Choosing a flying school is a major first step on your journey in learning to fly. The quality of your flight training is vital and as a customer you deserve to have certain expectations met. Beyond value-for-money, consistency is also important. Chopping and changing between aircraft, flight instructors and constant cancellations can impede progress and ultimately cost dollars. Breaking into the aviation industry is never easy, so it's important to make a sound start.
Now I won’t pretend for a moment that there’s a magical list to suit all scenarios, but what I can offer are some fundamental requirements that your new flying school should offer you. Prospective aviation students can often feel like overwhelmed novices when they walk into a new flying school and are immediately surrounded by aviators in uniforms and epaulettes speaking a strange dialect known as ‘pilot speak’. What is critical at this stage is that you remember that you are a customer and they are endeavouring to sell you a service, so listen carefully to the real words between the sales pitch and be careful with your cash. Take the time to chat with current students of the school as well.
Also, do your homework first. Research the aviation regulatory body in your part of the world to see what the minimum requirements are to achieve a licence and then bear in mind that these are absolutely MINIMUM LEGAL REQUIREMENTS. You will require more hours of flight training than this and this will equate to a higher cost. Additionally, endeavour to define what level of licence you’re looking for. Do you just simply want to go solo to say that you’ve flown an aeroplane or do you aspire to the flight deck of a Boeing 747? Watch out, you might only want to go solo but find yourself hooked! As such, does the flying school provide comprehensive training all the way through to the commercial pilot's licence and ratings? The internet is a great tool in researching various schools and finding those in your area. Armed with a little prior knowledge about their school and your goals, you’re now ready to pay a visit to the local airport and seek out a flying school.
Without further ado, here are the tips....
What aircraft does the flying school have? Is there a substantial fleet built upon a few types, or is there a ‘Noah’s Ark’ fleet with seemingly two of every type known to man. What you need is a small range of different types, but enough of the type that you will be training in that it won’t be double-booked and leave you stranded or without an aircraft when maintenance falls due. There need to be enough of the aircraft to meet the demands of the school.
Additionally, what is the condition of the aircraft? If they are tired and worn out, then that doesn’t suggest much re-investment into the fleet by management. It may be a possible indication of cash-flow issues and a signal that corners might be getting cut elsewhere. Either way, a scrappy looking aeroplane does not reflect the mind-set of a proficient, meticulous pilot, nor does it provide the sort of craft in which you’d like to take a family member aloft.
Also, equipment is not limited to aeroplanes. What are the offices and briefing rooms like? Are they modern and equipped with good lighting and furnishings? This is where you’ll be undertaking your all-important briefings and sitting exams, so you want a sound learning environment.
Behind every good flying school are good people. What is the sense of the school when you first walk in? Are the instructors professionally dressed and polite or do they look like they’re auditioning for ‘Top Gun 2’ and you’re kind of in the way? Is there a mix of junior instructors and senior instructors, or just a few youngsters starting out? Personally, I have found some brand new instructors amongst the most dedicated and proficient in the early phases, but they still need mentoring from the old hands. Equally important is a spread of experience so that you are not kept waiting for a senior instructor to check you as you reach the various tests and milestones. Furthermore, to train for a commercial licence, ideally the instructor should have some commercial experience.
Take the time to speak with the Chief Flying Instructor. If the CFI doesn’t have time to speak with you on that first day then make a booking to chat when it’s convenient. If this proves difficult, or impossible, than that isn’t a good indicator at a very early stage. I have been a CFI and it can be a very demanding job, but a CFI is also part of the management team and should actively assist a new prospective customer.
What is the support staff situation? Is there a full time receptionist attending to the front desk and enquiries, or are bookings and new clients rated as a secondary duty for the flying instructors? Interestingly, in my experience I have found a common feature of good flying schools is a dedicated staff member attending to the front office duties.
3. FILES AND FLYING.
Ask to see a copy of a training file. Does it look professionally presented, or has the same master file been photocopied for the last twenty years with no thought of re-visiting the syllabus and making it better. Perhaps they are of new a digital, online format. Also have a look at the training notes provided by the school for apparent quality. While you won’t necessarily appreciate the content at this point, if their briefing notes are poorly presented, not readily at hand, or worse, don’t exist at all then this is critical as these notes are the link between the text-book and how the flying school executes the lesson in the air. If they just recommend you purchase a manual and self-study, then that isn’t what you’re looking for.
The way in which a school administers its ground-based responsibilities often reflects how they operate in the skies. If attention to the paperwork is poor, then you’ll probably find that it is one of those schools that just want you in the aeroplane, ticking over the meter and then out the door as soon as you’ve paid. Flight training is a broader based undertaking than that; the flight time is critical, but its quality is dependent upon many supporting factors outside the cockpit.
Is the school well established with a reputation that precedes it? If so, they are probably doing something right as longevity in itself is difficult in the flight training business. I say “probably” because some sharks have been known to live for over seventy years. Hence, the recommendation of past and present students can be invaluable third party information. Bear in mind that a newly established school may also have much to offer; new aeroplanes, unbridled enthusiasm and a desperate need to grow its customer base. They may have poached experienced instructors to provide the expertise and be situated in a new building where the paint has just dried.
Longevity should be considered with all prospective schools. Does the operation look like it’s running on a shoe-string and won’t be here in a year? (Sometimes the big, glossy schools suffer from this too). As such, a word of warning, never put large amounts of cash up front for your training. I have seen more than one school close its doors and leave its students thousands of dollars out of pocket. Pay promptly following each lesson, or you may choose to deposit a small amount into an account for ease of payment, but don’t be talked into depositing a whole lot up front.
The biggest variable and most critical factor for many is simply the cost. Flight training is not an inexpensive exercise and anyone who tries to tell you otherwise is kidding themselves. As with so many things, you’ll get what you pay for. Better aeroplanes will come at a premium above their
clapped-out counterparts. Some schools may charge for briefings, but that is more cost efficient than not receiving them and having to repeat flight lessons.
There are all manner of costs associated with flying from equipment to text-books. Ask the school at the outset, what you need to purchase and what they provide. What is the price of these ancillary items? Do they provide ground theory training and at what price? What are the hire rates for the aeroplane and is there an additional fee for flight tests, or a lower rate for solo flying. Ask them REALISTICALLY how many hours it generally takes a student to achieve the licence you’re pursuing. What is the breakdown of hours in terms of dual, solo and tests and what is an estimate of the overall cost? Ascertain this figure before you even start and then add on a little to factor in rising process and hiccups along the way. As I said, it won’t be cheap, but you ultimately get what you pay for.
Learning to fly is a major step, so don’t rush in. Take the time to gather information and ask the right questions of the right people. If the answers are muddled or slow in coming, then that’s probably a ‘red flag’ for how they conduct their business. Quality flying schools don’t hide their costs or information and they’ll take the time to discuss both with you.
So there are some tips to set out on your great adventure of flight. It may seem daunting, but it will be well worth it. As I said earlier, these questions are a guide, not a complete answer to all circumstances but they should set you on the right path. Watch for future posts as I’ll relate some of the common traps and pitfalls of flight training, so check back here for the next set of tips.