None of this is in any particular order, and none of it may be right for you. But, based on almost 50 years of accident- and incident-free flying and about 10,000 hours in the air, this is reality as I see it. Your mileage may vary.
Fly from the airport nearest home, work, or school so it doesn't become a big pain to drive there frequently. Actually, one student I had moved to be closer to the airport (she's an airline captain now pulling down a six figure salary). Starting, but not finishing, is a combination of personality, motivation, economics...and geography.
Don't go take a ground school course and then start flying. Ground school is like space travel. Astronomers know a hell of a lot, but it ain't the same as being an astronaut. Book work in a classroom can seem boring and sometimes irrelevant. But when you're flying you'll develop an urge to know and -- ta-rah! -- there it is in your ground school just when you need it. The AOPA's Airs Safety Institute has some great ones. The King Schools video courses are okay, if you can stand their corny, evangelical preacher style. There are some good combined video/computer CD-ROM/online courses. I like Jeppesen, but there are other good ones including ones the aircraft manufacturers have put together. Rod Machado has written some good, and rather funny, training manuals too.
If you can afford it, consider buying a used airplane and paying an instructor to teach you in it. You'll pay the instructor more per hour than at a school, and buying an aircraft when you don't even know how to fly is a big step, a radical idea, admittedly. But used aircraft, in general, are appreciating. You'll be paying yourself to use it, not including a profit markup to a school. A decent trainer can be found for around $25,000. Get a subscription to Trade-a-Plane or buy a couple of copies from the local pilot shop. You'll find everything from Piper Cubs to 747s, Stearman biplane trainers to F-18 Hornets for sale. I don't recommend 747s and F-18s as your first aircraft, however.
If you can find someone to do it with you, consider learning to fly together in a 4 seater. Slightly more expensive per hour, whether from a flight school or to operate yourself, but you get twice the exposure by watching each other. This approach sometimes creates scheduling problems, but worth the effort.
There are dishonest salesmen that sell aircraft just like the kind that sell cars (maybe worse), so find someone that really knows aircraft to help you pick a good one. Most of us that fly have the sickness bad enough you won't have trouble finding someone to go shopping with you. Condition and price vary widely for the same model based primarily on airframe/engine hours, radios/equipment, and age/condition.
Great pilots can be lousy teachers, and vice versa; so find one that works for you. Pick an old one with lots of experience, that communicates with you. Youngsters can teach you stick and rudder skills, but that's the easy part. You fly an aircraft with your head, not your hands. Experience is a hard teacher because the test comes first, then comes the lesson, so learn from an experienced instructor. And pick carefully; there are instructors where the student is important and there are instructors where the instructor is important.
Nuttin' against young instructors, by the way (I actually was one once too), but one of the paradoxes in the process is that young flight instructors need experience and their knowledge is proportional to the mistakes they've made. Good judgment comes from experience, experience comes from bad judgment--so learn from the mistakes others make. A new instructor just hasn't had the time to goof, but a gray eagle can teach you judgment and share the mistakes...er, experiences. By the way, when you make a mistake, try to make each one a new one so you can learn from it. That said, mistakes are inevitable. How you handle mistakes is what's important.
Ask yourself, "Who's buyin' and who's sellin'?" It's your money so if the first one or two don't click, fire 'em and get another. If you're unhappy with instructor three or four or five, ask yourself if you really want to learn to fly, maybe the problem is you. Don't be afraid to go to another school, too. If you feel maintenance standards, paper work, bookkeeping or style isn't what you want/expect don't be afraid to try another one. If whoever you use doesn't have a folder of required maneuvers/experience, a list that they use to keep track of your progress, buy one of your own and make your instructor fill it out. I like Jeppesen's best...but that's probably only because they're the ones my instructor used eons ago, and they're the one's I use.
Once you're comfortable with an outfit and an instructor insist that you fly with the same one. You don't want to have to demonstrate to every new instructor what you know every time you go fly, and you don't want them wasting your money while you re-learn something you already know. A periodic flight check with someone else (usually called a stage check) is a good idea, just for quality control purposes. If your school doesn't offer them (insist on them) find someone and schedule your own check rides for yourself. As a courtesy make sure your instructor knows you're doing it.
You didn't ask, but....they're called charts not maps, aircraft not airplanes or planes (or plains), biplanes not bi-planes or worse yet bi-wings. When you take the keys out of the switch put them on the dash in full view from outside so you'll know the mags are off. Leave the rotating beacon on when you shut down so you can tell from outside when you forget to turn off the master switch (and you will) . Turn the beacon and all lights off before start because airplane batteries are small (to keep them light) so they don't have much juice to crank the starter. Yes, you can push or pull on a propeller if you do it close to the hub (with the switch off), but don't push on the spinner or the prop tips. Always chock your airplane. Never trust a fuel gauge unless it's showing near empty, then assume it's optimistic. When you start the engine keep the RPM below 1000--those first few seconds without lubrication are hard on the machinery that's going to keep you safely in the air. Airplanes, like power boats, produce a wake--watch your prop-wash and don't blast people, airplanes, or fill other people's hangars with dirt.
Fly the airplane first, then think, then navigate, then talk. If you're doing your job right nothing is going to happen so quickly that a moments reflection is going to hurt anything and it most certainly can help. There are very few situtations that require instant reactions. Your airplane isn't going to suddenly plummet from the sky, for example, if you're a little lost. (Okay, if you're A LOT lost it might become a glider if you haven't paid attention to your fuel. But even then it will glide for quite a long time if you've given yourself lots of altitude and speed to work with.) You and your aircraft are a team. You take care of it, it'll take care of you. Don't depend on that, entropy is an force than will not be denied--things do break--but there are times when if you just let the airplane fly it will do just that while you think about a solution to your problem. And if the worst happens, as Bob Hoover puts it, keep flying until all the pieces come to a stop. As long as you're flying, you have options.
My Dad learned to fly in 1944, flew A-20s and A-26s in the Pacific during WWII, and for 50 years after that safely flew for business and pleasure. His most valuable piece of advice to me was to always give yourself an out. Always have an option. When you run out of options, when you don't have alternatives, you're in trouble even if everything is working fine at the moment.
The FAA folks, for the most part, are your friends. Treat them with respect, ask their advice, listen to what they say. (Yes, there are few bad eggs that ruin it for everyone. There are pilots like that too. Note that there are more pilots than Feds.) Next time you're inclined to gripe about a controller's handling of your flight remember that day-in day-out they make far fewer mistakes than pilots.
An old aviation maxim sez: Fuel in the truck, runway behind you, airspace above you, good weather behind you, and charts in your car are all worthless. All true.
Bernoulli keeps an airplane in the air. Not true, Newton does. Read http://www.allstar.fiu.edu/AERO/airflylvl3.htm if you (or your instructor) don't believe it. Actually money is what really keeps an aircraft in the air, but that's a different issue.
You'll never know all there is to know about flying. When you start to feel as if you really have this flying thing down pat, watch out! That's when your aircraft, weather, your own stupidity, or some unknown is about to make you humble again. Doesn't matter if you have 100, 1000, or 10,000 hours. Heck, I have almost 10,000 hours and I got well and truly lost in deteriorating weather within 5 miles of the airport the other day!
Controller "North American 55 Kilo say your intentions."
Controller "Recommend a ninety degree right turn to remain on the final approach course."
Subtle, very subtle. Turns out they were in the tower cab laughing at ol' Tailspin Tommy and how he got lost on final. Keeps ya humble, flying does.
A required part of your training should be a visit to a control tower, a visit to an approach control/center facility, toward the end of your training do some serious flying in a glider, and some aerobatics--especially spins. Even a ride in a high-altitude chamber is a good idea, especially if you're flying something that will get you up high--set it up through your local FAA office. You'll be a much better, safer pilot for all of it. Visit Sun 'n Fun in Lakeland FL (Spring) or EAA Air Adventures in Oshkosh WI (Summer), the National Air Races in Reno (Fall), The National Air & Space Museum in Washington (any time) at least once. The Air Force Museum in Dayton, OH and the San Diego Aerospace Museum are well worth the visit too (so are the three museums at Chino, for that matter). At any museum, by the way, the place to go is the restoration facility and/or the annex. That's where they stash the goodies, in my experience.
Try to fly on weekdays so air traffic doesn't cost you so much waiting on the ground or flying in circles waiting to enter the traffic pattern. Yeah, it's all goes in your log book, but when you're learning to fly you want quality time not quantity. Build time after you have your license. Don't let your instructor spend your money jawing with the engine running. Aircraft are for flying. Classrooms, airport cafes, and bars are for talking.
It ain't gonna be easy. You will find plateaus in your progress that will be frustrating. Try to fly at least twice a week so you don't forget too much between lessons. National average to solo is about 20 hours, to Private Pilot check ride is about 80 hours, last I checked, so don't expect it to happen over night. Especially toward the end it's still hugely fun, but seems to drag on trying to schedule around yourself/aircraft/instructor/weather for the cross countries.
Don't fall into the trap of quitting right after you solo. Lots of people do because they feel a surge of achievement (often the biggest of their life), but then they look down the road and see several grand in expense and several hours a week in time so they decide they've made it and wander off. The biggest sense of achievement you ever have is after you take your check ride, receive that Private Pilot's License, and take your friend/wife/folks/kids for a flight.
'Course that Private Pilot License (PPL the Brits call it) is just a license to start learning and tackling more complex aircraft, learning to fly instruments, traveling cross-country on vacations and business, and a lifetime of experience. But be careful what you pray for, they say, you may get it. Richard Bach's version: "An idea is never given to you without you being given the power to make it reality. You must, nevertheless, suffer for it." That's certainly true about learning to fly. You'll enjoy a whole new perspective, you will literally never be the same again, but you'll have to work for it. All for the better, I say. (Yes, I'm prejudiced).
Figure with Ray-Ban sun-glasses, David-Clark headset, big watch, flight bag, books, charts, ground school, flight training, and check rides you'll spend $3500-$5500*. Many banks offers loans for flight training, by the way, and the GI Bill will pay for advanced training, once you have your Private Pilot Certificate. There even are some scholarship programs that will contribute to your training. Join the AOPA and the EAA (they have financial programs too). You'll get their outstanding magazines and learn a lot from them. Read voraciously, visit AvWeb and get their twice a week email news, subscribe to Flying, Private Pilot, and Pacific Flyer etc. Cheap education--remember you want to learn from someone else's experiences.
Sorry this was so long, as mathematician Blaise Pascal once wrote, "I have made this rather long because I haven't had time to make it shorter."
Go to it! And feel free to e-mail questions, dissenting opinions, or additions anytime.
*Glenn 'Sky-ho' Daly, a professional friend, professional flight instructor, and professional writer adds:
Buy a headset. It makes communications much easier and it will protect your hearing. I HATE those overweight, uncomfortable, pea green David Clark headsets. The only reason to buy a David Clark is the fact that they stand by them after purchase. Maybe buy a cheapie $100 Marv Golden to start, then ask to try your pilot friends' headsets so you can find one you really like. You'll pay upwards of $500 for a good noise canceling headset, but then you'll have two, a cheap one for a passenger and a good one for you.
Also, the $3500-$5500 numbers you quoted are pre-9/11, pre-insurance run-up and pre-fuel run-up. I regularly tell people it'll cost between $6500 - $7500 ... and that's if you fly, as you correctly suggested, around twice a week (I find 3 times a week better, but why quibble.) Figure the costs: 55 hours of airplane at $75/hour = $4125; add 40 hours of instructor at $50/hour=$2000. Add the examiner's fee, currently $350, charts (you're soooo right, not maps), plotter, E6B and books for the knowledge exam add upwards of $200. Don't forget those headsets for $500-$600. AND the written exam fee = $80. Grand total with 55 hours of flying and 40 hours of superior instruction $6855.
You might wanna look at the page I've done on my website, SoCal Skies. Some of our thoughts are amazingly similar, my friend - probably why I like you so much. Blush.
My Dad sent these oldies but goodies:
There are old pilots and there are bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots.
Truly superior pilots are those who use their superior judgment to avoid those situations where they might have to use their superior skills.
It's better to be down here wishing you were up there than up there wishing you were down here.
Speed is life, altitude is life insurance. No one has ever collided with the sky.
Always remember you fly an airplane with your head, not your hands.
Never let an airplane take you somewhere your brain didn't get to five minutes earlier.
Don't drop the aircraft in order to fly the microphone. An airplane flies because of a principle discovered by Bernoulli [and Newton], not Marconi.
Those who hoot with the owls by night should not fly with the eagles by day.
An airplane may disappoint a good pilot, but it won't surprise him.
Any pilot who relies on a terminal forecast can be sold the Brooklyn Bridge. A pilot who relies on winds-aloft reports can be sold Niagara Falls.
Any attempt to stretch fuel is guaranteed to increase headwind.
A thunderstorm is never as bad on the inside as it appears on the outside. It's worse.
A fool and his money are soon flying more airplane than he can handle.
Remember, you're always a student in an airplane. Keep looking around; there's always something you've missed.
Takeoffs are optional. Landings are mandatory.