You want to learn to fly and you ask yourself how it will work. This page provides some pointers.
You first have to decide what type license you want. The most common initial type is a private pilot certificate (PPL), which allows you flying most common types of airplanes and carry passengers, but you can't receive any compensation. A less expensive is sport pilot license, with which you can fly only smaller, lighter and two seat airplanes with smaller engines, no retractable gear and many other limitations. Make you sure you talk to an instructor about limitations of sport pilot license before you start that route.
You also must choose an instructor. If you visit one of the schools listed below, they will recommend an instructor to you. In many places, instructors are independent contractors (I am), but they have to be qualified in a school to be able to teach there. Please remember that instructor works for you and not the other way around, so make sure you are comfortable with her or his teaching style, presence, demeanor and qualifications.
If you are looking for an instructor to complete PPL, I'd be happy to fly with you or provide recommendations. Otherwise, you may look at flight schools, each will list affiliated instructors. For example, here are flight schools at Palo Alto and San Carlos airports.
Training will consist of two parts: flight training and ground school. Yes, you will have to learn many new things, read and study books about aerodynamics, flight principles, but also regulations, weather, navigation and many other topics. For the ground school, you have three options:
Flight training consists of flights with an instructor. Each flight is usually preceded by a ground session, reviewing material that will be covered during the flight and followed by a shorter session to review lesson content and prepare for the next one. Most people need about 70 hours of flight training, between 65% and 75% of that is with a flight instructor, remaining part is solo.
Flight training happens in phases. At the conclusion of the first phase, you
will be able to takeoff, fly the airplane in the vicinity of the
airport and land. When your instructor considers you are ready for it,
he will ask another instructor to fly with you and evaluate your
progress, this is called a phase check. When that is satisfactory, your
instructor will sign you off for solo flight, which means that you
can fly by yourself (no passengers) in the vicinity of the airport.
The second phase will start to include cross-country flights to other airports. At some point, your instructor will sign you off for solo cross-country and you will be able to fly away by yourself. These two signoffs are formal, they are noted on your student pilot certificate and in your logbook, but typically the second one doesn't require a phase check.
Finally, when you are ready, the instructor will schedule another phase check and if satisfactory, will recommend you for a practical test, often called checkride. At the successful conclusion of the checkride, you will receive your pilot certificate and you will be able to fly with passengers.
Fairly early in the training you should visit an Aviation Medical Examiner and obtain a 3rd class medical certificate. It used to be that a medical certificate was at the same a student pilot certificate, but that changed as of April 1st, 2016. You should now apply online for student pilot certificate, which you will need, together with medical certificate, to fly solo.
You will have to pass three tests to obtain a pilot license
You will receive a pilot license immediately after the conclusion of the practical test.
Ignore this paragraph if you are US citizen. Otherwise, you will have to obtain approval from TSA for flight lessons. Visit their website for details how to register and what to supply (use 101 for Course ID). Please note that it is illegal to provide flight training to aliens without TSA authorization.
There are many online stores to choose from and if you like to see what you buy first, there are good aviation shops at San Carlos and Palo Alto airports. Here is a non-exhaustive, alphabetical list of online stores:
You must buy a headset. The noise in light general aviation airplane is such that normal conversation is almost impossible and the headset is also practically required for radio communications. Headsets come in two variants: with passive or active noise cancellation. While the later are more expensive, I recommend you buy a headset with active noise cancellation, since it will greatly increase your comfort. Bose A20 and Lightspeed Zulu3 are my preferences, but there are many other great models to shop for.
You will need to write down things when flying and a good kneeboard will allow you to do that, but also keeps your most important notes, charts and checklists handy. I recommend a binder style kneeboard, such as Ultimate Kneeboard where you can insert pages in plastic sleeves, for example checklists. If you are going to use iPad for navigation, think about a dedicated kneeboard for iPads.
In good old days, before computers were invented, people used logarithimic rulers to speed up calculations. E6B is just that, except that it is round and specialized for aviation. FAA insists that, except for a simple add/multiple calculator, you use that method to compute speeds, distances, wind in particular during written tests. You should at least buy one and attempt to figure out how to use it. You will promptly forget and never use it again after the practical test.
You must have San Francisco terminal and sectional charts, we will be using then often. Aviation plotter helps to plot courses and plan the flight, you should also buy one. Make sure you have current charts with you during practical test.
Before iPad, paper charts where the only way to navigate. Now, many pilots use electronic version. There are more aviation applications available on iOS vs Android and a full size iPad is too big for cockpit, therefore I recommend an iPad mini. If you buy one, make sure you buy a version which supports cellular data. Even if you don't use cellular data, the WIFI-only version doesn't have internal GPS. You will also need an aviation app; Foreflight, Aerovie and Wing-X are the leading applications.
It is convenient to keep all your aviation stuff in a single bag. It doesn't have to be an aviation flight bag, but they are often conveniently designed.
You must have a flashlight for night flying and I would recommend to have two, together with ample supply of batteries in your flight bag. Remember then anything with aviation word in it will be significantly more expensive then a general purpose item. In case of a flashlight, there is really no difference.
Most, but not all material below exists both in electronic format and as paper books. You may have a preference for one or another, feel free to choose accordingly. I indicate my preferences below, for your information.
You should buy software to prepare for a written test. Written test consists of multiple-choice questions, 60 selected from a pool of about 600 and preparation software includes all questions and associated answers. Software prepares for those questions that don't have obvious answers. There are also written test preparation books, but I don't recommend them. The best software tools (prepware) are from ASA, Gleim and Dauntless.
ACS is a little book bpublished by FAA, which includes description of all maneuvers that an examiner may ask you to do during a practical test. You should buy a paper copy, study it carefully and have it with you during the test.
Airplane Information Manual or Pilot Operating Handbook is specific to a given airplane and you can find it inside one. To study at home, you should buy a generic version, for example for a Cessna 172.
This is FAA bible containing all regulations pertaining to light aviation. You scan either buy a paper copy or an electronic version, which has the advantage of being continously updated. No matter which you buy, you will need to study it and make sure you have a current version with you during the practical test.
There are many books and interactive software packages, which help you to learn about aviations, airplanes and flying; too many to list them all here. Below is a short list of my favorites
FAA books are available as free PDF and you can buy them in hardcopy. ASA text books are well done and are available in paper and as e-books. Jeppesen book is only available in paper, is heavy and is somehow redundant with FAA books, but it is nicely presented.
There is big selection of computer-based courseware, out of which Kings Schools offers the biggest selection. This is entirely optional and you may choose to use neither, since books shown above contain all the required material.