I'm a Private Pilot!

Beautiful Cessna Skyhawk C172 Flies into Sunset

I wanted to give myself a good amount of time to sit down and write out the steps that I've taken to get here. I've been talking about this moment for years now and according to the FAA, I'm finally a licensed pilot (Airplane Single Engine Land). While it's abnormal to have taken such a long time to attain it, I thought I'd chronicle the story of where the road to become a private pilot has taken me.

Joe Burlas Flying a Cessna 182 on the Chicago Skyline

The journey to get my Private Pilot license begins a few weeks prior to my 24th birthday. After getting out of the Army in August 2008, I got a job as an Information Systems Analyst at Lockheed Martin. The job was great, the pay was good, and I found myself free on weekends and every week day after 3 pm. If you read back far enough on this website, you will see that things were going great up until a sudden realization. This occurred on a random week day at three in the morning when I awoke in a cold sweat and found myself questioning what I was doing with my life. I found myself questioning if information technology was really the place that I belonged or if my childhood dream of becoming a pilot was really something I should explore. Of course, at this point, I was almost 24 years old and found myself a bit behind the curve. I was also in a good position for a career I might add. However this yearning for something more was overpowering.

The next day at the office I found myself looking up the flight training process and local flight schools. Almost every flight school had something called an "Introductory Flight" and taking one was the first step in starting the training process according to a lot of what I read. So I decided to do it and began my search for a flight training school to facilitate that. One school in particular, Chesapeake Pro Flight, interested me and happened to be located about ten minutes away at Baltimore/Washington International Airport (BWI). I marked my calendar for my birthday and it was all set. What better gift can you give yourself anyway, than that of self-exploration?

Joe Burlas Stands Next to the First Aircraft he ever Flew a Zlin 242

On July 20th, I head over to the FBO to ask about the flight school on the field and to my disappointment I'm told that they went out of business a few months prior. Luckily for me, a gentlemen overhears this and walks up to the counter that I was standing at. After a brief exchange into why I was looking for a flight school, he introduces himself as Nizar, a Certified Flight Instructor, and offers to take me up on the introductory flight himself. Agreeing to this, we walked out to the ramp, pre-flight his 1999 Zlin 242L (N242MZ), taxied out to runway 33R, and away we went. As we rotated away from the earth and into the sky, it was one of the few purer moments that a person experiences in life, and I knew right then that I was going to be a pilot.

When we landed, I was told that his private pilot ground school was going to start in the next month and that if I was serious about pursuing my license I should attend. I paid the fee that day and one night a week over the course of the next six months, I passed it.

At this time, however, I was still a full time employee with Lockheed and because my instructor was an individual instructor and not a part of an accredited university, I had to pay out of pocket with no help from the GI Bill. This, coupled with my work hours and the little sunset found in the time I left work until I arrived at the airport, made flight training at the airport a tough thing to do. In 2009, I had passed the ground school but had only accrued 2.7 hours of flight time. At this rate, I felt like I'd never get my license.

The first four months of 2010 also gave me trouble in finding time to actually fly. By April I had flown a total of 12.9 hours, which averages out to be about a little over an hour a month since I had started. During these months I had also spent countless hours on VATSIM, an add-on to Flight Simulator X, to learn radio procedures and other practical test knowledge but it was hardly real training and certainly not actual flight hours. I decided something had to change and began looking for actual flight schools.

Cessna 182 Skylane View of Lewis University Aircraft Maintenance Hangar

Well it turns out that Maryland didn't have a four year aviation university when I looked and this meant that my options were to continue at the rate I was, or move to a state with a University that allows my GI Bill to help. With my need to fly being as great as it was, my desire to get a four year degree, and the loving support of my family (both immediate and extended), I began to plan how I would leave the world I knew and actually chase down my dream. Skipping a lot of the decision process, I chose Lewis University in Illinois because it had a cheap/direct route home to see my son, I knew some people out here, and it ranked high among other aviation schools but was still small. The runway on campus didn't hurt either.

There was a set back though, and I was only to learn this after I had already begun taking classes in the Fall of 2010. I was informed by the flight instructor initially assigned to me that none of my hours from the previous year could count toward the program because it was governed under Federal Aviation Regulations Part 141 versus the Part 61 that my previous school was under. Additionally, none of the six month ground school would count toward anything, either. I was going to be starting fresh at Lewis, and based upon their curriculum, I had a good amount of flights to complete before catching back up to where I was when I had left Baltimore.

In fact, because this nameless flight instructor in particular was not big on flying (shocker, I know), it took an entire semester to get past basic maneuvers and onto things like simulated engine outs and emergency procedures. The way the Lewis flight program is setup did not help things, too, as you get three flight blocks a week on either Monday/Wednesday/Friday or Tuesday/Thursday/Saturday and if the weather wasn't ideal for flying, you might have to sit out a week or two for things to clear up. Flying in the Chicago area has its benefits, however. Dealing with variable weather conditions allows you to exercise your ability in decision making in regard to both whether or not you can actually fly and handling changes in conditions while you're flying. Regardless, my first semester didn't get me too much further in my flight training,

I want to be clear that my first flight instructor at Lewis is not a bad guy nor was he a bad instructor by any means. I just did not feel much growth in knowledge or flight time, and with 8.5 hours logged during the entire semester, my logbook reflects this. So at the end of the first semester I had a meeting with the Chief Flight Instructor and asked him for a change in instructors for the upcoming spring semester. He agreed and set me up with TJ Fogarty. TJ was a hell of an instructor. He graduated from the Lewis flight program in record time and was just the sort of guy I needed steering me toward my private pilot ticket. Naturally, the first few flights were more for him to see where I was at as an instructor but once we got the ball rolling, he was very helpful on laying out my understanding of the stage check process at Lewis. With TJ, I flew a little more than I had with my previous instructors and we flew more often. By the end of the semester I had powered my way through a good chuck of the Stage I lessons, arranged for me to get my medical certificate which registered my Student Pilot license, and I even reached my first Solo on April 29, 2011. Sadly it was after my solo flight, and at the end of that spring semester, that I was told that Fogarty was leaving Lewis because he had been picked up as a pilot for American Eagle.

Joe Burlas Flying a Cessna 172 Skyhawk above Illinois

So here I am, two semesters and two flight instructors down, waiting to begin my third with the gamble of whether or not I was going to mesh with third Lewis instructor (fourth overall) or not. Originally I had planned on staying over the summer and at least finishing up my Stage I lessons, if not beginning Stage II. But instead I opted to go home and spend time with my son and family for three months rather than stay tackle the frustration of not knowing who I would be training with. Now I'm told this is the point where a lot of pilots fall off. The flight training process to become a pilot is one full of these little frustrations and costs that can ultimately dissuade a persons resolve to successfully complete what they've set out to do. And I can see why. For years I've been told that I'm stubborn and in this case I'm glad to have been blessed as such, because I was about to find out that next semester had some pretty good surprises in store. Enter: Leif Holmstrand.

Leif was a flight instructor who was still considered a "student worker" as he was still working on his MBA. This was a blessing in disguise because this made him a part time instructor and that translates to: the more he flies, the more money he makes. In one semester we were able to double my total flying time from 26.4 to 60.2 total hours flown, complete Stage I oral and practical exams, and complete almost all of the stage II lessons and cross country flights with the exception of the last long dual and solo cross countries. Things were looking up and I was convinced that I'd have my license by next semester.

Cockpit View of Joe Burlas Landing at Dwight Airfield in Central Illinois

Possibility and reality seemed to be two different things, however. That particular semester the weather was bad enough from an area stand point that while we were able to complete the dual long cross country, the solo cross country didn't happen until very late in the semester. This is mainly because when winds and clouds were good in the Lewis University Airport (KLOT) area, they were not so great in other parts of Illinois or Indiana. Conversely, when things were good other places, the same was not true for my home base. As a result, I found myself with a lot of Pilot in Command time for a student, due to me dispatching a plane and flying around the area in lieu of sitting on the ground and waiting for the next possible day. Finally on the 6th April I completed my final cross country requirement and was all set to prepare for the final two oral examinations and stage check rides. But first, I had to go back to my son, my family, and home for the summer.

Joe Burlas Landing a Cessna 182 Skylane RG at Midway Airport in Chicago Illinois

This finally brings the story to this current semester and the end of my Private Pilot chapter. Being home for a chunk of the summer meant that I needed to ensure consistency in my maneuvers meeting the Practical Test Standards laid out in the FAA manual. If you're into boredom and torture at the same time, you can download your very own copy here. Anyway, I also had to refine my ability to define and explain aeronautical knowledge and terms due to the better part of a year elapsing since I had passed my Stage II oral exam. After about a month and a half of getting things perfect, I was all set to take the exams and check rides and passed them with little problems! On 12/12/12, after completing my final check ride with the Chief Flight Instructor in the left seat, I'm now one of the Federal Aviation Administration's newest pilots. Finally.

Joe Burlas receives his first pair of wings from Lewis University for earning his Private Pilots License

This has been a long time coming with a lot of frustrations, time gaps, obstacles, and challenges. For the most part this has been a hell of a process that has both strengthened my resolve and increased the confidence I have in my own ability to get things done despite limitations. One of the things I appreciate the most has been my family's love and support during the whole process. A lot of them have devoted their own time and in a huge case, money, to help me get through this. Without my family's faith in me, I don't know if I would have been so empowered to take on and overcome what was thrown down in front of me. Second to my family has been my great group of friends. Prior to me actually getting my license, my friends threw a huge surprise party for me in recognition of my accomplishments up to that point. It was amazing, a huge surprise, and in no small way did it help me remember the little picture when I was stuck staring at the mountain I was so close to actually climbing. Thank you all.

Joe Burlas earns his license in Cessna Skyhawk 172 N737YC on December 12 2012 
The C172N I earned my license in (N737YC).

So what's next for this pilot? Well I'll be moving up from the Cessna 172N to the Cessna 172SP with G1000 next semester. With that, I'll be taking an accelerated Instrument/Commercial course and hope I can get a good piece of those completed. I'll also be graduated from Lewis next semester with a Bachelors of Science in Aviation Security with a Minor in Aviation Administration. From there it's a process of finishing my Instrument rating, Commercial License, Multi-Engine License, and my Certified Flight Instructor rating. With that I can do ferry flights and teach new pilots while I build hours. This is hopefully in tandem with waiting to hear back from military flight schools. If I get picked up, it's a whole new world. Until then, it's Hawaii for my family and I until January 3rd of the new year.

A huge thank you to everyone who helped make this possible! These include, but are not limited to, Dad and Mom, Veronika, Jim, Rachel, Aunt Becki and Uncle Pat, Baba and Papa (RIP Grand Sire!), Leif Holmstrand, T.J. Fogarty, Bethany, Doug Adams, Nizar Bechara, Doug, the Corleys, Sean, Amanda, Gina, Cicely, Ryan, Brenda, the Johnson's, Nick (and the Woods), Tom, my friends in Alpha Eta Rho, Mikey, Brent, the Lewis University Rugby club, the management and ladies at the Tilted Kilt in Bolingbrook, and everyone else who has impacted my life during these past few years!

Blue skies and soft landings!

"In flying I have learned that carelessness and overconfidence are usually far more dangerous than deliberately accepted risks." - Wilbur Wright
I'm a Private Pilot! I'm a Private Pilot! Reviewed by Joe Burlas on December 26, 2012 Rating: 5


  1. Great story, I've looked at going to Lewis myself. Though I've already received my private certificate. Also the 5th image, of the runway, is that KDTG?

    1. Yes sir it is! And don't get me wrong, Lewis is an amazing school of which I'm pursuing my masters at, but instructors are instructors.

    2. I'm 20 south of there (PNT) Dwight is great for short field practice!

    3. By the way, you can complete a by pass exam (essentially a brief oral and checkride) and you can go straight into your instrument and commercial training. With the FAA's new restrictions on hours -- a Part 141 on a resume allows you to fly at 1000 hours.

  2. Thank you for writing this essay. You gave me hope.

    I began chasing my childhood dream of flying last fall (November 2012). I was told by several pilots to get my light sport license then add on certs as I could.
    I found a school, they assigned a Jabiru and an instructor. The CFI is a great guy but not used to teaching beginners. His primary job is teaching specific jets. Needless to say, scheduling was a nightmare. As was the ground handling of the aircraft.
    When I reached the point of believing I was not meant to fly, my CFI became unavailable.

    I interviewed a couple of CFIs and chose one who asked me to try out a Cessna 152.
    Short version of the story is.... I accumulated 12 hours over 4 months in the Jabiru and never learned to take off. Forget about landing!
    3 months in the Cessna with a CFI who is a better fit and I am practicing short-field and soft-field landings, stall recovery, have gained a huge amount of confidence in my take-offs, radio communication and am learning to read sectionals.

    Again, thank you for sharing your own experience. I have often wondered if I am the only person who is taking so very long to progress. Your story made me feel less alone in my struggles to progress.

    1. you're very welcome! That was my intention with this article, to hopefully make others feel not so alone. I'm actually starting a website that is aiming to be a community for student pilots. That way they can help to motivate one another and Be a place to go to when you're feeling down. it's not up completely at the moment but look for it to get going soon at http://www.projectaviator.com :)

  3. Good luck and don't ever give up!

  4. It is a shame you did not look into the Community College of Baltimore County in Catonsville, MD. They have a wonderful aviation department and it is cheap! Career people move right on to Embry Riddle at their satellite campus at Andrews AFB. Even so, congratulations on becoming a Certified Private Pilot!

    1. I actually went there for a semester before departing to lewis. It's a two year school, and I was looking for a four year school. It was only later that I found out they were a feeder school to another program in the state. Regardless, I did what I had to with the information available to me at the time.it sure would have been nice to fly out near Salisbury though haha

  5. Would you mind entering some costs in here? How much (ball park) did all of the flying and ground school through PP cost. What were your hours at solo and PP checkride?

    1. Well one hour with an instructor is $45 for instructor and $90 to $125 for the airplane. You need a minimum of 35 hours but due to the structure, that's more like 70 on average. I probably spent near $13k but it varies. I promise, its well worth your time.

  6. Great blog, Iove it, after $7,000 and 2 young CFI mavericks who had jet fever, I have yet to get my private. I hope to do so before I get much older, if you get a chance I have blog also so check it out.

    1. I appreciate it. Yepper, it costs a fair amount of money but it's worth it in the end.

  7. Joe,

    I enjoyed reading your story, it takes me back through my own story (though I've got 10 years on your timeline). After getting out of the Army, I went into the IT field, where I stayed for 10 years. In early 2004, I woke up in the same cold sweat you encountered. That October, I started working on my PPL. 6 months later in April of 2005, I had taken my checkride. After three more years of many, many, MANY twists, turns, and roadblocks, broken airplanes and traveling the country to find working ones, I was hired at my first regional as an FO. Five years after that, I'm now on my second regional, still as an FO (a whole other topic).

    Two pieces of advice that carried me through. First: the joy is in the journey, not the destination. (This is especially true if you end up on reserve at an understaffed regional one day ;) Second, the brick walls we encounter aren't there to stop us from achieving our goals, they're merely meant to test how bad we want to achieve them.

    I think I enjoyed reading your story so much because it reminds me so much of the joy in my journey, the joy that I tend to forget sometimes...

    Thanks, and good luck in the rest of your journey!

  8. Thank you sir, it's much appreciated!

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