Becoming a pilot is an exciting goal and one of the first steps to fulfilling that dream is to pick a flight school and flight instructor. There are many flight schools to choose from, and each employs plenty of flight instructors, so how do you decide which is the right fit for you? Read on to discover what things to consider as you search for the best pilot training program to spend your time and money on.
Clarify your goals
The first question to ask yourself is, "What type of pilot do I want to be?" At the beginning this can be as general as "professional" or "recreational." If you have a specific motivating reason to learn to fly, it can help guide you. You may realize that you dream of going on to become an airline pilot or that you want to keep your day job and enjoy flying weekend trips as a private pilot.
Find a mentor
If it is hard to know where to start in your search, begin by locating local pilots who have achieved whatever pilot goals or career path you envision for yourself. Sit down and talk with them about what training and instructors helped them get to where they are today. Learn more about how to get started in aviation.
Many successful pilots are happy to share their insights and guide new students on how to achieve their goals. Your pilot mentor may offer specific recommendations for instructors, programs, or schools that they think would be a good fit for you. They may also simply provide some guidance and points to consider as you compare your options.
Keep in mind that you will still need to do your own research as well. Use conversations with your mentor as a starting point and source of direction for your search, but it is important to recognize that no two pilots are identical and that your needs may vary. You want to learn which flight training program is most aligned with you and your vision.
Pick a Part
The first factor that will narrow down your list of potential flight schools is deciding which FAA Part you want to choose: Part 61 vs Part 141. Flight schools can be certified under either Part and there are pros and cons of each depending on your unique situation and career plans.
Part 61 schools are generally best for student pilots looking for a flexible training program. These schools work well if you need to plan your flying around a more extensive work or personal schedule. Since a Part 61 school does not hold you to a strict training calendar, it is up to you to ensure you are flying frequently enough to build up your muscle memory. If too much time elapses between lessons, your flight training may take longer because you need to keep reviewing skills from previous sessions.
A Part 141 flight school operates under a structured FAA approved training program. In a Part 141 school, your flight instructor will provide you with a set training schedule which you must meet to continue and earn your pilot certificate. The Part 141 route is often favored by students who are going to school full-time to become professional pilots. It can also benefit the private pilot candidate who wants a structured flight training schedule. In a Part 141 school, your CFI will hold you accountable and keep you on track to course completion.
Compare the fleets
Depending on the size, a flight school may have many aircraft or just a few. The aircraft could be of mostly the same type or they may have a wider variety. It is ideal to start learning to fly on a single make and model of aircraft. This means that the more of that particular aircraft a school has, the easier it should be to schedule flight training hours in that plane.
If you know you will want to scale up and branch out into other planes in the future, keep that in mind and look for flight schools with a full range of training aircraft.
Also consider whether you are looking for a plane with newer avionics for training. A glass cockpit nearly always comes with a higher hourly cost. Does that make a difference to you?
Finally, proper aircraft maintenance is critical to safety. Find out if each flight school has an expertly maintained fleet using an independent company or if they hire their own mechanics. In either case, the maintenance expenses will factor into your hourly flight training rates.
Review costs and financing options
For most student pilots, the reality is that cost is a factor when it is time to choose a flight school. Many flight schools have financial information available on their websites, so you can do your own flight training cost comparison.
There are many ways to pay for your flight training, and most of them do not involve the need for vast amounts of cash on hand. You can secure aviation scholarships in addition to nation-wide loans or grants.
Flight schools often have their own internal scholarships or grants as well. The advantage of these options is that they are less highly competitive since they are available to a smaller pool of applicants.
A flight school can also offer their own loans and structured payment plans. You may be able to pay for your flight training a little bit at a time rather than in a single lump sum.
Make a short list
As much as you may want to, you cannot possibly visit every flight school. At some point, after narrowing the list by part, available fleet, cost, and financing options, you will need to select a handful of schools that seem like the best potential fit. Make a list of the programs you want to take a look at in person.
Take a tour
No amount of online research can give you the full feel of what it will be like to attend a specific flight school. If possible, it is a good idea to take a tour and observe the training experience first-hand before committing to learning to fly there.
During your flight school tour, consider your overall impressions of the grounds, the fleet, the ground school classrooms, the flight instructors, and the students. Notice what the classroom experience is like and what sort of flight simulators and other classroom aids are utilized.
Observe maintenance, safety, and COVID procedures in action as you will want to feel comfortable in the environment during your journey to earning a pilot certificate.
The location of the flight school is also a factor. Will you be taking off from a towered or nontowered airport? If there is not a tower onsite, is there a towered airport nearby that is used for training variety?
Meet the students
The student pilots who are currently studying at your potential future flight school are in a perfect position to give you honest, current feedback on the school, the program, the instructors, the aircraft, and the overall flight school training experience. They were also recently in your position of choosing a flight school, so they understand the criteria you are considering.
Ask about the students' impressions of both the school and the instructors. If they were in your position and could do it all over again, would they still pick this school, or would they consider a different one? Ask what surprises or challenges they have run into since choosing to get their pilot training at this school. Do they have any advice for you as you finalize your decision?
Meet the instructors
During your tour, ask for the opportunity to talk with some of the instructors and sit in a portion of their ground school training if it works with the tour schedule. Find out if the instructors are full-time or part-time and how flight training scheduling works. As you interact, notice if you click with a specific instructor. It is important to feel comfortable with your flight instructor and his or her training style. You want to fly with someone who encourages you to learn and who prioritizes your progress and training.
Sign up for a discovery flight
A discovery flight is the perfect opportunity to spend real-world time in one of the school's aircraft and with one of the flight instructors. For a low fee, you have the chance to fly one-on-one with a CFI and get an even better feel for what it would be like to do your training at this school. During your discovery flight, notice whether you develop rapport and feel at ease interacting with and asking questions of the instructor.
Ask intelligent questions
After listening to presentations from flight school staff, respond to their query, "Do you have any questions?" with a resounding, "Yes." This is your chance to learn the little details that differentiate this school from the other schools on your short list.
Here are some question ideas to get you started:
- What is the flight school's safety record?
- What are the credentials of the instructors?
- Will I have a single dedicated flight instructor throughout the program or will I be assigned to more than one instructor?
- Am I able to change flight instructors mid-way through training if desired?
- What type of insurance coverage is provided? (Note that while some insurance may be provided, you will likely need to secure your own student pilot insurance.)
- How is student progress and learning monitored during flight school? Do you use phase checks or some other method?
- What is the student to instructor ratio?
- How does flight scheduling work?
- How do you handle weather and mechanical cancellations?
With these answers and the rest of your research in hand, you will have what you need to make an informed decision and be well on your way to becoming a pilot. Congratulations!