Every month, about 4000 to 6000 people in America pass their Third Class medical exam and are issued a student pilot license allowing them to fly "solo" in an airplane. Flying is fun... challenging... builds self-confidence... teaches good judgment and responsibility... the list of personal rewards is endless!
Most people imagine that learning to fly costs much more than it actually does. An average base figure, from the moment you walk in off the street with zero time and no books to the moment you receive your Private Pilot License, is about $3000-$4000... a little more if you live in a heavy metropolitan area such as the Northeast, a little less if you live in, say, rural North Carolina. This represents a lifetime license to fly, with only minor requirements to maintain: a flight review with an instructor every two years, and a medical exam every 2-3 years. This total cost is on par with, for example, a typical family skiing vacation; forego the trip this year, and next year you'll fly yourself and your family to the slopes in a small airplane you pilot yourself!
The amount of time required varies, but in general you can expect to fly about 55-70 hours before you get your license (the FAA requirement is a minimum of 40 hours, 20 dual (with instructor) and 20 solo, but it is pretty rare to do it in 40 hours). This is easily done in six months or less. The single most important thing to keep in mind is that you need to schedule regular time every week, and two flights a week are better. I personally flew mostly on Saturday and Sunday, and took about six months to complete my training over which I had acquired 55 hours total (largely due to poor weather: I started in November!)
Most flight schools have an "introductory flight" for around $35-50 which gets you a half hour or so of ground instruction and a half hour or so in an airplane (which you can log towards your license). This is a fun and inexpensive way to try it out to see if you like it without investing a lot of money in it. Call your local airport flight school and schedule a time to do this!
Once you start your training, you'll spend the first flights getting a feel for the airplane and the instruments, and soon will begin practicing takeoffs and landings in earnest (whole lessons devoted to nothing else). Once you have demonstrated to your instructor that not only can you land the plane safely, but that you also know when you should abort a bad landing attempt and go-around to try again (good judgment comes into play here), your instructor will allow you to solo fly the airplane! This is a very gratifying experience, one you'll never forget... one word of warning: wear a shirt you don't care about that day (you'll see why)! Please note that you must get your Third Class medical exam certificate (which has your Student Pilot License on the back) from a local FAA-certified doctor before you'll be allowed to solo; these typically cost around $50-$80.
There are two important tests which your flight training must prepare you for: the FAA Knowledge and Practical exams. Your ground school study, be it home study or through a local college or flight school, will teach you the knowledge required to pass the FAA Knowledge exam; your actual in-air flight training is aimed at the maneuvers required on the FAA Practical test (your "checkride").
Our DSSTest and textbooks contain all the materials you will need to pass the FAA Written exam and get the most value out of your practical training. Note that you can study for and take the Written exam BEFORE you start your practical training; the advantage is that you can give flying a "trial run" inexpensively before you start paying for expensive lessons, while the disadvantage is that you are learning about flying techniques in the abstract without practical lessons to reinforce the knowledge. It is a personal choice based on your own methods of learning which should determine the order you do things. Personally, I started home-study for the written about a month before I began actual flying lessons; this allowed me to get a good background of technical knowledge before I got in a plane, so that I could get the most benefit from each lesson (lowering my long-run costs by requiring fewer total lessons).
To pass the FAA Written exam, you will need as a bare minimum:
Private Pilot Manual/Textbook -- such as Rod Machado's Private Pilot Handbook.
DSSTest exam study software (available for PalmOS or Windows), or a printed exam study guide
Plotter (PN-1 or other VFR model)
Flight computer (CSG/E6B or electronic)
For the practical lessons and exam, you will need in addition:
Private Pilot SEL Practical Test Standards Booklet
Note these represent the minimum requirements. Even going "all-out", your total cost is under $250 for a "pro" student kit, electronic flight computer and tri-fold kneeboard; buying only the specifically required items will amount to less than $100. Other incidental expenses may include an electronic stopwatch to time cross-country legs (mine was $7 from Walmart), a couple of highlighter markers and a pencil, a small flashlight with a red lens for night flying, plus one or two NOS Sectional maps (around $7 each).