Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Choosing the right flight school (3)

Part three of our thoughts on choosing a flight school.  How should you go about finding the school/instructor that's right for you? What questions should you ask?

First, some assumptions. For this post I am assuming that we are talking about flight training for fun and personal use. If the objective is to become a professional pilot, a whole different set of issues would come into play, and unfortunately none of us at PFC can really speak to those issues. I am also assuming that you would be looking train part time.

Deciding what you want:
Do you want the structure of Part 141 or the flexibility of Part 61? Do you want an independent instructor who might be more flexible still, or do you want a flight school?

How often can/will you fly? How quickly are you looking to earn your license? On average, people take about 70 hours of total flight time to earn their private pilot licenses. A typical 2 hour lesson will include roughly 1.5 hours of flight time. So earning the certificate wil take about 45 lessons. If you can fly twice a week, the process will take about 6 months. Generally, the more frequently you fly with less elapsed time between lessons, the more you will retain from one lesson to the next, and the less time training will take. Most flight instructors recommend flying at least twice a week, if possible.

Do you want a formal ground school? Or can you keep yourself motivated with a computer based self-teaching course? Typically, the cost of ground school is additional to the cost of flight training, and could end up being quite substantial. On the other hand, most schools offer computer based self-teaching courses. These generally work well, especially if you supplement them by asking your CFI a lot of questions. The cost of such courses are usually a few hundred dollars, and can be purchased from your flight school.

Finally, you will have to figure out how you are going to pay for all this. Flying is not inexpensive---though pilots will tell you that it is worth every penny. A typical hour of "dual" flight time (flying with an instructor) will cost somewhere between $160-$200 ($120-$140 for the plane, $40-$60 for the instructor). So, over 70 hours, you should plan to spend about $12,000 - $14,000 for the lessons. Some flight schools require prepayment in advance. Some offer complete pay-as-you-go. Others offer bulk pre-payment discounts for flight time. You might qualify for loans or other assistance. But you do need to plan for this expense. You should probably also budget a few hundred dollars for various equipment---headset, flight bag, charts, reference material, etc.

Looking for the right school/instructor:
Start by making a list of prospective flight schools and/or instructors. PFC has compiled a list of NY/NJ area schools here:

For independent flight instructors look here:

Then go and visit the flight schools, and meet with the instructors. You are about to drop a pretty big chunk of your money. So treat it like any other major purchase decision---do a lot of research and ask a lot of questions.

Some questions to ask flight schools:
Who is your client base? What is the philosophy/goal behind the school? It would be useful to know if the school caters primarily to people who are looking towards a professional flying career, or if they train a lot of people who just want to fly for fun and personal use. What does a typical lesson look like? Do they do scenario based training?

Can you walk me through your syllabus? Can you give me an example of a lesson plan? Even at a Part 141 school, this is useful information to know---it will give you a sense of what to expect and the kind of progress you will be making. You might be surprised to find out just how soon you will be "soloing". And it will give you an opportunity to ask any questions or raise concerns about any part of the flight training process. At a Part 61 school, or with an independent instructor, this information is critical. If a part 61 school or instructor cannot show you a syllabus, or at least provide you with a training roadmap, that should raise red flags. After all, without an overall plan outlining what you need to accomplish, how would you know when you should be done?

Would I be working with one primary instructor throughout my training? Or will I be assigned to whomever happens to be available depending on scheduling? Generally, it is a good idea to find one instructor and build a good working relationship with him/her. This helps reduce duplication of training. Your instructor will also be familiar with your progress, your strengths and weaknesses, and your learning style. (However, it is a great learning experience to occasionally fly with a different CFIs.)

If my instructor goes on vacation, are other instructors available to step in? How would that work? It is one thing for a school to have a lot of instructors on their payroll. It is entirely another to make sure that they are all well versed in the curriculum, that there is good communication among the instructors, and that they function has a cohesive staff as opposed to just a bunch of independent contractors. It is also a good indication of how well student records are kept. How a school answers this question should also tell you something about how they would handle you switching instructors mid-stream should you have to.

How many students are currently training here? How is instructor/aircraft availability? A popular flight school is an indication that the school is doing something right. On the other hand, if the school is so popular that the instructors/aircraft can't keep up, that may unnecessarily slow your progress.

How long has the school been in business? (A quick check on the Better Business Bureau wouldn't hurt, either.) This speaks to both the schools experience, and to some extent their financial stability. This is especially important if they require prepayment or offer discounts on bulk pre-purchases of flight time. At least one major flight school went out of business last year, leaving many students who had prepaid tuition with no recourse.

Ask about various financial arrangements. Do you offer financing for flight training? Do you have a "fixed cost" program? And if so, what is included? Does the course come with a "guarantee"? And how often does a student have to pay extra for additional training to complete the course? Do you offer bulk discounts on pre-purchases of flight time? Do you require partial or full payment up front? Do you offer a strict pay-as-you-go option with no commitments? Also, don't forget to ask about the cost of ground school and pre/post flight briefings.

Will you put me in touch with a few of your current students? Or, you could just hang out in front of the school and grab them as they go by. Ask them for their assessment of the school, as well as their particular instructor.

Interviewing instructors:
Don't forget to interview individual instructors at a school. (Obviously this happens automatically when seeking out independent instructors.) If the first instructor you speak with doesn't feel right, ask the chief pilot (or whoever is in charge of student assignments) to introduce you to a different instructor. I would treat this like a "job interview"---which it should be. Remember, you are going to be spending 60-70 hours with this guy in a cramped cockpit. Ask them things like:

Why are you teaching? What you are looking for is enthusiasm for *both* flying and teaching. A general love of flying is contagious, and will get you through the inevitable bumps during your training. And enthusiasm often goes a long way to covering any pedagogical issues the CFI might have. (Most CFIs are pilots first, and teachers second---most have no formal training in teaching.) Also, it is useful to know that many CFIs are teaching to "build time" in order to go on to bigger and better things (i.e. an airline job). Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with that, and there are plenty of great instructors who also just happen to be aspiring airline pilots. But if the CFI doesn't show enthusiasm for teaching, it might be best to look elsewhere. And follow up with a question asking how likely it is that he/she will be around to see your training through to the end.

How many private pilots have you trained? This question gauges the instructors experience. Generally the more students an instructor has under his belt, the more he knows about how to deal with the inevitable trouble spots during training. That said, a new instructor isn't necessarily a bad thing. For one thing they are likely to be really enthusiastic, and enthusiasm usually translates into wanting to do good by the student. Moreover, even a brand new CFI has had to go through a rigorous training program. He will usually have at least four ratings---private, instrument, commercial and CFI---and most have a fifth---CFI/I. Each of those ratings require that they pass a rigorous exam and checkride. So regardless of experience, they can clearly fly an airplane. And if they can teach you to fly as well as they do, you would be off to a great start, no matter how new the CFI is. So the real question is whether the instructor is likely to be a good teacher *for you.* And that is something that only you can decide, probably after a few lessons with him.

How long does a typical student of yours training consistently take to finish the private pilot? The average is said to be around 60-70 hours of flight time. Flying 2-3 times a week, that should take about 6 months. Of course, these are averages. Everything from your schedule, ability to fund the training, and weather (especially here in the northeast) all affect the total time required to get to the private pilot certificate. But if the average is 60-70 hours over about 6 months, there is no good reason why it should take significantly more if you are willing to work hard and train consistently. Afterall, by definition, about half finish in less time. So, an instructor/school that quotes significantly higher numbers raises red flags. (Since most flight training is billed by the hour, this is the one factor that will directly affect how expensive this is going to be.)

What portion of your students complete their training? What portion pass the checkride on the first try? The answer to these question will give you a general sense of the instructor's effectiveness as a teacher. A student might drop out for any number of reasons from money to scheduling, and the completion rate of private pilot training is generally less than 50%. That said, if your instructor has a high drop out rate, that would raise red flags. Similarly, a competent instructor should be able to get their student to a point where they can pass the checkride with confidence. And no instructor should sign off on a student unless they are fully confident in the student's abilities. So any instructor with a lot (say more than 20%) of student failing their first checkrides is a red flag.

Describe your best and worst student. The answer to this question tells you a lot about what the instructor expects from his students, and whether there is a good fit between the two of you.

Ask for references. Ask to speak to current or previous private pilot students. (If this is a school, be sure to ask both the instructor and the school.)

Finally, most schools and instructors will offer you a "discovery flight." Most places charge around $100, and it usually involves a short (30 minute) flight where the instructor will give you a mini-lesson on the basics of flying an airplane. If you have never been up in a small plane before, the excitement might be overwhelming. But treat this as a real lesson, and insist the instructor do the same. After you have your "short list" of potential schools/instructors, this is a great way to find out whether the school/instructor will work for you or not. Taking more than one of these "discovery flights" may seem pointless, but if it helps you to choose the best instructor for you, it may very well end up saving your time, money and sanity in the long run.

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