Tuesday, August 17, 2010

How to choose a flight school

There are several reasons why now is a good time to write an article on what factors to consider when choosing a school for your pilot training.

The first of those reasons is perhaps the scariest. Nearly every week, a flight school in the USA (and many elsewhere in the world) goes out of business. Many of those pilot training schools that do close will not be able or willing to refund any student funds already placed on account. Just a short search of flight schools closing this year (2010) turns up schools that have closed in Texas, California, Maryland, New York, Nebraska, and Illinois. Those closings are not just small flight schools but even include well-known colleges. Closings are not just restricted to pilot schools in the USA either. Recently, there were announcements of pilot school closings in Canada and the Philippines.

Another, more positive, reason for learning more now about how to choose a good flight school is that in most countries the job prospects for commercial pilot graduates are improving.

What factors should you as a prospective student consider when choosing a flight school? Here is my list and an explanation of each.

How does a prospective student measure the stability of a school? One way might be the years in business. Only a successful business can survive the difficult first few years of operation. Flight schools that have been in operation for 10 years, 20 years or even longer demonstrate that they have the financial strength and management ability to excel not only in the good times but survive the bad ones as well.

One sign of lack of strength in the pilot training business is the possible demand of the school for the student to pay all or most of the fees upfront. Sometimes this comes with a promise of a discount for paying the complete cost of training in advance. Though in some cases this offer may be genuine, in other cases in may be a sign that the school is using the “new” money to pay for the flight training of the students who are already enrolled. A way to discover this might be to ask the recent students who have enrolled how much flight training is being provided. If those students indicate that no flight training is being done in the first month or two of training, this could be a negative indication. A good rule to follow is to never pay all of the fees in advance. Unless the flight school is in distress, they should be willing to allow a student to pay as the training progresses.

You should ask any flight school that you are considering how many accidents they have had. It is unlikely that a flight school that has been in operation for at least a few years will not have some record of at least minor incidents and/or accidents. But a flight school that has multiple serious accidents or fatalities over a short period of time should cause you to at least do further research to determine the cause of the accidents. If the accidents are the result of poor maintenance or poor instruction, you might want to consider other schools. Even accidents that appear to be due to an “act of god” like bad weather or a mid-air collision should cause the prospective student to consider whether local weather conditions or the concentration of air traffic in that area are suitable for flight training.

Since the flight school may not provide you with accurate figures on safety, and those that are provided may be suspect, you may want to verify those figures by doing your own research. Therefore, an internet search may prove fruitful. If the flight school is in the USA, you can search in several ways for possible incidents and accidents. Your first stop would normally be www.ntsb.gov. Select aviation accidents. Search by the name of the pilot school. This may or may not register the relevant accidents as the airplanes might be registered in another name. Also search for the airport where the school is based and perhaps even the state in which they are located. You can also just do a general search on the internet using the school’s name and location.

One of the more difficult to determine factors is the quality of the training provided by the school. If you are able to visit the school in advance, you should talk not only to the management but also the flight instructors and students. Any school that will not allow you to “mingle” with the students should be regarded with suspicion. Be sure that you are able to meet not only a few hand-picked students but are able to talk to several of the others not introduced by school. If necessary, find out where the students live and drop by those apartments for a casual conversation away from the school.

You may also be able to talk to one of the Pilot Examiners who tests students that graduate from the school. Find out from the school or the students which examiners are used and contact them.

The internet can also be a useful tool for finding information out about flight schools. Though a few complaints about any one school might be expected even from a good school, multiple complaints should be examined closely. One website that collects and stores not only complaints about flying schools but also good reviews as well is www.flightschool reviewer.com. Other aviation websites collect information not only about flight schools but on a variety of aviation topics including pilot jobs. Some of the websites to consider checking out include www.jetcareers.com, www.pprune.org (particularly good for views on European training), and www.airlinepilotcentral.com.

• Cost.
Many students focus all of their attention on finding the lowest price for their flight training. Rather than concentrate on cost only, it is recommended that students focus more on “value.” The cost of the flight training should be one factor in determining the value of that training. Be careful about the price of programs that appear lower than the price of most others. Some flight schools utilize safety pilot time as a means of reducing costs. But this actually reduces the amount of “hands-on”

time each student receives. If a 250 hour program has 100 hours of shared or safety pilot time, then the student will actually receive 20% less time on the flight controls than a student who actually flies those hours solo. Students should also be aware that some countries (India comes to mind first) do not allow any safety pilot time to be logged as pilot-in-command time. Even under FAA rules, safety pilot time should not be logged as cross-country flight time. Reducing the amount of pilot hours in a course may diminish the pilot’s actual ability. At the end of any training program, the goal should be not only to meet the minimum pilot hours but acquire the skills and experience needed to fly safely and to get that aviation job that you seek.

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