Airplanes & Motorcycles, the 2 things that drive me crazier. Flying an aircraft has been my dream since I was 8. I have been chasing my pilot dreams for the past 22 years. I still remember the days where I used to fill my diary with the cut outs of the airplane pictures from the daily newspapers. Financial limitations, lack of opportunities and career options were a few key reasons leading to the pushback of my dreams, but my passion for flying had kept the dream alive.
Good things take time. So true! After spending close to 2.5 years in the United States of America, I finally took the first step towards pursuing my dream. And am not stepping back…. not at all.
I am on a H1B visa. Getting a Pilot’s License in the US for non-US Citizens has been made very strict and stringent. And that’s totally understood and justified, especially after the tragic incident of 9/11.
In this blog, I am going to share my experiences on the steps to get all the clearances and approvals that a non-US citizen must obtain prior to enrolling for a flight school in the US.
0: Introductory Flight Lesson. Take this. You don’t need a license to take this lesson. This is the first time you will get your hands on the yoke and the throttle. This ride makes you confident and sure about your decision of pursuing flying as a hobby/profession. It’s fun.
1: The Airport/Flying School — The first step is to find out an airport with a flight school where you want to train for your private pilot license. My recommendation would be to choose a school that is closer to your house. This gives you the freedom to frequently visit the airport and socialize with other students. And needless to say, you can accommodate for weather changes and plan your flight schedules better. And of course, do read the reviews of the school.
Once you have decided the school where you want to train, you should let them know that you are planning to take on the Private Pilot’s License training and are considering their school. You should also clearly specify that you are a non-US citizen and that they should be expecting a correspondence from TSA (Transportation Security Administration).
2: The Aircraft. Choose the aircraft that you want to train on. The decision totally depends on you. However, there are a few things that might help you chose. For instance, if you weigh above 150 pounds, you should be definitely looking for planes like the Cessna 172, else the Cessna 152 should be good enough. The major difference is only in the hourly rental rates. Make sure to decide the aircraft type, before proceeding further.
Let’s agree to the fact that flying is an expensive hobby. The choice of aircraft would make a huge deal in your finances. Training in a 152 would bring down your hourly cost by at least $30 and that’s significant when your training is expected to last for 60–65 hours (US average).
Do consult your airport on what’s best for you. Also, try to get a feel of the cockpit before you zero down on the aircraft. Flight schools are very cooperative and won’t mind giving you a tour of the facility and the aircrafts. I tried both the Cessnas (152 & 172) and I could clearly decide that I want to get trained in a 172.
3: Apply. Once you have all the above sorted out, you should start working towards the necessary paperwork needed prior to start training.
FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) has come with a program for the non-US citizens who are legally residing in the US to facilitate their flight training background checks a.k.a STA (Security Threat Assessment). For STA, the FAA has coined the program called AFSP (Alien Flight Student Program). One must create their account and provide their basic as well as resident/employment/etc. details. There’s no room for error here. All the details must be 100% accurate without any exceptions. I had made a foolish mistake here and it costed me a delay of 10 days. We will revisit my mistake in the later sections.
Get Ready with the below Documents. None of the documents should be expired.
- US ID — Driver’s License.
- US Visa
- Latest H1B approval — I-797 (if the stamped US Visa on your passport is expired)
Visit www.flightschoolcandidates.gov and create your account, submit the relevant information.
Again, make sure to enter the information exactly as it appears on your documents.
Here comes the most challenging part where I had spent 35 days and exchanged over 20 emails with TSA trying to figure out what needs to be done when your initial visa has expired and you have an H1B extension/transfer approval. So, here’s the secret.
In the Section: Upload Documents, upload your visa as a separate entry and your H1B approval (I-797) as a separate entry. Upload only the latest H1B approval that you have.
For your expired US Visa, fill in the number as appears on your stamped Visa with the exact start and end dates. This entry is circled in Green in the above picture.
For the latest H1B approval, you should add a new entry selecting the category “U.S. Visa” and though you don’t already have a Visa number, enter the below:-
- Visa Type - H1b — Temporary Worker In Speciality Occupation
- Visa Number - The I-94 Number printed at the bottom of the H1B Approval (I797). If you have an approved I-140, you must enter the A-Number here.
- Date Issued - The I-94 start date mentioned in I-797
- Expiration Date - The I-94 start date mentioned in I-797
- Status - Current
- Country of Residence when Issued - United States Of America
Figuring out the above secret sauce was a whacking task. And I had promised myself that I would blog about what needs to be done if I succeed in getting my approvals so that someone else can benefit from my experience with it and save their precious time.
Once you are done filling all the required details and have uploaded the needed documents, the next step would be to create a training request.
Select Category 3 candidates for training on aircraft weighing 12,500 lbs and under.
And fill in the details. You would be able to fill this without any issues if you have followed the steps outlined above.
- Where will you be training? — The state where your flying school is located.
- Who will you be training with?- The Flying school that you decided in Step-1.
- Estimated Start Date - My suggestion would be to enter a date at least 3 weeks later than the day you submit the form.
- Estimated End - Let’s set the max date possible here to have enough bandwidth. My research says this date can be max 365 days from the Start Date.
- Aircraft Type - Based on what you decide from Step 2.
- Class Name - Would be prefilled. Make sure it states “Initial License”
- Course ID - Leave it blank.
Once the above is submitted, TSA reached out to the mentioned flying school to confirm their interest in training you. And here’s where you might wish to thank me for my advice on the later part of Step 1 :)
Once TSA, receives the confirmation from the flying school, you would be notified by an email and will be asked to make a non-refundable payment of $130 for further processing.
After the payment has been made, TSA-AFSP starts reviewing your documents and am sure if you have followed the steps correctly (Step 3), this would be done in not more than a week’s time.
The last step, is fingerprinting. Once AFSP reviews your application for accuracy and provides you the green light, you must submit your fingerprints at one of the enlisted centres. Schedule an appointment, be there at least 15 mins early, ensure you carry all the original documents that you had uploaded to the portal, along with a credit/debit card to make the payment.
If you remember, in the earlier sections I have stressed a lot about making sure that you check the filled in details again and again to ensure no mistakes. After my ever longing correspondence with TSA, when I was finally at the fingerprinting location, I was told that my Gender was showing up as “Female” in their database. Yes, I screwed up! I hadn’t paid attention to the drop down menu while filling up the form. I had to come back home and redo my application. And that’s all due to the silliest mistake I could ever do.
After you are done with your fingerprinting, expect an email from TSA with the golden subject “AFSP Training Request XXXXX: Final Approval”
That’s it! You are all set to start training from the moment you receive this email.
I am pretty excited about my upcoming training days where I will get to learn and fly an aircraft, all by myself. I wish you, the reader of this blog, all the best for your trainings.
I hope to write more on my experiences as I start training. Stay Tuned!