Friday, October 1, 2010

Choosing the right flight school (1)

Paramus Flying Club (PFC) does not take on student pilots. However, as the Marketing and Membership person at PFC, I often get asked what flight schools in the area we would recommend. There are quite a few schools and independent instructors in the area to choose from. PFC does not make a practice of making specific recommendations.

That said, over the next few posts I will offer a series of thoughts on this topic---an extended version of the responses I usually send out to these queries.

Independent instructor vs. flight school
There are a dozen or more flight schools in the greater NY/NJ area. But there are also hundreds of CFIs in the area who offer instruction independently. Each has its pros and cons.

The benefit of going with an independent instructor is flexibility and (usually) cost.

With an independent instructor, you will get a more flexible curriculum. If the instructor is good, the curriculum will be tailored to your style and pace of learning. Since you are his "client" in a more direct and personal way, independent instructors are generally more accommodating with all sorts of other practical issues---e.g. scheduling. And you are probably more likely to form a stronger personal relationship with your instructor.

(By the way, students are often hesitant to assert themselves in a student-instructor relationship. But the thing to remember is that while you are the student, you are also the client. A flight instructor is, afterall, an independent contractor. It's a mutual responsibility to make the relationship work.)

Usually, the independent instructor teaches out of his own aircraft and has almost no overhead. So, his hourly rates---both for his aircraft and his time---are likely to be significantly lower than at a flight school. Most people take upwards of 60 hours to earn their certificates, so even a $20-30 an hour difference is going to be significant. But be careful. That hourly advantage may get wiped away if it takes you significantly longer time to finish your training. So make sure that the prospective instructor can show you a clear "road map" through your training.

The simplicity of the solo instructor's setup, though, is also his greatest weakness. He usually won't have classroom facillities, so you are on your own to self-study for the academic part of the license. There are excellent online courses available, so if you are self motivated and can keep yourself on track with the academics this might not be an issue. (Admittedly, many schools now rely on the very same online resources to cover the academics.)

Independent instructors usually only have one plane. If his plane is in for maintenance---given the rather stringent FAA requirements, this may be more often than you might think---your training might be put on hold for a few days, sometimes a week or more. If you are taking a more leisurely pace through your training, this may not be an issue. But if you are expecting to complete your training in a relativley short time, know that having the instructor's plane go down for maintenance in the middle of the training is a real possibility.

Same thing goes for the instructor himself. If he goes on vacation, or gets busy for some reason (many instructors have day-jobs and instruct only part time), or if you decide that things aren't working out, you might have to put your training on hold, or go through the process all over again of finding a new instructor. How much of the training you've done up to that time the new instructor will accept is anyone's guess.

The benefit of a flight school is structure and "depth of the bench".

Most flight schools operate Part 141 (more on that in a later post). Which means the curriculum at flight schools are well developed and time-tested by hundreds of students before you. Most schools are able to provide you with some support with the academics and test-prep. Part 141 schools are also required to adhere to pretty stringent record keeping requirements, and this usually trickles down to their 61 operations as well. Every lesson is logged, not just in your logbook, but in the school's files as well. (Of course, some of the more prefessional independent instructors keep detailed records of your progress.)

The other benefit of a flight school is that they usually have multiple aircraft and multiple instructors. Having multiple aircraft available is a real benefit---your training doesn't get put on hold just because one plane is in for maintenance, and you can stay right on schedule. If your instructor goes away on vacation usually there is someone to fill in. And in the worst case where you decide that things are just not working out with a particular instructor, you can usually switch without too much hassle and the training up to that point will simply transfer over.

Be ware, though, as this depth of bench may sometimes be illusory. Flight schools are often a place for young pilots aspiring to bigger and better things---i.e. an airline job---to get the required number of hours. So many of the instructors may be young and inexperienced---there is nothing wrong with that, per se. Afterall, some of them are still very good. But know that even the good ones might be on their way out. So before committing to a school, make sure you investigate who the instructors are, and find out what their plans are for the next 1-3 years.

Finally, one oft overlooked benefit of flight schools is the commeraderie of fellow students. You will spend quite a bit of time at the school as you go through training. You will meet other students---some at the same stage of training you are, others pursuing advanced ratings. Being able to trade notes, share tips, and keep each other motivated is often quite valuable.

In a nutshell: If you are self-motivated, require flexibility, and are capable of managing a relationship with an independent contractor, finding the right independent instructor just might be the ticket.

On the other hand, if you need structure, like the commerraderie of other students, if you are time constrained, and don't mind paying a few more dollars for the extra support and "depth of bench", going to a school might be the better option.

Finding a school is easy enough. Just do a Google search on flight schools in your area. (For a list of NY/NJ area schools see:

Finding an independent instructor is a bit more involved, but the place to start is the AOPA instructor databse:

Next up: Part 61 vs 141

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