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Choosing a Flight School

Before you choose a flight school, it’s a good idea to answer two key questions: Of the flight schools accessible to you locally, which appear to have best reputations for quality of training and customer care? And which of that group offers training most suitable to the kind of flying you have set as your goal?

AOPA may be able to help you answer the first question with some basic research using the Flight School Finder. It’s an online directory that lets you search by state, zip code, within a radius from that location, or the school’s name. 

Flight school professionals attend Redbird Migration and the 2018 AOPA Flight Training Experience Awards at the AOPA You Can Fly Learning Center campus in Frederick, Maryland, Oct. 10, 2018. Photo by David Tulis.

If you see an icon containing the word “winner” next to a school’s name, it means that school is a current year recipient of an AOPA Flight Training Experience Award. The awards are bestowed on deserving flight-training professionals and businesses based on responses to the annual Flight Training Experience Survey in which AOPA seeks to identify and honor the best of the best flight training organizations based on feedback from their customers. Anyone who has flown with a flight instructor during the preceding 12 months can participate in the online survey.

These days many flight schools or independent instructors have websites that provide much of the information you will want when conducting an initial screening of schools for cost, ease of scheduling, and compatibility with the kind of flying for which you want to train. Then contact your prospects for more information, schedule a visit as a prospective student, or just walk in to make an inquiry and look around.

Not sure about your aviation goal yet? No worries. The people you meet at the flight schools you visit may be able to help you decide. Many student pilots are content to figure it out as they go; perhaps they always dreamed of learning to fly, and for the moment fulfilling that long-term goal is the only clear motivator.

The flight school staff can help you match up your flying goals with the most suitable training programs and pilot certification levels. For example, earning a sport pilot certificate requires less total training than a private pilot certificate, but offers fewer piloting privileges, limits you to one passenger, and prohibits flight in some types of airspace. Earning a private pilot certificate requires more total training, but allows you to fly bigger, more powerful aircraft and is a leg up on higher levels of certification and training. Obtaining a medical certificate issued by an aviation medical examiner is required to exercise a private pilot certificate, whereas a sport pilot can operate on the basis of a valid U.S. driver’s license—and even that’s not required for operating a glider or a balloon.

Whichever path you choose, a practical test comes at the end of flight training, based on your meeting experience and knowledge requirements you will find in the appropriate study publications and attested to by your instructor. You can review these requirements in the federal aviation regulations and in the FAA’s Airman Certification Standards.

Your schedule and learning style are important factors to consider. Home-study ground school guided by your instructor is a popular option and there are several on-line providers that allow you to progress at your own pace. If a classroom setting works best for you, it’s important to know if the school provides ground school classes as well as flight training. If not, some educational institutions offer in-person adult-education pilot ground school that can prepare you for the knowledge test for the pilot certificate you seek.

Flights schools come in many flavors. All of them must conform to FAA regulations. Schools that teach under Part 61 of the regulations are generally smaller and less structured than those that teach under Part 141. One is not ‘better’ than the other…just different. Some students prefer the flexibility that Part 61 offers, while some respond more positively to the structured environment of Part 141. Part 61 schools are generally tailored to the typical general aviation pilot while Part 141 schools tend to attract students on a professional pilot path. There are also aviation colleges and universities that offer full degree programs for the career-minded aviator; flight schools at the local airport offering programs tailored to the typical general aviation pilot. There is excellence to be found in all those formats.

On your visit, a flight school representative should be able to explain the organization’s offerings and how they would work for you. Perhaps you can meet the instructor with whom you would fly and study. A short introductory flight could be part of your visit and could help you make some decisions.

Other matters your flight-school research should cover include:

  • The school’s pilot training curriculum, record-keeping, and flight operations procedures.
  • Credentials of the school’s instructional staff, student/instructor ratio; and rate of instructor turnover. (Can you count on having one instructor for your entire program, or be able to switch if not satisfied?)
  • Ask whether the instructors are full-time employees or part-timers—it’s mostly a matter of availability you are probing—and whether they have other pilot duties with the organization that takes them away from instructing.
  • The safety record.
  • The number and types of aircraft in the fleet, and their availability for scheduling your lessons. Ideally you should fly one make and model for your training although a mid-course change is not a critical concern; earlier on it would not be recommended.
  • Classrooms, simulators and other learning aids used, and whether costs are included.
  • Length of time the flight school has been in business, current enrolment, any financial aid services.
  • The type of airport where training is based (control tower airport or nontowered airport) and whether other types are available nearby (beneficial for variety in training).
  • How student progress is monitored, for example with periodic flight checks (so-called phase checks) by a chief instructor or other supervisory individual.
  • Insurance coverage details.
  • Ask if there are graduates of the school’s training you could contact for feedback on their experience.
  • Ask what a typical lesson looks like. While there are always exceptions, generally speaking, each lesson should contain these elements:
    • A thorough pre-flight briefing that covers the objectives of the lesson and how satisfactory performance should look.
    • The actual flight itself.
    • A thorough post-flight debrief that provides a clear, detailed evaluation of your performance (what was good, what needs improvement, etc.), what you can expect for the next lesson, and any reading or video-watching assignments from you instructor in preparation for the next lesson.
  • Flight instructors and flight schools are held to a very high standard by the FAA. The vast majority are honest, ethical and provide quality flight training. Once you start training, however, you should watch for red flags such as (but not limited to):
    • Instructors who appear rushed, detached, or pre-occupied when you are together,
    • Instructors who are always hurrying to the next student,
    • Instructors who leave you with questions that were inadequately addressed,
    • Instructors/schools that do not work from a syllabus or the FAA’s Airman Certification Standard

Most of these suggested inquiries also apply if you plan to fly with a self-employed individual instructor who’s not affiliated with a flight school. In either case, your inquiries should leave you with a clear feeling of confidence in the professionalism, knowledgeability, and enthusiasm of your prospective training provider—because the two of you are going to become very well acquainted very soon!

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