AOPA’s Rusty Pilots is the most interactive of the courses listed here. Most pages have icons to click for further information, videos to watch or links to useful websites and related courses/guides. The final chapter of the course provides a guide for good ways to continue knocking the rust off including tools to find flight schools, aviation medical examiners and groups of aviators to join up with. There is also a 40-page resource guide that goes along with the course.
The quizzes hit relevant points and the entire course can be retaken as often as you like. It does a good job creating a scenario that is approachable and exciting while being informative and practical. As a minor complaint, although not strictly incorrect, the radio communications in the videos aren’t as clean as they could be.
Overall, Rusty Pilots Online comes across as the most accessible gateway for returning pilots. Although it is only available to AOPA members, the course is free-as well as highly beneficial-which makes it a great place to start.
One Piece of The Puzzle
An interactive ground school refresher course is just one part of the process when it comes to getting back in the air. If we had to pick one, the easy choice would be the Sporty’s Rusty Pilot Kit. We think the $99 price is fair, it’s accessible in app and desktop form and the radio communications review is a good resource that a lot of pilots can use, based on what we hear on the radio.
Still, while all of the courses we reviewed will contribute to your overall knowledge and readiness to fly, acceptance of an outside flight review ground training certificate or endorsement is at the discretion of the flight instructor who will be signing off on your flight review. We think it’s worth checking in with your instructor before investing in a course if you plan to use it for that purpose.
Qualifying A Flight School
Although I didn’t plan on it, I stopped flying regularly roughly nine years ago when I no longer had access to my college’s fleet of airplanes-and its affordable rental rates. Gone was the school financing to support my flying habit. Like plenty of other pilots, the longer I was away from the cockpit, the harder it got to even imagine finding the time and the money to start training for the flight review. Armed with enough interactive knowledge refresher material, my next step was to find an airplane and instructor. While the online courses made for a solid knowledge review, I remained concerned about finding the right place to train-a frustrating hurdle that makes it easy to see why some never get back in the cockpit.
While grounded, I remained immersed in aviation through my work so I knew the right questions to ask when qualifying a flight school. Others might follow my approach, and think practically. Particularly if you’ve moved to a new area, start with an internet search of schools, while setting limits on how far you’ll realistically travel to the airplanes. In my case, I limited the travel distance to 30 miles. Look for customer reviews during your internet search to get a feel for the school’s customer service and the general tone of its customer base. At that point I started calling and during each discussion I explained exactly what I was looking for: a skills assessment after letting them rust for nine years, plus the necessary and focused instruction to complete the flight review.
The airplane models the schools were using or the type of airport they were based at wasn’t that important to me, but the maintenance was. One of the schools disqualified itself by sounding completely confused when I said I didn’t want to join its standard private pilot course. What I really wanted was an instructor who understood my situation and was comfortable helping me knock the rust off. Another school’s pricing was way out of my budget and a third school never called me back.
I ended up at Meriden Aviation Center in Connecticut, which operates a couple of Piper Warriors. The one equipped with a Garmin GNS430W GPS is priced at $159 per hour and instruction is billed at $59 per hour. My experience there seemed the right fit from the start. They asked good questions about my flying experience, talked through a plan, offered me an intro flight and ultimately got me back in the air four days later.
Last, expect a sizable price increase for higher-end rentals. As one example, Performance Flight in White Plains, New York, has a fleet of Cirrus models, including SR20s and SR22s. It also has a Cirrus-approved flight simulator, priced at $235 per hour. The Garmin Perspective SR22GT rents for $435 per hour and the instructor is $125 per hour. Bring your own renter’s insurance policy.
PRIVATE PILOT REFRESHER COURSES COMPARED
AOPA RUSTY PILOT
Free, with AOPA membership
Focuses on returning to flying rather than passing the flight review and is scenario based. Eligible for WINGS and AOPA’s Accident Forgiveness program.
$29.95 for 24-month access
Focuses on preparing for flight review. We wish you could review the quizzes after passing them.
KING SCHOOLS RETURN TO VFR FLYING
(Mac, PC, iOs app)
Large collection of aviation knowledge in one place, but that’s potentially overwhelming.
rusty pilot collection
Machado’s humor makes otherwise dry material
interesting. Plus the course places worthy focus on stick-and-rudder skills.
Rusty Pilot kit
(Mac, PC, iOS/Android)
One-hour VFR communications course is a standout. Personal email links allow you to share your progress with your flight instructor.
Contributor Kate O’Connor is a staff news writer at sister publication AVweb, with not a speck of rust remaining on her flying knowledge and skills.