Flight Training: How to Choose a Flight School

Flight School
••• Tim Boyle/Getty Images

If you're lucky enough to live near multiple flight schools and have a variety of training options, choosing the right one can be confusing. So, it's a decision worth putting some thought into.

There's more to it than just walking into the nearest one. Careful consideration of the training environment, instructors, and aircraft will ensure you get through training quickly and easily. And remember, flying should be fun. If you find you're not enjoying yourself at any point during your training, don't be afraid to switch it up and go somewhere else.

If you're ready to begin flight training but aren't sure where to go, consider the details of several factors.

Cost

Learning to fly isn't exactly cheap, so it's no surprise that saving money and reducing the cost of flying is a high priority for most flight students. But there's more to the cost of flight training than meets the eye.

At first glance, you might want to compare flight school costs by aircraft rental rates alone. But look closely at the entire fee structure, including aircraft rental (wet vs. dry rental), insurance, fuel prices, taxes, processing fees, and instructor fees. Flight schools aren't usually out to rip off students, but there can be hidden fees.

To get to the bottom line regarding the true cost of flight training, know what questions to ask:

  1. How much is the aircraft rental? Does this include fuel and oil (wet) or not (dry)?
  2. How much do the instructors charge? Do they charge different rates?
  3. How much time do instructors spend in ground training, briefing, and debriefing? Do they charge for this time?
  4. Are there taxes or processing fees?
  5. How much can I expect to spend on books and materials?
  6. Are there other costs (like examiner fees, overnight charges, landing fees, etc.)

With all of these variables, you can see why the advertised prices of flight training can differ so much from school to school. Some schools include an entire cost break down up front; other schools will advertise only the rental rate.

Finally, keep in mind that a quote for an entire training course, such as a private pilot license, often is based on the minimum number of flight hours required by the FAA, and most students surpass the minimum amount during training. It's best to ask for an average number of hours it took past students to complete their training with a particular instructor. 

Flight Instructor Experience and Credentials

When choosing a flight instructor, it's not enough to make sure he or she has appropriate credentials, although that's obviously important, too. You'll also want to know how long they've been employed at the school, where they learned to fly, how many hours they've accrued, and what their previous students say about them.

Of course, there are not-so-good flight instructors with thousands of hours, and there are fresh, new instructors on top of their games. So don't go by flight hours alone when determining if an instructor is good or not. You'll really want to find someone who communicates well and makes you feel comfortable.

Keep in mind that you can switch instructors at any point during your training if things don't work out.

Reputation With the FAA and Airport

One of the best ways to find a good flight school is to call the nearest FAA Flight Standards District Office (FSDO) or a local FAA-designated examiner to ask them about local flight schools. While they might not give you specific details about individual training programs, the examiners at the FAA are familiar with the "good" and "bad" schools in the area. If a flight school has a history of FAA violations or aircraft accidents, for example, wouldn't you like to know before you invest time and money into it?

 

If the FAA employees aren't helpful, contact the airport terminal or other airport businesses. The aviation community is a small one, even at large airports, and your aviation peers are happy to tell you who flies safely and who doesn't, who maintains their aircraft by the book, who cuts corners, and, in a nutshell, who fits in around the airport and who doesn't.

Course Structure and Lesson Plans

Some flight schools operate under Federal Aviation Regulations (FAR) Part 61 and others operate under Part 141. While the end result often is the same—a private pilot license, for example—the methods of training are different. Part 61 is less structured, allowing for an instructor to adapt the syllabus and lesson plans as you go, and as he or she wishes. It's the more common method, especially at small flight schools, since it allows for more flexibility for instructors and students.

Part 141 schools are more rigid in nature, following a strict outline and syllabus that must be approved ahead of time by the FAA. A student in a Part 141 school can expect a more intense, often fast-paced training program in a more professional atmosphere.

Regardless of which program you choose, you'll want to make sure the instructor has some way of monitoring your progress and evaluating your skills as you go along. Look for an instructor or school that follows a syllabus, including lesson plans, stage checks, and progress reports.

Aircraft and Aircraft Maintenance

The airplane you decide to use for flight training is a personal preference. It's always fun to fly in a brand new technologically advanced aircraft with the latest avionics and shiny new paint, but those perks come at a cost. An older airplane will cost less to rent and can serve the same purpose for training, but it might be down for maintenance more often.

In the end, it doesn't matter if the aircraft is old or new, but pay close attention to the aircraft's maintenance program and logbooks. You can ask the flight school staff to walk you through their maintenance program. If they fumble through it or refuse to show you the aircraft's logbook altogether, it's a red flag, and you should walk away. Every training aircraft at a flight school should be on a maintenance plan with a reputable maintenance company, and the flight school staff should be able to show you when the last inspection was completed and any maintenance issues the aircraft may have had in the aircraft logbooks.