Choosing the right flight school when you’re starting out is a rather daunting experience, not least because you don’t have much Aviation experience to help you make the decision. Questions such as, which aircraft type is best? Am I better training from a secluded grass landing strip or a big commercial airport? Should the school have lots of aircraft or just a few? Should I be worried if the school only has a handful of instructors? These are all important questions, and inevitably you won’t have the answers. We’re here to help.
I started learning to fly over ten years ago, and for me at the tender age of just 15, I didn’t necessarily consider all the options we’ll discuss here. However, after working in a flight school for a number of years and now sitting in the left-hand seat of an airliner, I’ve built up a good picture of what may be right and what may be wrong when choosing your school.
For me, there’s two things that jump out at me. location and cost. These two can come hand in hand. A school that is slightly further away may actually be cheaper on paper, but factor in a few wasted journeys due to weather changing (trust me, there will be lots!) and actually that school that’s on your doorstep but £10 per hour more expensive, suddenly makes more sense.
When looking at cost, you’ll need to factor in everything. Some schools will try to hide additional fees and may charge the dreaded fuel surcharge on top of the hourly advertised rate. Be sure to sit down with a school representative and ask for a breakdown on all fees. Ask about landing fees and touch and go fees, which at larger airports may be astronomical, the school may counter this by completing that part of your training at a nearby smaller airfield. Ask about exam fees and ground instructor fees. Check if any books or other equipment is included and another important thing to consider is headset hire. Most people won’t take the plunge spending anything from £200-£1000 for a headset until they know flying is for them. Some schools will charge you up to and over £5 per hour to hire an often battered, over-used headset.
Lots of things to think about hey? Well, that’s just the start. As you progress through your training you will be expected to complete multiple-choice exams, these will carry a fee, so check that, and also ask about the hire of the aircraft for tests, whether there is a discount and also how much the local examiner will charge for an exam.
As I mentioned earlier, you will also need to factor in the cost of some essential equipment, such as a hi-viz vest, kneeboard, stopwatch, chart, pens, rulers, a navigation computer, sunglasses and also any practice exam question bank subscriptions you may need to help you prepare for your test.
As I touched on a short while ago, location is as important as cost. Now as well as location meaning how close to your home, location also means what type of airfield you’ll be training from. For a Private Pilot Licence, just a runway will suffice! However, to build confidence, I suggest an airfield with a degree of air traffic control and some navigational equipment can prove handy, especially if you’re planning to go commercial, becoming familiar with operating a radio and receiving instructions as early as possible will only help you later on. With this in mind however, learning to fly at lets say, East Midlands airport, could mean lengthy ‘delays’ transiting to ‘uncontrolled airspace’ to carry our your lessons. This could mean up to 20 mins of each lesson is potentially of no use but hours in the book and cost on the bill.
Check the airfield and the flight school opening hours, is it open at evenings, what about weekends? Does the airfield cater for night flying? Are there maintenance facilities and does your flight school use these or do they transit to a different airfield? All these things can turn a minor technical fault into several cancelled lessons.
Does the airfield have a cafe or suitable rest facilities for you to take a break in between lessons or somewhere you can study privately? How are the IT facilities, can you gain important briefing material yourself or do you need to ask?
Ask your school if they hangar their aircraft, just like your car, aircraft frost over as well and this can cause frustration in winter time depending how efficient your school is at having aircraft prepped and ready to go first thing.
Ask your chosen school about their aircraft, how many of each type do they have and are they all the same price per hour?
Some schools will operate two seat trainers such as the Piper PA38 Tomahawk and others will opt to train in four seater touring aircraft such as the Piper PA28. The price difference may be negligible and training in a four seater may mean you can take friends and family along during training, subject to local school rules.
On this subject of aircraft, availability is also something to ask about. Some schools will operate and online booking system to make it easier and more transparent. Other may use traditional means (yes a pencil and paper) to make your bookings.
Staff & Facilities
I touched on this earlier. Ask about staff turnover and how many part-time and full-time staff they employ. At present a lot of small schools are struggling to recruit instructors as many commercially qualified pilots are finding it easier to enter directly to the airline and corporate world. A school only having two instructors however doesn’t necessarily mean they are understaffed if they only have two aircraft and a handful of students. This will all come down to judgement.
Final things to consider
Overall, as well as considering the extensive list of items above, you’ll need to use your best judgement , research the school and the airfield, speak to current and past students, get a good feel for the atmosphere. First impressions are general a good indicator but not always the best to base your decision making in as historically there have been a number of ‘fancy schools’ that talk the talk but don’t walk the walk.
Definitely consider a trial flying lesson with the school, get a feel for the quality of instruction from this and a feel for the facilities, this will give you an ideal opportunity to bump into current students, ask them some questions and see how they’re getting on.
A final word of warning
Don’t pay upfront for flight training. Many schools will offer you a discount if you pay for a package. This is a definite no no in my opinion. Every month another flying school slips under financially and your hard earned cash will be lost and it’s likely a few months later the ‘same school’ will be up and running again. Many people have been bitten by offering up sums of money, myself included. Ask the school if they’re happy for you to pay as you go, or if you absolutely have to, pay for very small blocks of 3-5 hours upfront to limit your exposure.
Contrary to my word of warning however, to move away from the doom and gloom. Many flying schools are very established and with this means they often have excellent social sides. This may or may not be of interest to yourself but you will quickly find that everyone at a flight school social event has something in common, obviously! It will allow you to learn some great tips from the more experienced aviators among us and will give your other half/your family a break from your constant aviation talk!
All of the information contained in this articles is of personal opinion to myself having worked within the aviation industry for many years and specifically the training part for a chunk of that.
Ultimately you will make the decision, and the most important thing to remember is that if it’s not working out, make a change, constantly review where you’re up to and if your getting no where, take a step back and reassess. You may find you’re better off taking your hard earned cash elsewhere…