I decided to learn to fly pretty much on impulse. I happened to be driving past a local flying school, and I screeched to a halt and booked an introductory lesson, just like that. I knew little about flying light aircraft, and nothing whatsoever about the flying school. I enjoyed my flight, so I then just carried on, doing my whole Private Pilot License (PPL) training at that school.
This is an example of what NOT to do! Flying schools vary, and it is a good idea to do some research before you pick one. It worked out OK for me, luckily…but it might not have done. People give up flying training quite frequently, sometimes because they decide flying is not for them, but often because the flying school or the instructor simply don’t suit them.
So what should you do? How should you decide where to learn to fly? In this article we’ll have a look at all the relevant issues, and hopefully make it easier for you to decide.
Bottom Line Up Front
it is important to do some market research before choosing a flying school, looking at such factors as distance from home, the type of plane and airfield, the instructor, and what you want to do with your flying license. You should also take an introductory flying lesson before you make your decision.
Choices may be different depending on whether you want to be a leisure pilot or are aiming to fly for the airlines. Aspiring leisure pilots should pick an airfield close to home, while my choice for aspiring commercial pilots would be one of the schools of the organization Airline Transport Pilots.
My Top Picks
For Prospective Leisure Pilots
Go to the flying school closest to your home that you have been to and like.
For Prospective Commercial Pilots
Go to one of the forty-one schools belonging to Air Transport Pilots. They are well thought of, and you should be able to find one that’s not too far from home. If you want to get an aviation-related degree as well, any of the others on my short list would be fine. But we’re basically looking here at how to choose a flying school.
Why Market Research Is Important
It’s really not a good idea to just go to any flying school, without looking into it in some detail first. After all, you’d do that if you were buying any other large item, wouldn’t you? So don’t do what I did and just go to the first school you hear of, without researching first.
So let’s take a look at the things you need to consider…
Important Points to Consider – My Top Ten
There are several things you need to think about when choosing a flying school. It might be helpful to make a list, either using this one here, or making your own if you have other points that you think are important…
What You Want to Do with Your PPL
Do you want to get your PPL, and then just fly for fun? Or perhaps you’ve already decided that you want to make a career out of flying, and you’re going to progress on to a Commercial Pilot’s License (CPL) or even an Air Transport Pilot’s License (ATPL).
You may choose a different school, depending on which of these is your eventual aim. Of course, you can always change if, for example, you get a PPL and then decide to carry on, as I did. But you could save some complications if you pick the right school in the beginning.
Distance from Home
It’s a good idea to find a flying school close to home if at all possible. Of course it might not be possible, or you might prefer one further away, but think hard about it first. There are good reasons for not having to travel too far before you even start to do any flying.
Firstly, You’ll probably find, as I did, that learning to fly is exhausting, far more tiring than you realize. It involves acquiring a lot of new skills in a short space of time. I used to end up feeling positively wrung out at the end of some early flying lessons. So you don’t want a two or three-hour drive after that’s happened, do you?
Next, you may well find that flying lessons get canceled at short notice, if an instructor is off sick or the weather changes, for example. it’s a real pain if that happens when you’re halfway through a long drive to the airport. And yes, I’ve had that happen too!
So stay close to home if at all possible. But see later in this article for exceptions to this.
Time Period for Learning
Of course, you could learn to fly on a short intensive course, finding accommodation near the airfield of your choice, and doing the whole PPL course over a few weeks. Quite a lot of people do this, and it’s often the only practical option for the CPL or Flight Instructor (FI) course.
This is a good idea for a lot of people. But some of us struggle with intensive courses. They are just that – too intensive, too unlike ordinary life, with too much to take in over a short time. So think seriously before deciding to do your PPL this way.
Of course, everyone wants to save money, and flying training is expensive. But please try to look beyond the basic costs. In flying, as in most things in life, you often get what you pay for, and there are few real bargains to be had. if something looks too cheap, then it very possibly is.
Also, ask how the flying school calculates the time you’ve flown, and how they’re charging you. There are various ways of doing this, and while it might not make a huge difference, it could account for quite a variation over the whole course.
So I’m not saying ignore the cost, of course not. But don’t just choose the cheapest school, irrespective of anything else.
Type of Plane
It doesn’t usually matter what type of plane you learn on. However, in some cases it does. If you are a very large person, you may find some of the two-seater training aircraft such as the Piper PA28 or Cessna 152 are just too cramped for you. At the other end of the scale, I am rather small, and I find I can’t easily reach the pedals on the larger Cessna C172. So it could be worth checking what type of aircraft the school uses.
Type of Airfield
If you learn at a small airfield, it won’t be very crowded, but you won’t gain experience of dealing with large aircraft and multiple runways. At a larger airport, you’ll learn all this stuff, but you may need to spend a lot of time waiting for other traffic. It doesn’t matter too much either way, and you’ll carry on learning after you get your PPL and fill in the gaps. But it could be something to bear in mind.
Type of School – Part 61 or Part 141
Part 61 and Part 141 may be things you’ll hear about as you do your research. Flying schools all operate under one of these ‘parts’. So what are they? Briefly, they are different ways of administering flight training. Part 141 is designed more for aspiring commercial pilots, and part 61 could be better for leisure pilots.
You can read more about them here if you wish. But really, it makes very little difference to the average new student.
Instructor – Experienced Guy Or Newbie?
Choosing the right instructor does make a difference. So should you pick someone who has many years of experience, or a newer, younger instructor?
Generally, the older guy will have more experience, but may be a bit jaded by now. The newer instructor, however, is likely to be full of enthusiasm, and may go the extra mile for you. It’s horses for courses really, but anyway, you do have to find an instructor you like. Small aircraft cockpits are crowded, and a personality clash is a recipe for disaster – I’ve been there! So when you go for an introductory lesson, if you like the instructor, try to carry on flying with them. If you don’t, try to get someone else.
Trust Your Instincts
Finally, trust your feelings. If you get a good feeling about one flying school, go with that one. If not, look elsewhere. Flying training is something you want to enjoy, and you need to be comfortable in the place you choose.
Going On an Introductory Lesson
After you’ve done your research, or while you are doing it, book an introductory flight or trial lesson. Or even pick more than one, trying different schools. This is a way of really finding out if you like the school, and it is very important. It is worth the time and money involved, and the time you fly is put in your log book and counts towards the hours for your PPL, so it isn’t wasted.
And Then…Book Your Course
Once you’ve decided where to go, it’s time to book your flying course. Or rather, book one lesson, or at most a few lessons. Don’t pay upfront for the whole course, even if you get a discount for doing so.
You want to be in a position to leave and go elsewhere if the school turns out not to be right for you.
Also, flying schools go bust rather too regularly, often taking students’ money with them You really don’t want one of those students to be you! So pay as you go; it’s the safest thing to do.
My Choices for Good Flying Schools
My choices depend to a large extent on what type of pilot you plan to be.
Prospective Leisure Pilots
If you are planning on learning slowly, perhaps having one or two lessons a week, and flying for fun, I can’t really recommend any particular flying schools. As I’ve explained, you want to find a school that is fairly close to home, and that fulfils all of the requirements explained above. There are many of these, but it’s something you will have to choose for yourself. So that’s all I can tell you, and good luck!
Prospective Commercial Pilots
If you are planning on ‘going commercial’ then things are a little different, or could be. You might still want to learn at a school close to home, and that is fine. But you may prefer to do a residential course at one of the larger flying schools, which are designed for those planning to make flying their career. Most of these operate under Part 141. And at many it is possible to combine your flying with a degree if you wish.
Here are a few suggestions….
Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University
This is the oldest flying school in the world, dating back to 1926, and is extremely well thought of. It’s based in Daytona Beach, Florida, so should have the advantage of good weather. You can get a Bachelor’s degree in aeronautical science here, as well as learning how to fly, if you wish. So that could suit people who wish to learn to fly and get another qualification too.
You really can’t go far wrong with this place. It is one of the few aeronautical specialist universities in the world, and certainly one of the most prestigious. it has been described by ‘Time’ magazine as the ‘Harvard of the Skies’.
If what you want is to live and breathe aviation, get a degree and also qualify as a professional pilot, this is the place for you. If that was what I wanted, I’d go there in a heartbeat!
- Specializes in aviation and aerospace
- Allows you to get an aviation-related degree while doing pilot training
- Based in Florida, so good weather is pretty much guaranteed.
- Said to be somewhat overpriced
University of North Dakota
This flying school is a little different in that you can get a degree in something other than an aviation subject, but still get your CPL. It also has a number of different aviation-related degree courses, such as Airport Management. If you want to work in aviation, but not necessarily as an airline pilot, this could be the place for you.
Being in a place where you can’t get away from aviation is too much for some people, especially over an extended period. I found this when I was doing my CPL on an intensive course, and I quite literally ran away – I took a two-week break to get back into the ordinary world. Going to a university that is good for flying training, but where there are a lot of other things going on and students doing other courses, is a good idea if you are like this too.
- You can get a degree along with your flying qualifications, but it doesn’t have to be in aviation.
- Highly respected in the aviation industry
- Bad weather, so not that great for continuous aviation training
- Some people find the area somewhat quiet if they like the buzz of a big city
Based in West Lafayette, Indiana, this school is ranked by the Wall Street Journal as one of the top five public universities in the US. It specializes in developing industry partnerships, as well as offering a range of aviation degrees, plus flight training of course. If all of this is important to you, this could be the school you want.
Getting a job after you finish all your training can be difficult. Purdue makes this easier by partnering with various companies, including some airlines. Their partnership with United Airlines means students can go straight from a flying school to a flight deck, with some ability and a little bit of luck. No more sending out your CV and getting loads of refusals! Sounds good to me.
- One of the top public universities in the US
- Provides a direct path from training to an airline job
- Not that easy to get accepted
- Has a strong work ethic, but possibly as a result of this some people find the environment of the university stressful
Ohio State University
This school’s point of difference is that it has its own airport, the third busiest airport in the whole of Ohio. It also offers a range of degrees in conjunction with pilot training, preparing graduates for careers in the airlines and related fields. It may be just what you are looking for.
Having its own airport is a big plus point, and would definitely make me choose this school. Just think – no traveling to a different airport, and being right on the spot for your flying training as well as your university training is just great. This could well make you choose Ohio instead of a better-known school.
- Has its own airport, a big plus point.
- The university is huge, and some people find it cold and impersonal.
Some former students say they take far too many aviation students, and sometimes don’t have enough instructors or planes.
Airline Transport Pilots
I’ve left the best one till last! If your aim is to go quickly to an airline job, and you aren’t worried about getting a degree too, this may be the place for you. Students can qualify in nine months from this school and then within a couple of years be flying for the airlines. And that’s fast! Airline Transport Pilots has forty-one flight training centers throughout the country, so the chances are that wherever you live, you will find one fairly close to you.
If you start flying later in life, as I did, you possibly won’t be interested in getting a degree. You’ll just want to get your flying qualifications as quickly as possible. If this is the case, then this is the organization for you. So I’m biased, but this would certainly be my first choice.
- A quick way to become an airline pilot
- 41 different centers across the country
- Not suitable if you want to get a degree as well as flying qualifications
Frequently Asked Questions
Question: What do I do if I want to change flying schools in the middle of doing my PPL?
Answer: Don’t worry; it’s quite possible. People do it fairly often. Your flying records belong to you, and you can take them with you from one flying school to another. So if you change your mind, it’s fine to move on.
However, it is slightly harder to change to or from a part 141 school than a part 61 school. So if you don’t want to ‘go commercial’ , and you want to make sure things could be easy if your decide to change schools, it could be a good idea to go for a part 61 school in the first place.
Question: How much will it all cost?
Answer: Ah, the big question that everyone wants the answer to! Realistically, how long is a piece of string? It will vary, depending on where you train, the type of aircraft, and how many hours it takes you to get your PPL, which varies a lot for a number of reasons. However, it is said to cost between $8000 and $15,000, so that will give you a rough idea. It is as well to budget for the higher of those two figures, as that puts you under less pressure if things take longer than you expected.
Question: I want to be a professional pilot. Should I get a degree as well as a CPL?
Answer: This is entirely up to you. Some people say the extra qualification makes it easier to get an airline job, but pilots find airline jobs quite easily without one. However, a degree could give you something to fall back on if airline work dries up, and extra experience and training are always useful. If you do want to do this, why not do it at one of the flying schools recommended above?
And Now…Happy Flying!
Hopefully you are now armed with all the information you need to choose the right flying school for you. So now is the time to book an introductory lesson…and then your PPL course. So let me, in traditional aviation fashion, wish you blue skies and tailwinds.
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