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Want to fly like they do at AirFest? Here's how

Fans of military planes, parachute jumping and scary-looking air stunts come together this weekend for the annual MacDill AirFest.

Expect huge traffic jams along Dale Mabry Highway and MacDill Avenue as hundreds of thousands head to the sprawling military base usually off-limits to the public.

Once past the gates, visitors will watch flyovers and aircraft demonstrations. On land, they'll step inside military planes and other vehicles.

The main attraction will be the Thunderbirds, the U.S. Air Force's precision flying squadron. The team has been absent for the past few AirFests and returns for shows Saturday and Sunday, starting at 2:30 p.m.

No doubt, many visitors will leave inspired to take to the skies on their own. Fortunately, local opportunities abound to take flying lessons.

Here's a primer on becoming a private pilot.

How many flight hours are required?

The Federal Aviation Administration requires a minimum of 35 to 40 hours, depending on the flight school's certification. However, most students need 60 to 75 hours of training to pass the written and practical exams, according to the national average.

How much does it cost?

There's no set price because every student graduates with a different amount of hours and each flight school has its own rates. But expect to pay a total of about $6,000 to $9,000.

How long does it take to get a license?

It depends on how often a student takes lessons and how many lessons they ultimately need. Generally, flying once a week takes about a year. Flying three or four times a week takes about three months.

Other requirements?

You must be at least 17 for a private pilot certificate. You must be able to read, speak and understand English, and you must take a medical exam every two years.

What can a private pilot do?

Fly any single-engine aircraft in good visibility. To fly through clouds or bad weather, a pilot must have an instrument rating, which requires more training. Private pilots can carry passengers and rent planes, which can run about $100 to $200 an hour, depending on the make, model and year. Recreational pilots have fewer privileges than private pilots, including they can only fly in the daytime.

How do I get started?

Some flight schools offer introductory flights. Participants go on a flight and actually take the controls for a bit, with the help of an instructor, of course.

What are some local schools?

• Bay Air Flying Service, St. Petersburg, (727) 822-4217,

• Tampa North Flight Center, Lutz, (813) 973-3703,

• Atlas Aviation, 25 Severn Ave., Tampa, (813) 251-1752,

• CAMS Flight, Clearwater, (727) 507-8881,

• Clearwater Aviation, Clearwater, (727) 538-0318,

• Clearwater Airpark, Clearwater, (727) 461-5229,

MacDill AirFest

The free annual air show runs 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Gates open at 8 a.m. but cars typically start lining up as early as 6. Don't expect to arrive right before the Thunderbirds. The Dale Mabry and MacDill gates close to inbound traffic at 2 p.m. or earlier if the lots fill up. Bring sunscreen, hats, earplugs, chairs and cameras. Don't bring coolers, alcoholic beverages, glass containers, pets, weapons, fireworks and large tote bags. For details, check out

Want to fly like they do at AirFest? Here's how 03/26/09 [Last modified: Thursday, March 26, 2009 3:09pm]
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