Part 2 of our thoughts on choosing the right flight school
Part 61 vs Part 141
If you have started looking for places to do your flight training, you have no doubt figured out that there are two kinds of schools---Part 61 and 141. (Independent instructors all fall under Part 61.)
Part 61 and Part 141 refer to sections of the Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs). Part 61 specifies the general requirements for flight training. Part 141 governs FAA approved flight schools. The requirements for pilot training differs between the two. Many flight schools are approved under Part 141, but some are not, so the first thing to do is to check to see if a particular flight school is indeed Part 141. Even if the school is a Part 141 school, many also offer the option to train under Part 61.
So, what's the difference between the two? In a word, structure and accountability. A school operating under Part 141 must adhere to stringent FAA requirements on everything from physical facilities and aircraft maintenance to student record keeping, and submit to periodic audits. Most importantly from the student's perspective, Part 141 schools must use a standardized syllabus that has been approved by the FAA, which specifies detailed individual "lesson plans"---a schedule of various training activities along with standards for completion. This structure means that you have a very clear roadmap to completion, and know exactly what skills you will be required to master and when. You will always know where you are in the training program, how far you have progressed and how much you have left to complete. This standardization also means that if you have to change instructors, or if someone else has to fill in for your regular instructor, the transition is much simpler. Part 141 schools are also required to have a "chief instructor"---the person who is responsible for the overall quality of training that takes place at the school. The chief instructor (or his designee) is required to give "stage checks" to make certain that you have mastered the skills required to that point in the course and are ready to proceed to the next stage.
Part 61 is much more flexible. The regulations list a set of basic training requirements---such as 40 hours total instruction time, solo flights, night flights, etc. The regulations also provide a list of standards a pilot needs to achieve in order to pass the final checkride. But within these constraints, the instructor is free to tailor the training to the needs of the individual student. He can arrange the various activities to better suit your progress, or some other constraint (such as scheduling and weather). If you are having problems with a particular maneuver, he is free to move on and then come back to it at a later time. In the hands of a skillful and experienced instructor, this flexibility can be quite valuable. However, given the lack of built-in accountability, the onus is on you to make sure that you are making good progress towards the ultimate goal. This flexibility in curriculum also means less flexibility when it comes to training with someone other than your primary instructor, and in the worst case potentially more duplicated work if you have to switch instructors.
As far as the Private Pilot Certificate is concerned, the minimum training requirement is a little less under Part 141 than under Part 61---35 total flight hours vs. 40 hours. But, in practice this isn't a real distinction since most people take about 60 hours to complete their training. So the total cost of training for the Private Pilot Certificate is not likely to be significantly different between the two. Generally Part 141 schools charge a bit more for each instructional hour, but the amount of time spent in training is more predictable. (Of course, in the case of Part 61 courses in Part 141 schools, the hourly costs will be the same.)
So the real question is whether you prefer more or less structure in your training. Some people like the structure and predictability of a Part 141 curriculum, and the assurance that "stage checks" bring to making sure that you are in fact making progress. Others (especially those flying less frequently) prefer the flexibility of Part 61---just make sure that there is a good "roadmap" in place for your training. Some people think of training under Part 61 in a Part 141 school is the best of both worlds---have the flexibility of Part 61 backed up by the resources of a Part 141 school.
The (cost) differences in training requirements for Part 61 and Part 141 become more pronounced when pursuing advanced ratings. For example, earning an instrument rating under Part 61 requires that you have 50 hours of cross-country pilot-in-command (PIC) time. That is not a requirement if you train for your instrument rating in a Part 141 program. Similarly, for the Commercial Pilot Certificate, a pilot trained under Part 61 is required to have 250 hours of total time, whereas a pilot trained under Part 141 is required to have just 190 hours.
That said, as long as we are talking just about the initial Private Pilot Certificate, it really boils down to your preferred learning style, and your willingness to be more proactive in managing your own training program. In either case, visit the school in person. Talk to potential instructor(s) and students and figure out what works for you.
Next: Questions to ask of Flight Schools & Instructors